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"You ought to get out with Hercules for a while tomorrow. That always seems to restore your spirits."

"You're absolutely right." Derek brightened as he thought of the big black stallion he'd raised from birth. "That's exactly what I need."

"Then it's settled," Rutledge said. "I'll tell cook to have an early breakfast ready for you."

"Thank you. Sleep well."

When he was alone, Derek pondered the way his staff doted on him, as if he was still that orphaned six-year-old. In a way, wasn't he? Didn't he still succumb to the dark moods that had plagued him since the horrible day that changed his life forever? Rutledge and the others certainly knew the signs by now, which is why his butler had suggested he spend the next day riding. They knew the signs as well as the various cures. If only they knew the reason. If only they knew that the man who had everything had nothing that really mattered to him.

Could they know how he envied the peasants in the village their happy families and bright-eyed children? How shocked would they be if they knew he'd trade all his land and riches for the chance to truly belong somewhere? Anywhere. After this year's May Day festival, Derek had vowed to avoid gatherings in the village that brought home what was sorely lacking in his own life.

And then there was the matter of his carnal cravings. A man of six and twenty had needs, and only by the grace of an equally lonely widow in the village had he found an outlet for some of his seemingly endless desires. But as in all things, he'd discovered "the act" was as empty as the rest of his life without that essential connection to another. Something big was missing. He only hoped he'd recognize it should he ever be lucky enough to find it. But what were the odds of that? Locked as he was in this fortress of a home, surrounded by people who either worked for him or depended on him and his land for their livelihood. The nearest estate was thirty miles away where an elderly duke and his wife lived quietly.

Derek decided he had a better chance of being struck by lightning than he did of finding a wife he could stand to be with every day of his life. The lack of available women in his corner of Essex was the only reason he'd allowed Anthony to talk him into the London Season. And after what he'd seen there, Derek despaired of ever finding the missing piece, the one person who could finally make him whole. He believed she was probably out there somewhere.

If only he knew where to look.


CHAPTER ONE

London, May 5, 1902

"I cannot bear another minute of this charade," Derek Eagan, the seventh Duke of Westwood, declared to his cohorts as they watched a simpering group of debutantes work the gilded ballroom. He tugged impatiently at his starched attachable collar and wished he could remove it and the tie that choked him without sending yet another tedious scandal rippling through the ton.

"What charade?" asked Lord Justin Enderly, his smile dripping with the charm that had endeared him to many a mother. "Watching nubile young things flit about with love and marriage on their minds?" As the second son of an earl, Enderly was much less desirable to the simpering debs than Derek, once again considered the Season's top prize—and Enderly knew it, of course.

"All of it." Derek gestured to the glittering scene before them in the Earl of Chadwick's enormous ballroom. Surely half the aristocracy was in attendance at one of the Season's most anticipated balls. Women in frothy gowns made of the finest silks and satins, dripping in exquisite gems. Men in their most dashing evening wear. "The balls, the gowns, the dance cards, the ludicrous conversations, the desperate mothers. I've grown so weary of it, I could spit."

Aubrey Nelson, the American-born industrialist who'd humored his English-born mother with a second Season, nodded in agreement. "The pomp, the ceremony, the rules." He shook his head. "I'll be back in New York—or banished from polite society—long before I master them all."
...

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