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High Court of Love (Devils of Dalston #1)


With the arrival of a letter from his father’s man of business, the path of Mr. Julian Ashford’s life was altered. It also frees him to pursue the one woman he’d desired for months.

Miss Caitlin Doyle, teacher and spinster, never expected to fall in love. That is, until the spy visiting next door captured her heart. However, when she learns that he is betrothed to another, she sets aside foolish ideas of happily ever after and returns to her students.

When the two unexpectedly meet at what is supposed to be a house party, they are shocked to discover that Julian was there to be put on trial (and he isn’t the only one). The High Court of Love, something that had once existed in 15th Century France, had been revived by his aunt and the three meddlesome Tilson sisters to reform a group of rakes and rogues—the notorious Devils of Dalston. However, Julian is given one more chance to right a wrong before he is judged.

Will he be able to win Cait’s heart once again, or have his foolish decisions lost her forever?



Chapter One

 

Cornwall, England, Spring 1804

  

Waves rolled in gently, soothing her soul, and the seals sunning themselves on the boulders beside her were a pleasurable distraction. She came here so often that the seals were no longer bothered by her.

This was where Miss Caitlin Doyle found peace.


Though she should return to Harrington Manor and the wedding celebration for her sister, Eve, and the Earl of Kilsyth, Cait wasn’t ready. It caused her heart to ache too much. After a morning and afternoon of feigning joy, she needed more time before she faced them once again and forced more happiness.


Cait was glad for Eve. Truly happy that her sister had found love and married well. However, the nuptials seemed to deepen Cait’s loneliness. A longing for things she couldn’t explain. She used to think it was home, Ireland, and her family. Now she wasn’t so certain. What Cait did know was that she only felt at peace by the sea, and why she had come here every day since she took the position at the Wiggons’ School for Elegant Young Ladies.


While she may live the rest of her life at the school and become a spinster, she’d not begrudge Eve her happiness. One of them should know love, and she was glad her sister had found it. Cait’s pain came in knowing she’d never experience the same.


Besides, their lives could have turned out so much worse. It had been Cait who had been the luckiest of her siblings because she found a position shortly after arriving in England. Eve had gone to work in a theatre and did her best not to starve and keep their brother out of trouble, which didn’t work out as they’d hoped.

Brenden, their brother, had a problem with gambling. He could not stop and stole from Eve to feed that need. When Eve had nothing left, he ended up wagering her in a game of chance and lost. That resulted in Eve becoming the ward of the Earl of Kilsyth. All worked out well as the two fell in love. As for their brother, he had plunged to his death when he jumped from a bridge while running from Bow Street Runners. 


Cait would never understand why her brother had been on a path of destruction. Father had not raised them to be so irresponsible, but Brendan had wanted an easy life and thought that if he won at the gaming tables then he would not have to put in the effort of providing for the family. As a result, they lost their racehorses and home and had been forced to flee Ireland and hide from whoever was chasing their brother.

Oh, how she missed riding. Cait hadn’t sat on a horse in nearly three years when it had been something she’d done every day.


She missed riding, she missed home, and she even missed her misguided brother.


Perhaps if she had married, not all would have been lost. Though the estate would have still been controlled by Brendan as the only son and perhaps her husband may not have been able to stop the damage. She would also still have a home in Ireland, though not necessarily happy. None of the gentlemen who had courted her ever spoke to her heart and Cait often wondered if they were more interested in a connection to her father and his horses or her. And, when they were gone from her life, Cait never thought of them again.

In fact, there had been only one gentleman who had plagued her thoughts these past months—Julian Ashford.


She’d met him last winter when he’d come to visit the owner of Harrington Manor, which neighbored the school. They’d shared many conversations that had left a lasting impression. Once he left, he’d never been far from Cait’s thoughts. Except, since his return, they had hardly spoken at all, much to her disappointment.

She could dismiss their lack of conversations to the fact that he’d suffered injuries prior to arriving at Harrington Manor and was just recently on the mend. But then she’d need to acknowledge that she was holding out hope that he carried a tendre for her as she had for him, when it was clear that Mr. Ashford likely had forgotten about Cait after he left last winter.


***


Julian Ashford held tight to the railing as he navigated the path to the beach. The blasted dizziness continued to plague him at the most inopportune times and since he didn’t wish to fall to his death down this rocky slope, Julian was careful with each step. His father would be quite displeased if he were to die.

In his other hand, he clutched the missive that had arrived an hour ago, but he’d not shared the news with his friends. Today was a celebration, the marriage between a fellow Devil of Dalston, the Earl of Kilsyth, and Miss Eve Doyle.


A part of Julian couldn’t believe what had been written and he needed to find a peaceful place to read to make certain he understood and had read the contents correctly and hoped that he’d been mistaken.

He could have gone anywhere on the Harrington Manor estate to reread the missive, but it was the sea that called to him, just as it had when he’d been a boy, and that was why he was there now.

After taking a seat on a piece of driftwood, he opened the missive once again.

 

I regret to inform you of the passing of Lord Grayson Ashford, Viscount Rivers, on the 5th day of April, in the year of our Lord, Eighteen Hundred and Four. Your father, the Earl of Shorewood suffered an apoplexy upon learning of the death of his heir but has begun to recover. Though he continues to suffer weakness on the left side of his body, his mind is as sharp as ever.


Viscount Rivers’ passing was the result of a mortal wound suffered during a dual with a mister who took offense to the intimate attention Viscount Rivers showed the man’s sister. The details I can provide in person and will not divulge in a letter.


The burial was seen to immediately as, at the time, I did not know your location. I am now aware that you are recovering from a recent accident and will await you at Ashford Place.


My condolences, Viscount Rivers. I wish you a quick recovery.

Your humble servant,

Mr. James Murdock

 

 

 

His brother was dead.


It was all so unbelievable.


A blasted dual. It certainly wasn’t his brother’s first, and usually because Grayson had compromised an innocent miss then left her to face the consequences alone. At least the innocents were now safe from Grayson, except now Julian was forced to claim the title of Viscount Rivers.


Tomorrow he would tell his friends and send a letter to Mr. Murdock. As much as he knew that he should return home, Julian wasn’t in such a hurry. Besides, the physician was adamant that Julian should not travel until the occasional dizziness and headaches from his head injury were gone.


He and his friends had been in a carriage accident nearly a month ago, and frankly, they were lucky to be alive. Unfortunately, nobody could tell him when his symptoms would finally go away.

“Bloody Hell! I am Viscount Rivers and will one day be the Earl of Shorewood.” A title that should have never been his. A title Julian had never wanted.


Julian folded the missive and placed it into an inside pocket.


Instead of returning to Harrington Manor, he turned away and strolled along the beach, glad to be alone with the only sounds disturbing the silence the cries of seagulls, seals, and the crash of waves. He needed more time to gather his thoughts and contemplate his future.


He had responsibilities now. An estate, as well as tenants and servants.


Of course, he had had responsibilities before. But few knew what they were. As far as Society was concerned, Julian was a rogue living off his quarterlies, without one redeeming quality. Not that he cared what Society thought. His biggest concern was that he may need to step away from the Devils of Dalston and resign from his position with the Alien Office, which was attached to the Home Office. No more befriending, drinking, gambling, and flirting with French émigrés and sympathizers to gather information, or coming to know those who may have their own revolutionary ideas for England.


Julian nearly snorted when he recalled how he and his friends became known as the Devils of Dalston. He and his fellow Devils all worked for the Home Office in one capacity or another and had taken a house on Dalston Street simply because they had not wanted Society to question or even notice why the ten of them gathered so often to share information. Further, the servants in the house on Dalston were trusted by the Home Office.


They had thought they’d go unnoticed in such a nondescript location.


Except, someone had, and it became a curiosity. Therefore, and given their reputations among Society, they exaggerated and fabricated rumors that it was a very exclusive and private club, closed to new members. A club where gentlemen supposedly indulged in all manners of debauchery such as orgies, the occult, an opium den, disorderly drunkenness, and gambling. Those were just a few whispers Julian had heard, though none ever proven. As a result, any gentleman associated with the house became known as one of the Devils of Dalston.


He would miss being a Devil. Once he was well enough to travel, which could still be a fortnight away, Julian would return to Norfolk, where the family seat, Ashford Place, stood majestically overlooking The Wash. He’d spent many hours along the shores of the large cove fed by the North Sea. A setting not much different from this, with a beach at the edge of the estate.


He and his brother, who was only two years older, had spent much of their youth at the water’s edge. They liked each other as children, but distance had grown once Grayson went off to Eton. It became worse once Julian also became a student. When they became adults, it was Julian who played the rogue, but Grayson truly was one. Worse than a rogue—spoiler of innocents, fighter of duals, arrogant and full of self-worth. As a wealthy heir, Grayson believed that he could do no wrong and Society would always bow to him because father carried so much power.


Staring out at the waves, a loss and longing like Julian had never experienced washed over him. His brother had been lost to him long before he died. Father had practically ignored Julian when he returned home on holiday and spent hours with his favored son, grooming him to be Shorewood one day. Julian had been born to be nothing but the spare.


He turned to go back the way he had come and noted movement further up on the beach and smiled. Seals were sunning themselves on the rocks. Such an innocent activity and Julian envied the creatures because all they needed to do was swim, eat fish and sun themselves. A simple, easy life, unlike the one he faced.

Julian paused and stared harder. Was that Miss Caitlin Doyle sitting amongst the seals? Was that even safe?


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