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How to Capture a Duke

By:Bianca Blythe

How to Capture a Duke
Bianca Blythe

       (Matchmaking for Wallflowers Book 1)



Chapter One




December 1815

Yorkshire



Crisp jingles chimed through the cold air, merging with the rhythmic  trot of horses, and Fiona Amberly had never been more convinced of her  utter abhorrence of Christmas.

She poked her head from the archaeological site, brushed a hand smudged  with clay through her hair and peered in the direction of the sound.

A coach barreled down the slope, pulled by two pairs of prancing white  horses, and her throat dried. Red and green plumes perched from the  horses' headgear, an unnecessary nod to the approaching holiday. The sun  glowed over the glossy black surface of the coach, flickering over its  vibrantly painted wheels and golden crest.

She tightened her fists around the slabs of timber she used to fortify the pit.

Only one person had threatened to visit her.

Madeline.

Fiona hauled herself up and rushed to the road, dragging her dress  through more mud. The coach thundered toward her, and she waved both  arms above her head. Now was not the time to muse on the ridiculousness  of her appearance.

"Halt. Halt."

The coach slowed, and she hastily brushed some dirt from her dress, managing to remove a few specks.

"What is it, Miss Amberly?" The driver was sufficiently trained not to  openly gawk, but his gaze still darted to her ragged clothes and the  pile of excavation materials.

Never mind that. Red-headed women with freckles were never destined to possess elegance.

"Is Lady Mulbourne inside?"

The driver nodded, and Fiona rushed to the door. The question was  foolish: only her cousin would have asked for her coach to be decked out  in such finery for a five-mile jaunt.

Madeline poked her head through the carriage window, and Fiona hastily brushed a few more specks of soil from her dress.

"Happy Christmas," Madeline chirped.

"Er . . . yes."

"You have a remarkable ability to never change."

Fiona shifted her feet, and her boots crunched over dried leaves.

"So unconstrained by the pulls of even the most basic fashion rules."  Madeline's eyes flickered over her, roaming over every button and pleat  with the eagerness of a general scrutinizing a map of enemy territory.  "And still in half-mourning, I see."

Fiona stiffened and pulled her hands back. No need for her cousin to  comment on the frayed hem of her sleeve as well as her gray dress.

"Would you like a ride? I'm on my way to see Grandmother."

Fiona didn't want a ride. She wanted to work more on the site. Winter  was approaching, and if the farmers were right about their grumblings  regarding the shade of the sky, the place would be covered in snow soon.

But ever since Fiona had blurted out to Grandmother that she was engaged  to the most brilliant man in the world, it was vital that she did not  allow Grandmother to be left alone with Madeline.

The captain was everything a man should be: handsome and brave, smart  and funny, and since the Napoleonic Wars had ended, finally living in  England.

At least he would be if he existed.

Fiona groaned. Yes, Christmas was firmly relegated to the short list of  things she despised. The holiday surpassed dress fittings, empty dance  cards, and mushrooms in horribleness. Only Napoleon, carriage accidents,  and somber-faced doctors ranked higher on her list of hated things.

How on earth had the emperor had the indecency to give up the war before  Fiona had had the foresight to invent a death worthy of her dear,  valiant, charming fiancé?

Fiona glanced at the site. "Let me just rearrange some things."

Madeline nodded, and Fiona hastily covered the pit, casting a lingering  look on the Roman finds. The shards of pottery and coins buried within  the clay were so near, and she ached to remain and unearth more, to feel  the giddiness and delight that rushed through her with every discovery  she made with her trowel.

Instead she hurried back to the carriage. A familiar dread tightened her  stomach as she climbed the metal steps, but she steeled her jaw and  rubbed her hand against her hair, dislodging a lock from her chignon.

"How pleasant to see you," Madeline said in a too-sweet voice, and a  prickly warmth dashed up the back of Fiona's neck. "I was hoping you  might be able to attend my Christmas Ball this year, given that you have  never attended before."

Fiona smiled tightly at her one-time friend as she struggled to re-pin  the lock of hair. She settled onto the bench and flickered her gaze  downward. Telling herself not to dwell on the smudges of dirt scattered  on her dress failed to lessen her embarrassment.

Disappointing people was a skill she had acquired in childhood, simply  due to the apparent misfortune of her hair color. She'd long ago  accustomed herself to her striking inability to fulfil the ton‘s  expectations. Her unfashionably curved figure had frustrated her  dressmakers during her shortened season and made her conspicuous against  the sleek, willowy figures of the other debutantes.                       
       
           



       

"I suppose it must be terribly trying for you to attend a ball, given  that you have so little practice in looking pleasant." Madeline smoothed  the golden ringlets that framed her face. Every flourish, formed in the  proper manner, with curling tongs rather than nature's haphazardness,  was immaculate. "Unless perhaps you can grace us with your presence  after all?"

"I'm afraid it's impossible," Fiona said. "Regretfully."

"Oh." Her cousin's lips stretched into a straight line.

"It is unfortunate you had to travel all this way. I would have thought  the postal system would have managed to deliver my regrets," Fiona  continued.

Madeline pressed her lips together and swung her gaze to the window and  the view of heavy dark clouds that floated over the jagged Dales.

The light from the carriage windows slid over her cousin's pale blond  hair, framing it like a halo, and cast a glow over the glossy silk  ruffles of her dress. Somehow her cousin had managed to travel five  miles and appear immaculate, and Fiona could scarcely travel a few feet  without finding herself in difficulty.

Holly and mistletoe dangled from the ceiling of the coach, bright bursts  against the staid black walls. Such greenery had been but a mild  curiosity to Fiona before the accident, but now it signified everything  dreadful.

If Christmas did not exist, her cousin would not be across from her, and  Fiona most certainly would not have abandoned perhaps her last chance  to visit the archaeological site in order to sit in a closed and  jostling coach, striving for an excuse to skip the woman's ball.

"Now do tell me," Madeline said, "Whatever were you doing standing in a pit in the earth?"

"I-"

"It's the sort of thing that gives Yorkshire women a bad reputation,"  Madeline said. "You really must reconsider your habits. It will be  trying enough for you to find a husband without acting like the local  madwoman."

Fiona squared her shoulders. "How kind of you to worry. Really, it's  wholly unnecessary. And I'm not in the least need of a husband."

If only Grandmother would believe that.

Madeline smiled. "You're always in the habit of saying the most curious things. Most fascinating."

Fiona gave her a wobbly smile and considered divulging her secret. She  pondered the pottery, the Roman coins and helmets, the vases and mosaics  she'd found on the border of the apple orchard.

She longed to share everything. There were so many brilliant objects. It  couldn't be sheer coincidence. There had to be a Roman palace buried  there.

Cloudbridge Castle lay on the route toward Hadrian's Wall, and it was  not entirely absurd to think that the Romans may have built a palace on  the way. Perhaps the Romans had had a tendency to wander around in  togas, but that didn't mean they hadn't enjoyed fine homes as well. The  materials she had found were too ornate for a simple station for  soldiers of insignificant rank.

But her cousin wouldn't understand. The last person Fiona had told had  been Uncle Seymour. She'd wanted his permission to excavate the apple  orchard, and he'd exploded at the prospect of cutting any of the trees  down on the off chance that some broken cups and plates might be  underneath. Though Uncle Seymour visited infrequently, the estate  belonged to him, and once Grandmother died, he would move in.

Fiona drew in a breath. Some things were better not dwelled on. And  perhaps Madeline was right. Perhaps she should attend the ball.

"Will the baron be there?" Fiona tilted her head, thinking of the materials she'd found underneath the apple orchard.

Madeline's husband's advice in assessing the objects' value would be  invaluable. The baron was a renowned art critic, and his work on the  Elysian Marbles was genius. She was sure his favorable assessment had  spurred the new British Museum to acquire them. Unfortunately, he seemed  to favor London far more than Yorkshire.

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