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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.
Careful hands set the last of the pearl beads amidst the curls atop Clara’s head. Clara watched in the reflection of her mirror while Jocelyn did her artful best.
“You look like a princess,” Emilia said. She sat on a bench beside the dressing table, beautiful in a raw silk blue dress.
“A princess?” Jocelyn snorted with derision. “A queen. A goddess.”
Clara stood and gazed down at the result of hours of preparation. She did look like a goddess in this exquisite white dress. It had silk embroidery that spiraled around her body and pearl beads that glistened. She certainly felt like one.
Sunlight from the dressing room window caught those beads and made them shine with subtle richness. She had worried a late July date might mean rain would mar the wedding. Instead when Emilia rushed in to wake her at dawn today, bright light and a delicious breeze greeted her yawns and Emilia’s giggles.
She had not slept well. She supposed no bride did the night before her wedding. Of course most brides were nervous about some things, such as the wedding night, that Clara had no cause to fear. Other worries preyed on her instead. Surprising ones, considering how secure she believed her decisions to be.
“I suppose I am ready,” Clara said while she struggled to conquer her nervousness. “I trust my groom is too.”
“He is below already, with his mother,” Emilia reported.
“Is Grandmamma with them?”
Emilia made a long face. “She is still in her apartment.”
“We cannot have that.” Clara aimed for the door. She had returned to Gifford House at her grandmother’s request, so she would be married from the family home. She had allowed Grandmamma to plan the wedding breakfast. She had tried her best to distract everyone who lived here from the pending doom of that article being published. She had even held back the next edition of Parnassus so that the scandal would not follow them all into the church.
If it meant that a few people wondered about the logic of this match, so be it. Soon enough they would probably wonder all the more anyway.
She paused outside her grandmother’s apartment, as she always did, before she knocked. This door never failed to evoke memories of that whipping years ago. She wondered if they ever would fade away.
She found her grandmother inside, but not in the dressing room. Rather she sat on a chair in her bedchamber, bewigged and ready, draped in the pale lavender dress she had commissioned for the occasion. She was reading. Clara recognized the pages in her grandmother’s hand.
Clara said nothing, but waited for the thunder to sound.
Her grandmother set aside the unbound copy of Parnassus, and closed her eyes. “I suppose it is as generous as I could expect. It does not damn me, at least. Thank you for begging an early copy off the publisher so I might know what I face.”
Clara waited a few moments before speaking. “You appear ready to leave. Shall we go down?”
Some of the old flint entered her grandmother’s eyes. “Is she here?”
“If you mean the Dowager Duchess of Stratton, I was told that she is.”
Her grandmother cocked her head toward the table holding the journal. “Did she receive one too?”
“Adam did. I expect he shared it with her.”
That old, knowing chortle emerged, with its implications of suppressed scorn. “Oh, she is going to enjoy today, I am sure.”
“Her son marries today, so I hope she enjoys it. I hope you do too, as much as you can. You planned it, after all. It has your mark on it, and your style.”
“How many copies of that journal do you think are already circulating?”
“Only the two given to me, I am sure. It is not all around town yet, Grandmamma. I was told even my receiving two advanced copies was a very rare favor.”
Her grandmother’s posture relaxed, her body falling in on itself. Then, as if buffeted by a sudden wind, it straightened into the formidable body that Clara knew so well. Pale eyes examined her sharply.
“A few too many pearl beads for daytime, Clara.”
“Probably.” After so many months of deprivation, she had been drunk at the dressmaker, draper and warehouse. The wonder was that in the end this dress appeared as appropriate as it did.
“Definitely. However, you appear lovely, and more than his match. I wish— I wish your father could see you, my dear.”
Grief drummed through Clara. Memories rushed. Her eyes filmed. Her grandmother’s gaze met hers, equally tearful.
“This will never do.” Her grandmother fussed, dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief. “We will both look a fright if we are red-eyed.”
Clara bent and embraced her. “You will look as impressive as ever, Grandmamma.”
Impressive and powerful. A fitting end to a long and rich social life. For one last day the queen would reign. Then she would abdicate, and retire.
Adam sat across from his mother in the morning room. A footman had served coffee and cakes, but neither of them ate. His mother’s gaze remained on the text of the journal. He watched her reaction.
He had given it to her last night and watched then as well. He had seen her curiosity, and her anger. And her pain.
“And you will marry this family?” she had finally said.
“I will marry the woman I love. She happens to be the daughter of the man who wronged my father, yes.”
“You must love her very much.”
“With all of my heart and essence.”
“Then I will love her too, and forget this if I can.”
Although she set aside that journal last night, now she turned its pages again. He wondered if she would ever forget. He hoped so. Her arrival in England had been a joyous homecoming a week ago. Spending time with her without the shadow of the past had been glorious. She had taken to Clara at once, and Clara, charmed in part by how much he resembled his mother, had returned the affection. Now he wondered if the truth had ruined that good beginning.
She kept raising her eyebrows while she turned those pages.
“Are you reading that essay again?” he asked.
“No. I am reading the rest of it. What is this journal? Do you know it well?”
“It is a women’s publication. Its owner is a mystery. I confess I have never paid it much attention.”
“Lady Farnsworth writes for it. She has an essay here. It is very interesting. Quite strident and scolding. I would expect nothing else from Dorothy, of course. She always had strong opinions. This time, however, she is all but naming names, and her opinions have nothing to do with us and our own problem.” She looked up. “Someone else is not going to be pleased by this journal very soon.”
He had flipped through the rest of the pages, but had not noticed what they contained except in a general way. A few poems, some fashion plates, a history essay—the sorts so thing he supposed women enjoyed.
“Who will be displeased?” The notion that someone else would deflect some of the scandal with a second one appealed to him more than was proper.
“Dorothy has taken to task a lord, no less. Not you. One who lives in debauchery and decadence.”
“That applies to many lords.”
“This one is a duke, which limits the field considerably. Nor does she scold for what he does, but rather for what he does not do.” She smiled. “How like Dorothy, to list the sins in all their titillating detail, then say none of that matters. It garners one’s attention for her real point regarding what does matter.”
“What is her opinion on that?” He suspected he knew who this duke was.
“She writes that his real sin is not the women or the drinking or the other excesses, but in the way he squanders his power. She condemns him for ignoring the issues of the day and how his elevated position gives him the rare opportunity to improve the lot of his fellow men and women. In fact she titled the essay Slothful Decadence Among the Nobility.”
Adam pictured the slothful duke in question reading the essay. Clara had neglected to mention this when she handed over that copy of the journal. Perhaps she did not even known the essay was there.
“This duke is not named?”
“No. Perhaps she thinks all of you will see yourself in it.”
Possibly. The royal dukes fit the description, as did a few others. He supposed, considering his preoccupation these last years, Lady Farnsworth could have written about himself.
Only— “The title makes mention of decadence, you say?”
One group of dukes had named themselves the Decadent Dukes, hadn’t they? That was not a secret. Brentworth could never be called slothful, so it was not about him. Langdon would assume he was the object of the disapprobation, as indeed he most likely was.
“I should warn him.”
“I would not. It is a kindness to wait until the last minute before informing the condemned man that the guillotine waits.”
A faint rustle entered the chamber. Adam turned to see Clara and her grandmother.
Clara always appeared beautiful to him. Even with hair mussed after a hard ride, or striding on city streets in black, the sight of her always made his heart flip. Now it jumped. Her dress and hair dazzled him, and her expression glowed with joy.
He just stared for a moment before remembering himself. He went to her and gave her a kiss. “The carriages are ready, darling. Theo has already gone outside. You look so magnificent that I may find it hard to speak the vows because my heart will be in my throat.”
They shared a private gaze full of their love. It might have gone on forever if a commanding voice had not interfered.
“If the carriages are here, we should go,” the dowager countess intoned.
Adam looked over in time to see the other two people in the chamber gazing at each other. Clara’s grandmother’s eyes held their flinty glint. His mother’s showed only amusement and warmth, but her hand gently stroked the unbound pages of Parnassus. Then she stood and walked around the table. She kissed Clara’s grandmother, to the older woman’s astonishment. Then she embraced and kissed Clara herself.
Clara would have preferred a quiet wedding, but that became impossible once she allowed her grandmother a free hand. She entered a church full of people. The oddity of a marriage between these two families might be responsible for the attendance of some of them, but her grandmother’s influence no doubt made this a command performance for many others. There were rumors that some ladies of the ton felt obligated to delay their departure from town so they could be present.
None of that mattered once she stood beside Adam in front of them all, with Brentworth and Emilia serving as witnesses. Only Adam existed then. She waited for the vows, immersed in memories of their arguments, then their passion and finally their love. She marveled that she had chosen to marry after all, and this man of all men.
Misgivings had plagued her last night, but none did now. She looked over at his handsome profile. He noticed and their gazes met.
Vows would be exchanged soon, but she saw the promises he made without words. He had spoken them two nights ago before they parted. You can trust me with your love and your life and your dreams. I will always be faithful. I will never try to change who you are. You hold my own heart in your hands.
The minister stepped in front of them. The church hushed. They spoke the words that bound them together forever. She did not hesitate when her turn came.
Adam guided Clara through the crush of people seeing them off. When they made it to the carriage, Clara released his arm and spoke quietly to his coachman, then allowed the footman to hand her inside.
He settled beside her. “I am grateful to address you as my duchess, Duchess.”
“And I am grateful to have you as my husband.” She leaned in to kiss him.
“So now we face an interminable wedding breakfast before we can be alone. I suppose it would be scandalous to have my way with you right now. It would probably ruin that dress. Nor will there be time.”
“Actually, there might be.”
What an odd thing to say. He worked out the possibility in his mind all the same.
Then the carriage took an unexpected turn.
“You vixen. Did you tell him to take a long ride first?” He reached for her as the possibilities expanded.
“Not exactly. I did give him a destination besides your home, however. I have something to show you before we join our guests there.”
“It could not wait?”
“I think it has waited a bit too long, truth be told.”
He knew there were men surprised by all kinds of discoveries right after they wed. Mostly unwelcomed ones. Even scandalous ones. Clara would never save the latter until after the wedding, of course.
They rolled through town at a good pace, heading east. “What is this about, darling?”
She gave him an impish smile. “Mysterious doings.”
“I intended to discover those on my own.”
“Yet you never did.”
“I was distracted. I also concluded there was nothing much to discover.”
“I hope you still think so an hour hence.”
That hardly encouraged indifference. He was not truly concerned. Yet—- “Am I going to dislike this?”
“I hope not. I rather count on it not being too surprising. But with men, well, you really never know.”
“It is something a husband may not like, in other words.”
“Most husbands, I daresay. I believe you to be different.”
“And if I am not?”
She sighed. “I suppose I will have to change how you think, which is such a chore.”
Married thirty minutes, and already she had designs on his thinking. That did not seem fair. After all, he had sworn to never try to change her.
He was about to point that out when he realized where they were going. The carriage turned into Bedford Square and stopped in front of her house. The house, now that he remembered, that he had promised to allow her to use to her preference. The property upon which he had promised he would not exercise his rights as a husband. The place where she had staked her claim to unfettered independence.
He followed her out of the carriage, almost sure that nothing untoward waited for him here. Almost.
“I trust you are not going to tell me that you have a lover living here now.” He said it as a joke, and laughed a bit too loud as he did.
“I told you my doings were not about that. In fact, should we ever come to that, which I know we will not, I will need another house.”
That was not very reassuring.
Mrs. Finley opened the door as they approached. She happily welcomed Clara, delighting in calling her Duchess. Did he imagine that this woman glanced to him with approval, as if he had finally measured up in some way? Considering his own doings here with her mistress, probably so.
“Is everything prepared, Mrs. Finley?” Clara asked.
“Was finished yesterday, just as you instructed. Ten replies came in, so it should have a good start when we begin.”
“Thank you. I will show the duke the property. We will not need you any longer.”
Mrs. Finley disappeared into the back of the house. Clara opened the library doors. “I have made a few changes that I want you to see.”
He stepped inside the library. Much still remained as he remembered it, but there were more chairs now, and an additional divan. A good sized table near the fireplace held at least twenty crystal glasses and three decanters. He went to that table, opened a decanter, and sniffed. Brandy. He eyed the others.
Clara came beside him. “That is sherry, and that one is whiskey.”
“Are you expecting a party? Because after this breakfast I have no intention of sharing you with anyone for the rest of the day. Hell, probably not for the rest of the month.”
“Come and see the dining room.”
He followed her, glancing back at those spirits before she escorted him into the dining room. Only instead of one long table now there were four smaller ones. He strolled around, noting the table that held decks of cards. Then he came upon a ledger, opened to the first clean page.
A strange idea entered his mind. No, surely not. Only this house now resembled it in so many ways, that if he did not know better he would swear that he was in a——
He looked at her. She smiled at him. He closed the ledger. The cover bore the word Wagers.
“It is a club,” he said, finally accepting the evidence. “You have made a club of it. A gambling club? Some women turn their homes into them for the income, of course, but you hardly need to.”
“I expect there will be some gambling. Hence the ledger and the card room. However, it will mostly be a place to visit and relax away from home. It will be for women only, of course.”
“Of course? Women do not have clubs, Clara.”
“They do now. This one. The invitations went out this week. Once we are established, rules must be drawn up, of course, regarding admittance and membership. I intend there to be provisions for members who are not in the fashionable set, regarding their fees and such. I have some friends who would need that support.”
He looked at the gaming tables. He thought about that whiskey decanter, and her intentions for a democratic membership. This would not be well received in the many other clubs in town. “Men will not permit their women to join. Not a club like this that has gambling and serves spirits.”
“They will have to learn of it to forbid it.”
“You will not be able to keep this a secret.”
“I believe it will be one of those secrets that people know but do not admit they know. A husband who learns his wife is a member will not announce it to his friends, will he? He may forbid her to come here, and he may even succeed in that command, but he will not let all the other men know his wife did this.” She smoothed her fingertips over the covering on a table. “I suspect there will be several dozen husbands who will claim they have no knowledge of their wives’ memberships should anyone else learn of them.”
“They will all forbid it. These chambers will be empty in a month.”
She stepped close to him and looked into his eyes. A few sparks of belligerence showed in hers. “Would you forbid it? If you did, do you think I would accept that? We women are not without our weapons, Adam. Nor without persuasion.”
He recognized that look in her eyes. Nothing but trouble. “You are counting on sexual blackmail to help your club succeed. That is very wrong of you.”
“I am not counting on anything, except women finding a way to have something for themselves in this sorry world.” She took his hand. “Now, there is one more thing you should see.”
“There is more?” Several outrageous notions flew through his mind of the other kinds of things men enjoyed but women did not. It would be just like Clara to decide to even the score completely.
She led him back to the library. “You did not comment on how so many shelves are filled now.”
He had vaguely noticed that. Now he paid attention. One tall case indeed was filled, only not with books. The publications in it were much narrower than that, and not bound in leather or cloth.
He went over and pulled one down. Then another. The bottom four shelves held many with identical covers, a pale blue. He pulled out several of them and noted the date.
The entire case had been filled with the journal Parnassus, and the lower shelves held the new ones about to be made available in bookstores.
He should have guessed, he supposed. Once he learned that Lady Farnsworth wrote for the journal, and that Clara knew her well enough to have her present with Brentworth at the revelations about her father and grandmother, he should have guessed. When Clara claimed she could control the information the journal would print about the dowager countess, he should have known for certain.
He blamed relief and love for making him blind. His thoughts had been on other things, and this journal was a means to an end and nothing more. Now he paged through one of the volumes more carefully, noticing the content and the intelligence of it all.
“Do you do this all yourself?” he asked. “It is a notable achievement, Clara. An impressive one. The last discovery surprised me. This one not so much. Had I read one I might have known, it carries your mark so clearly.”
She came to the case and picked up one of the copies. She stroked it lovingly. “I do not do it all by myself. That is the best part. Others are involved. We could not do it without the contributors, or even the bookstores that place it for sale.”
“We? Who else owns this?”
“Althea has been with me from the start of it. She is a partner now, and she will be the publisher going forward.” She waved a gesture around the library. “She will manage the rest of this too. I have asked her to live here, if she wants. I will have other duties now, and other responsibilities very soon.”
She smiled at him so beautifully that he could not mind any of it, even if he wanted to. She was proud of her journal and this club. Rightfully proud. He reached for her and embraced her. “Althea can live here, but she is not to use your chamber or your bed. That is ours. It is to remain just as it is, because that is where I first had you.”
“How sentimental of you. I am charmed that you want a memorial to that night.”
“And future nights. I may be the only man ever allowed in this house, but I insist on that one right. I will want to reminisce on occasion.”
She circled his neck with her arms and pressed closely. She raised her face for a kiss. He gave her a long one full of the soulful love he experienced when he held her now.
“You did not ask about my new responsibilities?” she murmured into his coat afterwards, while she rested her head on his chest. “The ones that will interfere with my managing all of this now.”
“I assumed you meant your role as my duchess.”“It is more than that, Adam.” She looked up at him and her eyes glistened. “Have you not suspected this either? It has been some time since I refused you for the typical reason. A man and woman cannot share passion as we have without eventually—“
“Darling.” He lifted her in his arms, high, so her face was at the level of his. He searched for confirmation, and grew heady when he saw it.
She laughed. “I wanted to be sure before I told you.”
“When will the child be born?”
“Let us just say it is a good thing we married today. Had we waited for autumn the timing would have been too obvious.”
“To hell with timing. I did not think today could be more perfect but you have made it so. Damnation, Clara. I don’t think I will be able to keep this to myself. It will burst out at the breakfast.”
She took his head in her hands. “You can tell anyone you want, whenever you want, my love. When it is seen how happy we are, some people may even guess on their own.”
He set her down and held her close and enjoyed being delirious with her in his arms.
“We should probably ride back to your house now,” she said quietly. “Otherwise everyone will think we indeed dallied in scandalous ways in the coach.”
He turned her in his arm and led her to the door. “It is a good, long ride back, of course.”
“I expect this time of day it will take at least thirty minutes. Probably more.”
“Long enough to get you out of that dress completely, I believe.”
“I am sure of it. Would it be too decadent to ride through town like that, being pleasured?”
He gave her a kiss, and pictured what was to come. “Disgracefully decadent, but in the best way.”
The Most Dangerous Duke in London, copyright © 2017 Madeline Hunter