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The Runaway Duke
By Julie Anne Long
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2004 Julie Anne Long
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMay 1820
A word, Rebecca."
Lady Tremaine stood on the stairs with a lit candle in hand, a sleeping cap pulled down over her graying curls. She was a short woman who had gone very round in her middle years, and her night robe was flamboyantly ruffled. The overall effect was usually endearing; tonight, however, it was simply terrifying. Above all those ruffles Lady Tremaine's mouth was a grim line, and her eyes were shining with unspilled tears.
"To bed with you, Lorelei. Come with me, Rebecca." Rebecca, in her incriminating black clothing, followed her mother to the sitting room, her heart a frozen fist in her chest.
Her mother did not sit down, or invite Rebecca to sit. She merely turned to speak.
"Clearly I have failed you, Rebecca." "Mama-" Rebecca began, pleading, but her mother raised her hand abruptly. "No, it is quite clear that I have failed you. I think it can be fairly said that you are perhaps a special case, but it remains a mother's duty to give her daughter the skills she needs to fulfill her obligation in life. And I have tried-"
Here Lady Tremaine's voice broke, and one tear slipped from her eye. Rebecca watched, transfixed in dread, as the candlelight lit its path down her mother's cheek. She had seen exasperation on her mother's face before-many times before, truth be told-and frustration and anger, too, all a result of something she had done or failed to do. But she had never before made her mother cry.
"I have tried," Lady Tremaine continued, her composure regained, "to teach you modesty. And honesty. And gentleness. I have tried to demonstrate by my own actions the proper way to behave. I have tried to ensure that you could lay claim to at least a few ladylike refinements, such as the pianoforte or embroidery. And I have not undertaken this in order to punish you, Rebecca, though I am quite sure you have thought otherwise, but to protect you: a woman is nothing without a husband. For the sake of your future happiness and security, for the sake of your place in society, for the sake of your honor, I have attempted to teach you these things, so that when the time came you would be a suitable wife deserving of a suitable husband."
"Mama-" Rebecca tried again, a hoarse whisper. Lady Tremaine shook her head in warning. The tears were falling swiftly and silently now, and her voice had gone thick.
"And though you have a good heart, Rebecca, you have willfully resisted all of my teachings, which has caused me no end of distress. I am convinced that it is only through an accident of fate that you have not brought great shame down upon us. At this very moment, you can be certain that your father is securing your engagement to Lord Edelston. Your honor and the honor of your family will thus be protected, and Lorelei's prospects will not be threatened. You may count yourself fortunate that instead of becoming a social pariah and a burden on your family, you will become the wife of a baron. You may go to your room now. We will talk further in the morning."
An hour earlier ...
It had been almost disappointingly easy to leave her bedroom just before midnight, creep down the stairs, tiptoe out through the kitchen, and dash across the back garden lawn to crouch behind the tall hedge near the fountain. Obviously, it had never occurred to her parents that one of their daughters might ever be tempted to do such a thing; they had retired hours earlier, and were no doubt already sleeping the sleep of the blissfully unaware. All the servants were safely in their beds and snoring, too; her own maid Letty, as usual, slept as though she'd been clubbed in the head. The entire estate seemed to be dreaming, dogs and horses included. Rebecca was satisfied that no one had witnessed her furtive excursion.
Her exultation at having successfully arrived at the fountain ebbed a bit, however, when she discovered that it was colder than she had anticipated. Although she had, quite cleverly, she thought, donned a pair of black gloves and a dark wool cloak and tucked her treacherously bright hair into a dark furry hat before she left the house, the chill was beginning to penetrate every last bit of her protective covering.
To distract herself, she exhaled extravagantly and admired the white cloud her breath made. There had been a very interesting article on vapor and condensation in one of her father's scientific journals, and Rebecca had been happily engrossed in it this afternoon in the library until her mother herded her into the solarium, where she was forced to poke at the pianoforte for the rest of the afternoon.
The midnight trap she had planned for her sister had promised to more than make up for the torture of pianoforte practice, but the midnight chill, as much as she hated to admit it, was proving daunting. She hoped her sister Lorelei would hurry up and appear and fall into the arms of Anthony, Lord Edelston, who, no doubt, was creeping across the lawn to the fountain at this very moment. Rebecca planned to leap out from behind the hedge with a hearty "ah-HA!" and thus buy freedom from future extortion by her sister.
It was quite by accident that Rebecca had overheard the exchange between the tall, golden-haired Lord Edelston and her fair sister, Lorelei, who, by the age of eighteen, had done her duty to her relieved parents by growing into precisely the sort of pristine beauty the ambitious name "Lorelei" implied. Lorelei was very nearly unnerving, with her silver-blond hair, pale blossom of a mouth, and enormous crystalline blue eyes fringed with the most unfair dark lashes. Rebecca's own lashes were a sort of pale chestnut, which she supposed matched her hair well enough and did nothing to detract from her own handsome gray-green eyes, but they simply lacked the drama of Lorelei's. Rebecca sometimes feared her entire face lacked drama, which seemed to her a gross-or perhaps merciful-misrepresentation of what actually went on in her mind and heart.
Whereas Lorelei had inherited her mother's smooth refined oval of a face, Rebecca had inherited her bones from some more rugged ancestor: her cheekbones soared, her mouth was wide and plush, her nose was straight and strong and resolute, and her firm little chin had a dimple in it, for heaven's sake, exactly the size of the tip of her forefinger.
When one considered them side by side, one could see that Lorelei and Rebecca were sisters, but Lorelei's hair seemed like something spun from silk and moonlight, while Rebecca's hair was merely numerous shades of red and rambunctiously curly to boot.
"Titian," her mother described it, optimistically; "That unfortunate red" is what Lorelei called it when they were sniping at each other, which was rather frequently.
Rebecca did not dislike her older sister, and Lorelei did not dislike Rebecca. They were, in fact, very fond of each other. But Rebecca was widely loved by the servants and the neighbors, partially because she was everything Lorelei was not: she laughed loudly and easily, she was curious, she read far more than a decently bred girl ought to read, she galloped her horse hard (astride, no less) and came home happily sweaty. She was affectionate and kind and immensely opinionated about things she should really know nothing about, but then Sir Henry Tremaine was a trifle careless about where he left his scientific journals.
She was, naturally, the bane of her mother's existence and affectionately tolerated by her father, who had taught her to shoot on a whim and then basically left her to her own devices, as she could never really be the boy he had always wanted. Both of her parents secretly despaired of finding a husband for Rebecca, let alone one with a title.
Lorelei, on the other hand, was typically regarded with the sort of nervous reverence her kind of beauty always inspired, and although she secretly reveled in the awe, she found herself increasingly unable to step out of her regal reserve. She had begun to regard her own beauty as something sacred that had been entrusted unto her safekeeping, and thus she felt obliged to treat herself with somber respect at all times. Lorelei was fully expected to make a spectacular titled marriage, and her mother never tired of pointing this out.
Consequently the Tremaine sisters were jealous of each other, which manifested in an ongoing exchange of blackmail threats that rarely reached their parents' ears, although the possibility was always tantalizingly present. Yesterday afternoon Lorelei had threatened to tell Sir Henry, their father, that Rebecca had been poring over the anatomy book he purposely kept on a very high shelf in the library. This was a serious threat, indeed, as the book had been forbidden to Rebecca, and punishment would no doubt be severe-she might even be deprived of her horse for a fortnight. And doubtless the book would then be spirited away forever, safe from Rebecca's voracious hunger for knowledge, and Rebecca would never learn the complete story of how blood circulates through the veins (it was much, much too late to protect her from the story of how babies were made).
In a sense, it was all her father's fault. Upon retirement, Sir Henry had indulged his long-denied interest in science and medicine by subscribing to any journal that could be had on the subjects. Rebecca had happened upon the journals one day in the library and waded into them cautiously, keeping a wary eye out for her mother.
She had never been more enthralled by anything in her life.
Shockingly matter-of-fact debates regarding whether musket balls should be left in wounds if they could not be retrieved easily, the best methods of amputation, the uses of mercury, words like "laudable pus" and "trepanning"-the journals were both appallingly, titillatingly gory and strangely reassuring. Human beings were subject to a staggering array of illnesses and disasters, but the fact that learned men could discusses such things in dispassionate detail made human frailty seem less mystical and frightening and more a matter of course, of philosophy, essential to the pattern of life itself. Whenever Rebecca encountered a word or the name of a body part with which she was unfamiliar, she referred to her father's anatomy book, and thus inadvertently gave herself a very unorthodox education.
As a consequence, Rebecca nursed a secret desire-or rather a semisecret desire-to be a doctor. She had broached the subject once at the breakfast table, and in light of the spasm of pain that had crossed her mother's face and the condescending bark of laughter it had surprised from her father, she had thought it best not to bring it up again. However, the desire remained, and had only increased in poignancy, as is the habit of all secret desires. Thus, this newest threat of Lorelei's required momentous ammunition by way of counteraction, and she had prayed hard for the appropriate solution.
Rebecca's prayers had been answered in an almost comically swift fashion. Anthony, Baron Edelston, who was staying with the nearby family of Squire Denslowe, had effortlessly and instantly fascinated all the young women in the area simply by behaving toward them the way every young rake in London behaved: politely resigned to boredom, ever-so-slightly tragic and languid, a slight hint of danger glinting in his eyes as he lingered a little too long over the hand of some lucky maiden. Rebecca thought he was handsome but somewhat repulsive. Why on earth anyone found his air of boredom and tragedy captivating was beyond her ken.
However, Lorelei was poised on the brink of her first London season and had yet to meet a man like Edelston. Her careful reserve soon proved no match for Edelston's cultivated indifference. Edelston, indeed, behaved as though Lorelei's sort was as common as the dandelions that sprinkled the garden lawn, and Lorelei found herself actually exerting herself in an attempt to charm.
As exertion was unfamiliar territory for Lorelei, she was in over her head rather rapidly. One moment Edelston was coolly surveying the room full of overly cheerful provincials over the top of Lorelei's moonlight-colored head; in the next moment, he had dropped his voice to a fierce murmur, suggesting a tryst in the back garden at midnight the following night. Rebecca, surreptitiously moving through the room, heard her sister murmur a shocking acquiescence.
Because it would be ever so much more satisfying-and much more potent an arrow in her blackmail quiver-to actually catch her sister in the outrageous act of meeting a young man at midnight, Rebecca had decided to precede the pair to the garden. If the two of them didn't appear soon, however, Rebecca decided she would return the way she came, as catching a chill was becoming a real threat. She clapped her mittened hands together to warm them and gazed up at the stars sprinkling the sky, picking out constellations to pass the time.
Sir Henry Tremaine had rheumatism in his left knee. It had made itself at home there after a hunting accident a few years ago, and every now and again, particularly on chilly nights, it plagued him mercilessly. It was plaguing him tonight, and he had lain awake long enough. Careful not to disturb his sleeping wife, he slid out of bed, slipped into his robe, and lit a candle to light his way to the library, which was where he kept the brandy. From experience, he knew that a quickly bolted glass would muffle the pain long enough to allow him to sleep.
But halfway down the stairs, Sir Henry caught a glimpse of a pale head of hair and a swirl of dark skirts. Astonishingly, Lorelei appeared to be exiting the house through the kitchen. At midnight. In seeming deference to his shock, his throbbing knee went quiet. Sir Henry decided the brandy could wait. He stealthily followed his daughter outside.
Tom Jenkins, the Tremaines' gardener, was arriving home from The White Sow, the best place in the village for a glass of comfort and a relaxing chat with a large-busted barmaid, when he saw a dark figure dart across the back lawn. It was tall enough to be a man, and as he had only consumed two pints this evening-Tom liked his ale well enough, but he liked his job better-Tom was certain his eyes were not playing tricks on him. Thinking quickly, he armed himself with a spade from the toolshed, and cautiously glided across the frost-stiffened lawn toward the fountain, where the shadowy figure had disappeared.
Rebecca was deeply disappointed. It appeared that she had risked a great deal for naught, because no one had yet appeared near the fountain. She sighed and straightened her back, then stepped out from behind the hedge to return to the house.
Right into a pair of masculine arms. "There you are, my sweet. I feared you had changed your mind," said Lord Edelston in the same fierce murmur he had used to entice Lorelei here to begin with.
Excerpted from The Runaway Duke by Julie Anne Long Copyright © 2004 by Julie Anne Long. Excerpted by permission.
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