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The last duke was dying.
Dragging shallow breaths into his lungs, the sixth and final Duke of Markham cursed the fates for snatching him so quickly and himself for not foreseeing how imminent was his end. His legacy lay in fragments, shards of immortality he could no longer ensure. Markham itself, the perpetuation of his title, both would be beyond his protection, lost to the hands of strangers.
He needed time.
He had none.
Moistening his lips, the duke reached for the bell pull beside his bed, summoning the valet he'd only just dismissed.
It was that blasted doctor who entered, and impatiently the duke waved him away. "Bedrick. Send Bedrick." He dissolved into a weak fit of coughing.
"Of course, Your Grace." The doctor gestured for the uniformed valet to enter.
"Get—out." The duke gasped at his grim-faced physician. "Bedrick—alone."
With a curt bow, the doctor complied.
"You sent for me, Your Grace?" Bedrick frowned at a loose button on his coat, his demeanor as calm as if he planned to assist the duke in shaving, rather than stand by his deathbed.
"Certainly." Bedrick provided both.
With a shaking hand, the duke scrawled a name and a few words on the page, barely managing to fold the paper in two. Utterly spent, he fell back against the pillows. "To my solicitor," he whispered. "I've made provisions. He'll know what to do."
"I understand, Your Grace."
"Immediately. As soon as I'm gone."
"At once, sir. Will there be anything else?"
"Pray, Bedrick. Pray it's not too late."
"As you wish, sir." Dutifully, Bedrick slipped the note into his pocket and moved away.
The dying man stared after him, drifting into a world where the past flowed forward, melding into a soothing haze with the future.
Then the last duke closed his eyes.
"Give me back my wallet, you filthy urchin!"
Red faced and sputtering, the gentleman waved his cane at a cringing lad. "I said, hand it over!" Violently, he thrust his gloved hand forward.
None of the hundreds of people flocking into Newmarket's Rowley Mile Course paid the slightest heed to the ongoing confrontation. Bound for October's Champion Stakes, they had little time to witness a common pickpocket being apprehended.
"You heard me, you wretched bandit! Return my money. Instantly. Or else I shall haul you off to the local magistrate!"
"I ... I ..." The lad wiped a muddied sleeve across his forehead, his eyes wide and frightened.
"Excuse me, sir. I believe there's been some mistake."
The nobleman whipped around. "I beg your pardon?" Stiff with outrage, he glowered at the stranger who towered over him.
"I said, I believe you're mistaken," the newcomer returned, his tone as hard as his features. "This lad didn't take your wallet."
"He most certainly did. I witnessed the theft myself."
The enigmatic stranger shook his head. "What you witnessed was an unfortunate coincidence. The wallet fell from your trousers. This boy merely had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn't steal anything."
"Why, how dare you. I'm positive—" The elder man stopped in mid-sentence as the stranger flourished the missing billfold in his face.
"I saw it fall to the ground and retrieved it," the stranger explained. "I was about to return it when you wrongly accused this poor lad." He patted the boy's shoulder and extended his other hand. "Your wallet, sir."
"Why I was sure—that is, I spied—at least I thought I spied—" The nobleman drew a disconcerted breath as he took the proffered billfold. "Thank you for restoring my property and alerting me to the facts," he amended with stilted dignity.
"I don't believe we've been properly introduced. I'm Lionel Graband, the Earl of Caspingworth. And you are?" He paused expectantly.
"Lord Thornton." The earl bowed politely.
The stranger didn't. "Not Lord Thornton," he corrected brusquely. "Thornton. Pierce Thornton."
Caspingworth blinked. "My mistake. Thornton." Smoothing his mustache, he assessed Thornton's tall, powerful frame, the expensive cut of his clothing. "I'd like to offer you a token of my appreciation."
"Don't. Instead, offer an apology to the boy."
A sharp gasp. "Apologize? To this riffraff?" Caspingworth glared disdainfully at the grimy-faced lad who was inching away. "I assure you, if I wasn't his intended victim today, someone else was. He's a common pickpocket. He should be tossed into prison where he belongs. Good day, Thornton." With exaggerated offense, the earl turned on his heel and strode off.
Pierce stared after him, a muscle working in his jaw. Simultaneously, his hand clamped down on the retreating boy's shoulder. "Wait."
"Wot do ye want?" the boy asked, white faced.
A corner of Pierce's mouth lifted as he regarded his quarry. "You look bewildered."
The lad dropped his gaze, kicking the dirt with his toe.
"Your eye is good, but your touch is heavy," Pierce instructed quietly. "You also made an inexcusable, often fatal, error. You allowed yourself no path by which to flee."
"Wot?" The urchin's chin shot up.
"You chose your target well, and positioned yourself perfectly. Then you ruined it with a clumsy execution and, no planned means of escape."
"I ... Ye ..." The pickpocket swallowed. "Ye saw me take th' wallet."
"How did ye get it?"
Pierce's grin widened. "My touch is light and my execution is perfect."
"Ye pilfered it from me?"
"Under the circumstances, it seemed prudent." Pierce extracted a few shillings from his pocket. "Here. Take these. Buy yourself something to eat. Then go home and practice what I've taught you. A light touch and a well-thought-out plan. The advice will serve you well."
The lad looked from the coins to Pierce and back again. Then, with an awed expression, he bolted.
Keenly satisfied with the results of his handiwork, Pierce resumed his course. Slicing his way through the crowd of enthusiastic racegoers, he scanned the grounds, easing past beer-drinking men and fortune-telling Gypsies, past the tents where loud betting was taking place, toward the pavilion where the fashionable crowd readied themselves for the first race.
Just outside the stands he spotted his mark and bore down on him.
"Tragmore. What a surprise."
The marquis turned, his face draining of color when he saw Pierce. "Thornton. What the hell are you doing here?"
"Why wouldn't I be here? The Champion Stakes are exhilarating to behold. Besides, I'm feeling incredibly lucky today. How about you, Tragmore? Are you feeling lucky as well?"
An angry flush spread up Tragmore's neck and suffused his face. "Don't toy with me. If you've sought me out, it's for a reason."
"Why do you assume I've sought you out? Perhaps our encounter is no more than mere coincidence."
Tragmore wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead. "When you're involved, there are no coincidences." He lowered his silver-white head, his voice dropping to a whisper. "It was you who bought that bloody note, wasn't it?"
"Which note is that?"
"The only one of mine you had yet to acquire, damn you. The one held by Liding Jewelers."
"You owed Mr. Liding a considerable sum. Not to mention the fact that you were three months late with your payments. Liding was on the verge of calling in the full amount." A sardonic smile twisted Pierce's lips. "Perhaps you should view my purchase of the note as your salvation."
"I view it by another name." Tragmore's fists clenched. "Why have you come here today, Thornton? To gloat? To remind me that you own me, body and soul?"
"Harwick? The horses are lining up." A woman's tentative voice reached their ears. "You mentioned that you didn't wish to miss the onset of the race, so I thought perhaps—"
"A moment, Elizabeth," Tragmore fired over his shoulder. Tight-lipped, he turned back to Pierce. "My wife and daughter accompanied me today. Therefore, if you'll excuse me.
"Excellent! I'd enjoy meeting your family." Pierce squinted, ignoring the marquis's furious sputter. "Is that the marchioness over there? The lovely woman with the flowered hat who's waving in our direction?"
"Thornton, Elizabeth knows nothing about—"
Withdrawing his pocket watch, Pierce declared, "We have just enough time for an introduction." Snapping the timepiece shut, he strode through the congested pavilion to the box where Tragmore's wife and daughter awaited.
Left with no option, Tragmore swallowed an oath and followed.
"Lady Tragmore?" Pierce asked, inclining his head in her direction.
"Why, yes. Do I know you, sir?" The woman who stared solemnly at Pierce, her fingers alternately gripping and releasing the brim of her hat, had obviously at one time been extraordinarily lovely. It was evident in her still-smooth skin, the fragile lines of her features. But, like a small broken bird's, her beauty was faded, her eyes listless and surrounded by lines of suffering and sadness.
Both of which had been caused by the brutality of one heartless bastard.
Pierce's gut gave a savage twist.
"Elizabeth, this is Pierce Thornton." The marquis was reluctantly performing the introduction. "Mr. Thornton is," an uneasy cough, "a business associate of mine. Thornton, may I present my wife, Lady Tragmore."
"Delighted, Madam." Pierce bowed.
"And my daughter, Lady Daphne." Tragmore reached out to guide his daughter from behind the eclipsing wall of her mother's headpiece.
"Lady Daphne, 'tis a pleasure." Pierce caught a glimpse of tawny hair and readied himself, with more than a touch of curiosity, to inspect Tragmore's only child.
His inspection was limited to the golden brown mane that flowed gracefully down her back.
Head averted, Daphne appeared to be scrutinizing the grounds, as if thoroughly fascinated by something or someone in the crowd, and was thus oblivious to her father's introduction.
"Daphne!" Tragmore snapped, his fingers biting into her arm.
Like a frightened rabbit, she jerked about, her face draining of color. "I'm sorry, Father. What were you saying?"
"I was performing an introduction," Tragmore ground out, indicating Pierce's presence. "This time I suggest you listen. Carefully." Fury laced his tone, blazed fire in his eyes. "Pierce Thornton, my meditative daughter, Daphne."
"Mr. Thornton, I apologize." Turning in Pierce's direction, Daphne bowed her head, the pulse in her neck accelerating with the blow of her father's reprimand.
"I should hope so," the marquis berated. Thornton, forgive my daughter's behavior. At times she is inexcusably—"
"No apology is necessary." Pierce raised Daphne's gloved hand to his lips, revealing none of the rage that coiled within him like a lethal spring. "In truth, I can guess just what dilemma occupies Lady Daphne's thoughts."
Instantly, Daphne's fingers went rigid in his, her lowered gaze unconsciously darting to her father, gauging the degree of his anger. "No dilemma, sir. I was merely watching. That is, I was wondering—"
"Which horse to choose in the first race," Pierce finished for her. "The choice is a difficult one, isn't it, my lady?"
This time Daphne's head came up, her brows arched in bewildered surprise. "Why, yes, it is."
Pierce's first unimpeded view of Tragmore's daughter was a dazzling revelation.
Small and fine boned like her mother, but with a vibrancy clearly lacking in the marchioness, Lady Daphne was exquisite, emanating, not the glittering beauty that filled London's ballrooms, but the classic beauty of a rare and priceless painting. Her hair, like rich honey, cascaded over her shoulders in a tawny haze—all but those few tendrils that had broken free and now trailed stubbornly along her cheeks and neck. And those eyes. The most amazing contrast of colors—a kaleidoscope of soft greens and muted grays with luminous sparks of burnished orange; delicacy offset by strength.
"The contenders are exceptional." Pierce held Daphne's hand a fraction longer before releasing it. "Perhaps if we compare notes we can together arrive at the winning candidate."
A faint, uncertain smile. "You're very gracious, Mr. Thornton."
"Yes, you are." The marchioness sounded vastly relieved. "Look, Harwick, the horses are lining up." She urged her husband toward his seat. "Come."
Apparently convinced that no irreparable damage had been done, Tragmore gave a curt nod. "Very well."
"Mr. Thornton?" Elizabeth turned to Pierce. "Please, won't you join us? Unless, of course, you've made other arrangements."
Seeing the immediate opposition on Tragmore's face, Pierce made a swift decision. "No, I have no other arrangements. I'd be delighted to join you."
"Wonderful. We have an empty chair directly beside Daphne. I'll take that seat myself, so you and my husband can discuss your mutual business dealings."
"I wouldn't hear of it," Pierce declined. "The race is a social event. Your husband and I share a wide variety of interests, all of which promise to be ongoing for quite some time. Isn't that right, Tragmore?"
"Indeed." The marquis had begun to sweat.
"Good. Then tomorrow will be soon enough for us to arrange a meeting. For now, I insist you sit right up front beside your wife. I shall take the empty chair beside Lady Daphne. And, in the unlikely event that I think of a matter too pressing to wait a day, I'll simply call out to you between races. How would that be, Tragmore?" Pierce's smile could melt an iceberg.
"Uh, fine. That would be fine, Thornton."
"Excellent." Pierce gestured for Tragmore and his wife to precede him. "After you, then."
The marquis seized his wife's elbow and steered her into the box.
"Lady Daphne?" Pierce extended his arm.
"Thank you." Daphne paused, her quizzical glance swerving from her father to Pierce, where it lingered.
"Is everything all right, my lady?" Murmuring the question for Daphne's ears alone, Pierce held her stare, deftly tucking her arm through his.
Her smile came slowly, an action rooted in some private emotion more fundamental than cordiality or amusement. "Yes, Mr. Thornton. I believe it is."
"Good." Pierce guided her to her seat. "Then let us get down to the serious task of selecting the winner."
"Us?" Daphne looked startled.
"Certainly us. I did promise to assist you in this arduous task, did I not?"
"Well, yes, but I know very little about—"
"Have you attended the races before?"
"Of course, many times. But—"
"Surely you must, on occasion, have had a feeling about the potential of a particular horse?"
"I suppose so. Still—"
"Trust your instincts, then." Pierce gestured to where the horses and their jockeys were poised for the first race. "In your opinion who exudes an aura of success?"
Hesitantly, Daphne leaned forward to study the contenders. A moment later her eyes lit up, reluctance transforming to eagerness. "Why, Grand Profit is running today! She's that magnificent chestnut mare whose jockey is in green. I've seen her race several times before. She's fast as the wind and graceful and—"
"That has little to do with whether she'll win or not, my insipid daughter," Tragmore snapped over his shoulder. "Thornton, pay no attention to Daphne's inane meanderings. She has her head in the clouds, with no knowledge of the rules of the turf." His voice dropped to a mutter. "Rumor has it that Profit's jockey has instructions to fall behind in this race."
"Really?" Pierce crossed one leg nonchalantly over the other. "And have I your word on that, Tragmore?"
"How reassuring." Pierce rose. "In that case I feel ready to place my wager."
"My money is on Dark Storm," the marquis hissed.
A mocking smile. "I'm pleased to know where your money is." Pierce turned to Daphne. "Will you excuse me?"
"Of course." Daphne's nod was gracious, but the light in her eyes had gone out.
Swiftly, Pierce conducted his business, returning to his seat in time to see the horses speed around the first stretch.
"It appears Grand Profit has a considerable lead," he commented.
"Yes." Daphne sat up a little straighter, staring intently at the magnificent horse who was several yards ahead of the others.
"Dammit!" Tragmore leaned forward, hands tightly gripping his knees. "Hell and damnation!" he bit out long minutes later as Grand Profit crossed the finish line.
Excerpted from The Last Duke by Andrea Kane. Copyright © 1995 Andrea Kane. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted September 11, 2014
Please write historicals again. This book and all your othr ones are the greateest! Your historicals tho cannot be beat. The plots are good the characters are even better.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.