ONE FINE DUKE: Chapter 1
“Stop the carriage!” roared Andrew, Duke of Thorndon, pounding on the ceiling with his fist.
The carriage slowed and swerved to the side of the avenue. He unlatched the window and stuck out his head. Unfortunately, his eyes hadn’t been playing tricks on him.
His younger brother Rafe was sprinting down the Strand holding up the front of his breeches with one hand, arse shining behind for all of London to see.
Drew briefly closed his eyes. Dear Lord, why me?
This time Rafe had gone too far. Running through the streets of London with his trousers undone wasn’t the worst of it. Not even close.
Drew unclenched his fingers from the crumpled scrap of paper and read the chilling words one more time:
I know what your brother is doing. You must PAY. Await further instructions and TELL NO ONE or Lady Beatrice will be KIDNAPPED.
He’d left his estate in Cornwall within hours of receiving the letter. He wasn’t going to sit around waiting for another threatening letter to arrive. Anger infiltrated his mind like weeds choking a wheat field.
He would never allow his innocent younger sister, Beatrice, to be kidnapped and held for ransom. Whatever trouble Rafe was in, Drew would fix it swiftly and be back in Cornwall well before the July barley harvest.
His manservant, Corbyn, opened the carriage door. “Is anything the matter, Your Grace?”
Drew pointed back the way they’d come. “That is the matter.”
Corbyn’s mouth gaped open. “Is that . . . Lord Rafe?”
“And is he . . . ?”
“Bare-arsed naked? Yes, yes he is. Probably being chased. Possibly by an angry mob brandishing pitchforks.”
“Heaven had nothing to do with it.”
Rafe stumbled and nearly collided with a gaggle of shop girls who turned to giggle and stare at his retreating posterior.
“He appears to be rather intoxicated, Your Grace,” Corbyn observed.
“Hasn’t been sober since our father’s death.”
In the five years since the old duke had died of a ruptured spleen, Rafe, always their father’s favorite, had spiraled downward into a debauched life of gambling, mistresses, and misdeeds.
Drew had traveled in the opposite direction, retiring from the maelstrom of London society to the quiet seclusion of Thornhill House in Cornwall, where he led an orderly, predictable, and useful life. He’d discovered a talent for agricultural innovations. If successful, his new system of crop rotation would mean better yields for his tenants—more crops to feed more hungry mouths on his lands, and hopefully, on the lands of other noblemen.
Rafe caught sight of Drew and waved frantically, nearly losing his trousers. “Thorny,” he shouted. “Thorny, it’s me. Give us a lift?”
Heads swiveled. Inquisitive gazes drilled into Drew like beetles boring through rotting wood. He retreated into the gloom of the carriage. “Hoist him in, Corbyn, and try to be discreet about it.”
“Very good, Your Grace.”
Drew closed the blinds. The last thing he wanted was more notoriety.
London brought the past careening back, threatening to smash the hard-won equilibrium he’d finally achieved.
He’d been kidnapped as a boy of fifteen and held for ransom by a desperate tenant farmer seeking revenge on Drew’s father, the duke, because the farmer lost his leasehold when he couldn’t pay his rent, taxes, and the Church’s tithes after several years of poor crops.
His kidnapper had kept Drew chained in the small, dark hull of a ship in the London harbor for ten endless days, feeding him only thin gruel.
Drew’s kidnapping had gripped London, whipping the newspapermen and the public into a feeding frenzy. Duke’s Heir Held for King’s Ransom. Will the Duke Pay?
The duke hadn’t paid.
Drew had negotiated for his own freedom. Clawed his own way back from Hell.
Long-buried memories hooked his mind, trying to drag him down.
Smell of filth and bilge water. Straw pallet crawling with vermin. Gray metallic taste of thin gruel coating his mouth, leaving a film on his mind.
He clenched and unclenched his fists, fighting for control. He took a deep breath in through his nostrils and exhaled slowly.
I am not my thoughts. I am not my memories.
I’m carved from ice. Impervious. I feel nothing.
He would never allow the same fate to happen to Beatrice.
The door opened and his brother landed in a heap on the opposite seat. The carriage shuddered back to life. Rafe buttoned his breeches and tucked in his shirt. He wasn’t wearing a coat, or a hat, and his blond hair was a tangled mess.
“Is someone chasing you, Rafe?” Drew asked.
“Fitzbart. With a pistol. Not loaded . . . least I don’t think so. Can’t be sure.”
“Because . . . ?”
“Caught me tupping his mistress.”
“Of course he did.”
“Don’t look at me like that.” Rafe gestured defensively. “He’ll forget all about it tomorrow. Sod it, I need a drink. Don’t suppose you keep any tipple in this hearse?”
Drew steadied his breathing. He wasn’t the same man who’d left London five years ago. He was in complete control of his life and his emotions now.
“You don’t look well, Rafe.” His brother’s face was bloated from too much drink and unhealthful living, his blue eyes bloodshot.
“And you look disgustingly fit,” replied Rafe. “Still dressing like a country parson, I see. What brings you to London after all these years?”
Drew winced. “I’ve been meaning to visit, it just never seemed like the right time.” The letter had forced his hand.
“Why are you here now?” Rafe asked. “Must be something dire. Finally decided to cut me off?” Spoken with a laugh, though Drew caught the underlying panic.
Drew smoothed the creases out of the letter. “I received this and departed for London immediately.” He handed the letter to Rafe. “Been searching for you all afternoon.”
Rafe read the brief words. “Christ.” He wiped a trembling hand across his brow. “I honestly have no idea what this means. I . . . Christ. It’s bloody hot in this carriage.” He plucked at the collar of his shirt, which was stuck to his chest with sweat. “A fellow can’t breathe.”
Drew leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his knees. “What the devil are you up to?”
“It’s just a jest. Someone trying to scare you.”
“Then why did you shudder when you read it, as if someone had walked over your grave?”
Rafe shrugged. “Too much drink last night.”
Drew caught his gaze and held it. “You’d better tell me what this is all about. Don’t forget that I’ve been financing your gambling sprees, buying your mistresses diamonds, paying off all of those jealous lovers. Who sent this?”
“None of your concern.” Rafe handed him back the note. “This is my problem, not yours. Beatrice is quite safe. Go back to Cornwall, we don’t want you here.” Rafe didn’t meet his eyes. He was hiding something.
“How do you know that Beatrice is safe?” Drew asked. “Do you know who sent this?”
“I don’t,” his brother replied quickly—too quickly. “But I’ll find out and I’ll take care of everything.”
“Can you promise me that?”
“There’s something you’re not telling me.”
Rafe glowered at him. “Not your problem. I’ll see that it ends here. Go and visit Beatrice. You’ll have enough problems once Mother catches wind of your arrival. The prodigal son returns, and all that. She’ll have every debutante in London nipping at your heels within hours.”
Which was another item on the long list of duties Drew had been delaying for far too long: taking a wife. It was high time he produced an heir. “Have to marry someday, don’t I?”
“Can’t have a wastrel like me inherit,” said Rafe.
“Precisely.” Rafe would undo all of the hard-earned progress that Drew had made on improving the living conditions and livelihood of the tenants who worked his holdings.
Drew wished he knew the right words to say to make his brother see that the path he was on would lead to an early grave. “Have you forgotten that I used to be you? I know the low places you frequent. I know the emptiness, the self-loathing. The evil waiting to swallow you whole.”
“Spare me your sermons, parson.”
“I have a duty to this family. There must be a stouthearted lady so desperate to become a duchess that she’s willing to wed an uncivilized duke and live in the wilds of Cornwall in a crumbling old house.”
“Crumbling old haunted house,” amended Rafe.
You know as well as I do that Thornhill House is just a house, not some gathering ground for ghosts and devil worship.”
“There was a double murder there.”
“In fifteen seventy.”
“England has a long memory.”
“Especially when you keep feeding it fresh details. I know you’ve been spreading rumors about me and Thornhill House. A malevolent headless horseman . . . a young mother with a dead baby inhabiting a mirror . . . really? Does it all have to be so very gothic?”
“Well, you’re not here to counter the rumors. I’ll tell whatever stories I please.”
“I’m here now. And I’m not amused.”
“I don’t know how you can stand living like that. Only sheep and fields as far as the eye can see. I’d go mad.”
“That’s what they say about me, I hear.”
“Mother will be overcome with joy to see you. She’s gone marriage-mad. Won’t stop hounding me. And poor Beatrice, Mother’s hosting a ball in her honor tonight. Not that she’ll receive any proposals.”
Drew couldn’t believe that Beatrice was old enough to marry. When he’d left London she’d been a scrawny, bookish young girl with her hair in plaits. He’d been gone too long.
Guilt pricked his heart like stinging nettles.
“I’m sure she’s grown into a lovely girl. She’s always been fiercely clever. If the bachelors of London can’t see her charms, then they’re blind fools.”
Rafe gave him an incredulous look. “Not exactly a beauty, now is she? My friends call her Beastly Beatrice.” He caught sight of the look on Drew’s face. “’Course I always defend her.”
“Case in point. Your friends are idiots. One of them could have written this letter. Someone wrote it.” Drew prayed that it was only a prank.
He would never allow history to repeat itself.
“A matter of weeks?” Mina’s voice cracked. “But you said I could stay in London for the rest of the Season.”
“I changed my mind,” said her guardian, Sir Malcolm Penny, in a flat tone that brooked no argument.
“Uncle, you can’t just change your mind. This is my life. I’ve been waiting for this chance for years. I have plans.”
So many plans.
This was her very first taste of freedom and she meant to make the most of it. She’d been hidden away in the countryside so long—she had so much to learn, so much to experience.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” her uncle said drily. He stroked his graying black beard. “Someone must keep a close watch on you.”
Guard her. Restrict her movements. Curtail her opportunities.
He’d kept her under lock and key at Sutton Hall, his country estate, for ten long years. Ever since that bitterly cold February day when she’d learned that her beautiful, glamorous parents had perished while abroad.
Sir Malcolm’s own wife and daughter had died in a poison attack meant for him. So many deaths, so close together, had made him overprotective of Mina, to say the least.
“I have to leave England unexpectedly,” he said. “It’s not safe for you to remain in London alone.”
It’s not safe. It’s for your own good. You’ll thank me someday.
If Mina heard those words one more time her mind would crack. Her uncle was cold, dispassionate, and unyielding. If she flew into a temper it would only make things worse. She must be logical and state her case clearly.
“I have Great-Aunt Griselda to watch over me.” She spoke calmly and kept her expression neutral. “She’ll strike fear into the hearts of any gentlemen with nefarious intentions.”
She’d certainly plagued Mina during her brief time in London with her strict lessons in etiquette and decorum.
Docile and decorous didn’t come naturally to Mina.
“I may be away from England for some time. The contents of an Egyptian tomb have been donated to the Louvre Museum and I’m off to help identify and catalogue the items,” said Sir Malcolm.
His face betrayed nothing as he lied.
To the world, he was an expert on antiquities and president of the Society of Antiquaries. In secret, he was a spymaster who trained and handled an elite British force of secret agents.
I know why you’re going to France, and it’s not because of some dusty old relics, she nearly blurted out. You’re going to hunt Le Triton—the evil genius of the Paris criminal underworld. The man who was responsible for the death of my parents. Take me with you!
She came from a long and illustrious line of spies. Her father, her uncle, and generations of the Penny family before that. All she’d ever wanted was to follow in her parents’ footsteps, claim her heritage—for the family honor—and avenge the death of her parents.
Chin up. Shoulders back. Make direct eye contact. “If I find a match in the next few weeks, you can’t force me to return to Sutton Hall.” Marriage was her means of escape and her pathway to freedom. But marriage to a man of her choosing, one who would further her goals, not hinder them.
She’d already determined the perfect candidate: Lord Rafe Bentley. The wickedest rake in London . . . and one of her uncle’s spies. Theirs would be a mutually beneficial union culminating in hitherto uncharted heights of espionage.
Sir Malcolm sighed heavily, staring at the bizarre groupings of stuffed hedgehogs and other woodland creatures dressed in tiny formal clothing that occupied most of her Great-Aunt Griselda’s chimneypiece. “Mind you, there are only four suitors I will approve of in all of England.” He handed her a small leather binder.
“A Duke Dossier.”
“A detailed analysis of London’s eligible dukes, in order of preference. If you marry, you will become no less than a duchess, with all of the privileges and protections the rank affords.”
Marry a duke? Never. Controlling, arrogant men had dictated her life long enough.
Dukes, by sheer virtue of their exalted status in life, were proud, vain creatures who thought of nothing but themselves, and they certainly wouldn’t allow her to pursue an exciting life of international espionage.
She knew of only one exception—the Duke of Ravenwood, one of her uncle’s spies, but he’d given up espionage to hunt antiquities with his archaeologist wife in far-flung corners of the globe.
Mina unwrapped the silk cord and opened the binder.
“Study these dukes closely, Wilhelmina,” her uncle instructed. “You’ll become a duchess, or you won’t marry at all.” He shifted his weight on the lumpy purple velvet settee.
Mina could have told him that there was no comfort to be found in Great-Aunt Griselda’s mausoleum of a house that smelled of dried rose petals, camphor, and the oil of turpentine she used to paint the fur of her stuffed and mounted animals.
Every rap on Mina’s knuckles as she attempted to wrest something resembling a melody from the pianoforte, every book piled on top of her head to correct her posture, every sip of watery tea felt like a penance for some crime she’d never committed.
It wasn’t her fault that she’d been raised in the countryside without the benefit of a governess or the society of other girls.
The Duke Dossier was further punishment. You’ve been a bad, headstrong hoyden. Now you must study the lives of dukes.
“Did I hear someone mention dukes?” Great-Aunt Griselda, or Grizzy, as Mina thought of her, glided into the parlor on the invisible gladiator’s chariot Mina always pictured her riding upon. “My favorite subject.”
Sir Malcolm rose and kissed her withered cheek. “I was saying that if Wilhelmina is to marry, she must become a duchess.”
“Are you certain that she can aspire to a duke?” asked Grizzy. “I haven’t had much luck with her etiquette lessons, and she’s sadly lacking in accomplishments.”
If one considers proper forms of address to be an accomplishment. Mina preferred modifying and inventing weaponry for use in service to the Crown. A timepiece she’d modified had been instrumental in helping the Duke of Ravenwood defeat an enemy in Paris.
“There are only four eligible dukes this Season,” said Grizzy. She was an expert on eligible dukes. “I don’t count Thorndon—since he never comes to London, and I won’t mention Borthwick, since he’s seventy-five and Wilhelmina’s just turned twenty.”
Mina shuddered. “Thanks ever so much.”
Grizzy perched on the edge of her chair. “There’s Granwall, but they say he murdered his first wife. And Westbury, but he hasn’t a farthing to his name—lost it all in the gaming hells. Marmont might do, though he’s quite peculiar. He invents a new illness every day of the week.”
“Thorndon,” said Sir Malcolm. “He’s the only clear choice.”
Mina stifled a snort of disbelieving laughter. Thorndon happened to be Lord Rafe Bentley’s elder brother, but the two of them were like night and day. “Uncle,” she said, “Thorndon is a recluse who shuns society. I heard that he wanders the moors at night, howling at the moon. They say village maidens have gone missing.”
“Oh no, Sir Malcolm, Thorndon will never do,” said Grizzy. “Everyone knows he’s gone quite mad living in that cursed house in Cornwall.”
The very name Thornhill House conjured images of vine-twisted walls. Wind howling across moors. An ancient, haunted house. Craggy cliffs and crashing seas.
“Utter rubbish,” said Sir Malcolm. “Those ridiculous rumors are complete fabrications. I have incontrovertible proof that the sixth duke of Thorndon is as sane and hale as I am. It’s all detailed in the dossier.”
“Yes, but Thorndon never visits London, and therefore I’m not likely to meet him, much less elicit an offer of marriage,” said Mina firmly.
Sir Malcolm’s impassive expression took on a hint of smugness. “He arrived in Town today. He’s staying at his club. And he’s in want of a wife.”
Blast. Mina should have known her uncle had a card up his sleeve. “He may be in want of a wife, but I’m not in want of a duke.”
“Nonsense.” Grizzy patted the black lace cap perched atop her towering mound of iron-gray curls. “Every young lady desires a duke.”
“Not this one,” Mina said.
“His mother’s ball tonight is your best chance,” said her uncle. “A preemptive strike will be best. The other young ladies will be frightened of his reputation but you will be armed with the truth.”
Blast all dukes to eternity! Tonight was when she’d been planning to approach Lord Rafe. This duke dossier business could ruin everything.
“And just how am I supposed to launch this preemptive strike?” Mina cocked an imaginary firearm. “Waylay Thorndon and hold him at pistol point in the gardens?”
Sir Malcolm’s upper lip twitched. “You are quite fearsome with a pistol. Steadier hand than most gentlemen I know.”
“Pray don’t encourage her, Malcolm,” said Grizzy. “She’s unconventional enough already.”
“Do you still have that flintlock pocket pistol?” asked her uncle.
Mina patted the silk reticule sitting on a side table. “Right here.”
“Do you mean to tell me you have a firearm in your reticule? What if it should discharge accidentally and harm a footman?” asked Grizzy.
“Mina’s an expert markswoman,” replied Sir Malcolm with a touch of pride. “She must be ready to defend herself should a gentleman make unwelcome advances. A pistol tends to cool the ardor.”
“No gentleman will dare take liberties under my piercing gaze,” promised Grizzy.
First order of business: evade Grizzy’s piercing gaze.
“I expect you’ll find that Thorndon is already predisposed to court Wilhelmina,” said Sir Malcolm. “I wrote him a letter describing her excellent managerial skills, her facility with a ledger, and her suitableness for a solitary life in the countryside. I told him that she was delicate in stature, yet strong as a horse.”
“I’ll be sure to neigh loudly and nuzzle his palm for apple slices while we dance,” said Mina tartly.
“Really, Wilhelmina,” said Grizzy. “What’s wrong with you? You should be grateful to your uncle. He’s trying to make you a duchess.”
He was trying to protect her, lock her away someplace safe, silent, and hidden away.
She was so tired of hiding. She longed to be more than her uncle’s secretary. She was going to make her own mark on the world, instead of making entries in his ledgers. The world had no idea what she was capable of.
“Thorndon is the very pinnacle of English manhood,” said Sir Malcolm. “Dignified, statesmanlike, admirable, and, above all else, honorable. He’ll keep you out of trouble and out of harm’s way.”
Trouble was her reason for being here. Trouble, adventure, revenge . . . freedom.
Everything she’d been denied her whole life.
“He’s a remarkably fine figure of a man,” said Sir Malcolm, continuing the plaguing topic of the Duke of Thorndon. “He towers over me and I’m not small. His features are noble and his eyes are an unusual shade of amber—rather like honey.”
“Sounds like you want to marry him,” said Mina.
“Don’t be impertinent, Wilhelmina,” Grizzy scolded.
“Study the dossier carefully,” Sir Malcolm instructed. “Memorize portions of Thorndon’s excellent treatise on the rotation of turnips and clover to produce hospitable soils and quote them back to him while you dance.”
Turnip rotation. Good Lord. Mina would rather poke out her eyes with a pitchfork than memorize agricultural treatises. She was here for adventure.
“Marry Thorndon and your future will be assured,” said Grizzy. “You’ll be a duchess.”
“In a crumbling haunted house on the moors,” said Mina.
“A small price to pay,” replied Grizzy. “I’m sure that Thorndon would allow you to travel to Town after you give him an heir and a spare.”
Frustration sizzled through Mina’s mind like a fuse ignited by a spark.
No man was going to allow her to do anything, ever again.
She was going to seize control of her life. Shape her own destiny.
A destiny that most certainly did not involve being imprisoned on the moorlands as a brooding duke’s broodmare.