Never Deceive a Duke
Pocket Star Books, July 2007
|Excerpt from the novel Never Deceive a Duke|
Gareth stood outside the door of Selsdon Court’s morning parlor and dragged a hand through his still-damp hair. In the other hand, he clasped the documents Cavendish had supplied him, most of which he’d not yet read. He did not welcome this meeting.
Scarcely two days had passed since his untimely visit from the solicitor, and already Gareth was tired of pretending to be something he was not. But he would have done with this miserable business straightaway—for until he did so, he could not move forward. Forward into what, he scarcely knew.
He rapped harshly on the door, and went in.
The room was bathed in muted afternoon light which emphasized its pale gold and cream furnishings. A woman—not the Duchess—stood by the bank of French windows, staring out into the gardens. She wore an elegant gown in a shade of purple so dark it appeared almost black, and thin black ribbons which twined delicately through hair which shone with gold light.
A gossamer black shawl had slithered off her shoulders, and now hung from her elbows. She gave the vague impression of being quite beautiful, but how could one tell? The woman did not deign to turn around, or to acknowledge his presence in any way whatsoever.
A regal snub, then. He might have expected as much. “Good afternoon,” he said, loudly and brusquely.
The woman whirled around, her eyes widening. Perhaps she had not heard him enter after all? No, that was unlikely.
“I am Warneham,” he said coolly. “Who the devil are you?”
The woman curtsied so deeply and so gracefully, she might have touched her forehead to the floor. “I am Antonia,” she said, smoothly rising. “Allow me to welcome you, Your Grace, to Selsdon Court.”
She cocked her head to one side. “Antonia, the Duchess of Warneham.”
Understanding, swift and a little embarrassing, surged through Gareth. The Duchess. Good Lord, he was an idiot. “You . . . you were Warneham’s second wife?”
The woman smiled faintly, a slight curving of the lips which was at once knowing and a little bitter. “His fourth, I believe,” she murmured. “The late duke was nothing if not determined.”
“Good God,” he said. “Determined to do what, kill himself?”
She averted her gaze, and again understanding struck. Upon Cyril’s death, Warneham would have grasped the rules of succession all too well. He would have been desperate—desperate for an heir to displace the boy he had come to hate with his every fiber, rather than to merely loathe. And, just to make doubly sure Gareth could not inherit, Warneham had got rid of him with every hope he would not survive to see England again. But survive he had.
And this woman . . . good God. She was more beautiful, even, than first impression suggested. She was also young—well shy of thirty, he thought, which was certainly young enough to give an embittered old man a child. But if she had any children by Warneham, they were daughters, else Gareth would not be standing here, and she would not be gazing politely at the gardens, as if to spare him his embarrassment. Well, to hell with her mercy. He did not need it.
“Allow me to extend my condolences on your bereavement,” he said briskly. “As you are doubtless aware, my cousin and I did not communicate, so I do not know if—”
“And I know nothing of my husband’s personal affairs,” she interjected tightly. “Certainly you need not explain them to me now.”
“I beg your pardon?”
She looked at him in obvious impatience. “Ours was a brief marriage, Your Grace,” she returned. “And it was arranged—arranged for just one purpose. He was not interested in my personal affairs, nor I in his.”
She could not have cut off the conversation more cleanly had she sliced it through with a corsair’s blade. He stared at her almost blankly for a moment. She seemed an enigma; fragile as fine china to look at, but cool and spiteful in her heart. A porcelain princess, haughty and regal.
“Tell me, ma’am,” he finally said. “Is there anyone in this house who does not resent me? Anyone at all who does not wish me to the very devil?”
Her finely-etched eyebrows rose. “I’m sure I haven’t the faintest notion,” she said. “But I do not wish you ill, Your Grace. I wish merely to move on with my life, such as it is. I wish . . . for my freedom. That is all.”
“Your freedom?” he echoed. “Yes, I see. I have kept you waiting.”
“Fate has kept me waiting,” the Duchess corrected. “And speaking of waiting, Your Grace, might I ask that you kindly not demean the servants by keeping them waiting in the rain again? Mrs. Musbury has a weak chest.”
“Believe me, I have no interest in pomp or ceremony,” he said, scowling. “It must have been Coggins’ idea to line everyone up.”
Her chin went up a fraction. “And yet you detained them?”
“As opposed to what?” he snapped. “Walking past them as if I didn’t give a damn? That would have been demeaning, ma’am. That would have suggested that their employment was of no consequence to me—and had you ever been employed, ma’am, you would know that that can be the cruelest cut of all.”
What little color she possessed drained away, and a look of instant guilt sketched across her face. “I beg your pardon,” she said quietly. “I have spoken out of turn.”
“No, you have spoken wrongly,” he snapped. “We are not taking turns. You may speak when and where you please. And whilst we are arguing, ma’am, let me give another unequivocal order: you are to return to your chambers in the south wing at once.”
She blanched. “I hardly think that would be appropriate, Your Grace.”
“Appropriate?” he echoed, fleetingly confused. “Oh, for pity’s sake, woman! I am moving to another suite.”
Her discomfort shifted to bewilderment. “Well, I am not sure that is appropriate, either.”
“An opinion which I shall instantly disregard,” he said. “That, you see, is why I used the word unequivocal.”
“Dear me,” said the Duchess quietly. “You are Warneham’s cousin after all, aren’t you?”
“Yes, and a pity he hadn’t another,” Gareth returned.
She looked at him with curiosity, but no anger. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Never mind,” he answered. “Forgive me.” Gareth cleared his throat a little sharply, then realized with yet another flash of discomfort that he had not invited her to sit. This was, after all, his house, not hers. She realized it, too.
With a motion of his arm, he gestured toward a pair of chairs by the window. “I see you have a fondness for that particular view of Selsdon’s garden,” he said somewhat drolly. “And we have got off to a rather awkward start. Will you have a seat, ma’am?”
The Duchess recognized his command, tempered though it was. She returned to the bank of windows, her spine rigid beneath the dark purple silk. She sat down almost regally, and adjusted her skirts.
He settled himself into the chair opposite the Duchess, and forced himself to look at her again. This time, their eyes met, causing his breath to oddly catch. But what nonsense. He did not know her. And she clearly had no wish to know him.
“What plans have you made for your future, ma’am?” he stiffly enquired. “And how may I expedite them?”
“I have made no plans as yet,” she answered. “Mr. Cavendish said I might not, until your permission was sought.”
“My permission?” Impatiently, Gareth tapped the edge of the file against his thigh. “Not my advice? Or my guidance, perhaps? You have a dower right, have you not?”
“I have been granted one-twentieth of the income from the ducal holdings,” she replied. “I will not starve.”
“One-twentieth?” Gareth looked at her incredulously. “Good God, what possessed you to agree to such a thing?”
Again, the gently-arched eyebrows rose. “You must have been abroad a great many years indeed, Your Grace,” she murmured. “England is still a patriarchal society.”
She was right, of course. Gareth had become too accustomed to Xanthia’s independence. Most women had not the privilege of living her sort of life.
“My father handled the marriage settlements,” the Duchess continued. “I knew nothing of them until the solicitors came down after the funeral. Cavendish has likely provided you a copy. But one-twentieth of the income of Selsdon alone could keep a frugal family of ten in comfort. As I said, Your Grace, I shan’t starve.”
“Your father was either a fool, or in one hell of a hurry to marry you off,” he muttered, sorting through the papers in the file. “English common law would have given you a third, wouldn’t it?”
When she did not answer, he lifted his head to look at her. A stricken look was upon her face, and much of her color had gone. Gareth felt instantly ashamed.
“I beg your pardon,” he said stiffly. “My remark was inappropriate, given your grief.”
But she did not look precisely grief stricken. She looked . . . well, just stricken. But her color was swiftly returning. She squared her shoulders, and said, “It was a carefully negotiated marriage, Your Grace. My father felt I should be grateful for Warneham’s offer, as my prospects were few.”
What utter nonsense she spoke. The Duchess was the sort of woman who could reasonably expect men to fall at her feet. “Few prospects, eh?” he muttered.
“Oh, do not feel sorry for me, Your Grace,” said coolly. “I was everything the late duke wished for in a bride.”
Gareth cleared his throat, and pressed on. “As the dowager duchess, ma’am, you should have the right to remain in your home,” he said. “No one expects you to leave it. My visits here will be as infrequent as possible, so we shall hardly be under one another’s feet.”
Something like relief seemed to pass over her, and Gareth saw her shoulders relax just a fraction. “Thank you,” she said throatily. “I . . . I do thank you, Your Grace. But I am not perfectly sure . . . ”
“That you wish to remain here?” he supplied. “Yes, the place is a dreadful old mausoleum, despite its grandeur. What of your family? Your father, perhaps?”
“No,” she said swiftly. “He . . . he is traveling at present.”
Something in her words warned him not to press that point. “Have you any children, ma’am?” he asked instead. “A daughter, perhaps?”
Her gaze shot toward him, and for an instant he saw something raw and poignant in her eyes. “No, Your Grace,” she said quietly. “I have no children.”
Good God, was there no safe topic with this woman? “What does Cavendish think you should do?”
She clasped her hands in her lap. “He feels I should retire to Knollwood Manor—that is the dower house—and live a quiet life away from the prying eyes of society. He believes that would be . . . best for me, under the circumstances.”
The dower house? Inwardly, Gareth cringed. But outwardly, he remained expressionless. “You are far too young, I think, to live such a quiet life unless you wish it,” he said. “Pardon my ignorance, but haven’t we a house in town?”
She nodded. “In Bruton Street, but it has been let.”
“Then I shall un-let it,” he answered.
“You are very kind,” she said again. “But no, I cannot return to London. And I am not sure that sort of life would suit me. I am just . . . not sure.”
But he was sure. She was young and breathtakingly beautiful. She had the whole of her life before her. Though she had not been left a great deal of income, surely she could marry well on her looks alone, once the rumors about Warneham’s death died down? Unless there was something she was not telling him.