Duke of Her Dreams
by Olivia Ritch
Kathryn Ragland never dreamed that one tiny portrait could dramatically alter her life until she woke after a vivid dream in which she changed time and place. Determined to find her way home, Kathryn befriends a mesmerizing stranger. While she has no choice but to accept aid from the brooding war hero, Kathryn learns that thawing the crusty exterior of England’s newest and most eligible Duke may just have rewards beyond her wildest dreams.
Captain Michael Stafford is reluctantly returning home to step into his role as the Duke of Asterleigh, an unexpected title. After meeting the completely improper American on the last leg of his journey home, Michael quickly determines that Kathryn is destined to be his. Fate, in the form of mortal threats on Kathryn’s life, forces him to fight unseen enemies while he must face his own fears of sharing his life with someone, again. Determined, Michael sets out on his most difficult campaign… to show Kathryn he can be the man of her dreams.
Release Date: June 13, 2017
Genre: Time Travel | Historical Romance
~ A PINK SATIN ROMANCE ~
May 11, 2010
She held an oil painting that had power over dreams, over place and time, but Kathryn Ragland knew nothing of that magic as she dozed off to sleep and to dream of the fascinating images on the canvas.
May 12, 1816
Kathryn woke with a start. There was something seriously wrong this morning. It should have been like any other workday. Instead, Kathryn blinked her eyes at the morning light streaming in the lace-covered window and whipped her gaze around the unfamiliar room, registering the conclusion that she was not where she belonged. Surely, she was still dreaming.
Hours after waking up in a strange bed Kathryn Ragland was still at a loss to understand what had happened to her. Having wracked her brains since dawn for any recollection of what transpired in the night and where she was, Kathryn realized fully that the most bizarre event had occurred and that she was somehow, some way, transported back in time.
After hours of pacing, Kathryn plopped onto the bed, kicked the side rail and let out a frustrated growl. She looked up to find a very large man standing in the doorway of her room.
Surprised, and embarrassed to be dressed so scantily, Kathryn hastily drew the quilt from the bed around her and scrambled to her feet. Not knowing anything about where she was or who he was, she asked, “How did you get in?”
“Your door was unlocked and I heard your distress. I apologize for intruding.”
Relaxing slightly, Kathryn eyed him warily. The man was her first contact in this strange place and while she did not especially want to divulge the extent of her confusion to him, she was oddly relieved to have another human being with whom to talk. She inquired hopefully, “Is your wife by any chance available? I need a little help.”
With an unreadable expression on his face, the man inquired, “My wife?”
“Yes, or your . . . companion?”
“Companion?” With subtle emphasis, Kathryn said the word; the man recognized her allusion to a possibly inappropriate traveling companion. Kathryn was used to watching people. Every day, she used her skills of observation to understand the true nature of her female clients. This man was clearly amused by her state and her question although his rigid bearing kept him from seeming too familiar. She would have bet a dollar he was a military man. Straight shoulders, wide stance, hands folded behind his back.
“Yes, is there a woman traveling with you?” It seemed a simple enough question to her.
“Ah, now I understand. No, there is no lady with me. May I fetch someone for you?”
She was so quickly intrigued by the military man’s surprisingly warm English accent that Kathryn almost lost the thread of the conversation and her purpose. While she had come grudgingly to realize she was far away from home, England was a bit too far for believability.
“No! Sorry, I mean, I don’t want anybody else to know I’m here.”
“Why ever not?”
“Because I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be.”
The man smiled fully now at her admission, revealing strong white teeth set in mobile lips and a face lightly tanned and roughened by the outdoors. Tiny lines fanned from his eyes and the cleft in his chin was as deep as her grandfather’s had been. “Indeed? And a lady will assist you, how?”
“Something has happened to my clothes,” which is true since they’re at home “. . . and I need a dress.”
“A dress? Do you not have the carriage dress you arrived in?” She watched one of his black brows rise in question, absolutely sure she was amusing him now. Nope, definitely didn’t arrive by carriage. “No. Well, I don’t have anything appropriate for daytime.”
He studied her for a full minute and Kathryn grew uncomfortable under his gaze, drawing the quilt higher and shifting her feet like a nervous child. Since she had been studying him equally as avidly just moments earlier, Kathryn felt guilty for being annoyed with his perusal, although she had always fancied her own powers of observation to include stealthy evaluation of her subjects. Having spent the last few hours in frustrated contemplation and pacing while simultaneously salivating over the smell of cooking meat from downstairs, Kathryn was not disposed to be patient nor self-flagellating. She hated feeling vulnerable. When the man finally spoke, it was a wry, “Indeed?”
“It’s not what you’re thinking. I’m not here in a skimpy ball gown.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Ah.”
Kathryn struggled to hold her temper in the face of the man’s one-word answers. Clearly out of her social element and desperate for a way forward, Kathryn reined in her frustration and asked in a calm voice, “Would you please be willing to help me in getting something to wear?”
Kathryn saw the moment he recognized her plight for the very real problem it was and in that instant, he softened. She watched the man’s lovely dark eyes shift as he scanned the room for her nonexistent luggage and the changes of his expression from exasperation to confusion and finally concern. While the gentleman, because he surely was that in her humble opinion, concentrated, she studied him in greater detail. At first look, his size, his commanding carriage and the sheer maleness of him had made him seem rather forbidding, but there was intelligence and a gentle sense of humor in his personality that Kathryn found surprising.
On even closer conspicuous inspection, his period attire of tight riding pants molded to huge muscular thighs and what she knew to be a riding jacket that was itself stretched over amazingly broad shoulders marked him as a prosperous man from the 1800s. This man, with his deep drawling English accent and regal bearing, was the real, in-the-flesh confirmation of Kathryn’s time travel. Her resolve wavered as the enormity of Kathryn’s dilemma became clear. She was, she could not even imagine, in another time and place.
“It has been quite a while since I have been dispatched on a woman’s errand. I might not be up to the task,” he demurred with a rather charming grin.
Kathryn chuckled at the man’s attempt to put her at ease, feeling a little better. “Thank you for accepting my challenge.”
“Aye, madam. But, so far giving you a chuckle is all the assistance I have rendered.” Even while bantering with her, he had not relaxed his rigid stance, the changes of facial expression the only hints of his amusement.
“It definitely would have been helpful if you had had a five-foot tall wife with a spare size four dress to loan me, she said, gesturing to her still as yet not appropriately clothed form.
“Pardon my thick-headedness. Your sayings are quite unfamiliar to me although I believe I understand you well enough.”
“Sorry, I guess I’m not exactly speaking King’s English and it has been a totally trying day already. I don’t mean to be crass. I’m just…a little stressed.”
“Based on your circumstances, I would understand your distress.” He smiled at her and moved for the first time to lean against the doorjamb. “Where did you say you were from?”
“Really?” At that, he crossed one booted leg over another.
“Why do you ask that? Surely I don’t sound like I’m from around here?”
“I know several Americans and they don’t speak . . . as you do,” he answered with hesitation while crossing his arms over his massive chest.
“Doesn’t surprise me.” She sighed. “I’m from the . . . ” South and 2010 “Uhh . . . newer region in the south. We don’t get a lot of Boston accents.”
“Ah, I think . . . ” he struggled to reply to that strange description of the modern-day American South.
“Don’t try too hard to figure it out.” She laughed again now at the absurdity of it all and because of course he wouldn’t recognize her accent.
Although Kathryn was really not any nearer to a solution for her lack of dress, she was no longer quite as uneasy as she had been since dawn when she had woken up in the quaint but totally foreign little inn. The bizarre cultural exchange with the large gentleman had lightened her mood and eased her stress somewhat. Before Kathryn could form her next question, the man prompted her.
“Now, would it be improper of me to ask how it is you came to be in this predicament?”
Because he’d been an almost perfect gentleman, and was taking her difficult requests in stride, Kathryn decided the truth would be the best answer. “I awoke here.” Accompanied by an odd assortment of stuff including a totally useless portable phone, wristwatch, one diamond stud earring, and a miniature portrait from the 1800s that now seems to figure somehow in this debacle.
“I gathered that much. I thought to know how you got here, conveyance, companions, route? And how it is you are now stranded without proper clothing?”
“That’s just it,” Kathryn tried to explain. “Truthfully I don’t know. I fell asleep in my own bed in America last night. I’m sure of it and woke up here in this inn. I have no idea how I got here and I’m not sure even where ‘here’ is,” she declared peevishly. Kathryn felt frazzled and tired and hungry and was struggling to not let all of that irritation show to the nice stranger.
“As you’ve deduced, you’re not in America. This is Herefordshire, England,” he said in monotone. Kathryn realized that her admission had caused a new skepticism in his attitude toward her. Darn it all if he didn’t believe her. What would she do then?
“Definitely not in Kansas anymore,” she muttered to herself. “So, England?”
“The Atlantic passage takes weeks. You could not possibly have made it in one night.”
She sighed and adjusted the slipping quilt once more. “You can imagine I am thinking that myself…but here I am.”
“There must be some other explanation for your confusion.”
Would you believe a time machine or a vortex or a wormhole? Or maybe a little magic painting?
She thought just for an instant about telling him of the odd little painting that so resembled this time period that had been the only thing new in her life in the last twenty-four hours, but since she wasn’t sure it was relevant yet herself, there was no reason to convince him she was nuts right on the spot. The warmth had already gone completely out of his dark eyes and it was clear he was no longer really sure what to make of her. “I’d welcome it if you could tell me how I got here overnight but I’ll settle for you not tossing me out on my ear.”
“I must admit I have no idea what to say.”
Having confided in him, she was well aware he could have easily been a jerk rather than a gentleman. “It sounds crazy I know. It’s not like you have any reason to believe me.”
“I would believe that you are in a predicament. How are you going to travel home?”
“Getting home is another story altogether, but right now I’m just working on the immediate problem of the clothing.” Kathryn gestured to her quilt-covered form.
“If I might, I will venture out into the street and see if there are any …stores.”
“Oh you will, you’ll do that for me?”
Suddenly being stranded in this bizarre dream world didn’t seem quite so bad. “I’ll have to figure out a way to pay you back, but if you would find me something, I’d be so grateful.”
“Let us worry about payment only if I succeed in the mission.”
“Right. Thank you. Do you need my size?”
“I believe I have a very good idea of your size.”
“Oh.” She felt the heat seep into her cheeks at his obvious reference to having seen more than she meant to show. The night gown she had worn to bed the night before was almost transparent and she was wearing blue satin low-rise panties under it that must have been visible as she struggled to cover herself in the heavy and awkward quilt.
He bowed to her and because she was suddenly trying to keep herself hidden as much as possible, she waved in response. She enjoyed the smile that lifted the corners of his mouth and lit his entire face. It was a nice face now that she thought about it with tanned shadowed cheekbones and the dark sparkling eyes that had been all shades of warm and cold throughout their exchange.
As the gentleman turned to go Kathryn recalled him. “Sir, what’s your name?”
The man obviously hesitated before he answered. “Asterleigh.” With that interesting pronouncement, he turned and disappeared down the stairs. As Asterleigh’s footsteps faded, Kathryn had her first real sense that things might be okay.
Since her borrowed room was at the front of the inn, she’d have a perfect view of the man as he made his way down the street. After locking the door so no other visitors could barge in on her, Kathryn crossed the chilled wood floor to the window, drew back the lace, and idly scanned the quaint street. Her window afforded her a sweeping vision of a cobbled street clogged with horses bearing riders, and carts loaded with goods maneuvered by nondescript men. The women sported drab-colored street-length dresses with billowing skirts, large awkward looking bonnets, baskets slung over their arms and some even had small processions of dully-dressed children. The shop signs creaked in the light breeze and the humanity was moving as if nothing was at all unusual. But of course, nothing was unusual for them. Kathryn had to admit the street was charming. Just like in a Regency romance novel.
She watched Asterleigh emerge from one shop as quickly as he had entered, striding toward the next. She saw that he had not yet acquired any bags but thought the determined look on his face was a very good sign. He disappeared into a shop with a millinery sign. Wasn’t that a hat maker? That store probably wouldn’t have dresses either. As if on cue, the gentleman reappeared and made for a third shop. As interesting as it was to watch his long, graceful strides, and study the activity on the churned road below, Kathryn knew she should probably be doing something productive like developing a Plan B for getting some clothes.
She turned from the window and the very pleasant image of the gentleman vanished in an almost literal puff as the most disturbing thought of the day asserted itself. Kathryn’s younger sister Christine would be frantic, worried sick, their early morning emails having gone unanswered, their routine of sharing important news and sisterly gossip disturbed.
Kathryn had always been able to predict Christine’s reactions to stress and the question of her sister’s safety. Christy would indeed be very worried. Probably enough to take off and drive over to check on her which, of course, would tell her nothing but that her big sister had disappeared into thin air. There would probably be police and an investigation and all the uproar over a missing young woman and Christine would never have an answer if Kathryn didn’t get home some day. Thinking about the entire scenario made her nauseous. Kathryn vowed she would find a way, somehow, to get word to Christy that she was okay.
The loud stomach rumble that accompanied these thoughts added to her poor physical state. Devoting her troubled mind to determining a way to get a message to Christy at least distracted her thoughts temporarily from her very empty belly. That dinner of fat free yogurt and crunchy peanut butter had not gone far.
Temporary distractions lasted only a few minutes, and while Kathryn’s stomach was still growling, she started shivering and was pretty sure it wasn’t just from the cold. She hoped this episode would pass and she would in a short time feel normal, rational and sane again—to the extent she could under the circumstances.
The initial shock of waking up in a strange bed, in a strange town, in a foreign land, in what she now knew to be a totally different century from her own was indeed fading. Kathryn could and would manage. There was really no choice. Kathryn had taken care of herself her entire life. At least she no longer felt completely, utterly alone since the sexy guy named Asterleigh was supposedly out getting her some clothes.
Kathryn was grateful.
After all the years of being on her own with only her sister Christy to care for and no man to rely on, here she was in such a foreign place, with a stranger acting the hero for her, like her very own knight in shining armor.
If he failed her it wouldn’t really matter because this was only a dream anyway, wasn’t it? Kathryn thought once again she might wake up and soon. A little self-delusion wasn’t going to hurt, not if it made things easier for now.
The rattling of the door handle, startled Kathryn from her self-pitying and she plunged under the bed in case the person on the other side had a key. When the rattling stopped, she realized the person must not have expected the room to be locked. Probably a maid had come to freshen up the room.
She obviously needed to get out of it. “Come on legs, move. Breathe, Kat, you can do this.” She grabbed up the now useless pile of junk that had made this odd journey with her, slipped the case off the pillow and stuffed it all in. She peeked into the hall and made a mad dash for the room next door praying it belonged to her new friend and he had left the door unlocked.