Excerpt: The Dastardly Duke

Excerpt: The Dastardly Duke

Book 2 ~ Love in Disguise

Prologue

A reformed rake led a miserable existence.

Regarding the half-filled brandy bottle with a mixture of longing and dread, Julian LeFevre vowed never again to sit through one of Lady Harwood’s musicales without the fortification of spirits.

Sobriety — and reform in general — was painfully boring. 

Julian winced at the memory of the tedious evening he had endured. Lately, all of his evenings had been tedious. Since resolving to face his future squarely, without the numbing distractions of dissipation and debauchery, he had not enjoyed one moment of his drastically altered lifestyle.

Respectability held no allure. This hair shirt he had manfully donned only left him itching to be rid of it. Quiet evenings made him restless, like a suit of clothes that did not fit properly. 

Life had lost its spice. Lady Harwood’s vapid punch had not soothed him, and the only women he had encountered were the few pallid debutantes willing to overlook his reputation in exchange for elevation to the rank of duchess.

Virtue most assuredly was not its own reward.

Anyway, no one believed he had truly changed. Despite his excruciatingly civilized demeanor, watchful mamas still hovered protectively over their chicks when he was near. 

The betting books had given him a month to return to his former ways. Julian doubted he would make it two weeks. Boredom held no appeal. The gaming hells beckoned still. The sirens of the night sang as seductively as ever. Certain thirsts were unquenchable, it seemed.

Glowering at the brandy bottle, hating its seductive promises of forgetfulness, Julian told himself he had done his best. He had accepted all respectable invitations, avoided his usual excesses, donned his best society manners, and kept a civil tongue. But it was no use.

He was a bastard at heart.

The inner demons that demanded he reorder his dissolute life and face the dilemma of his lineage would not be silenced by good behavior — just as they had not been assuaged by debauchery. Neither sin nor virtue had resolved the uncertainty that tormented him. A dukedom and his immortal soul hung in the balance, and he did not know how to save either one.

With a jaundiced eye, Julian regarded the family Bible that lay open before him. The pages recording the births and deaths of generations of heirs to the dukedom had been obliterated, a defect he had long ago discovered. Tonight he had been desperate enough to hope he had overlooked something that might finally reveal whether he was living a lie.

But there was nothing, only some of his moralizing aunt’s sermons that someone had tucked inside the cover of the least-read book in the house.

A loud thump sounded from the shelf above him. Without the sturdy old Bible as a bookend, the books that had stood next to it had toppled over. Julian slammed the heavy tome shut and heaved it up to its place on the shelf, out of sight and memory. It was a perfect bookend. But then, a family Bible ought to be good for something.

His mouth curled into a bitter smile. All hesitation gone, he reached for the bottle.

Chapter One

“Devil take it, Julian! Your sister has refused me three times.”

Frowning at the glaring sunlight that invaded his study with Sir Charles Tremaine’s abrupt arrival, Julian regarded his friend with a less-than-sympathetic eye. His head ached like the devil from the worthless solace he had sought last night in his brandy, and his brain felt as thick as a wad of cotton.

“Lost your touch with the ladies, have you, Charles?” he drawled as Charles flopped glumly into a claret leather wing chair.

The baronet grimaced. “She is holding out for an earl, I am sure of it.”

Unable to fathom how any man could allow a woman to reduce him to such a state, Julian shook his head — an unwise move that produced a blinding spasm of pain.

“Your problem is that you are too eager,” he muttered. “Women never want anything unless they think they cannot have it.”

“And your problem is that you do not have the vaguest idea what it is like for us lesser mortals,” Charles grumped. “The fact is, a duke’s daughter may wed as high as she chooses. Why should your sister bother with a mere baronet whose pockets are to let?”

With a grunt of impatience, Julian rose and moved to a small table to pour out two glasses from a crystal decanter that had beckoned him all morning. “Drown your sorrows in this,” he commanded. “And while you are at it, reflect upon the fact that your financial shortcomings cannot matter one whit to a woman who has thirty thousand pounds a year in pin money. Lucy has never cared about pedigree.”

“I suppose when one dwells in the lofty altitudes of a dukedom, one need not concern oneself with the ton’s opinion,” Charles groused.

Julian’s mouth curled contemptuously. “No one has ever dared to meddle in our affairs. They will not start now.”

“You but prove my point. Why, look at you! You wear Weston’s finest with the effortless assurance of royalty. Your cravat is tied so intricately no one could possibly mimic it. And those boots are from St. James’s Street, or I am King George.”

Julian glanced down at his burnished black leather Hussars and shrugged. He had never bothered about fashion, leaving such matters to his valet. “So?”

Charles made a sound of disgust. “Despite the rakehell’s reputation you have so richly earned, nothing can erase that magnificent ducal shadow you cast. Do you think the ton would tolerate your behavior otherwise?”

Tossing off his drink in a single gulp, Julian scowled. “If society chooses to look at a sow’s ear and call it a silk purse, that is not my concern.”

“You underestimate society,” Charles responded. “Breeding will out. And you, my friend, are bred to a fare-thee-well. The list of your titles would fill a ballroom: ‘His Grace, the Duke of Claridge. The Most Honorable the Marquess of Ramsey. The Right Honorable the Earl of…’”

“Cut line, Tremaine,” Julian snapped, “before I cut out that glib tongue of yours.”

“Nevertheless, your pedigree…”

“Might be worthless.”

Charles frowned. “Not that again.”

With a muttered curse, Julian set down his glass. “Admit it, Charles: you can no more swear to my right to this position than you can fly to the moon.”

“You make too much of the deathbed utterances of a vengeful old man.”

“And you make too much of a title,” Julian returned scornfully. “Anybody with hubris and intelligence can manipulate the ton. Those biddies at Almack’s are too vain to look beyond the end of their noses. Wave a bit of glitter at them and they are caught. Why, I could take someone from the streets and pass her off as a duchess.”

An intrigued expression crossed Charles’s face. “A bet?” he asked softly, eyes suddenly alight with anticipation.

Julian pushed back the thick shock of black hair destined to fall onto his forehead no matter what his valet did to tame it. “Why not?” he returned in a bored voice.

“Someone from the streets, you say?”

“Or the gutter.” Julian shrugged. “It makes no matter.”

“And the wager?”

“Anything you wish. I care not.”

Charles took a deep breath. “I will have your sister, then, if it is all the same to you.”

An incredulous bark of laughter was Julian’s response. “Winning a bet with me will scarcely bring Lucy around.”

Charles did not smile. “An elopement might.”

“Idiot!” Julian glared at him. “I cannot allow you to elope with my sister.”

“I should not do so without your permission, of course,” Charles rejoined, his gaze bleak. “But I am convinced that if we could only share one night of passion, she would never have eyes for another man.”

“Not even a reprobate would collaborate in his sister’s seduction.” Julian’s voice held a dangerous edge.

“You misunderstand,” his friend assured him. “My intentions are entirely honorable. But Lucy’s court is large, and she is pleased to have her fun. By Jove, I will not wait forever!”

Such a declaration from the normally phlegmatic Charles prompted Julian to roll his eyes. “Do you honestly expect me to look the other way while you married my sister over the anvil and ruined her reputation?”

“A duke’s daughter is impervious to ruin,” Charles reminded him.

Slowly, a spark of interest kindled within Julian’s deep-set eyes, eroding the permanent look of boredom that had fallen over his features lately.

“You are mad,” he said.

“Not at all,” Charles assured him. “But the odds against you turning some street wench into a paragon of respectability give me reason to risk the highest stakes.”

For the first time in weeks, Julian felt the boredom leave him.

“Done.”

Charles blinked. “What?”

“I said I will take you on,” Julian said calmly. “Your matched bays against my sister’s hand. You pick the wench I am to transform. My only condition is that she must be young and passably pretty.”

“You have that much confidence in your ability?”

Bottomless, dark eyes filled with scorn. “I have that much confidence in society’s stupidity. Do you think I would risk Lucy’s reputation otherwise?”

“You would risk whatever serves your purpose. But you need not worry about Lucy. She will be in good hands — mine, eventually.” Charles smiled, his mood considerably lightened by the prospect.

“Your lack of confidence in my abilities wounds me,” Julian drawled. “How shall you go about picking the formless lump of clay I am to mold into one of the Season’s Originals?”

A cunning look crept over Charles’s features. “I know just the place. The Lock Hospital.”

“What!” Julian stared in disbelief. “You would saddle me with a syphilitic whore?”

“Not at all,” Charles said blandly. “Some of the, ah, patients, are quite healthy, I understand, just down on their luck. I wager that the perfect candidate for you reposes within those walls.”

Julian’s brows arched heavenward, but his harshly planed features looked anything but angelic. “I will say this, Tremaine — you know how to hedge your bets.”

Charles cast his friend a baleful look. “A man in love can be desperate.”

“Balderdash.” Julian’s gaze grew coolly assessing. “By the way, Charles…”

“Yes?”

“You will take no steps to win my sister before I have had my chance with the woman. I will need time to pull this off.” At Charles’s mulish gaze, he added, “I assume you do not wish to let Lucy get wind of our little wager.”

His friend paled. “Certainly not.”

“Then I expect you will do your best to smooth the way for our lump of clay.” 

Charles frowned. “I do not take your meaning.”

“I want no sabotage,” Julian said. “My protégé will succeed or fail on her own merits. You will not by so much as a raised eyebrow hint to anyone that she is not the proper young lady I will make her appear to be.”

“Very well. But you have forgotten one thing. Any young lady introduced as your protégé cannot help but have certain rather lurid assumptions made about her character from the outset.”

“How kind of you to point that out. And now, let us go and choose the poor young woman whose dismal fortunes are about to take a turn for the better.”

***

“Disease is God’s punishment of sinners,” declared the Reverend James T. McGougal.

Gravely stroking his chin, as if considering the minister’s words, Charles allowed the statement to stand without comment. Julian possessed no such tact, however.

He regarded the man with the embedded cynicism of one of Satan’s own angels. “Presiding over a building of sick whores must bring you great delight, then,” he said, “for surely it is rare to witness such tangible proof of the Creator’s justice.”

As Charles erupted in a sudden fit of coughing, Reverend McGougal paled. “I only meant that you must not expect too much of this young woman, Your Grace,” the minister explained, eyeing Julian nervously. “Her character was formed long ago, I am afraid.”

“We understand completely,” Charles managed. “You must not concern yourself with our expectations.”

A hint of suspicion flashed over the minister’s features. “You will not use her ill? I release her to you only upon your word that you will not abuse her, nor return her to the streets. Our goal is to change the animalistic behavior of these girls, not to encourage it.”

“Locking them up in cages is perfectly consistent with your philosophy, of course,” Julian said.

“They are not cages.” Reverend McGougal reddened. “The bars on their rooms are for their own protection.”

Charles eyed Julian reproachfully. “You must not regard the duke,” he told the minister. “He has been a trifle ill himself lately.”

“God’s punishment, no doubt,” Julian muttered.

Hastily, Charles shepherded the minister away from Julian. “I can assure you that we will treat the young woman with respect.”

“And in any case, my donation to your hospital should be sufficient to assuage your doubts,” Julian drawled.

The minister flushed. “You have been most kind, Your Grace.”

“Then may we get on with it?” Julian asked in a silky tone that bore a distinct note of impatience.

“I have already sent for the girl.” Reverend McGougal mopped his brow. “I should mention, perhaps, that while Hannah is one of the few women here who meet your age and, ah, other qualifications, she has one or two drawbacks.”

“Drawbacks?” Julian frowned.

“I hope the Lady Lucille will find her acceptable nevertheless,” the minister quickly added. “The young woman is quite intelligent and possesses a resilient constitution.” He cleared his throat. “She is also quiet. Very quiet. And unassuming. One could not say that about many of our other patients.”

By this time, Julian was thoroughly weary of Reverend McGougal. Nor was the hospital a particularly pleasant place. Its dingy gray walls imparted an oppressive air of gloom and decay. The knowledge that most of the inmates were suffering from incurable illnesses contributed to the atmosphere of hopelessness. Julian had seen one tight-lipped nurse and a slovenly orderly, but otherwise, the Lock Hospital appeared to have little in the way of staff.

Vulgar propositions came from some of the patients who watched them through barred windows off the corridor to McGougal’s office. Women with pock-marked faces, toothless grins, and wild eyes reached through the iron bars, their blistered hands extended in a plea for freedom that acknowledged the futility of their plight. Julian had no doubt that McGougal spoke the truth when he insisted that few of the women could pass muster outside of these walls. He only hoped that the woman McGougal had in mind bore no resemblance to those tormented souls.

As the sound of creaking hinges indicated the opening of the door to the minister’s office, Julian turned warily.

A young woman in tattered clothing stood at the threshold. She nodded briefly as McGougal introduced them, but said nothing. Her eyes searched the faces of each person in the room.

Julian did not bother to hide his distaste for the ragged scarf that covered her hair and the formless dress that looked to be some larger woman’s castoff. But while her skin bore an unnatural pallor, it appeared otherwise healthy. And her light gray eyes were clear and earnest, as if a lucid intelligence resided behind them. She clutched her hands tightly, without the frantic wringing and constant nervous movement he had seen in the other women.

It was difficult to take her measure, but with a little cleaning up and a new wardrobe, she might do for his purposes. Reverend McGougal began to explain matters to her, and relief swept her features as the minister told her she was to leave the hospital. It was quickly replaced by doubt when the minister informed her that she was to be turned over to these two gentlemen.

Julian eyed her speculatively. Most women in her position would have little interest in the minister’s assurances that she was going to a respectable household — what did these women care for respectability, after all? But the woman seemed to hang on McGougal’s every word.

Finally, she nodded her understanding. Her gaze met Julian’s and did not waver as she spoke in a clear, soft voice. “What would be my position in your home, Your Grace?”

Her gray eyes held his with unusual intensity.

Turning away from her oddly unsettling scrutiny, Julian spoke more to the room than to her. “If all goes well, Miss…” He tried to remember her name, but could not. “If all goes well,” he repeated, “you will be employed as my sister’s” — he searched for an appropriate word — “companion.”

Reverend McGougal cleared his throat. “It is necessary to look directly at Hannah when you speak, Your Grace.”

Surprised, Julian turned. The girl was staring at him without comprehension. He frowned at McGougal. “Explain.”

“Hannah is excellent at reading lips, but you must afford her the opportunity to do so,” the minister replied uneasily.

“Reading lips?” Julian stared at the woman as comprehension began to dawn. “Do you mean to say the girl is deaf?”

No doubt envisioning the evaporation of Julian’s donation, Reverend McGougal nodded in resignation. The woman seemed not at all discomfited, however. She shot him a self-possessed smile.

“Yes, Your Grace,” she confirmed with more than a shade of defiance. “As deaf as a post.”