December 27, 1812
Chairs weren’t the
only things flying at Lord and Lady Freemont’s annual Christmas Ball. Throw in a duke, two appallingly outspoken ladies, an earl, a young naval officer, and enough fists to make Gentleman Jackson proud, and you have successfully recounted every delicious detail of this past season’s unmatchable scandal.
One has to wonder how it all started. Some say Gatewood was merely defending his sister’s honor. Others say Norcross seduced the wits out of not one but two women in the very same night! And the worst of the gossip, though it pains me to admit to it as such, comes to us in the form of a first-hand account. Miss Tess Warren was seen smiling, yes smiling (such a vulgar act to begin with) at the Duke of Gatewood not minutes before he was beaten with a chair. Now, what the devil (and please pardon my language, it really is inexcusable, but given the circumstances it must be said) does Miss Tess Warren have to smile about? And what, dear readers, has caused the good duke to lose his impeccable manners, not to mention his mind?
~Mrs. Peabody’s Society Papers
December 24, 1820
It had come
Confining himself behind the walls of his study to avoid the festivities of the Christmas holiday.
Donovan Ellis, Seventh Duke of Gatewood, wanted nothing more than to forget the bloody holiday and all the foolery that went along with it. There would be no wreaths hung on the doors and no candles adorned with greenery would line the mantel. He’d threatened to dismiss Cook if she served him syllabub or Christmas pudding. Even so, I wager one of the servants will at least put a Yule log on one of the fires.
Donovan lounged in his high-back chair, sipping brandy and watching the fire. The snapping and crackling of the logs soothed him, broke the eerie silence of the townhouse.
He glanced sideways at the polished walnut table on his left, and his gaze settled on the silver tray bearing the decanter of brandy. Firelight flickered off the cut crystal and splintered, sending amber glints dancing across the floor. When Lawrence, the butler, had brought the spirits, Donovan had told him not to bother lighting the oil lamps, just one of the candles on the mantel and another on the small table by his chair. The dull glow did no more than place the study in shadow. That was fine with Donovan; the dark ambiance fit his grim mood.
A draft swept through the study, dimming the fire. The flames on the candles swayed, and the darkness swooped closer. Shadows climbed from the corners and loomed over him. He glanced at the bay window, checking that it was securely latched. But the reflection of the fire in the panes was all he could see.
As he started to turn back to the fire, a circle of bright light, high up near the top of the glass and just beyond the window, caught his attention and he squinted, trying to make out what the object was. Perhaps starlight? Even as he tried to convince himself of that, the orb grew bigger, floated closer and lower to the ground.
Donovan sat transfixed, unable to look away as an illuminated figure approached the window, passed through without pause as if the glass and wall weren’t there, and glided across the room, stopping close enough to the fire to be cast in its light.
Donovan blinked several times, his mind warring with what he saw. He glanced down at the glass in his hand. “I could have sworn this was my first brandy.” Lifting his head, his gaze again met the vision. “But I must be foxed and seeing things. Or my eyes fool me.”
Dark brown eyes — his
dark brown eyes — stared back at him. Had it not been for the fact that he was sitting and the phantom was standing, he could have been looking in a mirror. The vision before him had the same dark wavy hair, broad shoulders that seemed to fill the room, and chiseled jaw.
The apparition crossed his arms. “Could there not be another explanation?”
Hearing the phantom speak with his voice unnerved Donovan, gave him pause. It took a moment for understanding to sink in.
“Ah. Dreaming, then. And not a very good dream, since I’d never wear such an outrageous burgundy tailcoat.” Donovan gestured in the specter’s direction with his glass. “Then again, I suppose I’m not actually wearing such foppish attire but having a nightmare.”
A smile tugged at the corners of the ghost’s mouth. “So you’d prefer to reason that you’re dreaming—”
“Having a nightmare… and a bad one at that.”
“Very well, having a nightmare, rather than actually believe I’m real?”
Donovan drained his glass then reached for the decanter, desperately in need of another. “On the contrary, I’m a logical man. And as such, I know it’s impossible for me to be lounging in my chair and standing in the middle of the room at the same time. Not to mention that you cannot be me if I’m me, unless this is a bad dream.”
“Yet you see me… you’re speaking with me.”
Donovan waved his hand. “That proves nothing.” He brought the refilled glass to his lips and drained the contents.
“Well then, you won’t object if I pour myself a glass of brandy.”
“Not at all. Happy to share,” he said. The shock of seeing a ghost glide through the wall had scared him, had been frightening indeed. But having a drink with himself as if they were old chums from university? Donovan smiled at the situation’s inherent humor.
The apparition walked over to the ornate walnut cabinet and retrieved a wineglass. He strode back, hefted the decanter, and poured a generous amount into his glass. Then he sat in the black leather high-back chair opposite Donovan’s.
“Forgive me, where are my manners. Please, have a seat.”
The specter met Donovan’s stare over the rim of the glass. He lowered the drink and smiled. “Think nothing of it. I hardly need an invitation to sit in my own home.”
What an arrogant, obnoxious ass — His
home? Donovan opened his mouth to give the ghostly figure the set-down he deserved then shut it almost as fast. I think I need another as well.
He filled his own glass again then watched, a bit surprised, as the ghost swallowed down the liquor. But then again, if this is a dream, he didn’t really pour the drink, did he?
“A very nice brandy, your grace.”
“Is something amusing?”
“I was just wondering what I should call you.”
“You may call me your grace.”
Donovan snorted. “Your grace indeed.”
“I see your point. Very well, you may call me Past Duke,” the specter said.
“Why should I call you Past Duke?”
“I’m the past you, or rather the you, you should have been,” he explained.
Donovan furrowed his brow. “I beg your pardon?”
“Isn’t the past the reason you’re sitting alone in this dungeon of a study on Christmas Eve? Aren’t the events that took place, what happened between you and Delia, what didn’t happen between you and Tess, the reason—”
Rage coursed through Donovan’s veins, the memories once again clawing at his heart. He slammed his fist down on the arm of the chair. “Silence! Don’t speak of them.” With a trembling hand, he set the glass on the tray and stood. “I believe my imagination has been entertained enough for one evening. It’s long past time for me to retire.”
Past Duke rose slowly. “You don’t think I’m real.”
Donovan sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. His anger drained way, leaving him with a heavy heart. He had enough demons to fight without adding arguing with himself to it.
Past Duke drew his foot back and planted a hard kick to Donovan’s shin.
“Damnation, why the bloody hell did you do that?” he demanded, rubbing his throbbing leg.
“This isn’t a dream. Although I’d be more than happy to punch you in the nose if you need more convincing.”
Donovan glared at him. “I don’t advise that.”
“Avoiding me won’t make me disappear. I’m here to grant you one wish.”
He’d had enough. His patience had worn thin. “Then I wish for you to go away.”
The room fell silent. Past Duke seemed to blur, become faint. The embers in the fire dimmed to no more than tiny sparks. Both candles went out. A draft swept through the fireplace, sending a chill through Donovan’s body. He shivered.
“What the devil?”
The air stopped moving, forcing Donovan to draw in deeply to fill his lungs, making him dizzy. He tried to move but was frozen in place. Almost as if he’d been glued to the spot, as if the darkness was a prison.
Panic spiked through his body. Sanity had clearly deserted him, leaving him trapped in a nightmare. Wake up. Wake up now.
Donovan seemed to be spinning, then suddenly the fire crackled to life and the candles again illuminated the study. He whirled around, searching the shadowy corners. Relieved no demons were lurking about, he let out the breath he’d been holding. Just as I suspected. A bloody dream. A drunken hallucination, had to be. One that sobered me quite fast. Conversing with myself. What a ridiculous notion.
He retrieved the candle from the table. When he turned toward the door, Past Duke was there. Donovan’s body trembled and his heart thumped erratically, seeming to skip more than beat. The lightheaded sensation from a few moments earlier returned with a vengeance, and he dropped to his knees. The monster blocking his exit was Death come to collect him. He had to get out of there, get away before the demon took his life.
But isn’t that what you want? To leave this world? Leave the loneliness of having lost all those you love?
The fear coursing through his body seemed to answer back, No! I want to live! Get up!
Past Duke tilted his face toward the ceiling. “Why did I think this would be easy?”
Donovan lurched to his feet and backed away. The vision of himself filled the doorway, the room, demanding his full attention. “W-what do y-you want from me?”
The ghost stalked him. “I want the same thing you want. The life I should have had — could have had, if you hadn’t been such a blasted fool.”
“I-I-I don’t understand.” Donovan collided with the wall. His body shook so violently that his teeth banged against each other.
Past Duke stopped in front of him. “You will soon enough. You, my dear fellow, are going to go back to the past in order to fix it.”
“Fix the past? Fix what?”
“You’re going to set right what you did wrong.”
“I’ve gone mad,” he whispered.
“Your heart cries with the regret and sorrow. I’m the person you should have been, still can be. But only if you can set the future on the right course,” Past Duke explained.
A chill ran up Donovan’s spine. “What foolishness is this? I beg you for mercy. Let me awaken from this nightmare.”
“You’ve spent eight years punishing yourself far more than I ever could.” Sorrow crossed Past Duke’s face. The lines on his brow deepened; his lips turned down slightly.
“So your intentions are to make my suffering worse?” Donovan snapped. No one needed to remind him of what he’d lost… what he didn’t have.
“Of course not. I intend to send you back to Christmas Eve 1812.”
Donovan harrumphed. “And how would that be?”
Past Duke shoved him hard in the chest, pressed so forcefully Donovan was sure the apparition’s fingers touched his heart, causing it to momentarily stop. Then his thoughts ceased and darkness consumed him.
Donovan’s heart cried
as bits and pieces of images from his past danced through his mind. Each one somehow tied to the next, as if leading him somewhere specific. Where he couldn’t guess, because his eyes refused to open, no matter how hard he tried.
One by one, the conjured memories flashed in front of him. Strange memories… ones that showed sadness. But a mind remembered as it wanted. Surely the sadness he saw on his sisters’ faces was just a reflection of his own heartbreak. Daphne and Diana had been given secure futures with men highly respected by the ton
. Wasn’t a good marriage the ambition of all women? Yet the pictures parading through his mind depicted a very different reality.
His older sister Daphne’s wedding. She’d been eighteen and he’d been a boy of fifteen. The bubbly enthusiasm that had always sparkled in her brown eyes seemed to disappear with each tear that rolled down her cheek, leaving behind shimmering pools of anguish. On her wedding day? Why had he never realized they weren’t tears of joy?
Having grown into a man of twenty and learned the ways of the world, he’d assumed Diana’s solemn expression and dead eyes reflected her fear of the wedding night. After all, she’d been but a girl of seventeen. But now… now he saw things more clearly. He’d stood at the back of the church after the ceremony. Rather than stay by her new husband’s side and greet their guests, Diana had hidden in a small alcove with Tess, crying. They’d been whispering, and he hadn’t been able to make out the words. But it had been tears of agony his sister cried, not panic.
Tess’s angelically beautiful face swam into view again. Her baby blue eyes held him mesmerized, pulling him in completely. He was unable to resist the warm invitation in her penetrating stare, not that he wanted to resist it. He had to taste her, had to touch his lips to hers.
She drifted closer, and he reached out to her. His fingers met nothing but air as the image vanished, leaving a black void. Then boisterous boom of his father’s voice filled the empty space.
“An advantageous marriage is a must.”
“Can’t see how I could possibly top these marriage matches with little Delia!”
“A daughter’s place is to marry the best suitor for the family.”
“Donovan, you get the notion of marrying anyone less than the daughter of a duke out of your mind. Must keep the dukedom pure with only noble bloodlines.”
Finally the pictures stopped. Darkness filled his mind, and he was able to open his eyes. Relieved to be waking from such a horrid dream, he let out a sigh.
The fog of sleep cleared. Over-bright light pounded against his eyes, and he squinted to protect them, blinking several times. His walnut desk with the black tooled-leather blotter sat against the wall opposite the fireplace. In the corner to the left of his desk was the small writing desk his secretary used. In front of the fireplace stood the two black leather high-back chairs with side tables. This was definitely his study. And yet…
He’d been sitting in near dark, hadn’t he? But now, wall sconces as well as several candles illuminated the room. Six candles resting in beds of evergreen shone brightly atop the mantel. The size of the roaring fire indicated a Yule log had been placed on the grate.
Blasted servants! I made myself clear about Christmas.
“It’s quite an extraordinary experience, traveling through time, I know. But I assure you, the feeling is temporary.”
Donovan jumped from his chair and spun around. Dread washed over him. This cannot be.
The ghost with his face, his voice, stared back. He still wore the outlandish burgundy tailcoat with gold trim and buttons. The bloody man had no sense of style, truth be told. Why else would he wear such a foppish jacket with black boots and black satin breeches—
What madness is this?
The worn brown pantaloons and slippers he’d been wearing were gone, and he was now dressed in the same formal finery as the ghostly duke. Except for the wine-colored tailcoat. Thank the stars he’d been spared the torture of wearing the hideous thing. But how had he come to have different clothing on? And why did the attire seem so familiar?
“Delia always was your favorite. And we both know you never married because you always loved Tess.”
“You know nothing. I—” He clamped his mouth shut. How could he have an argument with himself and win?
“It might be prudent to gain control of your senses, old man. If memory serves, Delia will be charging through that door any moment.”
“Nonsense! You blabber nonsense! No one more than I wishes Delia had not perished. And Tess… So unless I, too, have met my demise, I—’’
“In 1820 she is dead. But in this time, in 1812 — more specifically, Christmas Eve, 1812 — she is well and in good spirits and looking forward to Lord and Lady Freemont’s Christmas ball.” As an afterthought, he added, “And Tess is quite single.”
“This foolishness has gone on long enough.” Donovan made a fist and prepared to slam it against the other duke’s jaw. “It’s time I — ah, I understand.” He unclenched his hand and let his arm fall to his thigh. “My grief and guilt have tricked my mind into believing that the impossible has happened. That I am again standing in my study in 1812.” As he spoke, he walked around his desk.
“What are you doing?”
“Arguing with myself has done little to pull me from this nightmare. Mayhap a glance at the missives and ledgers on my desk will aid the voice of reason in understanding that 1812 has long since passed and this is 1820. Thus sending you back where you belong. Wherever that may be.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
Donovan paused long enough to wave a hand at Past Duke. “Do be quiet. Your attempt to distract me shall be in vain.” He resumed his search, shifting papers on the desk for several moments before finding what he wanted. With a smirk, he looked up at the other him. “Ah, here we are. The notes my secretary needs me to sign, dated…” He glanced at the letters, unbelieving. “This cannot be. There must be a mistake. I’m certain there’s a missive here from my friend John Dickens.”
“Unless I’m telling the truth,” Past Duke suggested.
Eyes narrowed, Donovan glared at the specter. “You are not
real.” He tossed the pages to the desk and jerked open the ledger book. Nothing had been written past December twenty-fourth, 1812. He shoved the book aside and frantically searched the other papers littering the desk. None of them had a date past 1812. “This cannot be. I don’t—” But his other self was gone.
With a sigh, he sank down into the desk chair. He propped his elbows on the leather blotter and dropped his head into his hands. How could his mind make sense of this? The only logical explanation was he’d died and his destination had not been heaven but a home of eternal torment.
But I don’t feel dead…
Rest. I just need to find my bed and get a good night’s sleep. All will be well come morning.
He rose and started for the door.
“Of course he’s in his study. He’s always in his study.”
He stiffened, and fear mixed with excitement held him frozen in place. It couldn’t be. Then the door opened and she was there — really there, standing in the doorway…