1 Contract marriage (1)

"Duke Edgar, please spend the night with my daughter. You will not regret it," A bold mother pushed her daughter towards Edgar Collins as he stepped off his carriage. 

All eyes were on the three of them as everyone waited to see the duke's next move. 

"I wasn't aware your daughter works in the red light district. I am not looking for a wife there," Duke Edgar strode past the disappointed mother and humiliated daughter without stopping.

He had only arrived less than three minutes ago, but this was his second encounter with a mother and daughter harboring such delusions. They were perhaps the most shameless, but he had been receiving proposal after proposal ever since people heard he was looking for a wife.

The culprit responsible for the rumor was none other than the scheming king who apparently had nothing better to do than to ruin the life of his friend.

The ploy worked perhaps a little too well. After all, Duke Edgar Collins was the only child, the sole heir of countless swathes of land. His luxurious lifestyle was second only to the monarch. In addition to his material wealth, he also enjoyed a close friendship with the king. Nothing, it was said, was impossible for Duke Edgar.

He was said to be a monster but when his wealth became known, his dangerous nature was forgotten.

"Duke Collins is here," a young woman whispered excitedly to her companion as Edgar headed toward Baron Desmond Barrett's mansion. Edgar could not catch what her companion said, but it was doubtlessly something equally silly.

'This is going to be a pain in the ass,' he sighed, already knowing how the night would end. Another "you will find in my daughter the perfect mistress of your household" would be the death of him.

The heat from their desperation made the place hot and uncomfortable. He needed a nice cold drink more than he needed a wife.

Edgar had no idea why he agreed to attend the baron's party. Desmond Barrett was the head of a failing household and a man he never cared for. Edgar also couldn't figure out why a man on the brink of bankruptcy would throw such an elaborate party.

Was Baron Desmond trying to get kicked out of his own home?

"Duke Collins," the man himself appeared to interrupt Edgar's thoughts. The baron, hair tied into his usual ponytail and white suit, had Edgar struck by an odd thought. The baron's suit matched his hair. Black with the occasional specs of white.

Edgar didn't miss the way the baron announced his name like he was a young girl making her debut at a ball and was coming down the stairs. "Baron," he greeted the man.

"It was so kind of you to visit my home to attend my party," Baron Barrett continued, pleasantly surprised to see the infamous Duke Collins grace his presence. He was also secretly relieved that his guests would not be disappointed. He had spent the day fielding questions from guests who came only to see the duke.

Baron Barrett had made sure to spread the news that the duke would be at his party, but he did not anticipate the guest's foul mood.

"Save it, baron. You know why I am here. Unlike the king, I am still unconvinced that you have the information I am looking for." The king had instructed Edgar to solve the mysterious disappearances of several young women before panic set in.

Baron Barrett had sent a note to Edgar, claiming he had sensitive information he could only convey in person. Edgar doubted that he had anything useful, but the King insisted the no lead be left unchecked.

"Of course, I know why you are here, but it would be rude of me to not offer you a drink first, Edgar. Forgive me but you seem to be sweating quite an awful lot," Desmond looked around wondering if his house needed more windows opened.

"I am not here for a fucking drink. Let me tell you that," Edgar grabbed the baron's neck, indifferent to the crowd eyeing his every action. "I might have a lot of time on my hands these days but I do not like when it is wasted. If you have called me here to entertain your guests. I will see that you hang first thing in the morning."

"I apologize," Baron Barrett as his feet were lifted off the ground. He heard the duke was a monster, but dismissed it as a joke.

Desmond tried to gulp, but Edgar's grip was too tight.

"You apologize?" Edgar tightened his hold around Baron Barrett's neck. "That sounds like you are admitting that you have no information for me. It wouldn't take too long for me to snap the neck of such a frail old man. Is this entertaining enough for your guests?"

Desmond felt the hairs on his body stand tall as Edgar's cold breath brushed against his skin. "I-I have information. I swear it. I-It's upstairs."

"Good boy," Edgar dropped the baron. "Why did you wait so long to say that? Did you wish for me to kill you?"

"No d-duke. I should have brought it right away. Forgive me. C-Can you put me down before everyone thinks you are in the wrong? I don't want them to get the wrong impression of you." It was a feeble excuse, but Baron Desmond could no longer bear the humiliation of being strangled in his own home.

"Of course," Edgar released the small man before patting his shoulders in mock concern. "I hope you are fine. In exchange, I'd like some space alone. Away from your prying guests."

"The garden has been made off-limits so no one would bother you there. But my daughter wishes to have a moment with you. If you can spare some time with her, I will be grateful."

"Do I look like a shooting star to you, baron?" Edgar looked down at the pathetic man,  the height difference making his disdain even more obvious.

"Shooting star? I do not understand Edgar. How could you be a shooting star?" Baron Barrett attempted to feign confusion.

"Why else would you think I can grant your daughter's wish? Run along and bring what you have for me."

"Y-Yes, sir."

Edgar made a mental note that this would be the last house call he did under the king's orders. The baron was nothing more than an opportunist. Using others' names to boost his popularity.

Before anyone else could introduce their daughters to him, Edgar walked off in a random direction, hoping it would somehow lead to the garden. He had never visited the baron's estate before and quite frankly, he was hoping this would be the last.

"Follow him," he heard someone mutter behind him.

Edgar instinctively pulled a cigar out of his coat pocket as he hurried outside. He deserved a quick smoke after dealing with that fool of a baron. As he found his way out of the baron's mansion, the cold air chafed against his skin almost sending him inside.

But the nosy guests kept him outside. Lighting the cigar, Edgar mused that he preferred the freezing cold to the heated gazes of hopeful young women. 

His sharp senses informed him that he wasn't alone. Someone light-footed was attempting to tiptoe away unnoticed. Walking closer, he noticed the silhouette of a young lady hugging herself tightly. 

"That coat is a little thin for such weather, isn't it?" He made his presence known.

The woman stopped short in her tracks, seemingly shaken up from being discovered. But she steeled herself quickly. "The party is inside," she informed him without turning around. 

"I am very much aware of that, Alessandra. Why are you tensing up like I wasn't supposed to know your name? Surely Baron Barrett only has one cursed daughter who masks herself even in the comfort of her own home."

After a moment of silence, Alessandra finally spoke. "Are you scared of me?"

"No. There are scarier things in life darling. Why would I be scared of a girl, mask or no mask?" Edgar exhaled, the pale smoke contrasting with the dark sky.

"That's going to kill you if you don't stop." If Edgar could see Alessandra closer, he would've noticed her nose had twisted in disgust once the smell reached her.

"Good, it'll speed up the process. Are you scared of me?" He asked after she had not once looked around to see who she was speaking to.

"I do not know who you are," she replied.

"Right. I am Edgar Collins. Just Edgar would be fine."

"The duke?" Alessandra's eyes widened. For once in her life, her father was not exaggerating and making false boasts. "They say you are to be married. Is that why you are here? Are you here for Kate?"

"I rather die. No offense," he added as that was her sister he was insulting. "None of the young women in there shall be my wife. They are all like matching dolls in a set."

Alessandra was seized by a wild idea. "I am not inside."

"Then you are as naive as them for not realizing you are setting yourself up for a loveless match," Edgar said.

"What if I don't want you to love me?"

Edgar chuckled. That's the lie too many girls tell themselves. After some time, most eventually crave something more. However, amused by how she could convince him. "You may change my mind."

"What about a contract?" Alessandra knew her suggestion was insane and the duke could easily take offense, but she was desperate to escape. 

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