Excerpts

A Matter of Manners

 

 

Chapter One

London 1798

          Jeremy Wyles, eighth Duke of Lexham, glared at the announcement on his desk as if it were an asp. Gold embossed lettering adorned fine paper, declaring the birth of a son to his cousin, George.
          Four sons. George had four sons and two daughters. And that didn’t include the four or five bastards. It was obscene.
          Jeremy’s hand squeezed the crystal glass in his hand and lifted it to his lips. Thick, amber Scotch warmed his throat, burning away the bile that threatened to choke him.
          His gaze wandered across the room.

 

 

 

          Leather-bound books from all over Europe filled dark mahogany-lined walls. Velvet chairs huddled in the corners. Beeswax candles perched strategically nearby, ready to be lit at a moment’s notice. A Morbier clock from France graced one corner, quietly ticking amidst the darkness. Everything in the room reflected both his status and his desire for the very finest in life.Even the windows had been an extravagance. Larger than most, there was an extra one in each room.
          Like everything, the effort amounted to nothing. The sun didn’t shine today. Hadn’t in days. Carbon gray sky loomed outside, broken only by the rain streaming down the glass and the occasional burst of lightning.
          “Bollocks!” His fist slammed on the desk. He took a deep breath and uncurled his fingers to rub a tiny dent. The result of another fit of rage, a corresponding scar marred his hand where a glass he’d smashed had cut into his flesh. He left the gouge as a reminder of what happened when he let his emotions rule.
          He tossed the offending announcement into a drawer before pulling a thick ledger toward him.
          A knock interrupted before he opened the book.
          “Enter,” he growled.
          Alfred, his butler, pushed forward, bowing his bent frame. Jeremy scowled at the sight. The old man needed to retire.
          Alfred’s gaze paused on Jeremy’s glass, then glanced toward the half-empty decanter behind him. “A bit early to be imbibing, is it not, Your Grace?”
          Jeremy glared. He ought to reprimand him but couldn’t. The old man was as close to a father as not.
          He nudged the glass away.
          Alfred’s gaze fell toward the floor.
          Jeremy cocked his head. Something was wrong. Alfred stood motionless, white-gloved hands hidden behind his back, but Jeremy could feel him squirming. “What is it? Have you had enough of me? Are you going to ask if you can retire?”
          Alfred’s attention snapped up, brown eyes wide with surprise. “Only if you wish it. Do you require someone with more vim and vigor, Your Grace?”
          Jeremy scoffed but let it pass. Further discussion would only waste time.
          Alfred’s gaze slipped away, and a linen towel appeared. He shuffled forward and began to wipe nonexistent marks from the small table between two leather chairs. His hands trembled. He nudged the chairs, then pushed them back.
          Jeremy narrowed his eyes but waited as patiently as possible.
          “You shouldn’t allow it to bother you, my boy,” Alfred finally said.
          “Shouldn’t let what bother me?”
          “George’s…good fortune.”
          Good fortune? Is that what it was? “How can I not? It’s like he’s intentionally goading me.”
          Alfred’s bushy brows rose before he scowled. “Don’t be ridiculous. George is just being George. You should be happy for him. And it’s not too late for you to have children of your own.”
          Jeremy sighed. “I know.” Therein lay the problem. As much as he hated it, George was his heir. It wasn’t George’s fault he bred like a rabbit while Jeremy seemed impotent, and he didn’t mean to be a ne’er-do-well. George had no responsibilities. That job was Jeremy’s. Too bad he couldn’t do his other job as well as George and produce a more acceptable heir.
          Truth was, after two wives and numerous mistresses, he didn’t even want to try.
          As if he understood, Alfred patted his shoulder and returned to his imaginary cleaning. Crystal clinked behind him, decanters thumping.
          “You’ve a visitor, Your Grace,” Alfred announced a moment later.
          “I do?” Who? None of his friends ventured out this early.
          “You do. A young woman.”
          Jeremy stiffened. He’d chased away every eligible woman in London and every reasonable distance beyond. The picture dominated the space, a constant reminder of why. The portrait of a stunning blonde with bright blue eyes laughing as he stood beside her served to discourage him whenever longings for a wife reared up. He’d thought she loved him. He’d thought he loved her.
          He turned his gaze back to Alfred. “A woman?”
          “Indeed.”
          Jeremy’s stomach sank, an all too familiar sensation.
          “Is it another one of George’s doxies?” Pregnant, no doubt.
          Alfred’s eyes widened and centered back on Jeremy’s face before lowering quickly. “No, I don’t believe so. I believe…she’s a lady.”
          “A lady?” Jeremy leaned back and studied Alfred carefully. His grandmother’s butler for decades, Alfred knew Debrett’s by heart, better even than Jeremy. If Alfred believed her a lady, she was a lady. A lady wouldn’t be calling though. And Alfred would have named her. Unless he didn’t know who she was. “Has someone died?”
          “I don’t believe so.” Alfred’s face contorted. “She’s a young lady, Your Grace.”
          With an arched brow, Jeremy waited.
          The old man’s feet shuffled. His hands remained hidden behind his back, but Jeremy suspected his swollen knuckles were wringing furiously. If he waited long enough, Alfred would spill whatever he was holding back, but he didn’t have the patience this morning. “All right, old man. Spit it out. Who is she?”
          “I…I’m not sure.”
          Interesting. A lady that Alfred didn’t know? “Any guesses?”
          “I never guess.” He never dissembled, either. Yet he was now.
          “She didn’t give a name?”
          Alfred’s mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. A rumble of thunder drowned out the ticking of the clock. When he finally spoke, his voice trembled. “I think you should see her, Lord Jeremy.” Alfred bowed his head and stepped forward. His gnarled hand stretched out and dropped an item on the desk. Gold spun on the mahogany surface.
          Jeremy didn’t need to wait for the spinning to stop. He’d see an oak tree, acorn, and bee carved into the surface. His signet ring, the design was as familiar to him as the sick feeling in his throat. The last time he had seen the ring, George had worn it as proof he was acting in Jeremy’s stead.
         What had George done this time?
         “She claims she’s your duchess, Your Grace.”
                                                                                 
                                                                                                        ****

          Kathleen Brennan Lexham shivered as a rush of anger roiled through her. After a week bouncing over badly maintained postal roads and another day wandering through London, tension was all that held her together. The weather matched her mood. The entire journey had been gloomy, interspersed with bouts of angry storms and frigid temperatures.
          Now she stood, waiting, while fear warred with anger and disbelief. What if he refused to see her?
          Her gaze scanned the foyer of Lexham House again. Cold white marble rose two stories. Gorgeous walnut staircases flew up either side, no support visible beneath them. Before her, a huge Oriental vase displayed a bouquet of roses and lilies as large as she, their scent wafting through the room.
          Her stomach lurched. She hugged herself, holding her breath until the wave of nausea passed.
          She’d known he was a duke. And she’d known he had no intention of staying with her. She’d had no idea he was as wealthy as Midas.
          The shanker.
          A shuffle from above distracted her.
          “The duke will see you now.” The butler—he’d introduced himself as Alfred—paused at the top of the stairs, his kindly face stretched with a welcoming smile.
          “Oh, please, don’t come down.” Katy clutched her sodden skirt and hurried up the stairs. Halfway up, she slowed. An old gown of her mother’s, the wool had soaked up an entire lake’s worth of rain. It didn’t help that the waist was too small and her chest felt as if an ox sat on it. She’d worn the dress for courage and warmth, but all it did was remind her she wasn’t the lady her mother had been.
          “Are you all right, my dear?” A knobby hand reached out to help her up the last steps.
          Katy pasted a weak smile on her face. Truth was she wanted to throw up, but it wouldn’t be ladylike to admit it.
          “This way.” He gestured at a hallway and shuffled forward.
          Katy followed, her attention diverted by the portraits lining the walls. Men and women stared into space with faces that resembled George enough to make her frown. Beeswax candles blazed, the scent adding to the churning in her stomach.
          She inhaled deeply and lifted her chin when the butlerhe pulled the door open. Her eyes widened and her determination hardened.
          A two-story library, books lined the entire room. The smell of leather mixed with beeswax from more candles than she’d ever seen lit at one time. Her teeth clenched. If George thought he could come to Ireland, wheedle his way into her family, then leave as if nothing had happened, he could rot in hell. But not before he paid for his sins.
          Fists stuffed into her pockets, Katy stepped forward. Her shoes squelched, whining as George had done the night she sent him packing.
          “Kathleen, the Duchess of Lexham, Your Grace.” It sounded strange. In Ireland, she was just Katy.
          “Thank you, Alfred. You may go.”
          The voice came from the lone dark corner behind a massive desk. Firelight winked off cut crystal, drawing her gaze, reminding her of home. Was it Waterford? Did her father cut it? She blinked back tears.
          Focus. Da is done with you.
          Her gaze darted back to the figure hiding in the shadows. He could at least have had the decency to face her.
          His shoulders seemed wider, his stance firmer than she remembered, his haircut sharper.
          She lifted her shoulders and chided herself.
         You’re just scared. It’s George. He won’t hurt you.
          When he turned, her stomach lurched.
          “You’re not George!”
            A wry smile curled his lips as he stepped into the light. An inch or two taller, his shoulders were definitely wider and strained against a dark blue jacket rather than the powder blue George preferred. Dark umber hair waved above a jaw with none of George’s softness. Instead of watery blue eyes, his glinted silver-gray. He exuded confidence and power.
          Katy stared as realization crawled through her.
          Alfred had seemed confused when she asked for George. He’d said the duke would see her. He’d called this man Your Grace.
          The determination and courage that had held Katy together burst like a poorly blown glass bubble. She swayed and reached out. What now? If George wasn’t the duke who was he? Would George even be able to help her?
          “Forgive me.” A firm, gentle grip latched onto her elbow and guided her to a nearby chair. “That was badly done.”
          He eased her into the chair, then lowered himself to perch across from her. Unlike at home, his chair didn’t creak or wobble. A strong, tanned hand reached out and claimed hers. Stunned, she stared as he massaged her icy hands and frowned at her tattered gloves. Shame rushed up, but the heat felt good.
          He had nice hands with strong fingers. Not soft and pale like George’s.
          Katy blinked and sat up straighter.
          Just because George wasn’t who he claimed to be didn’t mean she was any less a lady.
          “I asked to see George.” Somehow, the words came out calm and confident with none of the disquiet thrumming through her.
          “George is my cousin. I’ve sent for him. He’ll be here soon.”
          “George isn’t the duke?”
          “No.”
          Kathleen squeezed her eyes shut. Things had become much more complicated. Still, George had gotten her into this. There was no reason he couldn’t help.
          “You’re Irish, I assume?”
          “Yes.” Katy opened her eyes. The duke had moved to feed the fire. Muscular thighs flexed beneath smooth gray flannel. A flare of appreciation shivered through her. What a shame it hadn’t been him in her bed.
          Stop it! You wouldn’t be in this position if you hadn’t given in to your wicked desires.
          “Bloody mess over there. Glad George didn’t stay long enough to get caught up in it.”
          Katy’s gaze flew toward him, and her breath caught. Did he know what George had done?
          “Forgive me. That was insensitive,” he said as he rose and brushed off his hands. “You have family there?”
          “I…” Her mind whirled. How much should she say? There was no reason to lie. Yet. Hopefully never since she wouldn’t be going back. “Yes. My Da and stepmother. A few siblings.” A few? By Irish standards, maybe. By his, it was likely a brood.
          “With luck, they’ll remain safe.”
          Her attention lingered as he rounded the desk. He moved like a duke, proud and sure, right down to the way he lounged back in his chair and studied her.
          With a lift of her chin, she returned his stare, but inside she squirmed. He was judging her, and she knew she came up lacking. Freckled from the sun, her skin was too dark. Her hair, even in the braid she’d curled atop her head, was too red and untamed. She was too tall and thin with none of the plump breasts or hips a man wanted. No one but the butcher had wanted to marry her. Even George had other reasons for marrying her.
          When the duke’s gaze halted on her chest, then flitted away, shame flared up, peppered with resentment.
          “Perhaps, while we wait, you can tell me what brings you to London.”
          Irritated, Katy considered several sharp retorts, but a tap on the door saved her.
          “That’s likely tea,” the duke said before calling out permission to enter.
          Silence descended while a footman wheeled in an elegant teacart. Laden with an assortment of cakes, fruit, pastries, and any number of other foods, it would have easily fed her entire family, livestock included. Her mouth watered when he lifted gleaming silver covers to reveal fluffy scrambled eggs and a rasher of bacon.
          Her stomach growled. A soft snort from the duke sent another wave of embarrassment over her face.
          “Thank you, Gregory. The duchess can pour. You may leave.”
          Kathleen fought a moment of panic. George had never let her pour tea. Said the Irish didn’t know how to entertain properly. Her mother had taught her as a girl, but would she remember? Did one serve scones or savories first? Sugar before lemon, in the tea? After two days without food, she couldn’t concentrate. What if she dropped the teapot?
          “Duchess?”
          Her gaze snapped toward him. Jeremy, he’d said his name was.
          “Is something wrong?”
          “No.” She picked up a cup and saucer. Her hand trembled. The china chattered. “What do you take?”
          His hand captured the chittering saucer.
          “I need nothing.” He settled the cup, grabbed a plate, and began scooping eggs onto it. “You’ve made an impression on Alfred, it seems. He’s sent up an entire meal.” His gaze swept over her again, before returning to his task. A generous portion of bacon followed the eggs, along with a blueberry scone, and a grilled tomato. He passed the plate to her, snagged a small bowl, and filled it with assorted berries. A huge spoonful of clotted cream plopped atop the berries, and he set that before her as well, then eased into the chair across from her.
          “Eat,” he demanded and passed her a fork.
          She snatched the utensil and stared at the plate. The aroma of the bacon wafted up. Her stomach rebelled. She swallowed hard. Bile burned.
          “Oh, God,” she groaned, unthinking, and gulped. Her stomach heaved, and the fork dropped to the floor. One hand grabbed her stomach. The other shoved the plate onto the cart. Silver and china rattled.
          “Buggar!” Jeremy’s chair fell back. Her hand pressed against her lips. Acid burned, but she swallowed it.
          Two more heaves, thankfully dry, ripped through her. She closed her eyes and prayed.
         “It’s all right.” A hand settled on her back. Something plopped onto her lap. She opened her eyes long enough to see an empty wastebasket. She clutched the edges. Another wave of bile surged. Tears prickled behind her eyelids and sweat beaded around her forehead. Unable to hold it in, she vomited.
          To her relief, little came up, but two, then three times, her stomach rebelled enough to splatter hot juices. As she retched, he mumbled reassurances, and a soothing hand brushed back her damp curls. By the time the nausea eased, she shook like the legs of a newborn thoroughbred.
          “All done?” The comforting hand washed along her back. At her weak nod, the container disappeared. She leaned back and let her eyes close.
          “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. So much for being a lady.
          “It’s quite all right.” A hint of humor laced the baritone. She lifted one eyelid. An annoying smirk greeted her. She closed the eye and inhaled slow, even breaths.
          “I guess that answers one question. You’re pregnant.” …

 

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