Owen Crauford had successfully avoided romance throughout his twenty-six years of life. He awoke at the estate of his dear friend, Theo Ayles, on a particularly sunny morning in late spring, stretched his arms over his head, and felt the first rolls of a headache sweep through the back of his skull. He and Theo had stayed up rather late, discussing their old, wilder days, before Owen had generally given up his more raucous courting days. Theo, unlike Owen, had extended them, seemingly courting one woman after another – a fact he very much liked to brag about when he drank through his third or fourth scotch. Sometimes, this conversation led Owen to feelings of dread, wondering if he’d given up too soon, lost his youth too swiftly. But no. In Owen’s eyes, he yearned for the unique freedom allowed to him through lack of courting.
Owen swept down the staircase at Theo’s estate, landed on the creaky floorboards of the foyer and adjusted his suit, the one he’d arrived in the previous afternoon. He hadn’t envisioned the night to take such a turn, yet of course, that was the continual promise of his decision to sit with Theo for any sort of drink. Time escaped them swiftly.
But Theo was awake, now bucking down the hallway, his golden curls tossing out behind him. His smile was immediately infectious.
“Good morning, old boy,” Theo said. He clapped his hand across Owen’s shoulder and shook him. “I suppose that last scotch was a bit of a mistake.”
“And yet, all the secrets you spilled…” Owen said, arching his dark brow. They were forever in contrast: Owen’s black curls, his dark eyes, his domineering and powerful body, next to Theo’s thinner, longer frame.
“I suppose I’ll have to keep you here, then. My keeper of secrets,” Theo said. “Wouldn’t wish for you to spread gossip of my dear and lovely new plaything – what was her name again?”
“Margery? Yvette? Penelope?” Owen said, his smile widening as Theo toyed with the question, seemingly unsure, once more, which woman he’d most recently found overly fascinating, a fresh expedition – and one he would surely turn away from in mere weeks.
“Who’s to say?” Theo returned. “Have breakfast with me, Owen. The cook is in the midst of it. Sausages. Scones. The smell is outlandish – the only real cure for this wretched hangover…”
“My father will have my hide if I’m not home for breakfast,” Owen said sadly. “The old man was surely awake all night, just as we were – gambling away the rest of his money.”
“A sad state indeed,” Theo said, his brow furrowed.
Owen’s eyes skated toward the ground. It was a common fact throughout the region that Owen Crauford’s father, Neil, was a bit of a gambling addict – that he’d started his family with an immense fortune that had dribbled away, weekend after weekend, as he spent his nights at the local brasserie. It was a shadow across Owen’s life, a shame that stirred in the back of his skull. Now that he was older, he recognised the immense selfishness that went along with his father’s actions. The Crauford name had once been a powerful thing.
That said, in recent years, Owen, too, had taken to gambling, in a rather frenetic way that frightened him. He adored it, loved the rush of attempting to read the faces of the men at the table, dropping coins at a quick rate, piling them high on the table, until it felt that he might destroy himself with his frantic actions. Against these other men, it felt most like a duel, with even higher stakes. Of course, Owen had had much more luck than his father, and had recently fallen into several quarrels with him, attempting to convince his father to step away.
“Admit it, Father. You’re just not quite good enough at this. The luck hasn’t fallen in your corner…”
These words had, of course, not pleased his father – and he’d drank heartily and then leered at his son, in a way that felt almost demonic, charged with endless anger. “I suppose you think you’re the saviour of the Crauford line,” his father had said in return. “I suppose you think it’s up to you to carry us into the future, hmm? It’s disgusting, Owen. You’re nothing to me. Nothing. You’re a stain on the Crauford line…”
The drunken fights, the continued knowledge that his father dripped into the pub night upon night in an attempt to earn back some portion of his family’s fortune. It drilled Owen’s mood to the ground. His morning smile flickered downward.
Theo shrugged and said, “I insist you take a scone for the road.”
Yet again, Owen ached with jealousy, wishing he had the casual playboy reality, a world of endless scones and sunny afternoons, knowledge that your family’s name hadn’t whittled down to nothing.
The cook arrived moments later with three scones wrapped in a soft and warm kitchen towel. Owen accepted them and gave Theo a final nod, telling him he’d hear from him soon. Moments later, he kicked out into the bright light of the morning, surging toward the stables. He slipped the scones into his pack and then swept his leg over his horse’s saddle and cut out across the moors, back toward the Crauford home.
The family fortune had allowed the Crauford family a mighty estate, a medium-sized grey-stoned mansion surrounded with gardens and enormous oaks and a little pond out back, near the edge of the forest line. Owen inhaled sharply upon first sight of it. He marvelled that, regardless of the darkness that existed between himself and his father, he still felt that jolt of homecoming, glad to know he was minutes away from the familiar smells of the kitchen, the sight of the furrowed-brow of their long-time butler, James, and even the subtle, occasionally-sad smile of his mother, Bridget. In the wake of his father’s gambling addiction, it seemed that Bridget had grown thinner, more shadowed. Often, she didn’t have the strength to rise from bed in the morning. Owen’s only interactions with her usually occurred in the sitting room after lunch, as she spread her stitching across her lap and blinked her large, doe-like eyes at him and asked him questions about – namely – his love life, which was largely non-existent. He often tried to drum up some sort of story, something that could thrill her or give her a kind of hope for his future. Theo’s stories helped with that. “Son, I only wish for you to be as happy as I once was,” were the words she often used in response.
When he entered the front door, into the mighty foyer, with its old-world paintings of previous family members hung in long lines on opposite walls and a chandelier glittering from the ceiling, he nearly stumbled into James. James’ eyes seemed to hang low in his skull, as though he hadn’t had a moment’s sleep. Immediately, Owen knew something was terribly wrong – and his mind first lurched to thoughts of his mother.
“Is she all right?” Owen asked, his voice filled with animal panic.
James shuddered a bit. “Your mother? Yes. She’s upstairs, resting. But – Owen – there’s something you must…” He paused and pressed his lips together. “Your father arrived home very late last night. Absolutely soggy with drink. It seems something… something happened. Something that might…”
James’ stuttering fizzed through Owen’s hungover mind. He spread his fingers wide and demanded, “James, please. I don’t have much time before I must collapse in my bed once more. What has Father done this time? Given away more of our fortune, hmm? I can only imagine how much.”
James’ eyes were shadowed. “When I first arrived here, your father was no older than you are,” he began.
“I don’t crave nostalgia this moment, James. Only to know how much he lost,” Owen replied. There it was, his unending arrogance. His lack of patience.
“I’m terribly sorry, Owen. I only wish to… help you understand. I…”
But suddenly Neil Crauford burst out of the study. His grey hair curled out behind him, and his face was ruddy and strange, proof of his seemingly colossal hangover. His voice cracked as he yelled, “Owen! You’ve arrived. Very good. I wish to speak with you in my study.”
Confusion cut through Owen. He arched his brow, wondering at the contrast between James’ worry and his father’s seemingly frenetic joy. He walked down the hall, feeling as though his father’s eyes of wonder, of joy, were akin to the sun. When he reached him, his father threw his arms around him and tugged him close. He smacked his hand across Owen’s back, making him shake. When he drew back, his father’s lips were only a few inches from Owen’s face, spewing air that seemed to fizz with scotch.
“What is it, Father?” Owen asked. He hadn’t seen his father in such outrageous spirits in years.
“Follow me into the study, son. I’ll explain everything,” his father returned. He cut forward toward his antique desk, something Owen was frankly surprised he hadn’t yet gambled away. Owen drew the door closed and perched in the chair across from his father.
His father adjusted himself on the other side of the desk. He slipped his fingers together, then back apart again, seemingly unsure of how to begin. Sweat beads bubbled up on Owen’s neck.
“What have you done this time, Father?” Owen finally asked.
His father’s dark eyes, so much like his own, cut up and glared at him. His immense smile shrank down to nearly nothing. It was almost apologetic, as though he’d just discovered, inwardly, that the wild excitement, the joke of it all, was something rather private. Owen snaked his hand around his neck and swallowed hard.
“I went round for a few pints last night,” his father began.
“I can see that.”
“Always so arrogant. So sarcastic,” his father replied. His nostrils flared.
“Am I incorrect, Father?”
“Well, it’s still rather rude to point it out,” his father continued. “I assumed your mother did a better job with you than that. Rather…” He tapped the tips of his fingers across the empty desk. “Owen, now that you’re twenty-five years old…”
“I’m twenty-six, Father,” Owen retorted.
“Oh. Well, then. Even more so, then,” his father said. “It’s even more important for the two of us to have an appropriate plan for your future. You’re a man, now. A man who must be up to the task of becoming … becoming whatever it is you’ll become. But I know, like many men your age, you need a push in the proper direction.”
Owen didn’t speak. He felt the next words coming like a wave. There wasn’t a way to avoid them.
“I’ve arranged for you to be married, my son,” his father finally blurted.
Owen didn’t move. He gazed back at the slowly ageing, grey-haired monstrosity before him, the man who’d scooped through his family’s fortune throughout the previous ten to fifteen years, ultimately betraying the only role he’d been meant to play throughout: protector of his son, his wife.
“This was always meant to happen,” his father continued, his voice rising. “At twenty-six years old, you’re only a few years away from some sort of scandal, should you not marry yourself off. And…”
Owen cut his arms over his chest. He felt the menace stretch across his face.
“She comes from a very respected family. A rich family,” his father continued. “I worked diligently, wanting to ensure that we linked ourselves up with such a fortune. It was a difficult task, you know. And –”
“Father. I won’t do it,” Owen boomed. “I cannot envision a world in which my own father would go behind my back and link me up with some – some woman I’ve never met. I’m far different from you, Father, and I believe that I…”
But his father cut him off. “Owen. Listen to me very carefully, because I want to ensure you drill this into your skull. You must marry the girl. Otherwise, our family will fall to complete ruin. And it will happen very quickly.”
Owen hadn’t the tools to respond immediately. He balked at his father, at the tone he spewed, and shuddered with complete disbelief.
“You can’t do this to me,” Owen whispered finally, his throat constricted. “Your gambling, I knew it always went too far, Father, but now? Now, it’s affecting my future, everything that I am, and…”
Neil Crauford all but leapt from his chair, smashed his finger upon the desk between them, making it quake. “You mustn’t disobey me, son,” he said, his voice low and gravelly. “This is what has been decided for you, and you must make peace with it. Your life is entirely tied up in mine, in your mother’s. If you don’t perform this duty, then you will no longer be considered my son.”
Owen stirred with rage. Every possible remark – that he, perhaps, didn’t long to be his father’s son any longer, anyway – swarmed behind his eyes. His lips parted, but he hadn’t the energy to produce such words. Instead, he stood, still shaking, and turned toward the door.
“You cannot leave like this,” his father blurted. “Not without agreement. You will marry this woman, Owen.”
Owen paused at the door, gripped the side of the doorway. He felt he might teeter to his knees if he didn’t have something to hold onto. How dreadful that would be, to fall on his face in remorse. It was a sadness that stretched beyond his own life and descended to his father’s. Throughout Owen’s recent streak with gambling, he hadn’t once assumed that he could ever ruin his, nor another’s, life with his wild-eyed take to the night.
“Don’t you wish to know her name?” his father demanded, now screaming the words to Owen’s back.
Owen didn’t move.
“Rebecca. Rebecca Frampton. The youngest daughter of Kenneth Frampton. Word has it that she’s quite beautiful. Intelligent. Witty. I think you’ll find that…”
But Owen didn’t remain in the doorway a moment more. He’d never heard of the Frampton girl and hadn’t a care in the world to hear more. He bucked down the hallway, surging toward the front door. He smashed it closed behind him and cut back toward the stables, seething. With every step that he took, he reminded himself that he wouldn’t, couldn’t in good conscience marry this woman. Rather, he would do what he did best. He would ruin it, ensure that the girl couldn’t look at him more than once without demanding that her father alter the contract. Owen was nothing if not disagreeable. The women he’d previously courted, during his playboy days, had affirmed this to him, over and over again.
“You’re difficult, Owen Crauford. No woman will ever find herself pleased with you as her husband,” one had blurted, in the midst of his decision that he no longer wished to court her. Of this, he’d been pleased.
The Frampton estate was located approximately a twenty-minute ride from the Crauford estate, although the families had had very little to do with one another throughout the years. The chance encounter of Neil Crauford and Kenneth Frampton had been, perhaps, written in the stars – although it wasn’t seen this way by either of the potentially (and very unhappily) future-married parties.
As Rebecca was called into Kenneth Frampton’s study on that fateful afternoon, she guessed that the conversation would dwell on the typical topics. When would she settle? When would she stop trusting every instinct her tongue had, thus falling into endless amounts of trouble with her suitors? When would she, in a single, simplistic phrase, grow up? When she appeared in the doorway, Kenneth Frampton bucked his head up from a letter he had scribed with a long quill. He gave a fatigued smile to her, his youngest daughter, and beckoned her to sit as he lent his signature to the bottom of the page.
Rebecca, the red-headed spitfire, well-read and eager to speak endlessly about her ideas, sat in the chair across from him. This very seat was a place she’d frequented as a teenager, when she’d yearned to learn more about her father’s business. At the time, she’d considered herself more of a business-minded woman, a person with tremendous intellect, thusly ill-suited to sit at home as someone’s wife. This, of course, had been an idiotic thought. She didn’t live in such a society. When she was seventeen, her father had sat her in this very chair and described to her, in tremendous detail, why she would never be suited to such business. He then sent her off to some sort of society ball, purchasing a fine – if ridiculous – gown for her to wear. He’d expected her to find a husband rather soon after that. The fact that she hadn’t, she knew, had felt spiteful to her father. As she’d watched her two eldest sisters court and then marry, she knew that she’d become an enormous weight on her father’s mind.
“When will Rebecca marry?” was the question upon everyone’s lips, from the servants to the butler to the people they passed in town.
Rebecca wore this, strangely, as a badge of honour. To her, it was a game, in fact, to learn how to dodge the system of marriage as long as she could. At least it was a way to pass the time.
Now, at twenty-three years old, she knew that she’d kept the game going long past its humour, for many others. Still, she felt too proud to give it up just yet.
“Rebecca,” her father said, dropping his quill to the side and curling his fingers beneath his bearded chin.
“You’re looking a bit fatigued, Father,” Rebecca said, arching a brow. And indeed, he did. His eyes had their own little caves beneath them, shadowed and strange. “I don’t suppose you made it home very early last evening.”
Her father’s lips curved downward. She knew he detested when she recognised anything about his exterior life, his time at the inns, his hours of gambling. He’d described to her only once that these hours, to him, were necessary, as he spent so much of his life in endless stress and despair. “It is difficult to be the man of the house,” he’d spat. “I don’t suppose you’ll ever know this truth, Rebecca. I pray that one day you’ll find a man who will take on the burden of your reckless soul. You’ve made it entirely too difficult.”
Her father scolded her, “Rebecca, we’ve discussed how inappropriate this is,” and his eyes cinched together.
“Fine, then, Father. How are you?” Rebecca said, arching her brow.
“I’m very well, in fact, Rebecca,” her father said. He righted his smile once more, altogether too quickly. Rebecca marvelled at this. There was a far different air to him, in this moment – as though something had shifted externally.
At this, her heart began to pump a bit too loudly. The sound of it burned past her eardrums. She hated it when her father looked like this, as it usually had a very serious cause. Ordinarily, he approached her with such a manner when he discovered a suitor for her. Of course, since those first few times, he’d approached with only half-hope, knowing full well that she was apt at finding a path out of such locked-in agreements.
“Tell me, then, Father. What have you got for me this time?” Rebecca returned. Her voice simmered with vitriol.
Her father, as usual, attempted to mask his surprise at her guess. After all these years, it was clear that her father still hadn’t picked up on her intelligence levels – that she could always sense what he was up to. It was an unbridled distaste in the minds of women.
“Rebecca, I’ve found him,” her father responded.
“You’ve found … a replacement for the butler? A man to finally teach you French? Please, a bit of clarity would be much appreciated at this time,” she replied.
Her father shook his head disdainfully. “No, Rebecca. I’ve found the man that you’re to wed. It’s been a long, chaotic journey, but I finally believe that this – this is the man –”
“Oh. And what makes you so certain?” Rebecca said. She crossed her arms over her chest, trying to force her mood to remain stable. Her nose began to crinkle up with distaste.
“His name is Owen Crauford,” her father said. “He’s a remarkable man. Incredibly clever. I know you like the clever ones. His father is Neil Crauford, a man I met last evening –”
“Oh. Are you saying that the decision for my future was made over a card game?” Rebecca asked. She leaned forward, arching her brow.
But her father seemed, more than any other time, to be sure of himself. He perked up in his chair, seemingly grateful that he’d already delivered the news, and nodded his head. “Owen Crauford. He will be your husband, Rebecca. I’ve only just written out a letter to Neil Crauford, affirming the decision. You will meet Owen in a few days’ time.”
Rebecca parted her lips, trying to drum up another argument. But her father clicked his head back and forth, giving no room for such complaints. She rose to her feet, inhaled slowly and attempted to steady herself.
“Well then, Father. I’m so grateful that you’ve taken such time out of your busy lifestyle to arrange for my future,” she said, her voice syrupy sweet. She turned swiftly and stalked out of the room, smashing the door closed behind her. She paused for a moment, recognising that the slam of the door ordinarily enraged her father. But she heard no yelp from the other room. Perhaps he would allow it, if only because he was so pleased about the match.
It turned her stomach.
Rebecca swept down the hallway, past the kitchen. The cook, Molly, called after her, from the midst of the steam and smoke, her lunchtime process. Rebecca paused, feeling tears creep down her cheeks. She turned to find Molly before her, a little less than five feet tall, with chubby red cheeks. She held a spatula and swung it around a bit, her eyebrows furrowing.
“Darling, what is it?”
Molly had been the cook at the Frampton estate for the previous fifteen years, since Rebecca had been eight years old. At the time, Molly had taken it upon herself to craft a safe and cosy environment in the kitchen – a place for Rebecca to read and draw and giggle, outside the reach of the bird-like eyes of her sisters or her mother or her father, all of whom didn’t seem to understand her. Molly had baked her some little cakes and told her that just because she was a bit different didn’t mean that she needed to fix herself.
“He’s found someone for me,” Rebecca murmured. She dropped her chin to her chest and inhaled sharply. The smoke from the kitchen rolled in through her teeth and tucked down into her throat. Immediately, she started coughing. Molly beckoned her into the kitchen and poured her a cup of tea. She stroked her red curls and said that surely, surely if Rebecca didn’t come to love the stranger, she could convince her father otherwise.
“But darling, you knew this would happen soon,” Molly tried, her eyes misting with sadness. “You knew that he would find a way around your stubbornness. You struggled through this game for many years. Your sisters have been gone for ages. Perhaps –”
“I can’t marry someone I’ve never met, Molly,” Rebecca whispered. She let a tear escape. It embarrassed her and she stretched her fingers over her cheeks and willed herself to stop.
But Molly gripped her hand and removed it. Although her own hands were rough from years of housework, the hand was endlessly comforting. Rebecca gazed down at it, the contrast between Molly’s and her own.
“Besides, Miss Rebecca,” Molly said, giving her a light smile, “If there’s anyone on this earth who knows how to get out of something she doesn’t wish to do, it’s you. We both know that to be true.”
Rebecca couldn’t suppress her grin. “Nobody knows me better than you, Molly.”
“It’s a dreadful burden,” Molly said, teasing her. “But I must tell you. I was a bit like you as a girl. Always resistant to the plans others had for me. But I never did anything that didn’t please me. Perhaps that caused tremendous trouble, at times. But it always allowed me to have the most wonderful fun.”
“A Wicked Duke’s Prize” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Rebecca Frampton doesn’t take advice or orders. In her 23 years, she’s been through countless engagement setups and has somehow wiggled out of each and every one of them, giving her a reputation as a bull-headed beauty. But everything is about to change forever when the Craufords unite with the Framptons with an arranged marriage. After this peculiar turn of events, it seems that Rebecca has no other option but to marry. Surprisingly enough, she finds herself incredibly stricken with her future husband’s wit and undeniable beauty. Can a chance at love may finally be within reach for Rebecca? Or will this be another arranged marriage she will get away from?
Owen Crauford is furious when he finds out that his father, having lost the family fortune through his own addiction, has decided to gamble away his own son in marriage. The last thing Owen wanted was to marry a stranger, but reality proves him wrong when he meets Rebecca, his fiancée-to-be. Rebecca is many things: funny, witty, and possibly the most dazzling woman he’s ever seen. Can this fiery Lady be his true soul mate, despite all odds?
Both Owen and Rebecca detest the concept of forced marriage. Throughout endless bickering and a battle that threatens to end the engagement, they find themselves on a strange and bewildering path. Can Rebecca and Owen dismiss their own arrogance and stubborn ways, in pursuit of love? Or will they abandon one another for the sake of their freedom?
“A Wicked Duke’s Prize” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.