The Return of the Duke by Grace Callaway

Prologue





Darkness fell as Fancy Sheridan walked, lost in her thoughts. The daughter of a travelling tinker, she made her home on the open road. At present, the forest silver-plated by the moon was her room, the canopy of stars her ceiling, and the gravel-strewn path her carpet. She breathed in the crisp night air and tried to let go of her churning tension.

As part of a tinkering family, she was used to doing odd jobs to make ends meet. She’d inherited a plethora of skills from her da and dear departed ma. Tonight, she had found work in the kitchens of the village inn, and while scrubbing pots wasn’t her favorite pastime, she would have done the task with her usual verve…if the cook hadn’t accosted her.

Fancy, my arse. I know your kind. Tinkers ain’t no be’er than gypsies. The cook had cornered her in the larder, his greasy spittle scalding her cheek. Meet me behind the inn after you’re done wif the pots, and if you give me a nice ride up Cupid’s alley, then I’ll give you the lefto’er mutton to feed your beggarly kin.

She swiped a hand over her burning cheek, kicking up dust with her worn half-boots. How she wished she could have thought of some scathing retort to put him in his place. Instead, she’d been paralyzed by his menacing nearness and insulting offer.

Ma’s voice had rung in her head. Keep your ’ead down around settled folk, me girl. If there’s trouble, wait for an opportunity—and run.

Fancy had fled the instant she’d collected her meager pay from the innkeep. Her brother Godfrey, who’d also found work at the inn, was supposed to walk back with her to the cottage, but he got caught up dallying with one of the barmaids. Fancy had decided to journey back alone rather than wait for him and risk another encounter with the cook.

Humiliation and anger flared even though she was no stranger to this sort of treatment. At two-and-twenty, she had dealt with her share of blackguards who assumed she was easy pickings because she belonged to a travelling clan. Like Romany nomads, tinkers were oft treated with suspicion and hostility by settled folk. She’d developed a thick skin when it came to society’s prejudices, yet this latest degradation pierced her to the quick.

You know why it ’urts. Her throat swelled. Because it’s a reminder o’ your station in life. And why you’ll ne’er be good enough for the Duke o’ Knighton.

Reaching into the pocket of her patched skirts, Fancy closed her fingers around the button she kept as close as a secret. She knew it by touch: the carved ridges of the crest, the smooth circumference, the heft of precious metal. Like its owner, the button was the genuine article…and far too fine for the likes of her.

As she trudged along the wooded path, she couldn’t get Severin Knight, the Duke of Knighton, out of her head. She saw his rough-hewn handsomeness, his cool grey gaze. His eyes reminded her of the sky during a storm, hazy and opaque, with flashes of emotion that jolted her with tingly awareness. He was tall, muscular, and breathtakingly elegant, a study in refinement from the top of his dark head to the champagne shine of his boots.

More importantly, Knighton was a true nobleman, in action as well as in name. One could tell a lot about a man by how he treated others and, despite their differences in rank, His Grace treated her with courtesy and respect. His attention caused her pulse to race and her knees to wobble like a custard tart fresh out of the oven.

Unfortunately, Fancy didn’t have the same effect on him. While he was polite, he was here on a single-minded quest. He’d arrived five days ago to court her bosom chum, Bea.

Bea was Lady Beatrice Wodehouse. Although she was a duke’s sister, she lived as a reclusive spinster due to an accident that had scarred her cheek. When Fancy’s father had sought work on Bea’s estate five years ago, she and Bea had become instant friends, and the Sheridans had made Camden Manor, Bea’s Staffordshire estate, a stop on their yearly migration.

Knighton needed a duchess, and Fancy understood why he saw her friend as a sterling candidate. Scar or no scar, Bea was beautiful, with innate poise and aristocratic manners. Unfortunately for Knighton, Bea was currently being pursued by another gentleman, railway industrialist Wickham Murray, and Fancy could tell her friend was falling for the dashing Scot.

Which left Knighton out in the cold…and as far beyond Fancy’s reach as the glittering stars.

For how could a tinker’s daughter hope to win the heart of a duke?

Although Fancy had the soul of a dreamer, she also had both feet planted on the ground. She had seen enough of the world to know the way it worked. Only in the safety of her imagination could she weave her faerie tale ending. There, she could dream of a prince with stormy eyes falling madly in love with her. He would give her a kiss that would make the earth tremble and the oceans roar. Then he would sweep her off to a castle in the clouds, where they would live happily ever after.