Read The Duke's Last Hunt Online

Authors: Rosanne E. Lortz

Tags: #regency, #mystery, #historic fiction, #Romance

The Duke's Last Hunt

BOOK: The Duke's Last Hunt
13.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

OTHER BOOKS BY ROSANNE E. LORTZ

Medieval Fiction

I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince

Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred

The Splintered Oak: A Short Story of the First Crusade

Regency Fiction

To Wed an Heiress

Historical Essays in Anthology

Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors (Volumes 1-2)

Part One

1

E
liza stared intently out the window, ignoring the argument taking place across from her in the carriage.

“But my dear,” said Lady Malcolm. “How can you possibly desire our daughter to ally herself with an irreligious man? How could she ever trust his prudence, his honesty, or his morals?”

“Upon my word, Margaret!” said Sir Arthur with a glare of annoyance. “It’s not as if the man is a confirmed libertine. So what if he does miss a Sunday service or two? And I’m not asking her to accept his offer right away. I’m simply asking her—and you—to keep an open mind on the matter.”

Lady Malcolm sniffed. Eliza recognized it as the sniff of longsuffering, somewhere in between the sniff of bearing one another’s burdens and the sniff of embracing one’s calling to living martyrdom.

“Come now, Eliza,” said Sir Arthur. “What have you to say on the matter?” He drummed his fingers on his knee.

Eliza opened her mouth and then shut it again. She had landed in the middle of her parents’ quarrels before and knew better than to do so again—although, in this case, she could hardly help but be in the middle of it. It was
her
future they were considering,
her
marriage to Rufus Rowland, the Duke of Brockenhurst.

“Well?” It had been a long carriage ride. It was a warm August day, but the dust from the road did not permit them to open the carriage windows. Sir Arthur’s patience was wearing as thin as the auburn hair receding from his high forehead.

“I feel….” Eliza hesitated. “I feel that I hardly know the man, Papa.” She glanced over to her mother and gained some courage. “I’ve stood up with him at a few balls over the course of the season, and I spent one half hour of awkward conversation with him at Almack’s. But it was a complete surprise to me when you said he’d called and asked permission to pay me his addresses.”

“And a complete surprise to me that you would say yes so readily!” interjected Lady Malcolm, fixing her husband with a steely glare. Her own hair was far darker than Eliza’s reddish brown curls, but they shared the same deep green eyes.

“And why shouldn’t I say yes?” Sir Arthur blustered. He had never been one to hesitate when a bird was in the hand, or in the bush, or in the tree, or over the hill. “He’s a duke, Margaret! And it’s not as if it’s Eliza’s first s—”

He caught himself abruptly, and an uncomfortable silence settled over the closed compartment. No, thought Eliza bitterly, it was
not
her first season. It was the end of her third—and still no matrimonial prospects on the horizon other than this sudden and perplexing interest shown by the Duke of Brockenhurst.

“In any case,” said Sir Arthur, “he’s called upon us in Grosvenor Square—”

“Twice,” said Lady Malcolm, acidly.

“—and you’ll have time to better your acquaintance during our stay at Harrowhaven, time to be certain before you make your decision.”

Eliza felt a new wave of warm air turn her cheeks pink. “Are you so sure, Papa, that he will even…ask?” How mortifying it would be to go to all this trouble to visit his country estate and then discover that the duke’s intentions were not serious. She pulled out her fan and tried to drive away the heat.

“Of course he will! The man’s smitten!” Sir Arthur’s voice was much too loud for the smallness of the carriage. “And who wouldn’t be?” He gave his daughter an encouraging smile.

Plenty of men, Eliza thought, unable to manage a smile in return. Every man who had danced with her during her first and second seasons—danced with her once and never approached again after a taste of her shy conversation. She moved her fan faster and began to breathe more quickly.

Lady Malcolm emitted another principled sniff.

Eliza laid down the fan. She
would
stay calm. She
must
stay calm. She touched the glass of the windowpane, once more feigning preoccupation with the scenery. They had entered a colonnade of tall oak trees lining the roadway, their full branches creating a screen that filtered the rays of the summer sun.

“Almost there now,” said Sir Arthur.

Eliza was not sure whether to be glad or begin to cry.

The carriage drive leading up to the house was interminable. The avenue of oaks, planted a hundred or more years ago by one of the Rowland ancestors, stretched out in a straight line far into the distance, paralleling the road on either side. The house, at first just a pinprick of stone amidst a sea of green, grew steadily larger until Eliza could make out the square towers and tall windows. Behind the house, the measured planting of oak trees gave way to the more natural growth of forest, wild and unrestrained.

“Prime place for hunting,” Sir Arthur noted approvingly.

“I believe the duke mentioned he is fond of hunting,” said Eliza, swallowing hard. The house was larger than she had expected. Would she know anyone else in the house party? Probably not. It was not as if the duke and she traveled in the same circles.

“More than fond of it!” said Sir Arthur. “He’s devoted to it!”

It was an unfortunate choice of words. Lady Malcolm uttered a tight-lipped comment about idolatry, and Eliza felt her ribs constrict even further.

On the edge of the forest they saw a small country church, its whitewashed stone a pleasant contrast with the green. “At least there will be
somewhere
for us to worship our Lord tomorrow,” said Lady Malcolm grimly.

“Of course there will be!” retorted Sir Arthur. “They’re not all heathens in Sussex, Margaret!”

The post chaise rounded one half of the circular drive to pull up at the door of the house. The wheels came to a stop. In the rear, Sir Arthur’s valet hopped down from the seat on the back of the carriage, covered with a yellow cloud of dust from the journey. In the front, the coachman handed down Frances Ollerton, Lady Malcolm’s lady’s maid, who had been mounted precariously in the box beside him. It would have been pleasanter for all concerned to have taken two coaches down to Harrowhaven, but then, reflected Eliza, they could not have gone to the expense of renting a second one. This journey was costing her father enough money as it was.

The carriage door opened, but instead of the driver waiting to hand her down, Eliza discovered two perfectly matched men in immaculate livery ready to perform the task.

“Thank you,” Eliza said, giving the nearest footman a faint smile. She was rewarded by a look of surprise.

“You’re welcome, miss,” the footman said tentatively and then faded away into the background behind the wheel of the post chaise.

They walked up the steps and in through the marble columns flanking the front door. Eliza’s lower lip dropped a little as they came into an entrance hall that seemed half the size of their entire London townhouse.

A welcoming committee had formed; however, a cursory glance showed that the greeters were composed entirely of domestics. Eliza, who had been dreading a conversation with the Duke of Brockenhurst, found herself disappointed that he was not at hand to welcome them. And neither was his mother, the dowager duchess.

The butler came forward with a bow and introduced himself as, “Hayward, at your service.” He beckoned for two more footmen to assist with unloading the carriage. Then he introduced the housekeeper, a Mrs. Forsythe, and assured them that she would attend to their every need.

Mrs. Forsythe briskly escorted the Malcolms out of the entrance hall, through the saloon, and over to the great oak stairway that led up to the next floor of the house. All the while, she kept them apprised of the history of the rooms they were passing through and asked questions about their own needs and comfort. “I see your valet and one lady’s maid have arrived. Will Miss Malcolm’s lady’s maid be coming in another carriage?”

Eliza flushed pink. Her mother saved her the embarrassment of responding.

“My maid attends to Miss Malcolm’s hair and gowns as well as my own.”

“I see,” said Mrs. Forsythe, in a tone that was both polite and unreadable.

Eliza supposed it would be unheard of for the dowager duchess to share a lady’s maid with her daughter, Lady Adele. She sighed. Here was one small incentive to entertaining the duke’s suit—as mistress of this house she would be able to have her own lady’s maid at last.

“When will the family be expecting us to join them?” Lady Malcolm asked.

Mrs. Forsythe hesitated, the first pause that Eliza had noticed in the housekeeper’s effortless industry. “I will let her grace, the duchess, know that you are here. Tea will be served in the drawing room in one hour.”

“Thank you,” said Lady Malcolm.

Eliza echoed the thanks, but her thoughts were more filled with apprehension than gratitude. What did the housekeeper’s hesitation mean? Was the dowager duchess even planning to receive them?

She wished she had been introduced to the duchess prior to this visit. How strange to be staying in someone’s house that one had never even met! But it was not the duchess’ house anymore, she reminded herself—it was the Duke of Brockenhurst’s. And with him she was acquainted—or as acquainted as a few dances and morning calls could make them.

The curving stairs paused on a magnificent landing, the walls decorated by a plethora of portraits in gilt frames. The portrait of the current Duke of Brockenhurst was situated most prominently. Eliza lingered in front of it. She had always found portraits to be a fascinating study. Those done by the best painters—such as the ones the Rowland family could afford—revealed a glimpse of something far deeper than the flat physiognomy of the subject.

Rufus’ eyes—could she call him
Rufus
in her mind? It was so strange to think of being that intimate with him!—were the first thing she noticed about the picture: bright, glittering, alive. She had never seen them that animated in person—certainly not on the dance floor or over the glass of punch they had shared at Almack’s. No, there was one time she had witnessed that excitement—when he had waxed eloquent about the merits of the hunt and the delights of the forest adjoining Harrowhaven.

She smiled wryly to see that the artist had toned down the brightness of the duke’s red hair. In the picture, it was more of an auburn color, the same shade as her own, not the shocking, brilliant red it was in real life. Perhaps the duke was not fond of his coloring—or perhaps his mother was not, since it was probably she who had commissioned the portrait.

Mrs. Forsythe had paused in her ascent of the stairs, noticing Eliza’s interest in the portrait. Eliza’s eyes flicked over the wall hurriedly—she did not want to keep the others waiting, but her curiosity had gotten the better of her.

There was another painting, placed higher and more out of the way than the duke’s, which looked like it had been done by the same artist at much the same time. The subject was darker, with brown hair and a more even complexion. He had the same broad shoulders as the duke, but his brows were more heavy set, his smile more serious. There was a steadiness about this one, especially in the eyes.

The housekeeper walked back over to where Eliza was standing and, following her eye, gazed up at the same picture. Eliza sensed a hint of approval in her eye and gained the courage to ask a question. “Please, Mrs. Forsythe, who is this one?”

“That would be His grace’s brother, Lord Henry.”

* * *

Henry Rowland tiptoed into the
cavernous library with care. It was as he suspected—the only person wasting a hot summer’s day in the library at White’s was his friend Stephen Blount. Light-footed as a cat, he glided over to the wingback chair where his friend sat, and without warning, threw down a silver case on the ebony table nearby. “What do you think of this?”

Stephen Blount jumped in his chair as if he had sat on a pin. “Might give a fellow warning! I thought you’d gone to the races.”

“No, I went to the stationer’s.” Henry sent a meaningful glance at the case he had dropped. He needed to show this to someone—it might as well be Stephen.

Setting down his newspaper, Stephen dutifully extracted a small white card from the silver case. He adjusted his spectacles to read aloud.

HENRY ROWLAND, DUKE OF BROCKENHURST

HARROWHAVEN, SUSSEX

Stephen started again. The card slipped from his fingers, clipping the edge of the ebony table before fluttering to the floor. “I say, Henry! What’s this supposed to mean?” He rubbed a knuckle against a left sideburn that was so thin as to be scarcely there. “Duke? You? I didn’t know your brother was so eager to abdicate the position….”

Henry smiled devilishly, flexing his broad shoulders with enjoyment. “I’m riding out to the old house to visit Mother tomorrow. I thought I’d leave one on the tray for him to remind him that I’m still alive. He’s having a house party, I hear. Strange—he didn’t think to invite
me
!”

Stephen took off his spectacles and shifted uncomfortably.

“Oh, you know about that, do you?” Henry’s dark eyebrows fell into a frown.

“Well, I…I…yes, dash it all, Henry! He invited me to come down for the week.”

“And you said yes, I take it?”

Stephen’s tentative smile was confirmation enough.

“Not on account of Rufus’ merit, I hope?” Henry already knew the answer to that question. “Don’t tell me you’re still dangling after that headstrong sister of mine!”

Stephen rose from his chair, a wounded look on his face. “I’m sorry if that offends you, but yes, I
am
still dangling after her, as you call it. And she has given me some reason to hope that my suit will not be in vain. I understand that you may see our situations as somewhat unequal—”

“Good Lord, man,” said Henry, clapping him on the shoulder. Why was it always the gentry who were so old-fashioned about these things? “I’ve no worries on that score. I was thinking more of your own domestic happiness.” He cleared his throat. “Adele’s a willful woman, Stephen….”

Willful? He was putting the matter far more politely than it deserved.

Stephen colored. “I’m not such a milksop as all that!”

Henry raised both eyebrows. It took all of his willpower to refrain from argument. “Well, good then! You’ll be there when I leave my card at the door. I shan’t stay long enough for him to throw me out. You can tell me how Rufus takes it.”

BOOK: The Duke's Last Hunt
13.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Alabaster Staff by Edward Bolme
Be Mine by Jennifer Crusie
Liberty Street by Dianne Warren
Unholy Fury by James Curran
Paradise Encounter by Anthony, Pepper
Flirting with Disaster by Sandra Byrd