What the Duke Doesn't Know

BOOK: What the Duke Doesn't Know
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Heir to the Duke

Copyright © 2016 by Jane LeCompte

Cover and internal design © 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover art by Paul Stinson

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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One

Lord James Gresham gazed at the spires of Oxford University, visible above the trees at the edge of his brother's garden; at the early summer flowers in curving beds; at the fifteen people standing about chatting and drinking lemonade. It was a pretty scene, the sort of thing one dreamed of when tossed by a five-day tempest seven hundred miles from shore, or when repairing the ravages of a broadside that near as nothing took down the mainmast. Some poet had a bit about a lovely summer's day. Probably Shakespeare. Nine times out of ten it was Shakespeare. If Randolph was here, and not stuck in his parish in the far north, he'd know the lines, for certain. Randolph had been mad for poetry before he became a vicar, always spouting some sonnet or other. Well, he probably still did. No reason a parson couldn't, and he had a whole congregation for a captive audience now.

James had forgotten all the poetry they'd tried to make him memorize at school. He'd never taken to any subjects except those that would help him onto a ship. For as long as he could remember, he'd been mad for the sea, haring off at sixteen to a midshipman's berth on a man-of-war. How green he'd been, and how thrilled. All he'd ever wanted to do was captain a navy ship.

And now he'd lost his vessel, only two years after he'd been given a command at last. The
Charis
had been small, yes, and years of war had left her battered and limping into port, but he still couldn't believe the Admiralty had decommissioned her. All their blathering about reduced requirements, with Napoleon beaten for good and all, and more efficient designs coming along in the shipyards, was just so much noise as far as he was concerned. Like condolences at a family funeral, the words hadn't penetrated his sorrow. But they'd towed the
Charis
off to some backwater and abandoned her. And after ten years of service, they'd shaken his hand, given him a medal, and told him to enjoy a bit of a well-deserved rest.

So here he was, stuck on shore, waiting for a new posting, like who knew how many other navy men. The most likely berth would be second or third officer on a bigger ship, and more years to wait for another command.

The prospect depressed his spirits. It had made him consider, seriously, whether it wasn't time to leave the navy and settle down. Had he, perhaps, had his fill of the sea? Which had brought him here, to this covey of chattering guests in their civilian clothes.

James eyed his hosts, his youngest brother, Alan, and Ariel, Alan's lively and lovely new wife. According to family gossip, Ariel was a wizard at promoting perfect matches. She'd greased the wheels of Nathaniel's marriage and helped Sebastian win a dazzling heiress. He hadn't been able to resist asking her to see what she could come up with for him. With his prize money from the war, he certainly had the means to support a wife.

James strolled over to a table under a spreading oak and helped himself to a couple of small sandwiches. When he'd left the
Charis
for the last time, and had the leisure to consider his future, he'd fully absorbed the fact that, although many senior naval officers were married, they didn't see their wives and families for years at a time. A tour of duty could take you halfway 'round the world, where even mail packets rarely reached. You were back for a few weeks or months, then off again. Such a life would be nothing like his parents' close partnership. And in that instant, he'd realized that his model for marital happiness was his father, the duke, and his beloved duchess.

Thus had begun the conflict within him, his love for the sea fighting his desire for the kinship he had observed—and lived—in his youth. As a boy, he'd been surrounded by a horde of brothers and cousins and aunts.

At times, the back and forth seemed almost like a true battle, ringing with the echo of gun barrages and beset by swinging cutlasses. He couldn't see a way to have both, and yet he wasn't prepared to give up either.

As he usually did at this point, James turned away from the inner argument. He'd never been one to brood, and he didn't intend to start now. He went to join a cluster of his brother's guests.


Chelonia mydas
,” said an older man in the center of the group, “maintains the balance of its body fluids by excreting the excess salt from seawater.”

A woman on James's left tittered with embarrassment, earning censorious glances from the others.


Chel
—what?” asked James, his interest caught by the mention of the sea.

“The green sea turtle,” replied the professorial type.

In fact, he most likely is a professor
, James thought. Alan's friends came from the Oxford faculties. His brother was very much at home here, performing his arcane experiments on the nature of light. And if James knew what that meant, he'd be…well, quite another sort of person. “You mean these turtles can drink down seawater and then…be rid of the salt, er, naturally?”

The older man nodded.

“There's many a sailor who would be glad of a skill like that,” James said.

The woman tittered again, her hand in front of her mouth. The professor gave her a condescending glance, as if she was an errant child. “It is one of the elements that allows the species to live their lives far from land,” he added.

James noticed Ariel approaching with a very pretty blond in tow, and he examined her with interest. Although his brother's wife had made it abundantly clear that he couldn't order up a bride to any particular specifications, there was no harm in wanting a handsome one, was there? It seemed to him that the woman one was going to be looking at for the rest of one's life ought to be easy on the eyes, and this girl certainly was.

He stepped forward to meet the two ladies and was distracted by a flicker of movement at the edge of his vision. He turned in time to see a slight figure emerge from the shrubbery at the bottom of the garden and stride toward him. In one raking glance, James noted a loose, shabby coat over worn trousers, a rough scarf pulled well up over the face, a slouching cloth cap shading it, and, riveting his attention, a pistol in the fellow's right hand. It was primed and cocked and aimed right at him.

With reflexes honed by years of war, James was instantly in motion. He lunged low, his speed taking the assailant by surprise. He caught the intruder's gun hand in a crushing grip and forced it upward. The pistol went off harmlessly into the sky, the sound alarmingly loud in the peaceful garden, even as the weight of James's body smashed the lad to the ground.

The party erupted into a babble of screams and shouts and questions. Some people ran toward the house; some froze in place. Glasses of lemonade dropped to the grass. Sandwiches went flying. James scarcely noticed. He was preoccupied by the fact that the body under him was definitely not that of a stripling. There were tantalizing curves under his hands. The intruder was a woman, not a boy.

“Thief, murderer!” she cried, flailing at him with her free hand.

Blows landed on his shoulder, his cheek. “What? Stop it. Ow!” He tried to grab her other wrist and missed.

“Let me go!”

She landed another good hit, making James wonder if she'd blacked his eye. He managed to get hold of her free arm, and pinned it above her head. Her body arched and writhed beneath him in the most distracting way. “Let go of the pistol first,” he said, tightening his grip on that wrist.

With a sound like a growl, she released the gun. Using her imprisoned hand, James managed to shove it out of her reach on the grass.

“What have you done now, James?” said his brother's voice from above. James craned his neck and discovered a circle of faces—appalled, curious, frightened, amazed—staring down at them.

“He's a thief and a murderer,” repeated the shooter. “A blackguard of the worst stripe.”

The eyes in the circle of observers focused on James. They were not universally filled with righteous indignation at the attack, he noticed. Indeed, a couple of the women gazed at him reproachfully. The professor was starting to scowl. It was a scene out of one of those nightmares where you faced an examination all unprepared.

Incensed, and bewildered, James gathered himself and jumped up, keeping a secure hold on the girl's arms and pulling her along with him. Before she could get a solid footing on the lawn, he bent, threw her over his shoulder, and carried her off toward the house.

Her fists rained blows on his back. She kicked and squirmed like an eel in his grasp. She called him all sorts of names. It was like trying to carry a sack of maddened cats, and he nearly lost his footing a time or two. She must be some sort of lunatic, he decided. But why the devil had she set her disordered sights on him?

As he maneuvered his shouting burden through the open French doors at the rear of the house, he heard one of the guests say, “Your parties are always so invigorating, my dear.”

But James couldn't spare a moment to wonder about the eccentricities of Ariel's hospitality. The girl had started to claw at his neck above his shirt collar, and it felt as if she might be drawing blood. He hurried into the back parlor and dumped her unceremoniously onto a sofa. The cap fell from her head as she landed, releasing a cascade of raven-black hair. “What the hell are you shouting about?” he asked.

“Thief! Murderer!”

“Will you stop?”

“Never!” Dark eyes burned in a face smudged with dirt and half obscured by swathes of dark hair. “I swore to make you pay, if nothing else!” Her hands crooked into claws.

She looked ready to fly at him and scratch his eyes out. James took a step backward. “Pay for what?”

“You know very well what you've done!”

“On the contrary, I have no idea who you are or what the devil you're talking about.”

“Liar! Thief!”

“Why do you keep saying—?”

Ariel walked through the French doors, looking surprisingly composed. “Alan is seeing the guests out. What's this all about?”

“I think she must be an escaped lunatic,” said James. “Is there a bedlam house near here?”

The girl sprang up from the sofa. She extended an arm to point at him, a picture of outraged virtue, if you were devoted to bad melodrama. “I came here for justice,” she declared.

Ariel looked at James. “I have no idea what she's talking about,” he said.

“Ha!” said their visitor, her full lower lip curling.

“Will you stop?” said James again. “If you're not mad, then you've made some sort of mistake. Got the wrong man.”

The girl shook her head, fists and jaw clenched. But as they simply stared at her, her shoulders slumped a little.

“You're tired,” said Ariel. “Are you hungry?”

Tears started in the girl's eyes. She blinked them away angrily.

“Come with me,” Ariel went on. “We'll get you something—”

“Hold on there,” James protested. “She tried to put a bullet in me!”

Ariel paused on her way to the inner doorway. “Do you have another pistol?” she asked the girl.

The intruder slumped a little more. She bent her head, and wings of raven hair fell over her cheeks. “No,” she said. She did sound exhausted.

Ariel gave James a look that seemed to say, “See?” She went over and took the girl's arm. “Come.”

“Get Mary to help you,” said Alan from the doorway. “Eliza, too. She did fire a pistol in our garden.”

With a wave of acknowledgment, Ariel took the stranger away.

“Are you just going to let her go off with that…assassin?” asked James.

Alan shrugged. “Once Ariel gets an idea in her head… But that's why I mentioned the housemaids. She'll have them with her.”

“Oh, maids. That's all right then.” When his brother ignored the sarcasm, James shook his head. “Where's the pistol?”

Alan took it from his coat pocket. “It's practically a relic, and not well cared for. I think it went off by accident, when you jostled her hand.”

“Jostled?” James couldn't believe what he was hearing. “I saved your garden party from an armed attack. And do I get so much as a ‘thank you'?”

“Thank you,” Alan replied. “You were quite impressive. I've never seen anyone move so fast.” He started to put the pistol back in his pocket.

“Shouldn't you lock that away somewhere?” James asked, somewhat mollified.

His brother looked at the shabby gun, nodded. “I will. Later. It's empty now.” He slipped it away. “So what did you do to her?”

“What?”

“Why is she after you?”

“I've never seen her before in my life.” James gazed at his brother, deeply aggrieved. “Why do you assume I did something?”

Alan raised an eyebrow. “A girl rushes in, waving a gun, calling you a—”

“And you believe
her
—clearly a lunatic—over me?”

“No, but…” Alan shrugged. “You tend to be the one of us who goes just that step too far, James,” he said. “You locked Nathaniel's valet in the garden shed on the day of his wedding.”

“I thought that was part of the prank!” James protested. “Sebastian took his clothes. Robert cut the bell rope.”

Alan conceded with a nod. “That jape did get rather out of hand.”

“And the shed did the fellow no harm,” James pointed out. “It was all part of a joke, nothing like this…female calling me a thief and murderer.”

“And you're sure you don't know why?”

“I swear I have no idea who she is or what she's talking about.”

“How…odd.”

“You are a master of understatement,” James replied.

The two brothers stood, perplexed, in the comfortable parlor, shafts of afternoon sun illuminating pale cream walls and blue-and-yellow chintz. Somewhere in the house a bell rang. Female voices were audible for a moment, then were cut off by the sound of a closing door. “Perhaps a glass of wine?” Alan suggested.

BOOK: What the Duke Doesn't Know
3.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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