Jonathan Nottoway, the fourth Duke of Worthingstone, was staring down the barrel of a gun. He supposed he ought to be feeling fear or even a sense of impending doom. Instead, Fate had a way of mocking him. His attacker wasn’t a seasoned killer or a disgruntled tenant. No, he had the damnably bad luck to be threatened by a boy who wasn’t even old enough to shave.
“Put the weapon down,” he ordered. “You don’t want to shoot me.”
“Yes, I do.” Anguish lined the boy’s face, along with a single-minded purpose. “It’s your fault. All of it.”
The boy’s hands started shaking, and Jonathan tried to take a step back. The gun would go off, if his finger tightened even a fraction.
“And what, precisely, am I accused of?” He spoke softly, as if soothing a wounded animal. Glancing around, he saw none of his servants nearby. Not his groom or even a blessed footman. He supposed it was his own fault for snarling at them this morning to leave him the hell alone. They’d done just that.
The outside temperature was growing colder, and a few fat snowflakes fluttered from the sky. Idiot that he was, Jonathan had tethered his horse back near the frozen stream, so he didn’t even have the option of riding away.
“You know what you’ve done,” the boy spat. “Burned our homes and murdered the others.”
Though Jonathan was aware of the Highland evictions, with landowners forcing the Scots out of their homes, he’d had nothing to do with that. His reasons for being in Scotland were purely financial. After purchasing this land a year ago, he’d come to inspect the crumbling house that went with it. Now it was perfectly clear why solicitors were meant to handle such details.
“I’m not the one who set your home on fire,” Jonathan said. “And I’ve killed no one.”
“Your men did,” the boy insisted. He raised the gun to Jonathan’s chest. “When you’re dead, the burnings will stop.”
“I’m not certain who you think I am,” he said to the boy, “but I can assure you, you have the wrong man.”
“You’re the Earl of Strathland,” the boy said, his eyes brimming up with tears. “And because of you, my mother was burned.”
“I am not the Earl,” Jonathan began. “You’ve made a mistake. I only came to—”
His words broke off when the gun fired.
Three days earlier
Victoria Andrews knelt at her sister’s feet, her mouth full of pins. With a careful eye, she judged that the hem was exactly the right length.
“Is it finished yet?” Amelia complained. “I’ve been standing here for years.”
Victoria pulled another pin from her mouth, ignoring her sister’s theatrics. “Hold still. Just a few more stitches.”
The morning gown had belonged to their sister Margaret once, but with the help of some new fabric, Victoria had completely remade the skirt and bodice. She’d stitched delicate strips of blue silk to yards of white muslin, so as to give the illusion of a striped fabric. The fitted waist emphasized the girlish lines of Amelia’s figure in the latest style.
“Should we lower the neckline?” Amelia suggested. “It seems a bit prim.”
“It’s a day dress, not an evening gown.” The curved neckline exposed a good portion of Amelia’s throat, and the long sleeves with Vandyked cuffs provided an air of modesty. As a last touch, Victoria had made pink roses from a tired pair of satin gloves and fastened the flowers to the waist.
Her sister preened in front of the dressing mirror, scooping her brown curls into a more formal arrangement on her head. “Toria, it’s wonderful. I can’t believe how lovely it is.” With a delighted smile, Amelia threw her arms around her.
Victoria basked in the warm hug. “Happy Birthday.”
“I’ll wear it when I pay calls with Mother.” Amelia brimmed with excitement, twirling around. Her sister was more than eager to leave Scotland for London, even if it was only to visit Aunt Charlotte for Christmas.
“And perhaps when I arrive, I’ll become best friends with the sister of a handsome earl or . . . even a duke! He might see me at a distance . . . and fall in love.”
Her voice grew hushed, and Victoria hid her amusement at Amelia’s dramatics. “You’re sixteen and not old enough to marry.”
“Oh, I know that,” Amelia shrugged. “But he can pine for a few years.” Her face brightened with a sudden thought. “You might find a husband, too.”
When Victoria didn’t respond, her sister’s face fell. “You are coming to London, aren’t you?” To Amelia, the idea of remaining secluded at home was like cutting off all her hair—unthinkable.
Truthfully, Victoria was perfectly content to remain within these four walls. “I can’t go with you,” she responded. “But you’ll give Aunt Charlotte my best, won’t you?”
“Toria.” Amelia held on to her, not bothering to hide her dismay. “You can’t stay inside this house forever. It’s not right.”
“You needn’t worry about me.” She smoothed an invisible wrinkle on Amelia’s gown. “Mrs. Larson and Joseph will keep me company while you’re away.”
Her sister stepped back to look at her, a worried expression on her face. “Don’t you . . . want to find a husband?” she asked softly. “Or have children one day?”
Victoria said nothing. The unbidden tears heated her eyelids, and she stared down at the floor. Of course she wanted that. She wanted a normal life, more than anything. But after so many years of living with fear, the possibility had stretched into an unreachable dream.
“You never leave this house,” Amelia continued, “and I don’t know what you’re afraid of.”
“I can’t explain it. But it’s impossible for me.” Each time she drew close to the front door, her insides twisted into knots. She couldn’t stop shaking, and the air choked off in her lungs, until she couldn’t breathe.
“I wish I could go,” Victoria whispered. “But it’s better if you travel without me.” She couldn’t stop the physical overreaction, no matter how many times she’d tried to walk out into the garden.
Their hundred-year-old house had cozy rooms and polished oak floors that creaked. Made of stone, it sat atop the hillside, overlooking fields of gorse and heather. The road leading from the house curved down toward rows of makeshift tents erected by the Highland refugees. Dozens of men and women had been evicted a few weeks ago, and her mother had allowed them to take shelter here. Victoria often watched the people, wondering about how they lived and where they would go now. But not once had she spoken with them. Though she loved her home, it was also her prison.
For she hadn’t gone outside in five years.
Victoria helped her sister out of the gown, and Amelia pleaded, “Will you unlace me, just a little? It itches dreadfully.”
Her sister’s stays were drawn tight, and the chemise was made of a rough buckram that wasn’t entirely pleasant against the skin. Victoria loosened the laces, all the while studying the construction of the undergarment. It was functional, with no embroidery and made from little more than whalebone, coarse fabric, and a steel busk.
Amelia sighed with relief as she scratched her skin. “I’ve heard there are women in London who don’t wear stays at all. Can you imagine?”
Not at all. Though her own figure was slender enough that she could wear short stays instead of the longer ones, the idea of wearing only a draped gown with nothing beneath the bodice was scandalizing. “Our mother would never allow it.”
“No, but I would happily burn this device of torture, if I could.”
Victoria hid her smile, but as she laced the corset again, a strange thought occurred to her. I wonder if I could make something like this. Only something softer, more comfortable to wear.
If the chemise were created out of a delicate material like satin or velvet, the fabric would cling to a woman’s skin. Even the corset itself could be lined with silk.
Her hands stilled upon Amelia’s back, the idea evolving and taking shape. Already she’d seen patterns for embroidered petticoats, made of fine lawn or muslin. Yet, she’d never seen a corset made out of anything except unyielding, coarse materials.
Slowly, Victoria began to pull the laces tight, unable to stop turning the idea over in her mind. Was it possible to construct a corset out of silk or satin, or would it tear under pressure? Perhaps it could be made of buckram but covered in silk, with a double lining next to the skin.
The idea intrigued her with a challenge she’d never before attempted. She had no idea how long it would take to make such a complicated garment . . . and yet, she found herself wanting to try it.
There was an older set of stays she could take apart to study for a pattern, and she knew there were gowns belonging to her grandmother in the bottom of a trunk. If she took one of them apart tonight, she could—
“Victoria?” her sister prompted. “Aren’t you going to help me get dressed again?”
“Of course. I’m sorry.” She lifted her sister’s woolen dress over the undergarment, but her mind was still caught up in the vision.
As Victoria buttoned her sister up, Amelia wouldn’t let go of their argument. “Toria, you can’t stay in Scotland. It’s too dangerous for a woman alone. We heard gun shots yesterday, when we were visiting the crofters.”
“They’re fighting again?”
Amelia nodded. “There’s not enough space and barely enough food to feed them all. Some have talked of taking back the land and killing the Earl of Strathland.”
Victoria moved to the window. In the distance, she could see the smoke curling from their camp fires. A child wandered outside in the snow, her hair covered with a plaid. The sight of the young girl sobered her. No, there wasn’t enough food. The winter was always difficult, and they’d sent for more supplies from London, simply for their own survival. If there were food shortages here, it wasn’t surprising that some would turn to stealing, if it meant feeding their children.
“You can’t stay here alone. Not while we’re gone.” Amelia’s face tightened. “What if they attack the house?”
“We’ve given them sanctuary,” Victoria reminded her. “There’s no reason for them to turn against us. And it’s only temporary until they find a new place to live.” She wanted to believe that, praying that the Highlanders would leave before the fighting worsened.
“It isn’t safe,” her sister argued. “Without Father here . . . ” Her words broke off, her eyes filling up with tears. Their father, Colonel Henry Andrews, now Baron Andrews, had been fighting in Spain for the past three years. There was no way of knowing when he would return.
Or if he would return.
Victoria took her sister’s hand in reassurance. “Most of the crofters don’t even know I’m here. And the ones who do, know that I never leave the house. I’m no threat to anyone.”
Her sister fell silent, and she took it to mean Amelia had finally given up. Good. There was no sense in entertaining ideas that would never be. Victoria took the white and blue gown and picked up her thimble, intending to start sewing the hem.
Instead, Amelia walked over and took the gown from her hands. “I want to see this gown on you.”
“Amelia, no. Really, I—”
“We’re nearly the same size. Let’s see what it looks like.” Before she could protest, her sister started unbuttoning the gray merino gown Victoria was wearing. With great reluctance, she forced herself to stand still while Amelia helped her into the muslin dress. “Careful, or you’ll tear the sleeves.”
She stood before the mirror while Amelia fastened the four buttons lining the back of the gown and tied the sash. Although the waistline fit well enough, her bust was too small, and the bodice gaped slightly. She needed an extra layer of padding to fill out the areas that were too flat. It was rather dismaying that her sixteen-year-old sister was better endowed than herself in the bosom.
Victoria drifted back to her idea for undergarments made of silk. With a few strategic tucks and a bit of quilting to add support, there was a way to make a woman’s breasts look bigger. The idea was scandalous, but she couldn’t quite let go of it. Surely she wasn’t the only woman with less-than-desirable curves.
The more she thought of it, the more she longed to attempt it. If she sewed quickly, she could send one corset with Margaret, to be sold along with the gown.
But women might not want a corset made of silk, the voice of reason interjected. It might be an utter waste of time. And yet, she couldn’t dismiss the idea.
“There. Now look at yourself.” Her sister turned her to face the mirror, and Victoria stared at her reflection. It felt foreign, looking at herself dressed like this. The stripes of blue were too pretty, the roses too feminine. In the mirror, she saw a woman with pale skin, and a flush of embarrassment upon her cheeks. Her gray eyes were accentuated by the stripes of blue, and the waistline curved inward before the skirts draped in graceful folds. The gown transformed her into someone else—the woman she was afraid of becoming.
“I should take this off. It fits you better,” she started to say.
“You’re pretty, Victoria. Don’t hide yourself away.” Amelia rested her hands upon her shoulders, offering, “Let me do your hair.”
Though both of them knew that she’d never attended any sort of ball and never would, Victoria surrendered to Amelia’s whims. Her sister ruthlessly twisted and pinned the locks of dark blond hair until all of it rested upon her head in a coronet.
“You look perfect,” her sister pronounced, “and when we get to London, we’re going to order more gowns for you.”
“Amelia, no.” Clearly, her sister was ignoring her decision to stay. She helped Victoria with the rest of the buttons while chattering on. “We could visit Madame Benedict’s shop.”
“I’d rather not.” The very idea sent a ripple of dread through Victoria. She’d kept her identity hidden over the past year, sewing ball gowns for Madame Benedict in London. Each of her creations had been unique, but Victoria had resorted to using the services of their neighbor Cain Sinclair to deliver the gowns and bring back the money. He’d also been her source of fabric during the war, and she didn’t doubt that Mr. Sinclair had engaged in illegal smuggling to acquire her supplies.
Thus far, her mother hadn’t questioned the source of the unexpected funds, for Beatrice had never been good with numbers and didn’t understand where the money was coming from. It was a secret Victoria wanted to withhold for as long as possible.
“Don’t you think Madame Benedict will want to meet you?” Amelia continued. “You earned a good deal of money from the last gowns you sent to her. And you deserve some new clothes of your own.”
“The gowns I have suit me well enough.” She had many that hung untouched in her wardrobe. “I don’t need anything, for I’m going nowhere.”
Her sister helped her to undress, her mood growing somber. “Victoria, Christmas won’t be the same, if you’re not there.”
She braved a smile she didn’t feel. “We’ll celebrate again when you return. Now, I need to fix this hem.”
Amelia cast her a disappointed look. “Do you want me to help you back into your old gown?”
Since it was already dark and they’d finished their supper, she shook her head. “Help me out of my stays, and I’ll get ready for bed.”
Her sister obeyed, and Victoria put on a cotton nightgown that fell to her ankles. Then she sat in a rocking chair and picked up her needle and thread. It was easy to fall into the rhythm of sewing, making each stitch neat and even. In time, Amelia left her alone.
Victoria pushed the needle with her thimble, reminding herself that it would be all right. Yes, it would be lonely without her family on Christmas, but she would manage.
She would fill her days with sewing, letting the activity push away her loneliness. And this time, she had a new challenge to attempt. There was still the problem of finding the right fabric, however.
Victoria set aside her sewing and went to open the trunk on the far side of the room. It was filled with old gowns that she and her sisters had played in as children. They had pretended to be grand ladies, hosting parties for their dolls.
She rummaged around the trunk, looking for a bit of silk. Near the bottom, she found a crimson satin shawl. Her mother had loathed the color, believing it was far too garish. But it was irresistibly soft. She ran her hands over the surface, wondering if it would be too delicate for an undergarment. Frowning, she eyed the door. Downstairs, she heard the sound of her sisters talking, and the low voice of her mother.
There wasn’t a great deal of time, but she went to the door and locked it. Then she brought over the stays she’d worn earlier, examining the construction. The boning tended to mash a woman’s rib cage, making it hard to breathe. But it was the stiff, unyielding buckram that made it itch.
Victoria stripped off her nightgown until she stood naked in her room. It was cold, and she shivered as she reached for the crimson satin. Gathering it into a length, she molded it against her breasts, experimenting as she lifted them up to create cleavage.
In the mirror, she stared at herself. The soft fabric enveloped her nipples in a sensual way, making the tips erect. The candlelight cast a golden glow over her skin, and the red satin appeared scandalous.
She looked like a courtesan, a woman about to be undressed.
What would it be like to have a man standing before her? Would he want to caress the satin? Would it allure him, making him desire her as a woman?
Though she’d never touched herself in that way before, Victoria moved her palms over the fabric. Her breasts ached, and a sensual warmth bloomed between her thighs. She knew, from talks with her mother, than within a marriage, a husband would touch his wife intimately. And she would enjoy sharing his bed.
She let the satin fall away, baring her nudity before the mirror. For as long as she buried herself within the house, no man would ever touch her. No man would ever want her.
The thought made bitter tears spring up in her eyes, for she simply didn’t know how to overcome her fear.
From the book Undone by the Duke
Copyright © 2012 by Michelle Willingham
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Montlake Romance.