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Authors: Jenna Petersen

The Unclaimed Duchess

BOOK: The Unclaimed Duchess
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The Unclaimed Duchess
Jenna Petersen

For my Mom, my biggest cheerleader and sometimes first reader. For Miriam, whose encouragement has kept me marginally sane, and honestly that's the best you can get with a writer. And for Michael, my reason and my heart. Thanks to you all for supporting me, no matter how much I stumble.

Contents

Prologue

Anne Danvers had been very good, as good as any…

Chapter 1

Until the day he returned from his honeymoon, Rhys Carlisle,…

Chapter 2

Three days. It had been three days since Anne's husband…

Chapter 3

Rhys stood on the high cliff, staring down at the…

Chapter 4

The cottage was a small affair, with only two rooms,…

Chapter 5

Rhys crouched down on the beach, letting the sand push…

Chapter 6

Anne lay on her side, snuggled down into the surprisingly…

Chapter 7

Rhys stormed down the hillside, away from the cottage, away…

Chapter 8

Despite her decision to seduce him, Anne hadn't made plans…

Chapter 9

“Will you help me?”

Chapter 10

Rhys moved through the milling crowd, smiling and greeting those…

Chapter 11

Anne peeked past the fraying curtains and out the window…

Chapter 12

The rain began just as they arrived on the outskirts…

Chapter 13

The parlor in Simon's London home was quiet, soothing, or…

Chapter 14

Rhys's stomach rolled as it always did when he allowed…

Chapter 15

Rhys paced the length of his office, restlessness plaguing him…

Chapter 16

Anne flinched. The words Rhys said were painful, of course,…

Chapter 17

Morning sunshine flooded the bright and airy breakfast room, and…

Chapter 18

The alleyway was dark, with a dank smell of human…

Chapter 19

Anne paced across the chamber floor one more time, her…

Chapter 20

Anne smoothed her shaking hands over the silky folds of…

Chapter 21

When Rhys said he wanted to go home with Anne…

Epilogue

When the occasional whisper about the parentage of the Duke…

 

1796

A
nne Danvers had been very good, as good as any six-year-old girl could be expected to be after the two-day journey to the estate of their host, followed by a forced march to a picnic site. She had even remained quiet and demure while the grown-ups talked endlessly of farming conditions and servants and politics.

But Anne was bored and it was becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that fact away. She wanted to run to the lake's edge and splash her toes in the water. She wanted to go into the copse of trees in the distance and see if she could catch a frog or chase a bunny. She wanted to stop being a “little lady” and simply be a little girl like her mother and father allowed her to be in the back garden of their London home.

Suddenly there was a whooping war cry and a small group of boys burst from the trees in a mass of flying arms and running legs. They had wooden swords and were swinging them recklessly as they charged the lake.

Anne sat up straighter on the picnic blanket, longing to join the other children. She grasped her mother's gown sleeve and tugged gently. Her mother looked down at her, then followed Anne's forlorn expression to the boys a few hundred feet away. She smiled at her daughter, her eyes filled with love.

“You want to play with the others?” she asked softly.

Anne nodded.

“They're older, you know,” her mother said.

“I don't care, they have swords,” Anne whispered, still in awe of the careless way the boys slapped the wood against one another. Little girls rarely played so robustly.

“Very well,” her mother said with a light laugh. “But do try to keep your dress clean.”

As Anne got to her feet, one of the other women in the party smiled at her. It was the Duchess of Waverly, and Anne shifted beneath her scrutiny. The duchess had been staring at her since their arrival earlier in the day, and Anne didn't know what to think of it.

“Are you going to play with the boys?” she asked.

Anne bobbed a proper curtsy. “Yes, Your Grace.”

“That tall one there is my son, Rhys,” the lady said, motioning.

Anne looked. The boy was taller than the others by a few inches, with dark hair. He was obviously the leader of the group, directing them at their play with unquestionable authority.

“You know, one day you are to marry him,” the duchess said.

Anne stared first at the lady and then at her mother. Her mother's eyes had widened, but then her expression softened.

“Go ahead, dearest. Go play.”

Anne departed, loath to be kept from the fun for very long, but as she scurried away, she thought she heard her mother murmur, “Your Grace, we had not intended to tell Anne about the betrothal yet.”

Anne ran at first, but as she got closer to the boys, she slowed her pace, suddenly shy. Finally she reached them, and they stopped playing to look at her with the unmasked disdain only eleven-year-olds could master.

“Who are you?” one of the boys asked with a scowl.

“I'm Anne Danvers,” she said. “I'm here with my mother and father.”

At that, the one the duchess had pointed out, Rhys,
straightened up. He looked at her, dark eyes focused and sharp.

“How old are you?” he asked.

Her gaze went naturally to him, it would have even if she hadn't known who he was. “I'm six,” she said, suddenly defensive. She folded her arms.

One of the other boys groaned. “She's a
baby
. And a girl baby at that. Go away, baby!”

Anne stomped her foot, outraged. “I am
not
a baby. And I want to play.”

“No,” another of the boys said. “Go away.”

Anne stood her ground. “I
want
to play.”

Suddenly one of the smaller boys marched up to her. Without preamble or warning, he shoved her. She wasn't ready for the attack and fell backward onto her bottom in the grass.

As she looked up, there was a flurry of activity. Rhys rushed the boy who had pushed her and thrust him aside, sending him reeling away. Then he forced his way through the group of arguing boys and reached down to help her up. Although his palm was rough, he brought her to her feet gently and didn't let her go until she was steady. When he did, he spun on the other boys with a scowl.

“Hey!” he cried, bringing their chatter to a halt. “You don't do that! You
never
do that to someone smaller! And one day Anne will be my wife. You treat
her with respect. She'll be a duchess one day.”

Anne stared. So it was true. Was she really going to marry this boy someday? She tilted her head to look at him more closely, trying to picture a day when they would be married like grown-ups. Like her parents.

He turned away from the boys and looked down at her. “Did he hurt you?”

She stared, still mesmerized by the fact that she would one day be this boy's wife. He blinked at her when she was silent too long.

“You hear me?”

She shook away her thoughts. “No, I'm not hurt.”

“Good, now go back to the blanket with your mother.”

“But I want to play,” Anne protested. “There aren't any other girls here.”

He frowned at her as his gaze moved up and down her frame. “Look, you're too little to play. You might get hurt.”

Anne folded her arms and returned his frown with one as dark and stubborn as his. His eyebrows lifted at the expression, but there was a grudging respect in his eyes. He cast a quick glance at the boys waiting behind him before he leaned in closer.

“There are some servant children who are your
age and they play behind the icehouse every day after luncheon,” he whispered.

She narrowed her eyes. “With swords?”

His lips pursed, but then he nodded. “I've seen them with swords. Go play with them. If they tell you no, tell them
I
sent you. Then they'll fall in line.”

With that, he turned his back on her, and he and the others rushed off to continue their battle. Anne stayed in her spot for a long moment, simply staring after their group. Her eyes never left the tallest boy. The one who had defended her just before he dismissed her.

She turned and began to trudge back up the hill. If she was really going to marry that boy someday, she wondered what kind of match it would be. But by the time she reached her mother she had decided.

Her parents were a love match and Anne would settle for no less herself.

1816

U
ntil the day he returned from his honeymoon, Rhys Carlisle, Duke of Waverly, had lived a life relatively free of disappointment. It was a charmed life, some would say, and many others would claim that Waverly's luck was most undeserved.

But Rhys had never cared about the petty jealousies of lesser people. He
knew
who he was.
What
he was. He was a man of power. He was a man who inspired respect and even fear.
He
was the Duke of Waverly.

As he stepped down from his well-appointed carriage, he sighed deeply, the sigh of a much contented man, for at the relatively young age of one and thirty, he had fulfilled one of his main obligations as duke. He had married the young woman his family had chosen for him.

He turned and offered a hand back to his new bride. Anne Carlisle, formerly Anne Danvers, smiled at him slightly as she departed the carriage with a graceful step.

She was everything a man could want in a wife. Well respected by her peers, she had been one of the most popular of her debut group. Rhys had always admired how easily she could defuse a tense situation or coax a smile from an upset friend. The very few people who didn't think highly of her were not worthy of notice.

And then there was her beauty, which was undeniable. She had brown hair with just a hint of gold in certain lights, and it always seemed to be arranged to perfection, even when she had taken it down on their wedding night. Her eyes were equally spectacular, a beautiful green-blue that sparkled with humor or darkened with concern when those emotions were merited.

Other men had wanted her when she came out, Rhys thought a few might have even been in love with her, but none could have her, for she was meant for him. She had been almost their entire lives. His fellow gentlemen could only comment on how lucky Rhys was to have been betrothed to such a prize.

Anne's feet touched the ground. He thought her smile wavered ever so slightly when he released her
hand once she no longer required his assistance, but he ignored that.

Yes, things were going very well for Rhys. The wedding had been perfect, the honeymoon trip short, but entirely pleasant. He had few complaints as he and his new bride entered their home side by side and into the life they would now lead as duke and duchess.

His butler gave a smart bow as he quietly closed the door behind them.

“Good afternoon, Your Grace, Your Grace,” he said with another quick bow for the pair. “Welcome back, I hope your trip was satisfactory.”

Rhys stripped off his gloves and handed them over. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Anne doing the same, tugging her fingers free of the white satin one by one. His gut clenched unexpectedly at the sight of her slow reveal of pale skin, but he cleared his throat and shoved those inappropriate urges away with force.

“Yes, Gilmour,” he said to the servant. “Quite satisfactory.”

He thought he saw Anne blush slightly as she pulled her hat pins away and removed the headpiece. She handed them to the butler.

“We are most happy to be home, Gilmour,” she said with a warm smile for the servant. “Were there
any callers or messages while we were away?”

The butler nodded and removed a small pile of correspondence from the tray on a nearby table. Anne flipped through the missives and notes quickly.

“They mainly appear to be felicitations on our marriage and a few invitations for events in the next few days.” Her brow wrinkled. “But there are several messages from the Duke of Billingham.” She glanced up and met Rhys's eyes. “Simon knew we were away, I wonder why he would send so many missives.”

Rhys frowned. Simon Crathorne, Duke of Billingham, was the best friend he had ever had in this world, and the other man had experienced quite an upheaval recently. Not only had he discovered his beloved father had sired several bastard children, despite his reputation for piety, but Simon had met and married a woman in a whirlwind just before Rhys's own wedding. While Rhys did not entirely approve of Lillian Mayhew—now Lillian Crathorne—he still hoped his overly romantic friend did not regret his choice so soon into the marriage.

He smiled at Anne slightly.
He
certainly did not regret his. Anne would be the perfect bride, the perfect duchess. He had always known she would be.

“Actually, Your Grace,” Gilmour said softly, “the Duke of Billingham is here, awaiting your arrival. He has been here for almost an hour, despite my
explanation that I wasn't certain of the specific time of your return.”

Rhys shot a glance at Anne, and the same worry he felt was as clearly outlined on her face. She had known Simon nearly as long as he had, and it was evident she had her own concerns for their friend.

“I hope he has had tea and any other comforts he required,” she said as she smoothed her hands over her hair in preparation for receiving a guest.

“Of course, Your Grace,” Gilmour said. “He has asked that I tell you to take your time in coming to greet him, as he knows you have had a long journey.”

Anne waved a hand. “Posh, of course we'll go to him straightaway.”

Although he was concerned, Rhys couldn't help but smile as he accompanied his wife down the hallway to the parlor where his friend awaited. Anne was already seamlessly taking on the role of lady of his household. Yes, his family had chosen well for him indeed.

He opened the door and stepped inside the parlor, motioning for his wife to go before him. As she moved into the room, the Duke of Billingham rose from his seat. Billingham was a tall man, just a touch taller than Rhys, with black hair and green eyes that had always captured the interest of women, though Simon
had seemed immune to that until Lillian Mayhew came into his life. Once more, Rhys wondered if Lillian was the reason for Simon's apparently urgent visit.

“Billingham,” Anne said with a broad smile while she crossed the room. “How good it is to see you.”

She offered his friend a hand, which Simon lifted to his lips briefly. “Anne, or should I say Duchess Waverly, at last. I apologize for my abominable manners in coming here uninvited.”

Anne shook her head. “Of course not, Simon. Don't be silly, you're welcome in our home any time you call.”

His friend smiled, and then his gaze lighted on Rhys. For a moment the two men held stares, but Rhys was surprised when Simon's flitted away suddenly. Guilt and pain lined his friend's face, and Rhys's smug euphoria at being home faded a fraction. It seemed whatever had brought his friend here was serious indeed.

If Anne sensed the tension between the men, she made no mention of it. Instead she took a seat and motioned the two to take theirs.

“How is Lillian?” Anne asked as they all settled in.

There wasn't a hint of emotion in her voice, but Rhys saw her lean forward a fraction. It appeared
her thoughts echoed his, that perhaps Simon was unhappy in his new marriage.

But at the mention of his bride, Simon's eyes lit up with a love so powerful and a passion so intense that Rhys looked away from it. He had never been comfortable with such strong emotions, it wasn't the way his father had raised him to behave and it seemed improper.

“Lillian is more than well, thank you, and I believe she is much looking forward to calling on you if you would allow it,” Simon shot a brief glance at Rhys even as he spoke to Anne. It was no secret Rhys hadn't approved of Lillian.

But she was a duchess now and Rhys wouldn't sabotage her.

“Of course!” Anne said, and there was genuine affection in her tone. “I would dearly love to see Lillian again once we're settled. I shall send word to her this afternoon and we'll make the arrangements. I'm pleased to hear you are doing so well. And by the looks of it are very happy with your choice.”

“I am,” Simon said softly, and all the love he felt for Lillian was again powerful in his face.

Anne's gaze flitted aside and she swallowed hard. Then she stood. “Well, if you gentlemen will excuse me I have much to do and arrange. If I don't see you
again before you depart, Billingham, then I will say good-bye.”

It was evident Anne was allowing the two men privacy, and as they got to their feet for her departure, Rhys inclined his head toward her in silent thanks.

She offered her hand to Simon again and he pressed a second kiss to her knuckles briefly. “Thank you, Anne. Good afternoon.”

Anne gave Rhys a brief glance before she slipped from the room and shut the two men in alone together.

For the first time in his memory, Rhys actually felt nervous as he looked at his friend. If it wasn't troubles in his marriage that brought Billingham here at such an inconvenient time, then Rhys wondered at the cause. It couldn't be good.

“Cigar?” he asked, motioning to the ornate box on a table across the room.

Simon shook his head slightly. “No.” He retook his seat and leaned back as he looked up at Rhys. “So, my friend, how is married life?”

Rhys drew in a sharp breath as he slowly returned to his own chair. “Of course it is exactly as I hoped. Anne is the perfect hostess, the perfect lady, the perfect—”

“That isn't what I meant,” Simon said as he leaned forward to drape his elbows over his knees.

Rhys pursed his lips in displeasure and discomfort. Neither he nor Simon had been raised as a libertine. They didn't discuss conquests or crow about the women they bedded. And yet Rhys recognized Simon was asking him if he and Anne were compatible in ways beyond her infinite suitability as Duchess of Waverly.

His body stirring unexpectedly, Rhys made an attempt to block out the images his friend's question inspired. Ones of his wedding night when he had taken his wife's innocence, when he had first heard her sighs of pleasure. Those things had driven him to the very outer reaches of his considerable control, but he had managed to rein himself in. Barely.

That near lack of restraint actually alarmed him a little. He wasn't a man prone to succumb to his animal instincts, he had been taught better than that. Those desires were meant to be purged with a mistress or a lightskirt, not a proper wife, a woman meant to be treated with reverence.

Still, despite her propriety and innocence, Anne brought out powerful desires in him, and it was a constant struggle to remain as unruffled as a man of his station should be. He hoped that over time, his passion for her would wane and they would fall into a comfortable, distant union more like his parents had shared or that a thousand others in their social
sphere enjoyed. It was better that way.

When he looked at Simon again, he found his friend was staring at him, head cocked, with a look of concern on his face. “Waverly?”

Rhys shook away the memories of Anne in his bed and shrugged. “Of course I am perfectly content. But somehow I doubt you came here, the very day of my return to London, to discuss such a mundane topic. I can see you're troubled. Tell me what is wrong.”

Simon didn't reply for a long moment, but merely stared at Rhys. He had an expression Rhys rarely saw from his friend, a mixture of sadness and regret, but also true affection.

“You have always been able to read me,” Simon finally said softly.

Rhys shifted. Emotional exchanges were something he avoided at all costs. Normally his friends respected that, but today Simon was pushing for them both with his questions about Anne and his current comments. It was entirely uncomfortable, especially when coupled with the fact that Rhys had no idea why his friend had intruded upon his home.

“What is going on?” he snapped, his tone as sharp as the one he generally used with those below him in rank.

Simon smiled, but it was sad and distant. “Yes, I apologize. I have avoided this unpleasantness long
enough. You will recall that before you married I uncovered some painful truths about my father. Despite his exalted reputation, he sired several bastard sons, as well as engaged in political intrigues and manipulations.”

Rhys nodded as pity filled him. He couldn't imagine his friend's pain and didn't want to. “Of course. Have you learned more about his unsavory past?”

Simon swallowed hard before he answered. “I did. I have obtained more information about the identities of his other sons.”

Rhys's brow wrinkled. “Why?”

Simon stared at him. “I want to meet them, Waverly.”


Meet
them?” Rhys drew back a fraction. “Why in the world would you wish to do that? They are certainly not of your quality, your rank. If you allow such people into your life, you are only opening yourself up to the potential for blackmail and pain. I would hate to see you suffer for your father's sins.”

Simon shut his eyes. “Well, you may be correct about that, my friend.”

Rhys cocked his head. “What do you mean?”

“I shall start at the beginning,” Simon said, almost more to himself than to Rhys. He got to his feet and began to pace the room with a restless energy that made Rhys's own heart quicken.

“Just after you wed, Lillian and I went to the offices of one of the solicitors who held some of my father's information. While there we…”

Simon hesitated and took a long, deep breath. Rhys watched the struggle line his friend's face, and the pain there touched even
his
distant heart. Simon had been like a brother to him for years, Rhys hated to see him in such a state.

“We uncovered the identity of one of my illegitimate brothers,” Simon finally finished, his voice breaking as he turned to face Rhys.

Rhys's eyebrows lifted. “I see. But there is clearly more to all of this than you have yet said.”

Simon nodded. “A day after I uncovered the truth, I received an anonymous note. You said that my investigation into this matter could lead to blackmail and it appears you are correct.”

Rhys bolted to his feet and moved on Simon in shock. “My God!”

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