"Your Grace," Chapple intoned from the wide door of the library. Chapple never spoke. He delivered each and every word with a precise hum that both resonated and droned.
The Duke of Wyndover looked up from the desk in his library, looked over stacks of ledgers, books, newspapers, and letters to the open door. That was what he'd forgotten. He should have closed the damn door.
"Not now, Chapple." He returned to the letter before him, reading carefully one the steward at Castle Fainsworth in Gloucestershire had sent concerning a fire at one tenant's cottage and the cost of rebuilding and housing the farmer's livestock in the interim. Apparently, the man had quite a stable—was stable the correct word?—of rabbits, and the steward was having quite a time penning them. Who the hell raised rabbits and why?
"Your Grace." Chapple again.
Wyndover let out a sigh and lifted his eyes with an expression he hoped struck fear into Chapple's heart. No such luck. The small man with the last of his thin brown hair combed over the bald section in the middle blinked placidly.
"I am afraid this matter cannot wait."
"While I am afraid it can." Wyndover passed a hand over the endless work piled high before him. At nine and twenty he was one of the youngest dukes in England. He was also one of the wealthiest. He had no fewer than six estates to manage as well as a dozen smaller holdings. He was in London, ostensibly for the Season, though he had attended only three and a half events. He'd been obliged to leave a ball early when not one, not two, but three young debutantes fainted in his path.
There were only so many falling debutantes a man could catch.
He'd also been obliged to travel to his estate in Hertfordshire to attend a ceremony dedicating a building to his late father, the ninth Duke of Wyndover. The duke had only returned to Town a day ago, but it seemed his correspondence had multiplied in his absence—much like the bunnies his steward in Gloucestershire wrote of.
"I must prepare the staff for your departure in the morning, Your Grace. I assume you will travel with Mr. Fletcher. Will you also want a footman or is the Duke of Sedgemere bringing in additional staff?"
Wyndover steepled his hands, hoping he looked thoughtful. In truth, he needed time to puzzle out what the hell Chapple was rambling on about. The Duke of Sedgemere—Elias. They'd been chums at school. They both had estates in Nottinghamshire, as did several other dukes. The area was not known as The Dukeries without cause. Sedgemere had recently married. Wyndover had attended the wedding. Only one young miss had fainted at that event.
"House party," he said as Chapple's ramblings finally became clear to him. "But that was...is that tomorrow?"
"A sennight, Your Grace. I assumed you would want time to stop at Wyndover Park before going on to Sedgemere House."
"Of course I must stop at Wyndover Park." His mother would have his head otherwise. She was firmly ensconced in the dower house at the Park, which was why Wyndover found reasons to visit Gloucestershire and Hertfordshire and avoided Nottinghamshire.
But no longer. Elias had asked Wyndover to attend his wife's maiden attempt at hostessing, and Wyndover—in a weak moment he chalked up to nostalgia over school days—had agreed. Now there was nothing for it. He'd have to attend and suffer through the fortnight as best he could.
"No additional footmen are required. If they are, I shall filch one from Wyndover Park."
Chapple frowned at this, obviously believing the London staff superior to that at the Park, although much of the staff in Town had come from the Park as neither needed a full complement when the duke was not in residence.
"Tell John Coachman I shall ride for the first part of the journey. The grooms should saddle Cavalier."
"Yes, Your Grace."
Wyndover lifted the letter again. He would have precious little sleep tonight if he hoped to make any sort of progress through the documents on his desk necessitating his attention. But as he read, he was aware Chapple still stood in the door.
"You may go, Chapple," he said, without looking up.
"Of course, Your Grace. But..."
At his pause, Wyndover lowered the letter. "But?"
"I do hope—that is to say, we all hope—your visit to Sedgemere House will meet with success."
Wyndover did not have to try very hard to understand Chapple's meaning. Wyndover was almost thirty. He had been duke for eight years. He had no brothers or sisters. In fact, his parents had despaired of ever having a child. He had not been born until well into their fifteenth year of marriage. His birth had saved the title from passing to a distant cousin as both of his father's brothers had preceded him in death before siring sons. At present, Wyndover's heir was an even more distant cousin who, at last count, had been living in the Americas. It was his duty and obligation to save the title from colonial invasion by producing a proper heir and forthwith.
Of course, this required a duchess. And a duchess required a wedding. And a wedding required a bride. Brides generally required wooing. Wyndover did not have time for wooing, especially when even a tip of his hat caused so many potential brides to faint dead away.
"I will count the house party as a success, Chapple, if no young ladies suffer fainting spells," Wyndover answered.
"A lofty goal, Your Grace. A lady with a hearty constitution is a rare find."
As ladies and their constitutions was not something Wyndover wished to discuss with Chapple or any member of his staff—with anyone, truth be told—Wyndover lifted his letter again. But even after Chapple departed, closing the door to the library, Wyndover could not focus on Castle Fainsworth or the "rabbit issue" as his steward called it. Instead, he leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through hair that wanted trimming. He needed a duchess, but irony of ironies, the one woman he'd wanted had not exactly fainted at his feet.
She'd not fainted at all. In fact, she'd barely spoken a civil word to him. He'd vowed to put the impertinent chit out of his mind. That had been five years ago, and he was still busy putting her out of his mind.
One of these days, she'd finally obey and stay out. Until then, well, he had more pressing matters—multiplying rabbits and house parties in Nottinghamshire and his mother. Dear God, he'd have to see his mother. If that wasn't enough to distract him, nothing was.
Her Royal Highness Princess Vivienne Aubine Calanthe de Glynaven lay in the mud, trying to ignore the pig snuffling at her hair. She'd made friends with the animal earlier by feeding it the last of her meager loaf of bread. Now the sow hoped for more. If Vivienne had more, she would have gladly handed it over. As it was, she had nothing. She wouldn't even have her life if the men following her, the men who were even now speaking with the farmer in a nearby outbuilding, discovered her.
That's what they were—assassins from Glenaven, part of the revolution who had ousted the royal family from power. Ousted was a pretty word, considering what had occurred. The revolutionaries had stormed the palace and slit the throats of her mother, father, sisters, and brothers. They'd killed every single guard, every single member of the staff. Vivienne had seen the aftermath, even though Grenebier had told her not to look.
She'd had to look. She wanted to remember. She wanted to avenge.
And now she had more to avenge. Grenebier was dead, his throat slit from ear to ear. She was alone.
She'd made it to Nottinghamshire, but that was still miles and miles from London. She had no money, no valuables, nothing but her name. At the moment, her name was a liability. The assassins were good. Very good. If they heard even a whisper of her name, they would find her and slit her throat, just as they'd killed Grenebier.
They might find her anyway. She had nothing now but her bow, a few arrows, and the clothes on her back—the muddy clothes on her back.
She heard voices and lowered her head, laying her cheek in the filth, trying not to breathe too deeply. The pig snuffed at her again, and Vivienne gave the sow a hard shove. It was barely enough to budge the animal, but at least the beast knew she wouldn't hand out any more treats.
"If you happen to see our sister," a man said as the assassins and the farmer rounded the pig shelter, "send word to The Duke's Arms." He was one of the assassins. Vivienne could tell because though he spoke impeccable English, his voice had the lilt of Glenaven, whose native language was Glennish, a sort of blend of French and Gaelic. Of course, the educated citizens of the country also spoke English. Britain was one of Glenaven's main trading partners.
The fact that the assassin spoke English so well told her he was educated. He might have even been part of her father's court at some point—a spy for the revolutionaries.
"We will be at the inn for several days more. Do you know it?" the assassin asked.
"Oh, aye," the farmer answered. "Know it well. I'll keep an eye out."
Vivienne imagined the assassin gave a polite bow, as was the custom in her country when expressing thanks. She dared not open her eyes and look. Better to close them and not risk the whites of her eyes giving her away.
She heard the men moving away, the sound of their boots lifting out of the mud. The ground was soft from the rains last night. She hadn't been thankful last night, when she'd shivered, huddling under a tree. But today the wet ground gave her a place to hide, to burrow under.
The pig snuffed at her again, but she did not move, did not dare to breathe. Instead, she sent a prayer up to heaven.
Please, please, please.
Vivienne squinted one eye open and found herself looking directly into the sow's eyes. The pig snuffed at her but did not move away. Vivienne realized the sow had stood right in front of her, effectively blocking the farmer or the assassins from seeing her.
"Good muc," she cooed. "I promise I'll never touch another bite of ham."
The sow sniffed as though she didn't believe Vivienne and went back to rooting in the mud, looking for scraps to eat. Vivienne stayed where she was, wanting to put ample distance between herself and the assassins before setting out again. Somehow she would make it to London to request an audience with the King. She had no choice but to ask for sanctuary.
She had to survive long enough to make the request.
As the shadows grew longer, Vivienne finally emerged from the muck, carefully brushing herself off and climbing out of the pen. She wanted to be away before the farmer came to feed the sow and her piglets the evening meal. She paused on the other side of the pen, listening for any signs the farmer might be near. The sow watched her curiously as did three of the pink piglets. All eight of them tended to stay close to their mother, but only three had dared venture close enough to sniff Vivienne. The faithful sow had guarded her all day—or rather, she'd kept watch on Vivienne and protected her piglets.
Either way, Vivienne was grateful for the company. She gave the pig a quick curtsy. "My thanks for the use of your pen, Madame Muc."
Vivienne walked as briskly as her mud-laden skirts would allow. The extra weight added more pins and needles to the cramps in her legs from their long period of disuse. Finally, she ducked past the last building and approached the edge of one of the farmer's fields. This one looked to grow wheat. The golden stalks were at perhaps half the height they would be at the harvest in a few months. It wasn't quite the cover she'd hoped for, but she would have that soon enough when she managed to duck into the small copse of trees at the edge of the field.
She would rest there until darkness and then travel as far toward London as she could under cover of night. She would avoid The Duke's Arms at all costs. It might have helped if she had known which direction the inn laid, but presumably she would see signs and know to travel in the other direction.
Vivienne didn't like to resort to thievery, but now that she had no food and had used the last of her coin on the bread she'd given to the sow, she didn't see how she had much choice. She had never stolen anything in her life, but she vowed to take only what she needed and not a shilling more.
She was so engrossed in her thoughts, she didn't see the shadow behind her, but she heard the snap of the twig. Vivienne had the bow in her hand and an arrow pulled tight against the string before she spun around.
As she'd feared, one of the assassins stood behind her. She recognized him right away as one of the men who'd grabbed Grenebrier in Lincoln. He was a tall man with dark hair and dark eyes and the sun-touched skin of the south of Glenaven. A handsome man, and by the cunning look in his eyes, not a foolish one. He held his hands up, appearing unarmed, but she didn't believe it for a moment. She'd seen what they did to Grenebier. She should kill them all.
"Your Highness, forgive me," the assassin said smoothly. She knew his voice. This was the man who had spoken to the farmer.
Vivienne didn't like having the trees at her back, and she stepped sideways, hoping to scan the area for the other assassins. The man she faced moved with her so that the two of them seemed to circle each other like predator and prey.
He knew who she was. He must have known she'd been hiding on the farm all along. He'd waited for her to leave, just as he'd known she would when darkness came.
"I won't forgive you," she answered in Glennish. There was no point in dissembling, in trying to pretend she was not Princess Vivienne. Even under the mud and the muck, her short stature and her vivid green eyes would give her away, especially if the assassin had been a member of the court and seen her daily. He looked familiar, but if he'd been a courtier, he was not one with whom she'd had much contact.
"I saw what you did to Grenebier."
The assassin spread his hands. "What I did, I did for you, Your Majesty. Monsieur Grenebier was a traitor. He would have sold you to line his own pockets."
"Liar," she hissed, still moving, still circling. She hadn't spotted the other assassins yet, but they would come. The one with the limp and the one with the dark hair so long it reached the middle of his back. They would come, and then she would be outnumbered. She should shoot now, before it was too late. And yet her hand held stubbornly to the arrow's shaft. She did not want to kill. She did not want to become like the men hunting her.
"You are the one who would kill me to line your pockets. Tell me, how much are the reavlutionnaire paying you to hunt me down, kill me?"
"Is that what you think?" he asked, his tone wounded, almost offended.
"It's what I know," she answered.
"No, no, Your Highness. I am here to protect you. If you come with me—"
She loosed the arrow, aiming just to the side of his head so the fletching brushed his cheek. He yelped and cringed, arms coming up to protect his head.
She drew another arrow smiling in satisfaction at the thin trickle of blood trailing down his cheek. And her father had said archery was a waste of time.
"Bides petite!" He had his sword in his hand now. He wanted blood, but he'd have to come close enough to use it. His words—little bitch—didn't hurt her, but that sword might.
"I won't come with you. You and your reavlutionnaire killed my mother, my father." She'd seen their corpses on the ground. Seen their abused bodies, defiled in ways she could not bear to remember at the moment. Her arm shook, but she held the arrow steady.
"You are right to think you are in danger," the assassin told her. He'd stopped circling and now moved toward her. "Let me help you."
"Come any closer and this arrow plunges straight into your heart. I don't have to miss."
"You won't kill me," he said, holding his arms out, the long sword glinting in the last of the light. "I know you. You don't like to hunt. You'd rather shoot at targets of straw than stags or wild boar."
"Stags and boars aren't traitre. I'd gladly kill you." She halted and took aim. A flicker of fear flashed in his eyes.
"Let us talk. Won't you even hear me out?"
"And give your compatriots more time to come to your aid? I think not." And because she knew she'd already tarried too long, already given the assassins more time than she could afford, she loosed the arrow.
It didn't hit his heart. She hadn't aimed for the heart but the meaty part of the thigh. She heard the solid thunk of it as the head lodged in his flesh. The assassin yelped with pain, but Vivienne didn't stay to watch him fall. She lifted her damp skirts and turned to run for the copse, ignoring the burning of her tired muscles.
Behind her, men's voices rose and then she heard the sound of boots on the ground. They were after her. They were coming for her and coming fast. She ducked under a low-hanging branch and entered the copse, but it wasn't thick enough nor nearly deep enough to provide the protection she needed.
They'd find her and they'd kill her. Slowly. They'd want her to suffer after hurting one of their own.
The last rays of sun still streaked in the distance beyond the field, but in the copse night had already taken hold. Vivienne welcomed the shadows, even as she feared them. The trees were a danger to her now—low-hanging branches, fallen logs, hollows in the ground. She ran with abandon, knowing even as she did so that one misstep would mean her death. They'd cut her up just as they had Grenebier...after they'd had their fun. After they'd made her suffer.
The footsteps behind her grew louder as the men gained ground. Vivienne ran as fast as she dared, her own breath loud in her ears. Branches scraped at her face, caught in her hair. Her boots, once so polished she could see her own reflection, were heavy with drying mud. She plodded, neither fast enough or nimble enough. It was only a matter of time. Above her pants of panic and fatigue, she could hear the assassins calling to each other, shouting directions.
"Go left! Cut her off."
"I have her. Straight ahead."
Vivienne's heart thumped so hard her chest hurt. Her legs burned as though they were on fire, and still she ran. It couldn't end like this, not here, alone, covered in mud in a woods in the middle of Britain.
And then it was all over.
Her foot caught on a log, and she was down. It wasn't a large log. If it had been larger, she would have seen it. It was a small log, but wedged deeply into the ground. When she'd kicked it, it had held firm.
Vivienne went down on her hands and knees, the breath knocked out of her in a painful whoosh. Behind her the men hollered in triumph at her fall.
She rubbed her eyes, looked up at the tree before her, grasped the trunk to pull herself up. She wouldn't give up, wouldn't give in. She'd die on her feet.
The assassins crashed through the leaves and branches. From the sound of it, they were almost upon her. Vivienne reached around the tree trunk, her hand closing on a small slice of hope.
Without a moment to spare, she struggled to the other side of the tree, just as the first assassin reached for her.
"Nathan." His mother's voice echoed from the parlor as he walked past, his hair windblown from his ride and his riding breeches flecked with mud.
He considered walking on, but Burns appeared in the open doorway and gave him a dark look from under lowered brows. The woman had formidable brows—dark and expressive below the deep creases in her forehead. His mother's maid had been with her for as long as he could remember. The woman was sixty if a day and more likely close to his mother's age of nearing seventy.
"Yes, Mama," the duke said, changing course and entering the parlor—his parlor. The door to the adjacent music room was closed, but the light curtains hanging over the windows of the small parlor his mother had always used to write letters or sew had been pulled open to allow the morning sun to dance upon the Aubusson rug. His mother reclined on a chaise longue upholstered in a deep red color. She herself wore a vibrant blue dress that matched her eyes, eyes the same shade as his own.
"Good morning. I trust you slept well." He bent to kiss her cheek, noting she smelled of roses and powder. Her once sunny blond hair, so much like his own, was now white from age, but it was still thick enough to be styled into an elegant coil at the nape of her neck.
"I suppose you are off to that house party this morning," she said without preamble.
"I am. Sedgemere expects me for dinner. If I leave soon I can arrive in time to settle in before the gong."
"Good. And you've given my advice serious consideration."
Wyndover raised a brow. "Advice, madam? I believe you ordered me to find a bride."
"Bosh. I merely suggested you keep an open mind. After all, I am not growing younger. I would like to see my grandchildren before I am lain in the grave."
"There's plenty of time for that, Mama. You're hardy as a horse."
She made a face, her pale lips turning downward. "I am not fond of that comparison. Besides, I am not well at all. Not at all." She gestured toward her maid. "Burns, my smelling salts. I feel faint."
Wyndover sighed. "You do not need smelling salts any more now than you did twenty years ago. You forget I've spent five days here and seen you ride every morning and stroll the grounds each afternoon."
She waved a hand, dismissing the observation. "My health comes and goes. Right now I fear it is fading. I may not last long enough to even meet this bride if you do not choose quickly." She put a hand to her forehead, and Nathan thought it fortunate his mother had become a duchess and not tried her hand at acting. She would have been the victim of much rotten fruit.
Nathan bent and took his mother's gloved hand. "I promise I will make every effort to find a bride. The first eligible woman able to retain consciousness will be foremost on my list."
"Bosh!" She waved the hand he was not holding, which unfortunately held her cane. Nathan leaned back, barely evading the arc of his mother's wild swing. "You are too handsome for your own good, Nathan. Just like your grandfather. Have I ever told you, you look just like him?"
She had, at least a thousand times.
"Worthless philanderer. Thank God my mother did not live to see the worst of his carousing."
"From what I hear, she did her own carousing."
"Do be quiet!" she snapped, forgetting for the moment she was supposed to be a fragile flower. She wrenched her hand out of his, and he stood, grateful to be away from the reach of the cane. "That was a different era, a different time. You would be wise to take after your father, a sober, moral man."
"I strive to emulate him in all ways."
"Ha!" She jabbed the cane at him, barely missing his knee. "Look at you in your fine coat and your shiny boots. You look like a peacock."
Nathan glanced down at his brown coat and breeches spattered with mud. "I'd hardly call myself a peacock. I'll admit my cravat is a bit too"—he made several small circular gestures with his hand—"but I have to give Fletcher his way once in a while."
"You are too handsome for your own good, Wyndover. Don't let it go to your head."
"Mark my words. Marry an intelligent female who is not impressed by your face. Be she plain or pretty, it matters not. You want a woman who is clever, loyal, nurturing, witty but not too witty, with a dignified air but not too dignified if you take my meaning."
He nodded, although her meaning completely eluded him.
"And she must be from a good family. That is paramount!"
"Is that all?" he drawled.
"Scamp!" She waved the cane, then remembered herself. "My smelling salts, Burns!"
Burns had them at the ready and placed the small vial in the duchess's hand. If she'd ever once used them, Wyndover would eat his cravat.
"I make one request of you," she said, her voice breathy. "Is it too much to grant the last wish of a dying woman?"
"I will do my best, Mama."
She studied him, apparently decided he was sincere, and with the help of her cane—a very little help—rose. She was a tall woman, and the top of her head came almost to his nose. "Good. I am for Bath in the morning." She strode easily across the room to peer out the windows into the rolling green lawns beyond.
"To take the waters in hopes they restore my ailing health," she said.
"Ailing health, my ass," he muttered. He cleared his throat. "Isn't Lady Tribble in Bath?"
Lady Tribble was his mother's oldest and dearest friend. When the two women were together, they behaved exactly as Nathan imagined they had as girls. He made every attempt to stay clear as the sight of his mother giggling tended to make his stomach queasy.
"Lady Tribble?" his mother said, her voice all innocence. "I couldn't say. But I will want word immediately when you find a bride. Send for me so I may come at once to meet her."
Nathan clasped his hands behind his back. "Won't so many long journeys tire you and put a strain on your constitution?"
She whirled, her eyes narrow and flashing blue fire. "Impertinent boy! Go to your house party before you are the death of me."
He bowed. "Yes, Mama." But he didn't leave without crossing to her, taking her hand, and kissing it. "Safe travels, Mama."
"Hmpf." She lifted her nose in the air, but he saw the ghost of a smile on her lips.
Several hours later Wyndover and Sedgemere sat in the Billiard's Room, watching the other gentlemen of the party play. Smoke from more than one cheroot swirled in the air above them and the clink of glasses rose above the click of balls on the table. Wyndover sipped his port, watching as the Duke of Hardcastle tapped his six ball into the corner pocket. Viscount Ormandsley cursed as his chances at victory lessened considerably.
The ladies had retired as had some of the men. Most of the guests were tired after a long day of travel. The scheduled activities would not begin until the morrow. The Duchess of Sedgemere had proposed they begin with a walk about the grounds. Wyndover had been standing near the Sheffield heiress and had felt obliged to offer to escort her. To her credit, she had not fainted upon meeting him earlier that evening. The same could not be said of two other ladies in the party—a Miss Frobisher and a Miss Pendleton. Miss MacHugh had not seemed particularly impressed by him, but then he'd seen her gaze slide to Hardcastle one too many times.
Best he left Miss MacHugh to find her own escort for the morning walk.
"You could do worse than the Sheffield girl," Sedgemere said. "Good family, more money than you'd know what to do with."
Nathan swirled the port in his glass. "I already have more money than I need. What I don't have is an heir. How I envy Hardcastle that nephew of his. Why can't I find a nephew and heir. Instead I've a cousin in the bloody Americas. My mother is on the verge of faking her collapse in order to hurry me along."
Sedgemere smiled. "There are worse things than matrimony, Nat."
"Says the man already leg-shackled. Besides, Elias, your duchess is one in ten thousand. Where am I to find a girl like her?"
"Do you know what your problem is, Nat?"
Wyndover drained the last of his port. "I'm sure you are about to tell me."
"You've had it too easy. You're a duke, and not just a duke, a young duke. Add that pretty face to the package, and you've had it too easy. The ladies fall all over you and you have to do nothing but crook your finger."
"On what grounds?"
"I have never crooked a finger at a lady."
Elias smiled. "My point is, you have never had to woo a woman, never had to work to make one take notice of you."
"And you have? You're a bloody duke too, you know."
"If you think Anne merely fell into my arms, you don't know her very well. She led me on a merry chase, and I'm a better man for it."
"I'm too busy for chasing. Love and all that rot is find for the likes of you, Elias, but I have estates to manage, solicitors at my door, stewards with rapidly multiplying rabbits."
Wyndover waved a hand. "I need an heir, not romance."
"Then you haven't found the right woman yet. When you do, you'll welcome both the romance and the chase. You wouldn't have it any other way."
Nathan shook his head, but Elias did not stay to hear his protest. He stood. "I see Greenover is retiring for the night. There was an incident with a maid earlier. I think I'll make sure he finds his room without incident. Good night, Nat."
Nathan watched him go. If he was an intelligent man, he too would find his bed. Instead, he poured another glass of port and settled back to watch Ormandsley lose yet another game of billiards.
© Shana Galen