Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

Essex, 1899

Derek Eagan, the duke of Westwood, settled into his study with a glass of brandy and a fire in the hearth. Even though the day had been unseasonably warm, the heat hadn't permeated the walls of Westwood Hall. He figured he had two, maybe three days to enjoy the peace and quiet before Anthony discovered he'd left London and came after him. His uncle had made the mistake of going to visit a cousin in the city's outskirts. He therefore wouldn't learn that Derek had left the city until the day after tomorrow at the earliest. Derek had no doubt that upon hearing the news his infuriated uncle would set out immediately for Westwood Hall.

During the long journey home, Derek had practiced what he'd say to his uncle. "I'm six and twenty, and you can no longer tell me what to do." He sighed. Too bad he'd never truly say the words. After all that Anthony had done for him, Derek would never speak so bluntly to him—even if it was the truth.

As long as he was being truthful, he wished he could tell his uncle that while he appreciated his guidance and support over the years, it was time for Derek to stand on his own two feet, to make his own decisions—and his own mistakes. But how did one say such a thing to the man who'd taken on the care of a heartbroken six-year-old and newly orphaned duke, who'd overseen the family's holdings until Derek completed his education and came home to assume his rightful place as head of the family? How did one say such a thing to the only person who had always been there for him? One didn't, of course, which is exactly how Derek had found himself the toast of London society this Season.

Also in the spirit of truth, he wished there had been a young woman in London waiting just for him. A young woman he could've engaged in lively conversation with, a young woman who would inspire genuine desire, and one who could fill the yawning emptiness he carried with him every minute of his life. The time in London had only intensified his loneliness. Since losing his parents so suddenly and at such a young age, Derek had felt apart from others. He belonged to no one, had no one who was his and his alone.

Derek dreamed of leaving England behind. He yearned to visit Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and beyond. The shelves of his library were lined with books about exotic places, explorers, and adventurers. If he couldn't leave his responsibilities behind to span the globe, he could live vicariously through those who did. He knew he shouldn't feel this pervasive discontent. After all, he had everything any man could ask for—a palatial home, a thriving estate, more money than he could spend in a lifetime, loyal servants, an uncle who'd do anything for him, an aunt and cousin who'd done their best to make him part of their family.

Despite all he had, however, Derek would walk away from it all tomorrow if he could live for even just a short time as anyone other than the Duke of Westfield.

"Fantasies," he said to the empty room. "That's all they are. No sense wishing for something that'll never happen."

A knock on the study door jolted Derek from his musings. "Come in."

"Sorry to disturb you, your Grace," Rutledge, the butler, said. "May I get you anything before I retire?"

"No, thank you."

Even though it wasn't his job, Rutledge came into the room to stoke the fire. "Very well. I'll bid you good evening then, sir."

"Good night, Rutledge."

The faithful servant, who had also tended Derek's father, paused at the door.

"Is there something else?" Derek asked. "You'll forgive my impudence, your Grace. . ."

"Of course."

"It's just that since you've returned from London, we—the staff, I mean—can't help but notice that you seem. . . perhaps a tad. . . melancholy?"

"Perhaps," Derek conceded. "London was somewhat of a disappointment."

"We wondered when you returned so early. There's always next year. . ."

"Not for me. Once was more than enough."

"And your uncle?"

"Blissfully unaware. He'd gone to visit a cousin for a few days when I made my escape."

Rutledge released a low chuckle. "I take that to mean we can expect some. . . excitement. . . when he returns?"

Derek smiled. "Excitement. Yes, that's probably a good word."
...

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