Duchess by Chance

By: Wendy Vella

PROLOGUE


Bedfordshire, England, 1794



Spencer Winchcomb watched the Duke of Stratton slowly place his hand on the table before him.

“Dear God!” The peer slumped back into his chair as Spencer laid the last card.

A fierce gust of wind rattled the windows, yet neither player flinched, keeping their eyes trained on the cards. The small parlor reeked of spilt ale and tobacco. The candles had burnt low, their wicks flickering with whorls of smoke as they struggled to stay alight. Chairs were thrown back from the table, indicating recent departures, and glasses and bottles lay discarded on the floor. The game had started two days ago and now only two men remained. One sat with a pile of coins and scraps of paper before him; the other, with nothing.

Their bloodshot eyes held. Exhaustion had been and gone; the duke was now motivated by desperation and Spencer by greed.

“I have a proposition for you, your Grace.” Spencer eased back in his chair and rubbed stiff fingers over his bristly face.

“Anything,” the duke rasped.

Silence filled the small room for several heartbeats and then he spoke.

“I will let you leave here this night with your estates and wealth intact if you betroth your son to my daughter.”

“Impossible!”

Spencer now leant on the table, his eyes intent as he studied the duke. He knew what he asked was outrageous, yet he also knew that if the duke did not take the offer he was a ruined man. A feral smile flickered across his face; for the first time in many years it would be he who came out the victor.

“I want your signature on a piece of paper stating that your son will wed my daughter upon her eighteenth birthday. Only then will I return your markers.”

Lowering his head, the duke closed his eyes and Spencer knew the rush of excitement that had flowed through the old man’s blood while he gambled had ebbed away, leaving him aware of what this night had cost him. He knew he was beaten and his son would pay for his weakness.

“Do you agree, your Grace?”

The duke said nothing as he rose on unsteady legs and walked from the room. Spencer heard the murmur of voices and minutes later the duke returned, followed by the innkeeper who held paper, quill and ink in his hands.

After taking a deep breath, the duke then began to speak as he wrote. “I, Charles Daniel Loftus Irving, sixth Duke of Stratton, vow to wed my only child, Lord Daniel Charles Loftus Irvine to...?”

“Miss Berengaria Evangeline Augusta Winchcomb,” Winchcomb said as the duke looked at him.

“In the year of her eighteenth birthday. Declared this day January 5th, 1794.”

Placing one hand on the paper as the duke began to sign, Spencer Winchcomb said, “I want it written that the marriage must be consummated.”

The old man did not raise his head although his fingers tightened around the quill as he added the necessary words.

“I’ll be glad to be of service to you any time, your Grace,” Winchcomb said once the second copy was signed and tucked into his shirt pocket.

The duke did not speak again. Pulling on his coat, he walked from the room.





CHAPTER ONE

Bedfordshire, England - 1812





Had the seventh Duke of Stratton the ability to choose the weather, he could not have matched his mood better than with the relentless fall of rain and grey gloomy skies that met his eye as he stared out the carriage window.

“Will we arrive soon, your Grace?”

Daniel was surprised to hear his wife’s voice, as they had not spoken since the journey began hours ago. Unclenching his fists, he drew in a deep, bracing breath, then looked at the carriage’s only other occupant.


“Under two hours.” His tone was cold and clipped.

She, too, looked out the window, her ugly black bonnet obscuring most of her pale face. Daniel actually had only a vague idea what she looked like as she had kept her head lowered ever since their first meeting at their wedding ceremony four hours ago. Her eyes were possibly blue…or green. He had only spared her a fleeting glance during the service. Her hair was stuffed inside the bonnet so it could be white as snow or flaming red for all he knew. And her dress, although he was not an expert in ladies’ fashion, was a drab brown with no shape, worn underneath a coat that had elbow patches on sleeves that began five inches above her skinny writs. At least he could never forget her name, although God knew he wanted to. Berengaria Evangeline Augusta Winchcomb. It was a cruel twist of fate that he, the Duke of Stratton - one of the most eligible peers of the realm - was now married to a timid mouse who jumped every time he made a sound.

“Is there a problem?” he queried as she sighed, her breath forming a small white circle on the glass pane before her.

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