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Years ago, when he was little more than a poor, scared boy, Gareth Duncan was saved by an angel, who took him away from his evil mother and gave him a loving home with his aunt and uncle, keeping him safe from the father he never knew. met: the terrible Duke of Westshire. Now a man, with the death of the former Duke, Gareth is back in England, ready to claim what he has most wanted in his life... Something that is far from the title he has just inherited. When she discovered that her husband had fathered a bastard child, Araminta Duncan had not hesitated to lift the sweet boy out of poverty and give him a family far away from England. Nearly 15 years later, now a widow, she is hopeful that Gareth can be the kind, responsible, devoted Duke her terrible husband never was to the estate she loves so much. And as much as the rise of the new Duke means she'll have to leave her own title behind, Minty is more than happy to have the boy she once knew back. However, she soon discovers that Gareth is no longer a boy. And that he believes she should keep her title of Duchess untouched: by becoming his wife.
Prologue – The Angel
- Who do you think you are to demand such a thing?!
At the sound of that scream, which could very well rival the crack of thunder, Gareth instantly flinched on the bed he was sitting on, having to contain a groan as the movement accentuated the pain in his stomach where the Duke had hit him with his hand. cane, moment ago. Even so, he finally conquered the pains that covered his body, from the one caused by the Duke to the cuts on his back from his mother's riding strap, and limped silently to the half-open door of the huge luxurious room he was in. Everything around seemed huge, clean and bright, but, incomprehensibly, he could not find within himself any sense of wonder. Maybe because every inch of those walls belonged to the furious man whose screams could be heard even with so many rooms separating them inside that mansion.
Of course, going to the door wouldn't make any difference in the distance, of course, but for some reason, Gareth just couldn't remain impassive in bed, knowing who the Duke was yelling at so angrily. He might not be seeing them, but he knew who was facing that man's wrath so bravely.
And, amazingly, facing that wrath to defend him.
- I am your wife! And the Duchess! She is who I am, my dear Duke. – the haughty and feminine voice, rising through the walls with total courage and not even a hint of hesitation, was heard – And, if demanding that you take responsibility for your own son offends you so much, my lord, then I think that has already been done. says a lot about the nobility you like to say you and your last name have!
- You want me to support a bastard? – the Duke roared again, choking and being taken by a strong cough right after – Are you crazy, woman?!
- I want you to give that poor boy what is his right! Did you know that your mother tortured you simply because you didn't marry her when you found out you were pregnant? – that truly saddened lament made Gareth swallow hard, unaccustomed to that strange feeling it was to have someone genuinely concerned about his well-being – She came to me when I was leaving the dressmaker, telling me about how you threw them both in the gutter when you found out about the baby. And she didn't even seem to care that his back was completely bloody!
- There you are, being colder than winter again! – the Duke, the man he completely refused to call his father, grunted, apparently offended – I slept with another woman, a random slut, and she was able to give me a son, unlike you. – the way his rancid voice was covered in venom offended Gareth deeply – Doesn't that truly make you a bit ashamed of how useless you are, Araminta?
"It's no use trying to hit me, James. – the Duchess cut him off, not seeming affected at all – Do you think I should feel useless when I know that you slept with that woman long before our marriage, when you were healthy? And if I were you, I would be concerned about the welfare of the boy you call "bastard." After all, it's entirely possible that he's the only child you'll ever have.
- Are you threatening me, you bitch?! - Gareth felt his blood run cold when the sound of something heavy shattering against the wall pierced his ears, making him choke with fear at the thought that he could have hurt her, when the murmur of some of the servants was heard, while he he kept shouting – And don't shy away from me when I'm giving you what you deserve! The only reason I still don't have an heir is because you're not even fit to get pregnant, you goddamn slut!
- Of course… – he was relieved to hear Araminta disdain, apparently safe – My sick, bedridden and impotent husband has nothing to do with this…
The Duke apparently tried to retort, enraged, but he was again affected by a strong coughing and gagging crisis, which completely distorted his words. A long, chaotic moment passed as the servants' voices and hurried footsteps mingled as they apparently came to his aid, until finally Araminta's voice was heard again, with a heavy sigh.
- Very well, apparently you will not listen to the voice of reason. And much less do what is right. I'll send the boy back to his mother's side, so... - at the same time that the Duke's cough gradually began to subside, Gareth had to hold back the wave of tears that suddenly threatened to overwhelm him - To the dirty tenements on the outskirts of the city, where it is very possible that he will die of cold, hunger or cholera... Or maybe even before, after his mother finds out that even after all that scandal in the middle of the street, she still won't get a penny to raise a poor child that is your responsibility whether you want it or not, James.
- Shut the hell up, woman! – even still enraged, the Duke's voice sounded weak and breathless – Put yourself in your place and throw that kid in his place: in the gutter!
- Well done! – the Duchess retorted coldly, with a voice full of contempt – That's what I will do!
Quickly wiping away the tears that had begun to run down his cheeks uncontrollably, Gareth struggled to hold back a few rueful sobs as he stumbled towards the bed again. There was no reason for him to feel betrayed, or even heartbroken, that the Duchess was making the decision to send him away. After all, his mother, Elisabeth, always hated his father's wife and, when he finally had the opportunity to meet her face to face, he didn't miss the opportunity to demonstrate it or to rub it in her face that he had had the Duke's son, even though Araminta is the only one with the title, fortune and status. His mother could live singing from the rooftops that she was prettier than the Duchess, but now that he'd finally met her, Gareth finally realized that the Duke had more reasons to choose her over his mother than the fact that his mother being the “lost” daughter of the second son of a bankrupt Baron. Araminta might not have her mother's honey-colored hair and blue eyes, but she had a soft beauty that Gareth found far more admirable. A beauty that was not only in her black hair and dark brown eyes, but also in her haughty yet delicate manners, her polite posture, her sweet voice... And in her gentle smile, the same one she had given him. on the day they had met, even as his mother was making a scene in front of her and all he could do was meet her gaze, mortified and embarrassed.
And, when his mother had started to shake his arm in front of her almost to the point of breaking it, screaming about how she should be the Duchess, since Gareth was the Duke's only known child and everyone knew that Araminta didn't was succeeding in bearing an heir, all she did, to everyone's surprise, including Gareth's, was ask her coachman to release him from his mother's grasp and carry him into the carriage.
- You know, for a moment I even considered helping you, ma'am. – Araminta had calmly retorted to her mother, not seeming at all jealous of the fact that her husband was the father of another woman’s child – I cannot excuse my husband’s behavior for having dishonored her, even if it happened before ours. wedding. But you are wrong if you think that his choice to marry me had any interference on my part. And, now that you've made it abundantly clear that all your yelling was just a ridiculous attempt to publicly shame me and heal some of your wounded pride, so I ask that you don't speak to me again or go back to approaching the only person really innocent in this whole situation. – she had looked over her shoulder towards where he was sitting in the carriage, quite aware that she was soiling the seat with the blood from her back and the dirt from her hands – You came here to claim your son's rights for does he carry the Duke's blood? Well done. From now on, I will be in charge of the boy's guardianship, which means that his housing, education and well-being are now my responsibility. – Even from where he was, Gareth was able to see her narrow her eyes at her mother – For that, I will warn you just once, madam: if I see you near that poor child again, or worse, touching a single hair from him again, I guarantee you will spend the rest of your days watching the sun rise through the prison bars. I was clear?
Stunned, for the first time in his 12 years of life, Gareth saw his mother completely speechless. Whether it was because of the extreme authority in the Duchess's voice, or just because she was choking on her own hatred, he didn't know. Regardless, she only seemed to recover her voice when Araminta was already sitting in the carriage beside him, not seeming to care about how dirty he was, as all the children who lived in the tenements on the edge of town always were.
And, as they started to walk away and Gareth looked out the window to see his mother screaming at the top of her lungs in the street, demanding that he make the Duchess let her in and "take her rightful place", all he was able to feel was relief. When he was younger, he'd even entertained the silly fantasy that she would someday care for him, however she was. But after so many years of beatings and abuse coming from the fact that his birth wasn't enough to make her the Duchess she so desperately wanted, even the uncertain and unknown future Araminta was taking him to seemed more attractive than continuing to sleep on the cold floor of the room in which she was living. that he had lived since he was a baby, always hungry and with bruises everywhere, after another rage attack from his mother.
- It's going to be okay, I promise. – Araminta's affectionate touch on his hair had awakened him suddenly, and, as he looked at her and his mother's angry screams were getting farther and farther away, the gentle smile she gave him made him blush – Don't be afraid. No one will ever hurt you again.
And, stupidly, he believed her. He had put all his trust in her as they arrived at the Duke's immense and opulent estate, Westbright, and she had provided him with a bath, new clothes and the best meal he had ever eaten in his entire life... Until the Duke he had appeared in the room suddenly, with heavy, unsteady steps even with the help of a cane, coughing up blood everywhere and with an angry look in his eyes when he saw him there. Apparently, gossip that the Duke's bastard son was on the estate had traveled too fast, and not all of the servants were loyal enough to Araminta to prevent what ever reached the ears of James Duncan III. Or to prevent him from hitting him in the stomach with the massive copper cane right after, no matter how hard Araminta tried to get in the way, to no avail.
So, as he curled up between the covers on the bed and waited for the moment when she would come over there to throw him out, Gareth realized that he couldn't bring himself to be angry with the Duchess. After all, what else could she do for him if the Duke would never accept him? And, being honest with himself, he would have felt a lot worse if the Duke had landed that blow on Araminta instead of him. In the end, she had done everything possible for him, bringing him here and doing, even for a little while, something no other person had ever done: care for him. She had promised him that now his life would be different, that he would never feel hungry or cold again, and that soon she would teach him to read and write. She had personally tended to the wounds on his back and listened as he told about how his mother treated him, even though she was still afraid. And, in her eyes, he had seen something he wasn't used to and, being weak, he barely knew exactly what it was: worry. For him.
For that, no matter how badly everything had gone wrong, he would always be grateful to Araminta Duncan for being the first and only person to care about him in his life.
Perhaps the only one to be wrong here was he, who had dared to create hopes and dreams that would never be attainable. Now, thanks to that, more than ever, he was alone in the world. All that was left was to beg Araminta to drop him off in an alley, instead of taking him back to his mother, as he had said he would. The Duchess was kind, and even though he shouldn't have, Gareth hoped that she would understand what fate would befall him if he turned to his mother after leaving her behind in that street, with the news that, not even through the mediation of Duchess, Elisabeth would receive something from the Duke...
- Gareth? Are you okay? Are your wounds still hurting a lot?
Jumping a little in surprise, and again having to stifle a groan at the pain it caused him, Gareth watched ruefully as Araminta entered the room, her pale features now a little flushed, apparently from her argument with her father. husband. Cringing sadly, he just shook his head as he walked away to the edge of the bed, willing her to get this over with. It pained him to know that they could never do all that she had promised him. It hurt to know that he would never see her again: the only woman who had ever cared for him.
It pained him to know that, from then on, his life would become even worse than it already was.
- Are you sure you're okay? – clearly worried, something that only made his heart ache more, Araminta went to sit on the bed next to him, gently stroking his hair, now cleaner than it had ever been in her entire life – You look so haggard… How about I ask Mary to make another pot of milk tea? You seemed to enjoy it so much during lunch...
- I know you're going to send me away. – He interrupted her, with a voice almost brittle, with his head down – I heard, so… You don't have to be so kind – Gareth sighed, trying to contain the tears – I don't blame you, Duchess. I know he won't let me stay... So... I really understand.
- Oh, dear... - Araminta lamented, surprising him by pulling him into a warm and extremely comfortable hug, which left him blushing more than he had ever been in all his life - I'm sorry you heard all that hateful man said. – the Duchess growled, softly – And I'm sorry that you had to hear me lie, too. But know that what I said is not true.
- Like this? - Gareth questioned, trying to contain the wave of hope that threatened to take him.
- Unfortunately, in fact I won't be able to keep you here, as I would like. Not with that big obnoxious ogre around. – The Duchess grumbled, totally disgusted – But if he thinks that this will prevent me from taking care of you, he is very mistaken! – She warned him, looking triumphant – Listen, just now, before coming here, I sent my great friend and maid to send a letter to your uncle Louis. He is the Duke's brother, but I promise you, they are very different men. Her uncle is a diplomat and is currently living in France. He is a cultured and very kind man, as is his wife, Penelope. Besides, I know that they also always wanted to have another child, in addition to your cousin Henry, who is a little boy younger than you...
- Why... – Gareth interrupted her, fearful and confused – Why are you telling me all this?
- Because I have no doubt that they will welcome you, dear. – Araminta opened a bright smile, which again made him blush deeply – Your uncles will be able to give you the home full of love, joy and tranquility that you deserve! And I promise you that you will never, ever feel hungry... or the pain of a slap again. – Gareth can see in her eyes the same guilt he saw when Araminta had not been able to stop the Duke from hitting him with his cane – Also, with Louis and Penelope, you will have access to a phenomenal education. And I'm sure that, in a few short years, he will have become an exemplary future Duke. I mean... - Araminta was interrupted, suddenly embarrassed - If you want, of course...
- Duke? – Gareth choked, extremely stunned – What do you mean?
- You are your father's only son, dear. – the Duchess explained to her, gently – That title belongs to you, by right. But I promise I won't force you into anything. If, when your pa... I mean, the Duke passes away and you're old enough to assume the title... I swear I'll support you if you decide that's not what you want. But, if you decide you want to be the next Duke, Gareth… – she put a hand on his shoulder, lovingly – Then I will be more than happy to welcome you, in this same estate, when you are an adult.
- Why do you want me to become the Duke? – he asked her, trying not to sound accusing – No… Don't you want your own son to become the Duke, someday? Inexplicably, Gareth felt a sudden flutter in his stomach as he imagined a child daughter of the hateful Duke with someone as incredible as Araminta.
- Well... That's a question full of adult questions, dear... - Araminta stammered, embarrassed - But... Let's just say that I don't think the Duke and I are going to have a child someday. Therefore, I would be very happy and proud to know that I can help you become a cultured and valiant Duke, worthy of assuming the title and control of this property. This land has already gone through a lot... - she sighed, regretful - They really need the next Duke to be a good man. And I'm sure you will be. She smiled, blushing again.
- You… – Gareth swallowed hard, not sure what her answer to his question would be – You don't care that I'm a bastard?
- Oh dear… – Araminta smiled kindly, pulling him even closer – It couldn't matter less to me… – she paused for a moment, before her tone became low and confiding, yet also warm. - You know, my mother was not a legitimate daughter either. When they fell in love, she and my father had to give up many of the privileges of high society in order to face the rumors and scorn of the other nobles. In fact, that was the reason I ended up marrying the Duke. - Gareth was surprised by that confession, said in a sad tone.
– My father's marriage ended up compromising some of his businesses while a duke and this ended up extending to my older brother. – she continued, head down – They even tried to stop me, 3 years ago, when the Duke asked me to marry him. But I knew that my marriage would be the best opportunity we would have to recover some of the connections our family lost with their marriage, especially in the matter of commerce, which would keep the estate from going bankrupt. My wedding may not have been the romantic fairy tale I dreamed of since I was a child... - Gareth watched her struggle to keep the smile on her face - But at least I could make a little difference in this property. Getting finances to stop being a complete mess, I managed to set up a small classroom near the garden for the employees' children... And now I have the chance to give these people a future Duke who is a good man! – Araminta celebrated, extremely happy – I won't lie to you, dear. The question of who would be the future heir to Whiteshire has always troubled me, especially with that man's condition deteriorating further by the minute. But now that you're here, we can finally hope that the future will be better! – that happy smile remained on her beautiful face for a while longer, until it disappeared suddenly, when she seemed to remember something – But I know that all of this is a very heavy weight to place on the shoulders of a boy as young as he is. you. So, Gareth, the only thing I ask of you is: please go live with your aunt and uncle. I promise they are wonderful people and with them you will be safe from your mother and... The Duke. – Araminta begged.
- I will go. – Gareth agreed automatically, blushing with embarrassment right after. It was becoming quite clear that he was having a hard time denying the Duchess' requests.
- Oh, thank God. – the Duchess murmured, relieved – I also asked my maid to prepare one of the carriages for you, to take you to a discreet, but comfortable inn, in the center. One of my servants will be there every day to make sure you're safe, until your uncles can pick you up here in London. – she dropped her hand to his cheek, caressing it gently – Oh, Gareth. I would love for you to be able to stay here. I would teach you reading, writing, history and math along with the other kids and we could be a family... - Araminta seemed lost in a dream for a moment, before shaking her head, determined - But, you know what? We are already a family. It doesn't matter where you are. And once you're grown up and it's time to become the new Duke, I'll be here to welcome you and tell you everything you need to know about your estate. she swore, with a fond smile.
- Madam? – a voice caught their attention and Gareth saw a nice-looking old lady, clearly one of the Duke's maids, with simple gray clothes, open the door – Sorry to interrupt, but the carriage is ready.
- Thanks for letting me know, Mary. – Araminta sighed, getting up slowly from the bed and extending her hand towards Gareth, for him to do the same – Come on, dear, the time has come. But we'll see each other again, I promise, even if it takes a while.
Seeing Mary approach, Gareth felt his stomach sink and sadness grip him as the realization dawned on him: the realization that, until the Duke died and the title was vacated, he would not see the Duchess again. The angel who was about to give him a better life would stay in London while he would stay away, probably until he was an adult.
And just thinking about it was enough to make her heart ache.
- II will become the man and Duke you expect me to be, Araminta! – Gareth hastened to promise – You'll never have reason to regret having helped me, I swear!
- Oh, Gareth... – she bent down a little so that their faces were closer, looking emotional – Even if you decided to become the exact opposite of all that, I would never regret having given you a life. best. Now, go with Mary. – she encouraged him, with a sad smile – And remember: when the time comes for you to become the Duke, I'll be here waiting for you, okay?
- Promise? - Gareth asked anxiously, while the maid, looking in a hurry, reached his shoulders with her hands.
To that question, Araminta just smiled, not hesitating even a second before answering.
- But of course I promise.
Chapter 1 – The Decision
The smell of cheap perfume in the air was so strong that Gareth almost felt nauseous.
He had nothing against Paris, obviously, but having to pick up his brother Henry from a million brothels whenever they went into town to visit their parents could be tedious at times. Walking along the long corridor of the old building, which at one time had most likely been an even respectable hotel, Gareth made his way to the door of the room where the potbellied man at the entrance had told him his brother would be. All around him, the fake grunts and groans were so loud, he had to practically hammer on the door for a few minutes, until he finally seemed to get the attention of whoever was inside.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of muttering and the rustling of clothes being put on, a blonde woman opened the door, precariously clad in a dress that was almost see-through in its age and whose cleavage left little to the imagination. At first,
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