About the Author
Meredith Duran blames Anne Boleyn for sparking her lifelong obsession with British history. A doctoral student in the social sciences, she spends her free time collecting old etiquette manuals, guidebooks to nineteenth-century London, and travelogues by intrepid Victorian women. She is the author of The Duke of Shadows, Bound by Your Touch, and Written on Your Skin, all published by Pocket Books. The Duke of Shadows was the winner of the Gather.com First Chapters Romance Writing Competition. Visit her website at MeredithDuran.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
At Your Pleasure 1
Nora was sitting at her dressing table, her maidservant Grizel braiding her hair for bed, when she heard hoofbeats on the road without. For a moment her heart swelled with relief: David, she thought. Her brother had finally returned, and she could surrender his cares to his own keeping. Thank God for it: they had worn her to the bone.
The next second, the maid crossed to open the window. Peering down, she gasped. “King’s riders, my lady,” she said over her shoulder.
Nora felt the blood drain from her head.
King’s riders, approaching by night with no message sent ahead to announce them: the only conclusion was that they meant to take the household by surprise. Their mission was not a friendly one.
Somebody had betrayed her.
“My gown,” she said as she rose. “Lace me quickly. And leave the window open.”
As she impatiently submitted to Grizel’s nimble hands, she heard the household stirring back to life. Dogs barked in the inner courtyard. Tack jingled and a horse whinnied. Low voices rose on the cool night breeze, impossible to discern. She caught three distinct timbres, and then a fourth. Her chest tightened. “How large is the party?” she asked. “Could you tell?”
“I saw . . . eight, nine mounts?”
“So many?” Nora cast her mind back to the letter she had received last week. Since the riots at Oxford, the government had recalled the old act, passed before the Civil War, that allowed the king’s agents to search any house suspected to harbor traitors. But to come this far into the Lancashire wilderness, with so very many men . . .
Evidently they felt certain they would not leave this place empty-handed.
She took a deep breath. No cause to fear, she told herself. As Grizel’s hands fell away, she squared her shoulders. In the standing mirror in the corner, she saw herself: small, dark, half-lost in the shadows of the room.
It would not do. She lifted her head, trying for a prouder look. These visitors would behave as her manner instructed them. Best that they see a grand lady, deserving of respect.
“What can they want now?” Grizel whispered.
Turning, Nora found her maid twisting a lace cap in her hands. Her anxious gaze begged for reassurance.
Not for the first time, Nora felt a stab of anger. Her brother’s mad schemes had endangered every soul in his care. At a time when heavy rains and failing crops should have riveted his attention to his estates, he conspired instead in French palaces, and exposed every throat in this house to the axe.
The thought was disloyal. She forced it away. David had no choice, after all. When her majesty had died and the German had come from Hanover to take the throne, their father’s enemies had been waiting. They had whispered lies into the new king’s ear. In the end, Father had been impeached, stripped of his title, and driven from England.
Neither Father nor David could be expected to tolerate such insult. As her brother often said, only dogs and cowards licked the boot that kicked them. And if the Colvilles did submit . . . who was to say that next, these lands would not be taken from them, too? The crown had already seized their more far-flung holdings, but Nora’s late husband had labored to ensure that Hodderby and its environs were spared.
Now that her husband was dead, the Whigs no longer had cause to treat the Colvilles kindly. Before David could tend to these estates, he first must ensure that they remained his to protect.
As the panic ebbed, she began to think more clearly. Why, of course—nobody had betrayed her. The king’s men did not come because they had learned of David’s activities. More likely they came because this household had once belonged to her father, who had fled to the Jacobite court. They came on a mission of simple harassment.
“I cannot guess why they have come,” she lied to the maid. “But I am sure there is good reason for it, and no cause for our anxiety.”
“Yes, my lady,” murmured Grizel. She did not sound convinced, but no matter. So long as the men did not know about David’s affairs, there truly was nothing new to fear.
Unless, of course, it occurred to these visitors to dig up the cellar floors . . . or seize the stores of wine. The double-chambered barrels concealed more than canary and port. They housed enough gunpowder to demolish a fortress—or this house, if handled roughly.
A knock came at the door, causing her to jump. Surely they would not come straight to her rooms? Such boldness would bode very ill.
“Come,” she called.
At least she sounded calm. That was a good beginning.
The door opened to reveal the steward, Mr. Montrose. He looked harassed, his white wig sitting askew on his heavy brow, revealing a wisp of gray hair beneath. “My lady,” he said breathlessly. “I beg your pardon, but Hooton says a party of riders has come—they are demanding entrance—”
“On whose authority?”
“My lady . . .” He faltered, swallowing loudly. “They carry a writ of Parliament.”
She refused to show how these words chilled her. “Then we have no choice. Permit them entrance and tell Hooton to make them comfortable.” She bent her head so Grizel could pin up her braid.
“But, my lady—”
She looked up. Montrose was wringing his wrists. “What? Speak, sir.”
“My lady, the party is led by Lord Adrian.”
Grizel’s hand slipped. A pin stabbed Nora’s scalp, but she barely registered the pain. Montrose could not mean . . .
“Lord Adrian?” Her voice no longer sounded calm; it came out rough and choked, though she felt nothing, nothing at all but a prickling disbelief. Surely she was dreaming. Surely he could not mean—
“Ah, forgive me,” Montrose stammered. “I forgot myself. I mean the Earl of Rivenham. He is Rivenham now.”
My God, she thought. Then this was a mission of vengeance, indeed.
David, what have you done to me?
How could you leave me alone to face him?
They were installed in a small parlor with cups of buttered ale. Adrian watched his men assort themselves, settling with unaccustomed hesitance into chairs around the fire. The dark-paneled room seemed too fine for muddied leathers and woolens, but the stench of the journey, horse and smoke and sweat, quickly overwhelmed the sharp, clean scent of wood polish.
He was glad of it. He remembered that scent, the special mix made of aromatic balsam and the wax from Hodderby’s beehives. In the stone entry hall, too, he had been caught off balance by memories. The old butler, Hooton, still answered the door, now with the aid of a cane. The unicorn tapestry next to the stair, the echo of his boots on the stone—the sense of familiarity had cut through his fatigue like a blade, spearing him straight in the gut.
It had made his manner colder than required. He had no complaint against the household, only the master—who was absent, Hooton had stammered. But Lady Towe was in residence.
There was another unwelcome surprise.
But irrelevant, he told himself.
He went to the window and looked out over the darkened parkland. A distant flicker of light in the trees caused him to tighten his grip on his goblet and lean closer to the glass. As a precaution, he had left Lord John Gardiner and a handful of outriders to stand watch from a quarter-mile away until he determined that their reception at Hodderby would be peaceful. Either the fool had disobeyed his orders and lit torches, or someone else was lurking in the wood.
It could not be David Colville. Not yet. Reports had placed him in Calais two days ago.
Perhaps the lady of the house had been expecting a midnight visitor. Did she look out some window upstairs in search of this light?
For her sake, he hoped not. Her presence here was not, in itself, suspicious; it was only logical that after the death of her husband, she had returned to her family home. But if she was involved in this plot, he would spare no concern for her. He would do what he must here, no matter the cost.
As he stared into the darkness, it came to him that another man in his place might feel a measure of dread. In his youth, he had been a friend to the man he now hunted, and to the woman abovestairs . . . more yet. Another man might well feel distaste for the current necessity.
Another man, finding himself at Hodderby again, might recall the boy he had once been, in this place—idealistic, impassioned, full of hope. A fool worth mourning, perhaps.
But Adrian felt nothing. That moment in the entry hall had been brief and unwelcome. It was over.
Sometimes he wondered at this numbness. More often it proved quite useful.
The door opened; leather creaked and throats cleared as his men rose. He took a long drink of his ale, swallowing before he turned.
The Dowager Marchioness of Towe entered the room. Adrian chose instead to focus on the man at her elbow. Here was an amusement, he thought: to find the old steward, Montrose, still on his feet, still fat as a Turk, triple chins aquiver with self-importance.
The maid that followed them carried a lamp. As the marchioness halted, the girl lifted it to show her ladyship to the company.
He was prepared for her, but his men were not: one of them sucked in an audible breath. The marchioness was too dark and small, her black brows too heavy and her jaw too bold, to qualify as beautiful. But her body was a spectacle: it would have done a barmaid proud, even in this prim gown the color of blood. The lamp’s glow painted the ripe curve of her bosom and the fullness of her cheek. It drew crimson sparks from the rubies she wore at her throat.
Since it was pressing near to midnight, she would have been abed upon their arrival, or ready for it. Those jewels had been donned mere minutes ago, to remind her visitors of her station.
She would have done better, of course, to disarm them by appearing sleepy-eyed and tousled, in a lace robe that slipped off the shoulder, wearing slippers with no heels, the better to emphasize how small, how negligible, she was.
But she had never been skilled at such games. As a girl she had scorned them. Later, after her marriage . . .
For whatever reason, she had grown quiet as a nun. No wit, the court’s verdict had run. Adjudged to be rustic and tedious company, she had made no effort to persuade London otherwise.
Adrian had never disputed the other courtiers’ judgments. He shared no opinions at all on the question of the marchioness.
In the inconstant light that rippled from the sconces along the walls, she was taking a moment to spot him. He waited, ignoring the curious glances from his men when he did not move forward to greet her. Despite her silence and the fortune around her throat, she looked to them, no doubt, harmless: a petite siren’s body paired with a girlish face, given to blushes, dominated by large, round eyes.
As her gaze found his, her shoulders stiffened. For a brief moment, her alarm was obvious.
Yes, he thought. You know better than to expect kindness from me now.
He offered her a slight bow.
“My lord Rivenham,” she said. She abjured curtsying for a brief bow of her own, the dip of her head showing him the shining crown of her black hair. The face she lifted was unreadable to him, but he had grown accustomed to that; over the past six years, in crowds, across rooms, it had looked to him, when he had happened to look, like the mask cast to commemorate a dead woman. Attractive, albeit in an unusual way. But lifeless.
He knew enough of her late husband to guess at the cause. For her sake, Adrian supposed he was glad she’d been widowed.
“My lady Towe,” he said. There was no call here for courtesies; they had determined that, tacitly, during their encounters in town. “Your steward will have told you the purpose of our visit. We will require lodging and provisions.”
She stared at him. The light did not provide an exact view of her eyes, but they were gray, penetrating and clear like her voice. What London mistook for coldness was, in fact, a powerful self-possession. “I understood you come to make search of the premises. What provisions could you require for such a simple task?”
“I am glad to hear it will be simple,” he said. “As to the question of provisions, if you do not understand the requirements of a traveling party, your steward no doubt can explain it to you.”
By her impassive expression, the jibe did not register. She turned to confer in a low voice with Montrose. Adrian grew aware of the whispers of his men, who had perceived the undercurrent but had no hope of understanding it.
“The stables have room enough for your horses and your men besides,” she said. “If you—”
“No,” he said. “We will stay in the house.”
She remained silent.
“We will require two private chambers in addition to the lodging for my men,” he continued. “One of the Marquess of Barstow’s sons accompanies us. Lord John will be arriving in the morning.” The boy had whined the entirety of the journey; let him have a taste of a night watch, and a true reason to complain.
She took a step toward him, her maid with the lamp hurrying to follow. “I thought you had come to search the house,” she said in a cutting voice. “If you mean to seize it, and my authority as well, then pray do me the favor of announcing it plainly.”
He allowed himself a slight smile. Once, her bold speaking had fascinated him. He had imagined it the product of a mind that ranged freely and a spirit that quailed at nothing.
But her boldness was nothing so brave. Like a mule, she would persist stubbornly in her duty, never questioning it, until she dropped dead in the harness.
Indeed, for all he knew, her brother had put her to work in his plot.
The thought darkened Adrian’s mood. He felt a dull throb in his shoulder, an old wound, gifted long ago by her brother, that had never healed entirely. He had ridden twelve hours or more today, through rain and wind, and he was more exhausted than he’d thought: his body was sore and so was his temper.
“Plainly, then, madam, in language you will understand,” he said. “I come to do the king’s bidding. I am his agent in this matter and you will treat me as such. That is your only duty: obedience.”
Over the crackling of the fire, he heard the sharp breath drawn by her maid. But she never moved.
“Very well,” she said after a moment. “Montrose, you will instruct Hooton to find places for these men in the east wing, and see their horses stabled. Your lordship, if you would be so kind”—her sarcasm was delicate—“may my household be given to know how long we will be graced by the king’s agent?”
“That I cannot say.” As long as it took, he thought. David Colville had been asking after ships in Calais. This piece of stupidity he would soon compound, for his arrogance would not allow him to remain hidden once in England. He would imagine himself capable of overpowering a small contingent of soldiers. Soon enough, he would make an appearance at Hodderby.
“I see.” The marchioness hesitated. “Then perhaps you will wish me to absent myself. I can withdraw to a cousin’s estate—”
“Oh, no.” It was coming to him that he could not have planned this ambush better: she would make an excellent lure for her wayward brother. Indeed, once David Colville learned the identity of his sister’s guest, rage might lead him...
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