Never Deny a Duke in Christmas by Harriet Caves

Chapter One

Kendra Strentham, the former wife of the Marquess of Creek, suspected everyone here knew of her deep, dark, shameful secret. In fact, she was certain of it. It seemed that this Christmas and its first flurry of snow would announce the arrival of not only festive greenery and gift giving, but also something much more sinister.

“I would not dare to show my face in public if I were her… liar… cheat… disgraceful…”

Although the words were hushed, spoken by people who would never say it to her face, they still cut through Kendra’s heart like the sharpest sword.

It was the second ball Kendra was attending in two evenings. The festivities had been plentiful this Christmas season, it seemed. The promise of a fun-filled holiday was written on the face of every lady and every gentleman she laid her eyes on. Usually, she enjoyed the fine food, the festive surroundings with all its opulence, the roaring fire that crackled softly. It brought back tender memories.

But attending balls had become a chore. And despite the place being different, everything else was the same: the looks of scorn in the eyes of those who did not even try to hide their whispers were all about her; the heaviness in her heart weighed down even more by those same scornful eyes. “You cannot remain on the border looking in, if you wish to reclaim your life.” Kendra suddenly heard her father’s voice behind her.

She turned around and smiled at the man who, despite his years, still appeared vibrant and healthy, as if he had just taken respite. Kendra knew it was exactly the opposite, and it was she who had been a cause for many a sleepless night in this poor man’s life. She fought the urge to take another look at the crush of dancers, all so she wouldn’t have to look at him in the eyes.

Feeling her fear, her father took her hand in his. She wondered how many more smiles she would need to force over the course of the evening or how many curtsies she would need to dip into, before women and men who considered her a social pariah. She wondered if that were a title that had been bestowed upon her for the remainder of her life.

“It is difficult,” she managed to whisper, doubting it would ever become less so.

“It is as difficult as you make it, darling,” he replied knowledgeably.

A father in every meaning of the word, Julius Strentham, the Viscount of Hallshire, opened his doors to his daughter when all others remained firmly closed. Locked even. He showed her the true meaning of forgiveness, of parental love, which Kendra sometimes doubted she deserved.

“I wish it were up to me, Father,” she whispered, her voice soft, barely audible.

She turned back to the ballroom. She had seen more than just a few familiar faces, some of whom she had even considered friends. After her dreadful separation from the Marquess of Creek, none of her “friends” had come to her to inquire whether she needed help, no one apart from Natalie, who was now dancing with the Earl of Kingsley looking absolutely smitten with the young man. Kendra wondered if she would ever feel that way about a man.

“Miss Strentham.” Suddenly, a man appeared before her, and it took her a moment to recognize him.

“Lord Rutledge.” She greeted him back, returning a curtsy.

“Would you do me the honor of the next dance?”

Something in the back of her mind warned her against putting her hand in his. A fear all too familiar and unwanted crawled up her spine, but despite this, she still accepted. After all, she knew this man. She had welcomed him in her home, well… what she once considered to be her home. This man was also not her husband’s friend any longer. He was a mere acquaintance. Perhaps that made him harmless and well-intentioned.

He escorted her to the ballroom floor. The spirit of the festivities was in the air. A ball held on St. Nicholas’ day marked the beginning of the celebratory weeks ahead. A million candles illuminated the guests, both the lords and the ladies, whose delicately reddened cheeks stood in wonderful contrast to the decorative greenery around them.

The first sounds of the music were heard, and Kendra went to great lengths to keep a safe distance between them. Lord Rutledge was tall and lean, elegant even. He didn’t take his eyes off of her. She remembered that feeling when she had been but a debutante, having her first dance. She could remember it as if it were yesterday. The fluttering in her belly, the yearning, the awe. But then, she was lured into a scandal and that was all anyone remembered of her. She was treading on thin ice in society, one that required cautious thought regarding every move.

“If you shall permit me to say that you look ravishing, Miss Strentham,” he said, bringing her back to the present moment, as his grip of her fingers intensified.

“Thank you,” she tried to smile, but it was an awkward attempt. She couldn’t cease to be aware of the eyes around her and the ill-meaning tongues.

“I was hoping to ask for a dance yesterday, at the Duke of Ashtonville’s ball, but for some reason, I could not muster the courage.”

He sounded sincere. She didn’t expect that. She had danced with three men up until this point, and they all eventually approached her with a suggestion that made her hands tremble and her blood boil. One even dared to say that she had nothing to fear, because her reputation had already been ruined. She could not ruin it twice, could she? It took all of Kendra’s conscious effort not to slap the man right then and there, in front of everyone. But nothing she could have done would have ameliorated the sensation that awoke within her: he was right. No matter how hard she tried to run away from her past, it was always there, always following her like a hungry wolf, waiting for her to be completely worn out so it could devour her.

“I’m not very good at this,” he admitted suddenly.

“At dancing?” She wondered.

“No, this… talking,” he explained, as they swirled between two other couples, then returned to their position. A part of her wanted to believe him, but she was left oddly unmoved.

“We do not need to talk,” she smiled, perfectly content to just dance, and not be forced to speak unless she really wished to do so.

“Then, may I have the permission to gaze upon you in awe-struck silence?” He asked, and she suddenly felt too warm. Still unmoved by his obvious effort at flirtation, she considered it harmless enough. But something told her to seek escape as soon as the dance finished.

She chose not to reply to his question, and merely smiled coyly, as she had been taught years ago upon attending her first ball ever. As soon as the last sounds of the music were heard, she pulled her hand away from Lord Rutledge’s, as if she had been burned, as if something dark and menacing had been breathing down her neck.

“Is everything alright, Miss Strentham?” He sounded genuinely concerned. Kendra felt silly for allowing her doubts to get the better of her. He hadn’t insulted her in any manner. He had not done anything to her to deserve these suspicions.

“Yes,” she assured him. “I just need to go out for some fresh air. It is much too hot in here.”

“Perhaps you might permit me to accompany you?”

There it was. A seemingly innocent question, but Kendra knew it for what it truly was. The only place she could go out for some fresh air was out into the garden or on the terrace, where there were not many people, if any. That meant that she would be there alone, or solely with him. Unchaperoned. At risk of ruining her reputation… twice. If such a thing was even possible.

For a moment, she tried to convince herself that she misheard his offer. Perhaps she had heard it too many times and now it manifested itself out of thin air, by the effort of her own mind. His tone was too polite for such an impolite suggestion. She searched his gaze, wondering if she was going mad.

But then, she saw it. The corner of his lip danced in a smile. A wicked smile. A hopeful smile. A smile that had heard too many gossips, and probably believed all of them. The knot in her stomach tightened unpleasantly.

“No, thank you,” she replied, endeavoring to remain calm. “I am perfectly alright to go by myself.”

“Perhaps I could – “

“No,” she cut him off. “You could not, Lord Rutledge.” She drew back her shoulders. She might not have her reputation, but she still had her dignity, the little that the marquess had left her with, and she was damned if she would part with it. “Thank you for the dance.” She severed the connection of their stare, turning around and marching up the stairs.

She felt disoriented, as if the whole room were spinning, and she was forced to hold on tightly to the railings. When she finally reached the top of the stairs, she saw the balcony door. It seemed blessedly devoid of any people. She rushed in that direction, but before she could reach respite from the melancholy inside of her, she felt a hand digging its talons into her elbow.

“I told you this was not a good idea,” a man’s voice hissed inside her ear. She took a deep breath. She wanted to tell herself that her brother’s opinion mattered little, but that would have been a lie. There was nothing meaningless about his statement, all the more so because she was starting to believe he was right.

She yanked her arm away from him, all the courage having fled her already, making way for helplessness. She had to escape it. She had to escape it all.

She rushed outside into the balcony, seeking solace in the only place she could expect to find it. There was no flicker of snow in the air, nor was there wind. For a winter evening, it was almost pleasant. She lifted her gaze to the night sky, as the stars flickered down at her sympathetically, lamenting her fate. The velvety darkness of the night around her almost felt like an embrace. She placed her hands on the stone balustrade, which chilled her to the very bone. She wondered if her heart would ever be ignited by the passion of love again.

It was not love she required, a small voice inside of her reminded her. It was oblivion. Complete and utter annihilation of the self. Because, what good was life to her when she knew that she had squandered her one chance at happiness?