Forbidden to Love the Duke

February 03, 2015

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Chapter 1

1813 England

 The Duke of Ellsworth met his match on a Tuesday afternoon while plotting ways to pleasure the woman he had left only hours ago in London. He anticipated months of uninterrupted bliss in a bedchamber where rather than producing an heir with a suitable wife he would concentrate on seducing a new mistress. He had gone to war, survived an injury that should have killed him, and returned to a dukedom that any man in England would envy. His tenants needed reassurance that he would carry on tradition. He was supposed to provide them with security through the hard times predicted for his country in the years ahead.

He planned to give a feast and toast his farmers with the potent apple cider that their orchards produced. Duty fulfilled, James then intended to submerge himself in months of uninterrupted sexual impropriety to purge his mind of the war he had fought and would still be fighting if a well-placed bullet hadn’t stopped him.

In less than a week he would be a satisfied man, one whose body was soothed by a woman’s attentions, not battered by every bump in the country road he’d insisted his coachman take. Why had he demanded this detour? he wondered as the carriage approached a small stone bridge.

He turned his head, remembering the reason with a jolt of surprise. To his right stood what centuries ago had been a majestic Tudor house. His father had admired the manor since James was a boy and James had inherited the late duke’s appreciation of traditional English architecture.

Was it abandoned?

Could he purchase it for his mistress? She wouldn’t care for it, he decided. The house needed extensive repairs and would be too isolated for a lady accustomed to the bustle and excitement of London. Elora loved her parties. She thrived on the gossip of infidelities and jewel thefts and bankruptcies that brewed in the beau monde. She had attended more balls and routs than any woman he had ever known. She sought constant entertainment. He needed sex. Still, the steeply pitched roof and dormer windows intrigued him. Perhaps it would suit one of his aunts.

He noticed a hawk perched on the branch of one of the ancient oaks that ringed the manor. A bird of prey, the hawk kept its sight on an object in the garden below. What it was James couldn’t see. But he saw something else.

Was that a woman standing at the bottom of the garden? He banged hard on the carriage roof and opened the door before a footman could attend the task. He set his boots to the dirt road as the wheels stopped rolling.

The hawk remained motionless. He could not help but wonder again what innocent creature it had in its sights. He walked down a sloping path buried in leaves and passed a once-grand gatehouse.

“Your Grace?” said his coachman, a musket under his arm. “Shall I accompany you? I’ve heard stories about this house.”

“Tell me one.”

The coachman squinted up at the roof. “Dangerous women abide within. Women who bend men to their will.”

James grinned. “What is it they make their victims do?”

“Wicked things from what I gather.”

“They sound like women I might like. Now I am compelled to continue.”

“And as for me?”

“Let me sacrifice myself first.”

He wandered into what remained of the original Tudor garden, a riotous shambles that threatened to consume the house. James predicted that in another year only the chimneys would rise above the thicket of thistle and rose, weed and bramble. From what he could see it was only a matter of time before the roof collapsed into heaven only knew what lay beneath.

He’d never seen a caretaker or an occupant in the few times he’d driven by. But then who could find a human being in this overgrown mess? Hard to believe that the grounds had once been designed in geometric knots and patterns as precise as a chessboard.

He felt a sudden whimsy to ask his land agent about purchasing the place. Despite his coachman’s warning, the only rumor James could recall about the manor was that four spinsters lived within. Perhaps they would be amenable to an offer.

He blinked. The beguiling figure in white was half-hidden beneath an unsightly trailing arbor of honeysuckle vines. She stood completely still as if caught in a misdeed. Or was it a statue of a Greek goddess? He would have noticed such an anomaly on the Tudor estate before.

He cleared his throat, pushing an intrusive thorn out of his face. “Good afternoon,” he called out in a gruff but pleasant voice. “Allow me to introduce myself.”

The goddess came to life. Before he managed another word, she bent, scooped up a wriggling ball of fur, and fled up the path. James couldn’t decide whether she was a maidservant or a gentlewoman. She moved too spryly for a spinster. How irritating that she ran at his polite inquiry.

Ladies usually chased after James, especially when they discovered he was an eligible duke with nothing better to do than indulge their whims.

“Please,” he said, quickening his step. “All I wish is a few words with you.” Which might not be entirely true, but he couldn’t be certain of his own motives until he convinced the woman to give him a chance to introduce himself.

There was something about her that reminded him of the past, of sweet days lost and unappreciated. But that was fancy, the influence of the manor’s charm. She didn’t appear to feel this absurd connection.

She muttered something under her breath and gripped her skirt with her free hand. He decided she was desperate, indeed, if she’d display her stockinged ankles to make an escape. He noticed that she had nicely shaped calves. Perhaps she ran away from men all the time. He could have pounced on her in two masterful strides. Or so he was convinced until he walked into an obelisk concealed behind a wall of hollyhocks.

The impact should have knocked him to his senses. The woman clearly knew the garden’s snares as well as how to elude persistent gentlemen.

Her white sleeves and skirt fluttered out, a taunt and a symbol of innocence at the same time. He felt like Hades pursuing Persephone.

He wouldn’t be surprised if everything in the garden began to wither, and he found himself sitting with her in the underworld, trying to justify his position.

“Miss! I’d like to speak to you about the manor house.”

He reached out for her, not certain which part of her person he would grasp. She looked fetching from behind. But then she dodged another obstacle that he hadn’t anticipated. She seemed to fly through the heavily overgrown garden.

He stumbled over a sack of weeds and stones. Perhaps it was the dead body of the last visitor. He regained his balance but lost the advantage.

“Stop!” he said in his ducal voice, to no effect. Either she disrespected the peerage or was too upset to acknowledge his rank.

Dangerous women abide within.

Women who bend men to their will.

“Wishful thinking,” James muttered.

A heavy beat of wings in the air drew his gaze to the sky. The hawk flew over the house. Its sudden ascent disturbed a family of jackdaws that appeared to reside in one of the manor’s numerous chimneys.

The woman jumped a small urn filled with geraniums and disappeared into the house. A bramble bush snagged his trousers and slowed his pace.

“I have a sword, you halfwit!” a female voice from inside the manor shouted.

Then the door slammed, the sound reverberating in the garden. A swarm of angry bees circled his head.

He stood, breathing hard. He half expected the rose bushes to grow claws and hold him captive. “Another time then,” he said; he was no longer merely interested but enthralled. “I’ll send a message ahead. Make proper arrangements.”

He heard the crunch of boots from behind the overgrowth. He followed a weed-choked footpath to the side of the house.

“Pardon me,” he said to a tall gate smothered in strands of verdant ivy. “Is anybody home?”

He tunneled his hand through the vines and made a peephole. The ivy concealed a back garden of such well-maintained Tudor symmetry he believed he’d discovered a secret paradise.

The illusion soon perished. A rheumy eye met his. A voice that could belong to either a beast or human being snarled, “Be gone! All and sundry creditors and other trespassers will be roasted on a spit!”

He drew himself upright. It took more than a reclusive lady and an ill-tempered gardener to force a duke to retreat. “I wish to speak to your master or mistress about ownership of this property. And I shall have none of your surly impertinence.”

The gnome hurled a handful of dirt over the gate in answer to his demand. James glanced up, realizing he had an audience. The lady in white stared down at him from a lozenge-shaped oriel window of what he guessed to be a hall in the upper-story. Her face blurred behind the leaded glass. He noticed other indistinct figures standing around her like guardian angels.

“Your Grace?” his coachman called from the gatehouse, a footman at his side. “Have you been assaulted?”

James gave a laugh and brushed the dirt from the shoulders of his greatcoat. “Hardly. Let’s return to the carriage. And be careful where you step.”

“I did try to warn Your Grace about those women.”

“Yes, you did. Danger comes in various forms, doesn’t it?”

The coachman looked back in curiosity at the house. “Some of those forms are quite attractive, if you’ll forgive me for saying, Your Grace.”

“How can I not forgive you when we share the same thought?”

He ambled back through the garden. The bees had disappeared. Rose-tinted shadows enhanced the enduring beauty of the house. Its outward simplicity deceived the unknowing. The Tudor manor represented the essence of England, of what James had fought for, what his younger brother and so many other valiant soldiers were fighting for now.

In the false twilight it didn’t seem to matter that the windows lacked a few panes, or that time had peeled strips from the ornate wood framework.

He had coveted this house for years. He wanted to learn its secrets. He wanted to know about the woman who lived inside. He thought he should explain that he hadn’t meant to frighten her, that he wasn’t a man who went about accosting young ladies on their property.

His arm throbbed, a welcome diversion from finding reason for his behavior. Soon enough Elora would arrive to make him forget all about Tudor houses and reclusive women. He desperately longed to give himself over to a season of pleasure before he settled down and found a wife.

Forbidden to Love the Duke