Never Tempt a Duke

Never Tempt a Duke

Virginia Brown

March 2014 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-337-5

They married for happily never after.

 
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He could not forgive her deception. She could not resist the desire they shared. When a scandal forces them to marry, their passions lead to dangerous secrets.

Deverell regarded his beautiful bride dispassionately. He had begun to think—hope—he could find in her what he’d never had before.

That had disintegrated into ashes when she tricked him into marriage.

Now, the wedding breakfast done, the revelry just beginning, she gave him a nervous glance from where she stood near the arbor. He returned her gaze, took note of the wreath of baby’s breath and pink roses atop her head, the Belgian lace train cascading from her shoulders and draping loosely over her bare arms before falling to the hem of her gown, and felt nothing. She was beautiful; fairy-like; virginal. Deceitful.

A changeling, he told himself. She’d undergone so many transformations since he’d first met her that he wasn’t certain who she really was. Except that now she was his wife.

Deverell excused himself from Craven and strode to his bride; saw her instant wariness as he approached. The past fortnight had not endeared him to her, no doubt. Fitting enough, he supposed, since her actions had not endeared her to him either.

"So, my lovely bride,” he drawled, taking one of her hands and drawing her away from her companions, "I trust all has gone according to your wishes.”

Apart from the others, she tried to pull her hand free but he held it firmly. She flicked a glance at him from beneath her lashes, a maiden’s trick that had never worked on him. He’d had ample time to study the female strategy. Yet he had still been conquered by treachery. A galling admission of defeat.

"If it had gone according to my wishes, your grace,” she retorted, "I would be quite far from here, I assure you.”

"Somehow, I doubt that, my sweet,” he said softly. He lifted her gloved hand to his lips as if to press a loving kiss to her palm and murmured, "I think you’ve had things your way far too long.”

Virginia Brown is the author of more than fifty novels in historical romance, mystery and general fiction, including the bestselling Dixie Divas mystery series.

 


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Excerpt

 

Chapter One

Hampton Roads, Virginia—October 1815

"LET MY SISTER be the Earl of Eastland.”

"I am afraid that is impossible,” the old barrister said quietly. "I think you must do what is expected of you.”

Nicholas Trenton eyed him coldly. "I do not give a fig for what you think, sir.”

Master Hornbeak cleared his throat; his smile was placating. "Master Trenton—my Lord Eastland—you are just seventeen. Your life is ahead of you. I see you are upset, as you have every right to be, but—”

"I refuse. I’m an American.”

"Your father was an English citizen, heir to the Earl of Eastland, and became earl upon his death. You are your father’s only heir and next in line of succession.”

"We just trounced the British in a war. They burned the White House. I will not turn traitor.” Nicholas looked away from the barrister to his twin sister.

Alyssa stood next to him, dazed by the shocking news, her eyes focusing at last on her brother. His expression was defiant; blue eyes glittered with outrage, black hair tumbling loose from the tie at the nape of his neck as he shook his head. They were so much alike in appearance, yet so often different in nature.

She pleated the folds of her cotton gown between her fingers and plucked uneasily at the blue ribbons that streamed from just under her bodice. The hood of her red cape was thrown back, wool folds keeping her warm in the cold air of the barrister’s office. The news he had just imparted was difficult to absorb. She drew in a deep breath and attempted to soothe her brother.

"Nicky,” she said calmly, "perhaps we should consider it.”

He looked at her, his jaw clenched. "Do you like the idea of being shut away in a convent for the next few years?” he asked. "That is where he said you’ll have to go.”

Alyssa looked back at the barrister, who was mopping his face with a handkerchief. A dim lamp shed patchy light in the dark cubby he called an office. "Is this true?” she asked.

Hornbeak smiled; he spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Only until you marry, my dear. And it is not a convent, but Mrs. Porter’s Religious Academy for Well-Bred Young Ladies. It is all that can be done, you understand. The unexpected death of both your parents...” He paused when Alyssa pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle a sob. His voice softened as he continued, "Aye, ‘tis unfair for death to claim them both in a bout of fever and leave you behind with no one to care for you, but life is rarely fair. According to the terms of your late father’s first will, Miss Trenton, you will be given a small legacy that will allow you to live quietly at the academy. Until such a time as you wed, of course.”

Mrs. Porter’s! The establishment was notorious for separating young orphans of some means from their meager inheritances, all in the name of religious charity. Any monies went to the pockets of the administrators, not to the unfortunate residents.

She cleared her throat. "What is this about a first will? Does that mean there is a second will that replaces it?”

After a brief hesitation, the barrister said, "Your father was only newly made aware that he had inherited his father’s title and estates. He procured me to write his response, and I advised him to make a new will before undertaking a journey across the Atlantic. I am afraid that in my zeal to protect your father’s future, I made no provision for yours. Your brother, however, as your father’s first-born son, inherits whether there is a will or not.”

"Then why is some duke involved?” Nicholas demanded. "If I am to be the new earl, do I not make my own decisions?”

"Yes. As soon as you reach your majority. Until then, the duke is your guardian.”

Alyssa pulled her cloak more tightly around her, shivering slightly, but managed to keep her voice steady. "Am I to have no guardian?”

Master Hornbeak sighed. "His grace, as guardian by the terms of your grandfather’s will, will guide you both to your majority. He has stipulated that you abide by your father’s wishes and enter a religious academy that I have chosen for you.”

"Damned nonsense, if you ask me,” Nicholas snapped.

Hornbeak’s veined hand shook with agitation as he spread the letter out on the scarred desk. "Young Master—my lord,” the aging barrister tried again, "your father had the utmost faith in my judgment. Look at your situation. The house is falling to ruin after this last storm; your only retainers are old and have been pensioned for good and faithful service. The estates here have dwindled because of bad crops, death duties, and high taxes—but you have now been given a gift. One cannot get on in this world without a proper education, and for a young man of your now limited means... surely you see the sense in compliance.”

Nicholas shook his head. "Am I to answer to some English duke I do not know? This is not what I planned, not what my father planned for me. I was to attend West Point, then take a commission, not go off to England to serve the mad king. No. I would rather starve.”

"And your sister, do you wish that for her, too?” Master Hornbeak pressed his advantage when Nicholas glanced at Alyssa and didn’t respond. "Think of it. An extensive tour abroad, an excellent education, a title, all that wealth and position can offer, and it will be yours.”

"But not Alyssa’s,” Nicholas pointed out, and the barrister’s thin face darkened slightly.

"She will thrive at Mrs. Porter’s and be given every opportunity to marry well.” He coughed delicately. "The duke has expressed his preference for not being saddled with a young female. Surely you can understand that. He is an unmarried gentleman of some worth and would find it...” He paused, obviously searching for the right word.

"Annoying?” Alyssa suggested, unable to keep quiet a moment longer. "Inconvenient?” Her cheeks flushed with heat. "I do not care to be shoved into an academy and forgotten, Master Hornbeak, and you can inform the duke of my decision. I will remain in my parents’ house.”

Hornbeak looked startled. He’d obviously thought—until that moment—that a young girl would be much more tractable than her brother. She could have told him she was not.

His lantern jaw tightened, and his voice was unhappy. "You have few choices, my dear, as does your brother. Unless you fall in with the duke’s plans, no monies will be advanced. The house and land will be sold for taxes.” He let them absorb that for a moment before he added, "Your dear departed father would be pleased that his only son has inherited the title and sizable legacy that was to be his, and—”

"I don’t think so,” Nicholas interrupted harshly. "He did not think enough of it to ever mention that he had a father who was an English earl.”

Heavy silence greeted this statement. "I believe there was a disagreement when he did not return to England,” Master Hornbeak finally said. "The earl was distressed that his youngest son had remained in the Colonies.”

"Then he would definitely be upset that a Colonial has inherited his estates and title,” Nicholas pointed out. "It sounds illegal.”

As the barrister began a lengthy explanation of the English system of inheritance, Alyssa simmered with hurt, outrage, and rejection. It seemed as if Master Hornbeak was right, and that there was little they could do. But she and Nicky had never been separated in all their seventeen years, and it seemed so cruel to separate them now, with their parents dead a few months. Just the thought of them made her throat hurt, their loss a stabbing pain that nearly took away her breath when she let herself dwell on it. How could she bear to be separated from Nicky? He was all she had left of their family.

She knew he sensed her distress, because he put an arm around her shoulders. He was taller than she by several inches, his body already filling out in the chest and arms. His voice was deeper, his anger now tempered with resolution.

"No, Master Hornbeak, we refuse. We’d rather make our own way than live as what we are not. I can go to sea and support us.”

Master Hornbeak said rather sharply, "You have no other option, young sir. While you may think it a fine lark to go off on your own, think of your sister. She would not have as fine a time of it. She would be left behind, a maiden alone, defenseless from the cruel mercies of the world.”

Nicholas hesitated, and when he looked down at Alyssa, she saw the doubt in his eyes.

"We will be fine,” she reassured him. "I shall be with you, and perhaps Mrs. Pomfrey will let me stay with her while you are gone to sea. She has that small cottage she can share.”

"Ah, Ally. Mrs. Pomfrey is near eighty. What if she dies while I am out to sea? Then what would you do? You would be alone and unsafe. Perhaps Master Hornbeak is right.”

Panic clawed at her so that she could hardly speak, desperation forcing words out as if they came from someone else. "No. No, we’ve never been separated. Not for long. Not for as long as it would be if you lived in England and I stayed here. It’s so far and I might never see you again. No, if you leave, I’ll go with you.”

Master Hornbeak spoke up in alarm. "Don’t do that, oh, no, that would be disastrous. I shudder to think what the duke would say if I were to allow you both to turn up on his doorstep.”

She turned toward him, sick with disappointment, terrified, angry, and desperate to find a resolution. "You have never met him. Why do you care what he might say?”

"The duke’s influence reaches far, my dear, very far.” Hornbeak pressed the handkerchief to his face and shook his head. "Even in America, he has powerful connections.”

Nicholas muttered an oath under his breath, rubbed his hand across his jaw, then swung his attention back to the barrister. "I have never heard of the Duke of Deverell. Until today I had no idea he existed. He cannot be that powerful a man.”

"Young master, suffice it to say that if the duke wished to have you brought to him in an apple barrel, that would be how you arrived.” Hornbeak shook his head again. "There is no point in raging against your fate—it has been decided, yes, and your sister’s, too. I am sorry, but that is the way of it. No magistrate would sanction any other decision. By law, you must comply.”

Alyssa sucked in a deep breath, tasted the musty air of the dank office, blinked away hot tears pressing against her eyelids, and tucked her hands into the warm folds of her cloak. It was definite then. She was to be locked away until she reached her majority, then offered as a wife to whoever asked for her hand. She kept her back straight, her chin up, her trembling hands hidden, and it wasn’t until she looked up into her brother’s eyes that she had the first glimmer of hope. He has a plan...

"BUT NICKY, THIS seems like madness,” Alyssa protested. "It cannot succeed.”

They stood beneath the skimpy shelter of the arbor some distance from the main house. It, too, had been wrecked by the recent storm, indicative of their shattered circumstances. The wind caught a dead vine and rattled it, and Nicholas jerked it free with an impatient twist of his hand. He barely looked at his sister’s pale, upturned face.

"Even madder would be trotting meekly over to England to do the old duke’s bidding,” he muttered. When he finally looked down at her, she managed a faint smile. He sighed. "Don’t look at me so tragically, Ally. This is for the best.”

She shivered and flinched against a gust of icy rain that whipped into her eyes. "But... but when will I see you again?”

"As soon as we reach our majority,I can come to England. We will be eighteen in only a few months. Once we are old enough to make our own decisions by law, no one can tell us what to do.”

"If only I knew what was best. This is such a risk. What if I cannot do it? What if Master Hornbeak sees through the disguise and calls a magistrate? What if—”Another harsh gust of wind caught her, and she clutched at the side of the arbor.

Nicholas reached out quickly to grab her arms. "Don’t swoon on me now, Ally. I have to go. The captain won’t wait long on me, and I had a devil of a time finding an open berth. It’s the Sea Gypsy, one of the best merchant ships to sail the West Indies.”

Alyssa coiled her fingers around his upper arms, digging into the wool of his coat to give him a little shake. "Have I ever swooned?”

"No. I don’t think you have.” Nicholas smiled. He braced her with an arm behind her back; his face went taut with suppressed emotion. "So you will do what we planned, right?”

She gave a sigh of surrender. "Yes. I will do what we planned. If it doesn’t work, you can look for me hanging from a gibbet by the seawall.”

He laughed. "I don’t think any judge would hang you.” He bent, picked up his sea bag,and hefted it over his shoulder, then caught her in a one-armed embrace. His voice was strangely gruff when he put his lips close to her ear and said, "I will come for you soon, Ally.”

She followed him as far as she could go, stopping on the sand spit overlooking the docks to stand for a long time. She watched his silhouette grow smaller and smaller, until he disappeared completely in the fog and mist that rolled in from the sea. Then he was gone, and she trudged back to the empty house.

ALYSSA STARED into the cheval mirror. She held long shears in one hand; dark, silky lengths of cut hair draped from her other hand. Close-cropped curls now crowned her head; her blue eyes were rimmed with dark circles, and the resemblance to her brother was marked if not exact. Her features were too feminine. Where his jaw was square, hers was rounded. His mouth, so quick to turn up at the corners in a smile that reached his eyes, was more masculine. Her lips looked softer somehow, not as quick to smile. Nicky was much taller, having grown half a foot in just the past year, she was sure. She had donned a pair of snug-fitting buff-colored wool trousers he’d worn the year before, and they drooped over her heels in the back. The white muslin shirt was baggy, and the colorful scarlet waistcoat hung past her much smaller waist.

"Maybe if I put on his coat,” she murmured and shrugged into a large, unfitted coat with claw-hammer tails. Fortunately, the shirt and waistcoat hid her more feminine attributes and kept her secret from being readily guessed. It was, she finally decided as she stood in front of the mirror, a passable imitation. Nicky’s old greatcoat would complete it.

The final test would be in the morning when Master Hornbeak arrived to escort her to the Hampton Road docks, where she would board the ship for England.

But the next morning, Alyssa realized she had overlooked one important detail: her footwear. She was forced to pull on a pair of Nicky’s old boots and stuff handkerchiefs into the toes to keep them from coming completely off her more narrow feet. The final effect was a rather odd one when she hobbled from the house, afraid she would lose a boot with each step.

"Where is your sister, lad?” Master Hornbeak asked when she climbed clumsily into the waiting carriage. He was muffled in a greatcoat and scarf with only his eyes showing, as it was a blustery, gray day. Then he leaned forward to stare at her with a frown. "Are you well?”

"No. I have a cold,” Alyssa said in a gruff tone and handed him the folded letter with her own writing on it. The letter stated that she had departed early for the religious academy and that she thanked him for his kind assistance with her parents’ estate. For a moment,she thought he must know of the deception; he did not immediately read the letter. Her heart thumped, a sick feeling gnawed at her stomach, and she wished she had not eaten the last bite of pork pie.

Hornbeak finally turned his attention to the coachman, who loaded her trunk onto the boot and signaled he should go. The carriage jerked forward, hooves sounded loud against the cobbled street, and the house where she had lived for seventeen years grew smaller and smaller, then disappeared as the horses picked up the pace and rounded a corner. Her journey had begun; the life she had always known ended.

The barrister opened the letter and squinted at the painstakingly worded lines. He gave a satisfied nod. "Ah, she is a good sensible lass. Now, here is your letter of introduction. Go to the shipping office when you arrive in Southampton, and the duke’s man will meet you there.

"Keep in mind that the duke may deal harshly with hotheaded, impetuous young men, so school your temper. Once you arrive in England I have fulfilled my obligations to the duke, and you will be under his charge. Do you understand? Excellent.” He rubbed his gloved hands together briskly. "Now we must get you on that ship so I can get back to a warm fire. It’s been uncommon cold this season.”

Before she dared believe that the first part of Nicky’s plan that she had called "a grand, mad scheme” had succeeded, she stood aboard the Fairwinds. She hoped the ship’s name was prophetic. Docks were loaded with barrels of grain, corn, and whisky; stacks of dried tobacco; and crates of goods imported from England, France,and Spain. Drays pulled by massive horses rolled noisily from wharves to warehouses. Heavy sails flapped overhead like giant birds of prey, and she looked up. Three thick masts speared the gray sky, wrapped in rope and canvas. Seagulls rode air currents with white wings spread wide, seeming to drift lazily, their cries filtering down. The salt air was brisk, cold wind whipped at her coat, and she wondered if Nicky felt the same sense of desolation that she felt now.

There was no turning back.


 

 

Chapter Two

SOUTHAMPTON LAY under a thick blanket of fog, the wind occasionally revealing gray stone buildings and tall spires. The Fairwinds had ridden in on high tide right at daylight and anchored at the teeming docks. Alyssa grabbed at the rail to steady her balance. A good headwind had gotten them to England in just under five weeks, but it felt more like five months. The gangplank from ship deck to wharf bumped and scraped against the quay with the ship’s motion. Passengers queued up at the rail, disembarking slowly, while sailors scrambled up narrow lines to the rigging high above the decks. She couldn’t watch. It made her stomach lurch most unpleasantly. Ropes creaked; the ship swayed; seawater sloshed in white spumes that sent a fine mist into the air. She hadn’t felt dry since leaving Hampton Roads. Salty air that smelled like fish, smoke, and a dozen other scents she couldn’t identify—and didn’t know if she wanted to—permeated everything. She held tightly to the small velvet bag she had kept out from her leather trunk. It held her letter of introduction, her mother’s Bible,and her father’s pipe. Precious items.

A woman with two small children walked gingerly down the gangplank in front of her. When one of the children—a little girl in a white cap—reached the dock, she promptly bent over and vomited. Alyssa felt like doing much the same once she reached solid ground; she walked awkwardly with the sudden absence of constant movement. A step, then a stagger sideways, then another step, then stagger—she muttered a curse she had heard her brother use.

"Still got yer sea legs, eh laddie?” a sailor asked with a chuckle as he passed.

"Aye,” she answered gruffly.

The sense of freedom in having fewer expectations as a young man than there were for a young woman had been first surprising, then exhilarating. No one asked questions if she strolled the ship’s deck unescorted; no one had made inquiries if she stayed in the tiny cabin that was no larger than a packing crate. Her brief forays out to empty her chamber pot went unremarked, as did her solitary meals. Five weeks of being someone she wasn’t taught her that she could be who she wanted if she were clever enough.

This new resolve took her across docks churning with activity. She strode confidently to the shipping offices, pushed open the door, and was welcomed by a blast of warm air. She stood for a moment, enjoying unexpected heat. If not for her brother’s greatcoat and several layers of clothing, she no doubt would have frozen to death on the voyage. Ships were not noted for hot stoves in the cabins. The only heat source had been in the main dining hall, carefully tended by a crew member. A disadvantage of her borrowed gender was that women and children sat closest to the stove. So she had huddled with the men on the colder fringes of assembled passengers.

Several men stood near the fireplace in the shipping office; heat emanated outward in a circle that lured her closer. One of them looked up, and she reached in her pocket for the letter of introduction. When she pulled it from the velvet bag and handed it to him, he unfolded it, read it, then nodded. A runner was sent to fetch the duke’s steward from a nearby tavern. She remained in the shipping office, close to the fireplace, until he arrived.

Carrick, as he was introduced, was a man of medium height, middle age, and extreme courtesy. He had her trunk carried to the waiting carriage and led the way across the docks, sidestepping piles of horse manure, mud puddles, and other unsavory things, while she followed behind. The duke’s four-wheeled carriage was pulled by four matched horses and driven by a coachman in a high box at the front. A footman garbed in dark blue livery opened the carriage door for her, and Carrick politely asked if she required refreshment before they set out.

"It is some distance to Deverell Hall, my lord,” he said, "so I took the liberty of providing a basket for you. We will stop at an inn along the way, but it is also some distance.”

"I am not hungry, thank you,” she replied. It was true. Her stomach had yet to calm.

A little dazzled by the thick velvet cushions of the seats, matching draperies at the coach windows, and the uniforms of the footmen and coachman, she settled inside,and the door shut. Alone in the carriage, she wondered what Nicky would say if he saw her sitting like royalty in a coach that no doubt cost more than their family home. A small metal box of hot coals cleverly tucked beneath the seat provided heat, and as the vehicle rolled past warehouses, more quays, huge stone bridges, churches with tall steeples, and then half-timbered buildings and taverns, she yawned. Other carriages rocked by, dogs barked, people scurried down rutted streets, and single horsemen passed at brisk speeds. Then the city was behind them,and lonely stretches of winter-brown fields interspersed with villages of thatched-roof cottages provided the scenery.

It wasn’t very long before they rode through the bustling city of Portsmouth, another port of call, with a round castle on the harbor and tall church spires. Then they were out of that city and into the countryside again, leaving behind the paved roads. The carriage rocked whenever it hit a rut. She dug into the basket and took out a half-loaf of bread, some cheese, and a small bottle of ale. No sooner had she eaten than she became too drowsy to keep her eyes open. Though the hot coals had cooled to embers, it was still fairly warm inside, and she let sleep overtake her.

She dreamed someone called to her in a vaguely familiar voice, but he didn’t call her by name, instead saying, "Lord Eastland. Lord Eastland.” Then a light touch on her shoulder jerked her fully awake. The carriage door stood open,and Carrick waited politely. It took a moment to realize night had fallen. Harness chains rattled, a horse snorted, and the coach swayed slightly.

She sat up. Nicky’s bulky coat had twisted uncomfortably under her; the cravat half-untied and buttons undone on her waistcoat.

Carrick cleared his throat. "I trust you slept well, my lord.”

"Indeed,” she said in the gruff tone she had cultivated as her disguise. "Are we already at the inn?”

"Yes, my lord. Should you wish to walk about or refresh yourself with food and ale, we will be here for a short time.”

She strode past Carrick to The George, an old pub that squatted between the Petersfield Road and the River Meon. Two stories high, the brick building faced the road; an old stone church marked the village with a tall, square tower. Patrons stood outside the inn, some waiting to board the coach that had just changed horses and stood in front. People crammed inside, and other unfortunate souls were left to climb on top and cling to the roof. It was cold enough that frost clouds formed around the snorting horses, hovering in front of passengers who had paid only a shilling to ride atop (three shillings to ride in the comparative comfort of a crowded crate). The coachman sat on his high box, clad in a bulky greatcoat and boots.

Inside, the inn was just as crowded; people huddled near the fireplace or hunched over tables. It reeked of stale sweat and the press of bodies, hot bread, and ale. Carrick commandeered a table, and one of the duke’s footmen brought her a slab of roasted beef, bread, and a tankard of beer. The beef was stringy and overcooked, but the bread was fresh, and the beer tasted strongly of hops. She ate and drank sparingly, grew drowsy by the warm fire, and was glad when Carrick came for her again.

Night had fallen, but the box of glowing coals had been replenished, and the interior of the carriage was warm. Before long she fell asleep again, exhausted from more than a month of days and nights interrupted by the constant heaving of the ship and frequent storms that had left her shivering in terror and wondering why on earth her brother had thought going to sea would be an adventure. It was a nightmare.

When next she saw Carrick, he stood at the opened door of the carriage.

"Another inn?” she asked, still sleepy as she sat up and glimpsed a blaze of lights.

"No, my lord. We have reached Deverell Hall.”

Instantly aware of her appearance, she did a surreptitious check of her clothing to be certain nothing was revealed, straightened her cravat, buttoned the waistcoat, grabbed her small velvet bag, and descended from the coach. She almost lost one of the boots as it slid over her heel, paused to stick her foot deeper into the worn leather, then blinked up at the lights that illuminated the high walls of Deverell Hall.

Mellow brick gleamed dully under countless lanterns. Two staircases—one at each side—angled upward; Corinthian columns supported a pitched roof fronted with an ornate frieze. She had a vague impression of two wings curving east and west from the central building; a forest of chimneys and spires jutted up from the roof, dark silhouettes against the clear night sky. Venetian windows with gilded sash frames and glazing bars relieved the stark simplicity of the house. More lights brightened part of a long, curving drive that disappeared into dark shadows and stately trees. In the distance, faint glimmers indicated a gatehouse. It was a bit disconcerting.

The entire town of Hampton Roads could fit into this house...

She mounted the stairs behind Carrick, mindful of the gross misconception she had entertained when still ignorant of the scope of the duke’s influence. A man of his consequence had to wield great power. Her heart gave a hard thump, and the queasiness she had hoped to leave behind on the Fairwinds roiled. Her shiver had little to do with the harsh bite of the wind.

Nicky’s boots echoed loudly against the black-and-white marble in the vast entrance hall as she followed the steward. Carrick’s boots didn’t make a sound as he crossed the floor to a corridor that led into one of the wings. She followed silently.

Life-sized Greek and Roman statues peered from niches at discreet intervals. A row of crystal chandeliers dangled from the corridor ceiling; painted murals of mythical gods edged in glittering baroque scrolls caught the candlelight. At the far end of the corridor,an apse held a statue of Zeus mounted on a sculptured dais. Papa had taught her Greek and Roman mythology, saying that just because she was female it did not preclude knowledge of the finer arts. Her mother had taught her manners befitting a young lady: how to embroider linen, dance a fine step, and play the pianoforte. Her parents had taught her all she needed for her future, save one thing: how to survive their untimely deaths.

Neither Catherine nor Stephen Trenton had ever mentioned his father was an earl; he never said he missed England, and he had been so in love with his wife that he died only days after her. Now she knew he had left behind a life of privilege to follow his heart and never looked back. It was a romantic tale of love worthy of Miss Jane Austen, and one she could never hope to equal.

Carrick led her through an arched doorway; her footsteps echoed loudly on marble floors. Muted brocade wallpaper covered some walls, and though not especially flamboyant, it was quietly elegant. Massive pieces of furniture were scattered regally throughout the rooms.

She felt like an interloper, a shabby intruder. Her overlarge boots slid up and down on her heels,even with two pair of stockings, and when Carrick turned back to her, his brow furrowed.

"Is there a problem, my lord?”

"I beg your pardon?”

"Your gait is rather... hesitant.”

"Oh. I lost my boots aboard the ship, and these are not mine. They’re borrowed.”

Carrick nodded. "I see, my lord.”

A half-truth is as wrong as an entire lie, her mother used to tell her, but she thought there must be extenuating circumstances on occasion. It would hardly do to explain that she wore her brother’s boots in order to perpetuate a colossal lie. What would she say to an English duke who considered her very existence an inconvenience? It could be nothing but lies if she wished to escape ending her days in an isolated religious academy with other unfortunate females. She had to hold tight to her resolve. Perhaps the duke would be too old or busy to notice the deception.

Carrick paused at last, his hand on a tall door, and said softly, "You may wish to adjust your cravat and waistcoat, my lord.”

As he swung open the heavy door,she tugged at her waistcoat and rearranged her cravat into what she hoped was a tidy knot. A thick carpet covered the floor of the small room, a brass lamp shed light, and a mirror set in a gilt frame went from floor to ceiling. She quickly checked the state of her clothes as Carrick stepped to another door and rapped twice. Clenching her velvet bag tightly in one fist, she inhaled deeply. Thrumming apprehension tightened her nerves.

Then Carrick motioned her forward; she took another deep breath to steady her resolve and strode clumsily across the rich carpet and into the next room. She had a brief impression of elegant furniture; floor-to-ceiling bookcases; landscape paintings; tall, mullioned windows with heavy drapes; and solid silver candlesticks. Then she saw the man behind a huge walnut desk.

Her heartbeat escalated rapidly; the breath caught in her throat. The Duke of Deverell—what on earth was his real name, she wondered wildly—was not old at all. And he was quite possibly the most attractive man she had ever seen in all her seventeen years. Why had she and Nicky assumed he was in his dotage? He most definitely was not. He didn’t look to be even ten years older than she was now.

The duke stood behind the desk and looked up as she approached.

"Your grace,” Carrick said from somewhere behind her, his voice quietly respectful, "may I present to you The Earl of Eastland.”

Alyssa curled her hands tightly around the velvet bag and summoned every scrap of courage she had left. I am Nicholas Trenton, Earl of Eastland, she reminded herself, Nicholas Trenton from Hampton Roads...

The duke looked at her with a slightly lifted brow, as if he had already judged her and found her lacking. She wavered between fear and awkwardness. Since he had not yet spoken, she didn’t know if she was supposed to speak first, if she was supposed to bow, or even prostrate herself on the floor.

When he remained silent, her fear and awkwardness quickly melded into a defensive irritation. She lifted her chin slightly and stared right back at him. Tall, with broad shoulders that filled out an open-necked white shirt, a striped waistcoat buttoned over a lean waist, and buff-colored long trousers that no doubt tucked into highly polished Hessian boots, he gave every appearance of one of his Greek statues. Cold perfection. Lamplight glinted on blond hair thickly blended with brown, close-cropped, and feathered slightly over his ears and on the back of his neck. Brilliant green eyes beneath dark brows caught her gaze and held her frozen in place.

"Have you done gawking, Eastland?” the duke asked finally.

She heard the disdain in his deep voice; it summoned a hot flush and quick reply: "Have you?”

Carrick politely stepped into the breach. "Your grace, perhaps Colonials don’t understand proper protocol.”

Deverell did not look at him. "I am well aware of the lamentable lack of manners peculiar to ill-bred Colonials, Carrick. I find such an absence of basic courtesies abhorrent.”

Her chin lifted higher, resentment flaring, as she met the duke’s scathing gaze. "If you always address guests in your home so rudely, sir, I can well imagine that you have been treated to some ill manners in your time.”

Carrick stepped forward,and Deverell waved him aside with a negligent hand.

"Leave us, Carrick.”

The steward immediately inclined his head and murmured, "Your grace,” as he stepped backward, pausing by Alyssa just long enough to repeat in a whisper, "Your grace.”

She realized that she was to address the duke as such, but his obvious contempt of her circumstances checked her tongue. She said nothing.

Deverell regarded her with grim appraisal in his eyes. "Feisty little beggar, aren’t you?” he murmured, and stepped around the edge of his desk. He paused, leaned back against the heavy surface,and crossed his legs at the ankles in an indolently graceful motion. She had been right about the boots, although instead of the Hessians she imagined, he wore glossy black top boots. He seemed relaxed, while her nerves stretched so tautly she felt she might shatter into a thousand pieces at any moment. Unnerved, she lowered her gaze to stare at the carpet.

Somewhere a clock ticked with slow, sonorous clicks, and with each passing moment it sounded louder and louder in the quiet room. Finally he drawled, "You may be presentable once you have a decent wardrobe. You seem game enough.”

She lifted her gaze to his narrowed eyes. "Do I?”

This was going very badly. Her chest ached from holding her breath, and if she hadn’t been certain her legs were too shaky to work properly, she might have fled from the room.

The duke’s voice was terse when he said, "Yes, you cocky little upstart, you’re not only game, you’re insolent. Who taught you your manners, pray tell? They don’t speak very well for your parentage, that much is certain.”

Despite anger mixed with apprehension, she recognized the truth in what he said. "My parents would be appalled if they heard me be impolite, sir—your grace. They didn’t condone ill manners to even the most boorish of louts.”

A muscle leaped in the duke’s lean jaw, but his voice was soft and even. "I find that less than comforting at this moment.” He straightened and levered his body away from the desk in a smooth motion. "I see that you won’t need a nursemaid. You seem well equipped to handle yourself in verbal spars, at least.” His gaze raked her again, and she stiffened warily. "A little restraint and improved manners and you’ll do, I suppose. Damned inconvenient of old Eastland to leave me with this task, but that’s what I get for being such a good-natured fellow.”

Good-natured was the last epithet she would have thrown at the duke. And he did not sound at all friendly, or even remotely civil, when he met her wary gaze and continued to reprimand her.

"As of now, Lord Eastland, you’d best learn to whom you should prove your mettle and whom to avoid like the plague.”

"I believe I have already learned the last, sir—your grace,” she replied shortly.

"Somehow, my boy, I doubt that,” Deverell said evenly. "You stand in danger of a thorough caning, and I assure you that it would give me great pleasure to administer it. But I will be lenient this evening, as I realize how tired you must be.”

Wisdom bade Alyssa hold her tongue. She recognized in the duke’s tautly held posture that she had, indeed, frayed his temper. He eyed her for a moment as if waiting for her to say something, and when she remained silent, he strode past her to the door and opened it.

"Have this impudent young pup shown to his chambers, Carrick,” Deverell instructed, as the steward came back into the room. "And begin his lessons early tomorrow. I intend to enroll him in the Lent Half at Eton. It appears that we have to make up for a great deal of lost time if he is to be properly educated and formed into a decent Englishman.”

Alyssa had already turned to follow Carrick, but at that last, she whirled around to glare at the duke. "I am not an Englishman. I am an American, sir, and will always be so!”

Carrick paused, waiting, but the duke’s gaze rested on her heated face for a long moment, no doubt assessing her fate.

"As detrimental to your inheritance as that would be, it should be interesting to see how an American compares to an Englishman,” he drawled at last, his tone deceptively mild. "So far, your manners as an American are definitely lacking. Now leave me, before I lose my temper entirely and give you the thrashing you so richly deserve.”

She backed away a step, keeping a wary eye on the duke. He was coldly but visibly angry with her; it was hardly surprising. She had let her temper overrule common sense. If not for the fact that she was certain she’d never succeed, she would have fled England at once.

As she turned to follow Carrick, Alyssa stepped out of her overlarge boot and had to pause. Her face flamed as she tried to wedge her foot back into it, half-stumbled, and was forced to bend to straighten the crumpled boot top. In her efforts to do so, she dropped her velvet bag, and it slid across the highly polished floor before she could catch it.

"Good God,” she heard the duke mutter. "What a clumsy pup.”

Carrick came to her rescue, murmuring, "Here, my lord, allow me to assist,” and knelt to help push her foot back into the boot. That done, he retrieved the bag, gave it to her, and quickly led her to the open door and escorted her through it as if fearing she would somehow do something else to incur the duke’s wrath.

When the door closed behind her, Alyssa’s knees were shaking, and her hands trembled so badly that she shoved them into the deep pockets of the coat. She looked up to see Carrick’s dismayed gaze on her and said faintly, "I don’t think he likes me.”

Carrick cleared his throat and seemed to gather his composure. "I hope that is not true, my lord. I must say, however, that after a light repast and a good night’s rest, matters will greatly improve.”

"Do you really think so?” Alyssa murmured as she followed Carrick up a wide flight of stairs and through a confusing maze of hallways. "I have the feeling they’ll only get worse.”

 


 

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