How to Capture a Duke

By: 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?”

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