Release day is coming up next week for my first full length Regency romance! I'm excited and terrified all at the same time, but the reviews thus far have been so encouraging <3 I'm sharing this here to give a taste of what the book will hold for anyone who's curious. Take a read through the first chapter, and let me know what you think!
Berkshire, England – July 1815
James Barrington, Duke of Norland, was doing his best not to lash out, irritation roiling in his chest. It took his every effort to maintain the proper decorum and respect for his mother that society demanded, but she sat there smiling innocently as if nothing were wrong, sunlight pouring happily through the windows of the drawing room.
His drawing room.
“What are you doing here, Mother?”
She raised a withering eyebrow at his tone, but it did nothing to diminish her smile. “I told you, I’m here for the house party, same as every year.”
“Yes, but you’re entirely too early. We did not expect you until August.”
“Well, Parliament let out early. Which you would have known had you been in attendance.”
James ground his teeth. There were a myriad of reasons he did not participate in Parliament, but he was not in the state of mind to discuss those reasons with her, of all people.
“And you didn't consider for a moment to inform me so I could ready the house?”
“I did write, darling, but apparently, I travel before it.”
Her flippant manner made him want to growl. “A lot of good that did. Mrs. Arnold and the staff have been running themselves ragged trying to accommodate seven unexpected guests, not to mention the arrival of the Duchess herself.”
“But that’s what Mrs. Arnold and the staff are for, my dear.” She waved her hand dismissively,
“Damn it, Mother!” James pounded his hand on the arm of his chair. “I already have guests. I have meals planned, days booked, work to do. I have no time for your frivolity and nonsense. We’ve had no time to prepare, and I will not have you shame this house further.” He hoped his words were pointed enough.
Finally, the Duchess of Norland’s smile fell, and she narrowed her eyes at him. “Mind your tongue. I’m still your mother. Besides, if I am the duchess, then I will use my husband’s fortune as I see fit. That was part of our arrangement: one month out of the year, I require the use of this house.”
“You are the dowager duchess,” James reminded her under his breath.
“A duchess, nonetheless.”
His nerves fraying with anger, James stood from his seat and moved toward the door, unable to bear her insolence a moment longer.
“I also expect you at dinner this evening,” she called after him. “Your friends are welcome to join us.”
He paused for a moment by the door. “Part of our bargain was that you give me ample notice, Mother, and since you have failed to keep your lot, I’m not obligated to keep mine. As I said, I’ve already made plans. You can speak to Cook about your dinner arrangements.”
“Come now, James. You must join us for a few appearances. Three or four, at least. You know your reputation will continue to suffer . . .”
She was one to talk about reputation. Closing his eyes and shaking his head, he let himself out of the drawing room. The next four weeks would undoubtedly be a torment, attempting to hide from her house party, but at least he had his two friends to suffer with him.
James couldn’t even make it out of the room before blindly knocking into someone in the doorway. Opening his eyes, he half expected his butler, Kingsley, or some innocuous companion or lady’s maid. Instead, it was an elegant young miss with an intelligent gaze and brown hair tucked back into a perfect coif. Her eyes widened in surprise, but he was the one surprised to see how small she was. Almost an entire head shorter.
“Out of my way, child,” he grumbled.
Her brown eyes flashed in indignation. “I am no child.”
He examined her further before speaking, noticing a rise of pink in her cheeks. “You are short and slight, you have no respect for your superiors, and you meander through this house aimlessly with no thought of who you might inconvenience.”
She narrowed her eyes, bracing her shoulders with bravery. “I am a guest here, and I was not expecting to be attacked by a cantankerous man. I was simply looking for the duchess, who had summoned me.”
James wanted to admire her retort, but he couldn’t allow any of his mother’s guests to expect his kindness, else they would begin to seek out his company. He simply stepped aside and said, “Then you are a child who has found her way.”
Turning down the corridor, James stormed away. The sooner the house party started, the sooner they could all leave.
Isabel Hastings let out a deep breath, pressing a hand to her pounding heart as the duke stalked away. She was certain she had left an impression on him, but Isabel was grateful her own mother wasn’t there, for it was not the kind of impression she would have wished for a young, unmarried woman like Isabel.
“There you are, my dear!” Anne Barrington, Dowager Duchess of Norland, came crashing out of the drawing room. “I’m sorry you had to find my James in such a foul mood. We did seem to catch him quite off guard.”
“Of course, Your Grace. I’m not in the least offended.” Isabel felt she probably should be, the way he talked down to her and dismissed her, but she had no desire to seek the favor of the Undesirable Duke, as he had been dubbed in London. Still, that didn’t keep her parents from pushing her into every possible connection for a chance to win him.
“Now, tell me the honest truth.” The duchess tugged on Isabel’s arm, gently pulling her into the room and seating her on the settee. “What do you think of him, my pet? Is he not the most handsome of men?”
Isabel fought hard to maintain a believable smile. “Indeed, Your Grace. Very handsome.” She would not argue the fact, for it was true. Despite his sour temperament, his attractive features were obvious. Dark hair framing a handsome face, piercing blue eyes, and a strong jaw. The title and expansive wealth of course added to his appeal, but Isabel knew there were more important things than these attributes. Her siblings had married similarly situated spouses and were all equally miserable. The wealth and title meant nothing, except to those in society who did not have to live the life day in and day out. The life of the wealthy and noble often included a life without love, and Isabel was determined not to fall into the same trap.
“I hope you will forgive his reclusive nature.” The duchess sat back in her seat and sighed. “He’s been so isolated since the death of his father and has mourned him bitterly. But I think he could use a girl like you to cheer him up. Pull him out of the darkness and back into the light.”
Isabel had expected this. It’s what her mother had trained her for––luring a wealthy, titled gentleman into the arms of matrimony. But Isabel could not have hoped for a better situation. Clearly this man did not want to be caught, so she could give the appearance of trying to win him, and then, when the end of the house party came, she could walk away unattached. Because the truth of it was, she couldn’t become engaged to the Duke of Norland when she was already secretly engaged to someone else.
“I’ll do my best, Your Grace.”