PROLOGUE

1819
It was a lovely spring night. Fifteen-year-old Irene Molloy sat in the small hut that her family lived in, rocking back and forth gently in the wooden chair that had been in her mother's family for many generations now. She pressed her fingers gently over her stomach. It was flat and thin, without a fold of flesh.

But 'twill not be that way for long, Irene thought, and smiled gently.

She was pregnant.

Irene had not yet told anyone of her situation yet. She would not reveal it, either, until she had spoken to the father of her child.

The young Duke of Covington would no doubt be shocked to learn that he would become a father, but Irene was sure that His Grace would be pleased by the news. After all, didn't every man want a son to carry on his legacy? And she knew that, above all, aristocratic men were in most urgent need of heirs to entrust their wealth and property with.

Irene was filled with hope for her future. It looked much brighter now than a year ago.

It was in the spring of last year that Irene had been betrothed, against her will, to the son of a farmer in the neighboring village. Bowen Hanrahan had been a decent sort of man, he worked diligently on the farm with his father, he was young, and not terrible looking. Unfortunately, Irene had only spoken with him but twice before their parents had sealed the promise. Despite her desperate attempts to convince her father that it would not be wise to marry her so quickly to Bowen Hanrahan, he was not swayed by her arguments.

Thus, life for Irene had been utterly miserable.

But fate changed its tune and smiled down upon her in mid-winter. It had been a cold day, but the weather had seemed fair. The sun shone brightly upon the thick snow. Irene had been carrying a message to her father's friend when suddenly the weather had changed. Clouds covered the sun, and soon, Irene found she could not see farther than five feet ahead of her. The cold cut through her cape and many layers of clothing. Irene had been sure that both she and her horse would freeze.

Before long though, Irene had come upon another rider. He was kind, and offered her temporary lodging in his home until the storm cleared. Not in a situation to deny assistance, Irene had accepted eagerly. Much to her surprise, the stranger led her to the castle where the Duke of Covington resided. Then, to further her astonishment, the stranger peeled off his hood in the stables, and revealed that he was none other than the Duke himself.

Like the other villagers, Irene had heard much about the lord of the land. The former Duke of Covington, a prominent business man, had preferred to reside in the city of London, as opposed to his estate in Ireland. Then, the duke had met his untimely demise, and his widow and only child had returned to the estate for a quieter life. They kept mostly to themselves, and left the running of the estate to the foreman. It was said that when the young Duke turned sixteen and came into his fortune, he had departed on a grand tour of Europe, and then left for London.

Irene had not known of his return.

The Duke was excessively dashing. Irene did not believe that she had ever laid eyes on a more handsome man. His hair was a deep brown, nearly raven, his eyes a piercing grey. Much to her surprise, the Duke of Covington took to her. Within four hours of their meeting, the duke had come to her in her bed that night. Irene did not protest, even though she knew it was highly indecent and scandalous, she had never known a more romantic man and she reveled in it.

Their affair continued. The young duke sent quietly for her every Saturday night, sometimes more if he wished so. He had even agreed to help cancel the coming wedding of Irene and Bowen Hanrahan. And it had all been peaceful, until Irene found that her monthly cycles came no longer.

Her Grace, Irene Archer, the Duchess of Covington. Irene smiled as she imagined what she would be called in the future.

The Duke was bound to marry her. It was unthinkable that such a gentleman should abandon a young woman who carried his future son.