The Way to a Duke's Heart: The Truth About the Duke

BOOK: The Way to a Duke's Heart: The Truth About the Duke
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The Way to a Duke’s Heart

The Truth About the Duke

Caroline Linden

Dedication

This one is for girlfriends, who know when to laugh, when to nod, when to be blunt and when to be kind, when to send chocolates and when to pass the wine.

You know who you are.

Prologue

H
e was born to be a great man.

At birth he was swaddled in the finest linens embroidered with the crest of the Earldom of Gresham—his father’s second-highest title and therefore his, by courtesy of being the heir. The great estates of Durham and all his father’s lesser properties, extensive and wealthy enough to be a small kingdom, would be his one day. His line could be traced back to the first Earl of Durham, ennobled by Richard the Lionheart himself, and on his mother’s side he was descended from Edward IV. The blood of not just dukes, but kings, flowed in his veins.

He was expected to live up to it. One of his first memories was of his nurse scolding him for some misdeed and telling him how great he would be. “You’ll be a duke one day, a great man like your father, and it doesn’t become you to hit your brother,” she’d told him as she spanked his hand with her wooden spoon. He squirmed in agony through the punishment, but there was nothing he could say in reply. His brother Edward wasn’t the heir; he was not born to be great. Charles Cedric Spencer Fitzhenry de Lacey, eldest son of the Duke of Durham, felt the burden of his heritage from an early date.

When he was eight he was sent off to school. His mother cried, but Charlie was eager to go. Being the heir meant he was closely supervised, and school promised freedom. And first Eton, then Oxford, suited him; in their demanding halls and fields, where a boy’s character as well as his body and mind endured trial by fire, he thrived. He made friends easily, and was big enough to hold his own against those he didn’t befriend. His family’s standing was among the highest in England, and he was usually elected head of any group of boys. He acquitted himself reasonably well in his lessons, and learned the trick of winning his tutors’ favor to raise his standing even more. And his title made him irresistible to girls of all ages and shapes, which was just bloody brilliant in Charlie’s opinion. Away from home, he felt quite up to the lordly destiny imposed on him at birth.

At home, though, was a different story. His father had always been a demanding parent, but his mother leavened the atmosphere at Lastings Park with laughter and love, teasing Durham out of his darker moods. When she died, the summer Charlie was eleven, it cast a shadow over the whole household but most especially over the duke. Durham grew stern and critical of everything his sons did. He constantly pushed them all to excel, but Charlie was held to a higher standard—impossibly high, it seemed. When he finished in the upper half of the form, Durham excoriated him for not being at the top. When he was reprimanded at school for some harebrained caper, Durham himself came to deliver a brutal lecture and suspend his pocket money for a full term, forcing Charlie to live like a pauper and borrow what he could from friends. Whatever he did, his father found fault with, citing his future position and duty as the bar he fell woefully short of. Charlie privately thought he wasn’t quite as bad as all that, but he dutifully bore up under the lectures and thrashings. He was the heir, after all, and great men bore up under adversity.

And yet.

He came home from school at age sixteen to discover his father had begun talking about estate business with Edward—Edward, who was only thirteen. “The boy’s uncommonly bright,” the duke boasted to a neighbor, in hearing of all his sons. “Excellent sense in his head. Quite the brightest of my lads.” Charlie shot an unhappily surprised look at his brother, who only gave a sheepish shrug. Edward couldn’t help being clever with numbers. Charlie, who managed well enough at mathematics but didn’t really care for it, knew he was beaten before he’d even realized there was a competition.

When he next came home on holiday from university, he discovered his youngest brother Gerard had shot up in height and now topped him by two inches. Charlie, accustomed to seeing Gerard’s eager face turned up to him in admiration, found this unsettling. Gerard had inherited the de Lacey streak of fearlessness, and when he rode the unbroken colts, Durham roared with approval. Charlie, who had been forbidden since birth to touch those raw colts, watched in grim silence. While not precisely longing to risk his neck on Durham’s wildest horseflesh, he rather resented his father’s obvious approval of his youngest brother’s abilities and daring.

But all this, too, one might endure. As infuriating as it was to suffer in comparison to younger brothers, Charlie still had the consolation of knowing he was the heir. Edward might be cleverer at managing the estates, but they would be
his
estates. Gerard might cover himself in glory on the battlefield, but
he
would have the seat in Parliament, where the direction of the nation was decided. He might never be renowned for his brilliance or lauded for his courage, but he would
matter
. He told himself the rest was immaterial; he didn’t hate his brothers for their talents, even if his father clearly preferred them. Lord knew he wasn’t the only heir to chafe under a strict and demanding father’s hand.

But then he met Maria.

He had gone to the local assembly rooms on a lark with Rance and Longhurst, two mates from university. All three were whiling away a few weeks of freedom before departing on the Grand Tour; Durham had finally decided he might travel abroad, so long as he stayed clear of any lingering madness in France. In a room filled with gentleman farmers and a handful of gentry, Charlie and his titled friends stood out like candles in the darkness. Every female in the room sighed in rapture at their entrance, from the blushing young ladies to their suddenly alert grandmamas. So many females were presented to him that night, Charlie lost count. He danced until his feet were sore, and was in search of liquid refreshments when he caught sight of the ravishing creature who would turn his world upside down.

She was almost ethereally beautiful, with sky blue eyes in a perfect pale oval face. Her dark curls were tied with a simple white ribbon, and her pink dress displayed a plump, luscious figure. Even so, it was the toe of her slipper, peeking from beneath her skirt and tapping in time with the music, that really caught his eye. Why was such a lovely girl not dancing? And who the devil was she?

A few discreet questions supplied the answers. “Maria Gronow,” Rance reported. “Family’s a bit dodgy, if you believe the gossip. Still—by gad, Gresham, she’s a sweet piece.”

“Yes,” said Charlie, staring at her openly. “Find someone to introduce me.”

It was nearly love at first sight. She blushed very prettily when he bowed to her, but her smile was almost coy. She agreed to one dance, which sadly turned out to be an old-fashioned pavane that prevented any significant conversation, and then refused to grant him another.

“A lady must be so careful of her reputation, my lord,” she murmured, looking up at him through her eyelashes and flashing an enigmatic smile. “And a gentleman must mind his intentions.”

“Of course, Miss Gronow.” He returned her smile, already anticipating the pursuit.

When he called to pay his compliments, she smiled in her coquettish way and said she hoped he would come again. He did, with flowers, and was rewarded with her agreement to go riding with him. Mrs. Gronow, her mother, granted permission with a smile, but it was nothing to the smile Maria gave him later, after he stole his first kiss on that first ride together. From that moment, he was lost.

It was an intoxicating month. Charlie called on her every day, taking her riding and driving and even just walking. He grew drunk on the taste of her, the scent of her, the touch of her lips. She understood him; for hours they talked, and she never failed to take his side and roundly malign anyone who slighted him. She looked at him as if no one else in the world existed, and he didn’t know how he could survive without her. He couldn’t sleep for thinking of her. He could barely carry on conversations for thinking of when he would see her next. Every kiss drove him mad, every touch made him burn, and her tempting little smile only fueled the inferno of desire inside him. Quite rapidly his world divided in two, where there was only the bright heaven containing Maria and the cold dark hinterland containing everyone else.

His friends noticed. They teased him about his luck in securing the prettiest piece of muslin in Sussex, and Charlie just smiled. His love for Maria, he knew, was a tricky thing. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her for several months to take a Grand Tour. Not because he feared falling in love with someone else, as she sometimes teased him, but because he was mad for her. If anything, she would find another fellow while he was gone, someone polished and older and independent. He was sure Maria could tempt a royal prince himself, if she happened across His Highness’s path. The more Rance and Longhurst talked of the tour looming before them, the more resistant Charlie grew. Italy and Greece would always be there; Maria, young and beautiful and almost his, would not. By the time his friends departed for their family homes to prepare for the journey, he had made up his mind. He was not going. He was going to stay in Sussex and marry Maria.

He just had to tell his father.

“I don’t think I shall leave for Italy next month after all.” He fired his opening shot at dinner one night. Opportunely, he was dining alone with the duke; Gerard was at university and Edward was in Wales, studying sheep farming with their uncle, the Earl of Dowling.

Durham didn’t say anything. He looked at Charlie for a long moment over the rim of his glass, then waved one hand, sending the footmen from the room. “Why not?”

“I haven’t been home much. I ought to learn the estate.”

Durham just focused a hawklike stare on him.

“I thought you’d be pleased,” Charlie forged onward. “Shouldering my duty, and all that.”

“It wouldn’t have anything to do with that girl, would it?”

The question caught him off guard. He hadn’t said a word about Maria to his father, and Rance and Longhurst were too cowed by His Grace to betray him. “She’s not just any girl,” he snapped back before he could think better of it.

His father grunted. “No, indeed. She’s the very worst sort of adventuress, trying to entrap a boy barely out of short coats.”

“I’m twenty-two years old,” he replied, flushing with humiliation. “I’m not a boy, Father, I’m a man.”

“Then act like one.” Durham turned his attention back to his plate. “Don’t be led by your prick, lad.”

“I’m in love with her.” He was trying to be calm and firm about this, but his father knew just how to provoke him.

“No, you’re not,” said Durham, unmoved. “You want to bed her.”

That was true—desperately, painfully true—but Charlie bristled in the face of such bald accusation. “I haven’t! I wish to behave honorably toward her.”

His father raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? Then you’re giving her far better coin than she gives you. The Gronows are unparalleled leeches.”

“She’s as decent and modest as any young lady in England!”

Durham put down his knife and fork and leveled a stern finger at him. “I don’t care how badly she teases you or how desperately you want her. You’re not going to marry her. Talk your way under her skirts if you will, but no son of mine is going to marry into a scheming family of charlatans. She may have some finer qualities, but mark my words: she wants to be a duchess, with ready access to Durham’s funds to support her worthless father. Don’t fall for her pretense of affection, Charles.”

He took a deep breath, his hands in fists. “I’m bringing her to call,” he announced. “You’ll reconsider when you meet her.”

Durham stared at him. “Very well,” he said at last. He reached for his wine as if peace had been restored. “Invite her parents if you like.”

The Gronows were delighted to accept the invitation. Charlie suffered a pang of hesitation when Mrs. Gronow almost crowed in triumph as she stepped into the house, and he didn’t miss the way Mr. Gronow eyed the furnishings and paintings with a calculating, hungry look. His father was wrong, damned wrong, about Maria, but perhaps Durham knew something about her parents Charlie did not. His fears evaporated when Maria caught his eye and gave him a rueful smile as her parents exclaimed a little too loudly about Lastings Park. He managed to take her hand as they followed the butler to the drawing room, and she squeezed his fingers back, setting his heart at peace again.

Durham made his appearance half an hour later. At first he was the very model of an aristocrat, polite but chilly. Charlie began to relax, despite the gleeful glances Mrs. Gronow kept giving Maria; he hoped his father couldn’t see those. To himself, Charlie admitted the Gronows were rather grasping and avaricious, but he wasn’t marrying them, he was marrying Maria, and she was enduring this endless visit with the same serene assurance she always had.

“So,” said Durham abruptly, fastening his dark gaze on Maria. “I understand there is talk of an alliance.”

“Indeed, sir.” Mrs. Gronow sat up a little straighter and beamed at her daughter. “We hear nothing at home except of Lord Gresham—and I daresay my daughter is too modest in her praise of him!”

“I daresay,” murmured the duke. “Has an offer been made?”

“Yes, sir.” Charlie met his father’s eyes evenly and confidently. Despite his father’s warning the other night, he had asked for Maria’s hand in marriage. He couldn’t resist a fond glance at his betrothed. “Happily she has consented, and Mr. Gronow has given his blessing.” Maria blushed a pretty shade of pink and modestly lowered her eyes.

“With great pleasure,” declared Mr. Gronow. “I couldn’t hope for a better match for my child. We are all honored by the connection.”

Durham shot an unreadable look at him. “No doubt.” He turned back to Maria, his eyes narrowed almost as if he were studying her for flaws. Charlie was sure even his father, demanding and particular, could find nothing false in her. She was so beautiful, perfectly at home in the elegant drawing room. He flashed her another confident glance, and was rewarded with her little smile, the intimate look she reserved just for him.

“I do not approve,” said Durham quietly. “He is too young to marry.”

BOOK: The Way to a Duke's Heart: The Truth About the Duke
11.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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