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The Most Dangerous Duke in London
Everyone in London society is on edge with the brooding Duke of Stratton’s return from France. His reputation for dueling has preceded him, and it is whispered he is bent on revenge for his father’s fall. Stratton is indeed resolved to ferret out the person/people who benefited, and learn the reasons his father was targeted. When he meets Clara Cheswick, the lovely, rebellious daughter of his most likely suspect, desire complicates his goals.
Clara may be the woman Stratton wants, but she’s far more interested in publishing her women’s journal than in being seduced—especially by a man rumored to be dead-set on vengeance. Though, with her nose for a story, Clara wonders if he is sincere in his desire for justice—or in his incredibly unnerving insistence that they will one day wed. If her weak-kneed response to his kiss is any indication, falling for the duke clearly comes with costs, and perhaps dangers she does not anticipate
The Dowager Countess of Marwood could be a formidable enemy if she so chose. Her mere presence dared one to take her lightly so she might have an excuse to rain destruction, just for fun
Adam Penrose, Duke of Stratton, knew at once what he had in her.
He had called at her grandson the earl’s country estate at her request. Let us attempt to bury the past, she had written, and allow bygones to be bygones between our families.
He had come, curious to see how she hoped to accomplish that, considering that some of those bygones were not gone at all. One look at her and he knew that whatever plan she had concocted, it would not benefit him.
The lady kept him waiting a half hour before entering the chamber herself. She finally sailed into the drawing room, angled forward, head high, her ample bosom leading the way, like a figure on a ship’s prow.
Mourning for her son, the late earl, forced her into black garments, but her crepe ensemble must have cost hundreds. Abundant gray curls decorated her head, suggesting that she also mourned the dead fashion for wigs. Shallow, large, pale blue eyes examined her caller with a critical gaze while an artificial smile deepened the wrinkles of her long face.
“So, you have returned.” She announced the obvious when they sat on two sturdy chairs, after his short bow and her shorter curtsy.
“It was time.”
“One might say it was time three years ago, or two, or even several years hence.”
“One might, but I did not.”
She chortled. Her whole face pursed, not only her lips. “You have been in France a long time. You even look French now.”
“At least half so, I assume, considering my parentage.”
“And how is your dear mother?”
“Happy in Paris. She has many friends there.”
The dowager’s eyebrows rose just enough to express sardonic amusement. “Yes, I expect she does. It is a wonder she did not marry you off to one of her own kind.”
“I think a British match would suit me better. Don’t you?”
“Indeed I do. It will help you enormously.”
He did not want to discuss his mother or the reasons why a solid match would help. “You wrote of bygones. Perhaps you will enlighten me regarding that.”
She opened her hands, palms up, in a gesture of confusion. “The animosity between our families is so old that one wonders how it even started. It is so unnecessary. So unfortunate. We are county neighbors, after all. Surely we can rise above it if we choose to.”
Unable to sit and listen to her blithe references to that history, he stood and paced to the long windows. They overlooked a spectacular garden and on to the hills beyond, not far away. The house and its immediate grounds occupied a shallow valley.
“How do you suggest we do that?” He asked the question while he corralled the bitterness in his mind. The dowager knew damned well why the recent animosity had started and probably knew about the older history too. To acknowledge any of that would make her peace offering peculiar, however. We stole your property and savaged your mother and helped drive your father to his death, but you should rise above that now.
He turned to see her watching him. She appeared puzzled, as if he had done something unexpected and she could not determine if he had won a point without her knowing it.
He raised his eyebrows, to encourage her to speak.
“I propose that we resolve this the ancient way. In the manner of political dynasties down through time,” she said. “I believe that our families should join through marriage.”
He barely avoided revealing his astonishment. He had not expected this, of all possible overtures. She did not merely suggest a truce, but rather an alliance bound by the strongest ties. The kind of alliance that might keep him from pursuing the truth about this family’s role in his father’s death, or seeking revenge if he learned his suspicions about the last earl were correct.
“Since I do not have a sister for your grandson, I assume you have set your sights on me.”
“My grandson has a sister who will suit you perfectly. Emilia is all any man could ask for and would make a perfect duchess for you.”
“You speak with great confidence, yet you have no idea what this man would ask for.”
“Do I not? As if I have lived this long and learned nothing? Beauty, grace, demure obedience, and a fine settlement. Those qualifications are high on your list, as on all men’s.”
The temptation to add other requirements, ones that would shock her, almost conquered his better judgment. He only won the battle because he had learned never to let the enemy know his thoughts.
“I can find that in many young women. Shall we be honest with each other? What is it about this particular match that would be to my advantage?”
“A bold question, but a fair one. We will be allies instead of enemies. It will benefit you just as it will benefit us.”
“Well, now, Countess, we both know that is not true. I have been invited to negotiate peace now when my father never was in the past. I would be a fool if I did not wonder why you think I would be agreeable. Considering the rumors regarding my activities in France, I can surmise how you may think this will protect your grandson, but not how it will help me.”
She stood. “Come out on the terrace. I will show you my granddaughter. Once you see her, you will understand how you will benefit.”
He followed her out into the crisp April air. The garden spread below them like a brown and red tapestry, punctuated by small new leaves and early flowers of yellow, pink, and purple. Bulbs, he assumed. They had not yet begun blooming when he left Paris.
A girl sat within the reviving growth, on a stone bench thirty feet away. She had a book open, held up so her face did not angle down. The dowager must have given her a reprieve from mourning because the girl wore a pale blue dress. She was pretty, and perhaps sixteen years of age. Her blond hair sparkled in the sun, and her fair skin and lovely face would appeal to any man. Add a fine settlement and she would do well enough.
The dowager stood beside him, her expression one of supreme confidence. He did not trust her, but he admired her skill at this game. He admitted to himself that her offer did have its advantages, and not because the girl was lovely. His father’s name and his family’s honor had been badly tainted in the best circles, and if he wanted to overcome that curse, this marriage would definitely help.
It would mean forgetting the reasons he had turned his back on England as well as his only good reason for finally returning. Which was why the dowager had invited him here in the first place, he assumed.
“Emilia is as sweet in disposition as any girl I have known. She is of good humor too and has a fair amount of wit, lest you worry that she might be dull,” the countess said.
Sweet Emilia pretended not to see them, just as she pretended to read, posed so he could see her face and form. No wrap warmed her, and no bonnet protected that fair skin. He wondered how long she had been sitting like that, waiting for her future intended to inspect her
He did not know why she held no appeal. Perhaps because while she might be lovely and witty, she was too young, and from the look of her compliance with her grandmother’s instructions, probably lacked spirit.
The doors opened and the earl strode out. Tall and blond, he had not yet completely shed the gangly thinness of boyhood. He glowered at his grandmother while he passed her. She pursed her face in return. His arrival apparently had not been part of the dowager’s plans.
He advanced on Adam like a man greeting a friend, but his rushed, loud welcome and the glisten of sweat on his brow told another story. Theobald, Earl of Marwood, was afraid of his guest. Many men had shown the same reaction since Adam arrived back in England two weeks ago. His reputation had preceded him, and society apparently expected him to issue challenges left and right at the slightest provocation.
Adam had done nothing to correct their assumptions. For one thing, he might very well issue a challenge or two, depending on what he discovered about events five years ago. For another, there were men, like Marwood here, who were more pliable when motivated by fear.
“I see Grandmother has already broached the idea of this match,” Marwood said heartily. He looked down at his sister Emilia, still posed in the garden. The two of them looked much alike—fair, pale, handsome, and young.
The earl could not be more than twenty-one. Adam wondered if Marwood knew about the rumor that had haunted Adam’s father to his grave. Marwood’s fear suggested he might, and that Adam’s long-held suspicions about these old enemies might be true.
“Are you amenable to the idea?” Marwood asked.
His grandmother drifted closer. “Forgive my grandson. He is still young enough to think impetuous impatience is a manly virtue.”
Marwood looked to heaven as if praying for that patience. “He knows by now if the notion appeals or if it does not.”
“The notion appeals, in a general way,” Adam said. He did not lie. He still weighed the implications of the dowager’s plan. This offer to simply turn the page on the past tempted him more than he expected.
The young earl shot his grandmother a glance full of bright optimism. The dowager managed more circumspection.
Adam focused his gaze on the girl. The dowager retreated. The earl sidled closer. Eager to complete negotiations, the earl extolled his sister’s charms, man to man. Out of the corner of his eye, Adam saw the dowager shaking her head at her grandson’s lack of finesse.
A movement on the hill beyond the garden caught Adam’s eye. A flash of black streaked along the crest, took flight over a large, fallen tree, then abruptly stopped. A woman all in black, on a black horse, looked down on the house.
“Who is that?” he asked.
Marwood squinted and feigned lack of recognition. He glanced sideways at Adam, and thought better of it. “That is my half sister, Clara. She is the daughter of my father’s first wife.”
The black spot named Clara managed to communicate a good deal of hauteur even from this distance. She paced her horse back and forth on the hill’s crest, watching the show below as if the rest of them put on a pageant for her amusement.
He remembered Lady Clara Cheswick, although they had never been introduced. She had been out in society before he left England, though. Bright-eyed and vivacious. Those were his impressions absorbed in passing
“She does not allow mourning to interfere with her pleasure in riding,” Adam said.
“She would probably say she honors our father this way. They liked to ride together.”
“Since she is the eldest, why am I not being offered her hand?”
Marwood glanced askance at the dowager, then smirked. “Because the goal is to keep you from killing me, isn’t it?” he said in a low voice, with unexpected bluntness. “Not give you another reason to want to.”
Adam chose not to reassure Marwood about the killing part. Let this pup of an earl worry. “You are intriguing me now, not discouraging me.”
Marwood bent his head closer and spoke confidentially. “I am doing you a great favor now in speaking honestly. My father spoiled and indulged her and allowed her to build notions unfitting for women. He never demanded she marry, and now she thinks it beneath her. He left her a good bit of property in her own name, a handsome tract with rich farms.” His voice turned bitter on the last sentence. “She is my sister, but I would be no friend to you if I sang her praises when in reality she is something of a shrew.”
Clara was the old earl’s favorite child, apparently. Adam wondered if the recently deceased father still had the ability to turn over in his grave. With a nudge or two, perhaps. “How old is she?”
“Far past marrying age. Twenty-four.”
Old enough to remember. She might even know a great deal, if her father kept her close. “Call her down here. I would like to meet her.”
“Truly, you do not want to—”
“Call her. And tell your other sister to put the book down. Her arms must feel like lead by now.”
Marwood scurried to his grandmother to share the request. The dowager sailed over to Adam while trying to appear calm. “I fear you misunderstand. For this match to come to a satisfactory conclusion, the bride must be Emilia. Clara’s character is above reproach, but she is not suitable for any man who desires domestic harmony.”
“I only asked to meet Lady Clara. Nor have I agreed to any marriage yet.”
“Before he died, my son specifically spoke with me about this alliance. I am only executing his own intentions. He said it should be Emilia—”
“He wants to meet her, Grandmother.” Exasperated, Marwood raised his arm and gestured to his sister Clara to come in.
The horse ceased pacing. The woman had seen and understood the instruction. She sat on that hill, her horse in profile, her head turned to them, gazing down. Then she pulled the reins hard. Her horse rose on its back legs so high that Adam feared she would slide out of her sidesaddle. Instead she held her seat neatly while she pivoted her horse around. She turned her back on them and galloped away.
The lady had just slapped him in the face from a distance of six hundred yards.
The dowager’s expression showed smug triumph beneath its veil of dismay. “How unfortunate she did not see my grandson’s signal.”
“She saw it well enough.”
“She is a bit willful, I will admit. I did warn you,” Marwood said.
“You did not mention that she is rude and disobedient and quick to insult others if she chooses.”
“I am sure she did not intend to insult you.” He gave his grandmother a desperate glare.
“Sure, are you? Then please tell the grooms to bring my horse to the garden portal over there immediately. I will go and introduce myself to Lady Clara so I do not brood over her unintended cut and allow it to interfere with our families’ new friendship.” Adam bowed to the dowager. “Please give my regards to Lady Emilia. I am sure she and I will meet soon.”
Clara galloped a good two miles away from the house. What had Theo been thinking, hailing her and gesturing for her to come in? She was hardly dressed to meet his guest. From Grandmamma’s stiff pose, she suspected only Theo thought it a good idea.
She pulled in her horse and walked it over to a copse of trees. Putting Theo out of her mind, she dropped off the saddle onto a tree stump, hopped down, and pulled a sheaf of paper out of her saddlebag. She found a good spot beneath a tree, sat, and turned her attention to the pages. Her friend Althea had sent this yesterday, and she needed to read through it and send back her thoughts on it.
She immersed herself in the prose, making a few marks with a pencil she had tucked in her bodice. Absorbed by her reading, she did not look up for at least a half hour. When she did she saw that she was no longer alone.
A man watched her from a hundred feet away. His white horse contrasted with his dark coat and dark hair. The latter ended past his collar and bore none of the signs of being styled by a hairdresser aware of the current London fashions.
She recognized him from the terrace. A notion nudged at her that she had perhaps seen him before that.
Theo’s visitor had followed her. She thought that very bold. The way he just sat there and observed her only confirmed that he had no manners.
She considered returning to her reading, then decided that might not be wise. It was one thing to pretend you had not seen your brother’s gesture for you to ride in, and another to pretend you did not see a man right in front of you.
He paced his horse closer. She could see him better now. Displeasure hardened his mouth, which emphasized its sensual full lips. Dark eyes took her measure quite thoroughly. His black coat was not fashionably cut for London, but she knew French fashions well enough to recognize it as most appropriate for Paris. He wore a casually tied dark cravat.
She thought him very handsome in a brooding, poetic way. Having known a few men of dark humor in the past, she had little interest in making another’s acquaintance, no matter how handsome he might be.
He stopped his horse ten feet away. He did not dismount but towered above her. She considered standing, to bridge the distance, but decided not to. If he meant to frighten her, he would have to do better than this.
“Good day, sir.” She allowed her voice to convey how unwelcome she found his intrusion.
He swung off his horse. “Please forgive me the lack of a formal introduction, but I doubt you will mind since you are a woman who does not bother with such things overmuch.”
“I am sure I do not understand what you mean.”
The corners of that mouth turned up enough to indicate he knew she was lying. Indeed, that half-smile implied he knew everything about her.
“You cut me back there, Lady Clara. That is what I mean.”
“It is not possible to cut someone you do not know.”
“You managed it all the same.”
High-handed would be too kind a way to describe him. “You mentioned an introduction,” she said through a tight smile.
He made a short bow. “I am Stratton.”
Stratton? The Duke of Stratton? Here? Had Theo gone mad?
No wonder he looked vaguely familiar. She had seen him years ago, across ballrooms, before his father died and he left England. When last in London ten days ago she had heard a mention or two that he had returned, but it was beyond comprehension that Theo had allowed him on the estate.
He sidled over and assumed a casual stance right next to her, with one of his shoulders propped against the tree trunk. He folded his arms like a man who expected a lengthy chat.
She scrambled to her feet, clutching the papers close to her chest so they did not fly across the hill.
“I had no idea who you were. Even if I had tried to guess the identity of the man with my brother, your name would never have entered my head.”
“Assuredly not. Our families have been enemies for decades.”
“Theo is letting his new title go to his head if he received you. My grandmother must have been apoplectic.”
“It was your grandmother who invited me here.”
“That’s not possible.”
“The letter was from her, in her hand. It was most unexpected,” he said in a sardonic tone.
She narrowed her eyes on him. “Yet you accepted her invitation.”
“Your grandmother has been one of society’s bulwarks longer than I have been alive. The patronesses of Almack’s quake in her presence. I would never insult someone with such influence.”
He teased her now. She doubted that he cared a fig for Grandmamma’s social influence. He did not look to be a man who would set aside his family’s pride and seek Grandmamma’s good word on his behalf.
She should pack up Althea’s article and leave. Curiosity got the better of her, however.
“Why did she invite you?”
“She proposed a dynastic marriage with your sister, to end the animosity. To bury the past.” That half-smile again. “You can imagine my astonishment. It was much like your own right now.”
Astonished hardly did her reaction justice. This only got odder and odder. Also increasingly annoying. She experienced a double feeling of betrayal. First on behalf of her father, who would have never approved of this idea. And second for herself, because she was not told, let alone consulted. Grandmamma must have used the full force of her will in keeping this a secret from her if even Emilia had not confided in her.
“So when will the engagement be announced?” She let her high skepticism into her sarcastic tone.
“I have not agreed to the match yet.”
“My sister is both lovely and bright. She would make a splendid duchess, of course, only not for you. I am relieved you lacked decisiveness.”
“Do not blame me for the delay in knowing my mind on the matter. There I was, making my decision about a lovely dove, when a black crow flew by and distracted me.”
Crow? Why, the—
“Then the crow flapped her wings in my face and turned her tail to fly away.” He walked over until he loomed above her. “I never stand down from a challenge, Lady Clara.”
If he thought she would tremble and blush, he was wrong. Except she did tremble a bit, while she noticed that his demeanor exuded a good amount of mystery and excitement and that his dark, deep-set eyes held layers that drew her in to the point of almost drowning. His proximity and his gaze left her tongue-tied for an embarrassing moment. Perhaps she did blush a little too.
“Better if you had snatched up the dove while you could,” she said. “Now I have time to remind my grandmother that you will never do.”
“I will do very well for her purposes.”
“What are those?”
“Don’t you know?” He cocked his head a fraction. “Perhaps you don’t.”
It grew awkward, standing so close to him. She experienced a mix of alarm and . . . exhilaration. She stepped back and fussed with the stack of pages in her arms. “Excuse me.”
She walked toward her horse. His tall, lean form soon warmed her side and his boot steps paced alongside her. “You are leaving without even a good day? You are determined to insult me, I think.”
“I would be within my rights to shoot you, let alone insult you. You are trespassing on this property, no matter what else my grief-stricken grandmother may have said. You crossed the border between my brother’s land and mine a quarter mile back.”
“And I would be within my rights to use my crop on your pretty tail in response to your behavior.”
She stopped walking and glared at him. “Such a threat is beyond the pale. Try that and I will certainly shoot you. Do not doubt it. I am not a woman who quakes when faced with stupid masculine bravado. Any gentleman with proper breeding would have allowed the misunderstanding regarding my brother’s instructions to pass. It is outrageous that you felt entitled to follow me and then berate me. Now, I will be on my way, and you can be on yours.”
She strode on to her horse. He paced alongside her again. She wanted to hit him with Althea’s manuscript, he annoyed her so much.
“Are you a writer?” His hand reached out and he flicked the corners of the pages. That brought his arm close to her body. An inner jolt almost had her jumping away.
“A friend wrote this. It is an essay on—” She caught herself. “I am sure it would not interest you.”
“Perhaps it would.”
“Then I am sure it is none of your business.”
“Not a writer, but a bluestocking.”
“Oh, how I hate that word.” She stuffed the pages into the saddlebag. “You just spent years in France. They are reputed to celebrate cultural women. If you give me that moniker simply because you found me reading, apparently you did not learn much while you were there except how to be irritating.”
She picked up the reins and positioned her horse.
“Allow me to assist you.” He moved closer.
“Please, just go away.” She quickly stepped onto the tree stump. With a jump and a pull she got herself back into the saddle.
“Admirably done, Lady Clara. I see that you are independent in all things.”
She swallowed a groan at his comment. “Do you think I am so witless as to get off a horse if I had no way to get back on?”
As she turned the horse to ride away, she saw the duke’s expression. Humor softened that face somewhat, but within the mind behind those dark eyes, calculations formed.
The Most Dangerous Duke in London, copyright © 2017 Madeline Hunter