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I had never thought to be a duchess. Most assuredly I had never thought to be Richard's duchess. And perhaps, had I known what was to come, I would have refused that honor.
It was all quite strange. And nothing was stranger than Caroline's mysterious death. But let me begin nearer the beginning.
I first saw Richard, duke of Greyden, when he was a dashing blade of five and twenty who had come to offer for Caroline's hand. I had escaped the notice of Vickers, my governess, and peeped between the bannisters to see what all the commotion was about. I was thirteen at the time, a gangling, gawky girl with carroty hair that was always escaping whatever constraints Vickers tried to put upon it.
But in spite of my tender years, I knew my own mind, and one look at Richard was sufficient. I knew immediately that this was a man above all men. Tall and dark, with a leanness that bespoke great strength and dark eyes that flashed wickedly, Richard was the prototype of the hero in the stories my maid Burdner whispered to me.
Vickers, of course, knew nothing of this or of my taste for tall, lean heroes, but she was a great authority on manners. And when she found me at the bannister, eyes wide at the sight of such a man, she promptly grabbed me by the ear.
"Ouch!" I cried, for once taken by surprise.
So my first meeting with Richard was humiliating, to say the least. He looked up, a smile of amusement on his handsome face. I thought I should die of embarrassment, but at least Vickers had sense enough to let go of my ear.
"Hello there," Richard said, and his voice thrilled my young bones. "You must be Miss Vanessa."
I managed to remember my manners. "Yes, YourGrace. And you must be the duke."
His eyes crinkled into the beginning of a smile, and he seemed even more handsome. "Please come down, Miss Vanessa, so that I may make your acquaintance properly."
I remember that I refrained from sticking my tongue out at Vickers. Being the hoyden I was, I felt very virtuous about it, too. And I moved slowly down the stairs until I was staring up at the most wonderful man in the world.
"I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. Miss Vanessa." And he kissed my hand! His touch was thunder and lightning, like nothing I'd ever known, but all too soon he withdrew his fingers.
I closed my gaping mouth and managed a small curtsey. "Thank you, Your Grace."
He smiled, and his whole face was lit from within. "Let's not be so formal. Soon I expect to be your brother. Then perhaps you will call me Richard. And what shall I call my little sister?"
"N-Nessie," I replied, yearning with all my heart and soul to hear that diminutive fall from his lips.
"Nessie." Again that magic smile brightened his face. "A lovely name for a lovely young lady."
No doubt this sounds silly, the antics of a schoolroom miss, but I knew then that I would never marry any man but Richard, duke of Greyden. And, since he was quite intent on marrying Caroline, who had been the belle of that season and several past, it appeared that I was going to resign myself to a life of spinsterhood.
And that is, more or less, what I did. Mama passed away two years after Caroline became Richard's duchess. Without her darling, she had no more reason to live. We had not seen the married couple again. London was too far from Wiltshire for ailing Mama to travel, and Papa did not like cities.
I knew, too, though Papa did not say it, that Caroline would not welcome us with open arms. She had never had much use for Papa. In her eyes he had failed her by not coming of better stock. How she had supposed this to be poor Papa's fault, I could never understand. His "bloodlines," as he always called them, were impeccable, and the blame for his being a younger son could hardly be laid at his door, but Caroline was always wishing for a title and quite bitter about his lack of one.
At least, until she nabbed the duke and became a duchess. Then Papa and I knew that we were too far down Caroline's social scale to be invited to the great house in London. But we didn't really mind. City life was not where our hearts lay. Papa loved the country--his horses and his land--and I, who had always been a hoyden, fell quite naturally into the habit of accompanying him on his rounds, especially after Mama's passing.
The matter of my marriage came up for discussion on occasion. Papa even tried to send me to London for a proper season, though not, of course, to Caroline, but I told him quite frankly that I didn't care to go, that I much preferred to stay in the country with him. Since this was what Papa wanted, too, it was not difficult to persuade him.
Several marriage proposals came my way, from fine decent men, but compared to my shining memory of Caroline's husband, they appeared in a very poor light. I could not love any of them. I was obliged to decline their kind offers.
The years passed, and Papa and I led contented lives. Five years after the marriage, Richard sent word of the birth of a daughter, Sarah. Papa considered a trip to London to see his only grandchild and to take in the celebration of our victory over Napoleon, but before he could arrange it, word came that the duke was removing his family to the castle in Cornwall. Papa decided we could equally well give thanks for Bonaparte's defeat at home. No mention was made of going to Cornwall, and I did not press the matter. I knew Caroline would not welcome us.
I could not imagine Caroline being happy in Cornwall, a place reported to consist of desolate moors and cold, gloomy castles, where the sea beat angrily against the great dark cliffs and life was often grim. Caroline hated the country, but even more she hated being removed from society. Its glitter and excitement were her life's blood. I wondered how Richard had managed to persuade his wife to leave the scene of her numerous triumphs.
But I wondered only briefly. Papa and I were much taken up with new land projects, and so one thing or another was always occupying our minds as another four years sped by, almost without our noticing it. Then another message came--this time a shocking one. Caroline was dead!
It was hard to think of the beautiful, vibrant Caroline as no longer existing. We had never been close, my sister and I. The years between us had contributed to this, but even more than that had been our other differences. Caroline was a petite beauty, a stunning belle of the ball who liked nothing better than being the center of attention, surrounded by admiring men. I, on the other hand, was tall and robust. Indeed, I had towered over more than one suitor, and I had never cared much for their compliments. Empty phrases I felt them. Those who compared me to a rose were most likely to feel my thorns.
I preferred the company of a few close friends to that of many competing admirers, and I had never particularly cared for the gossip that made up so much of society's calls. I was, as you can see, quite happy in my life with Papa, yet not so happy that Richard's new unmarried status did not occur to me, of course. But I had ever prided myself on my honesty, with self as well as others, and I knew that I was nothing at all like the wife Richard had loved and lost.
Papa and I put on the obligatory black, but we hardly knew how to mourn. Caroline had made no bones about her disdain for us, and I regret to say that I could dredge up no pleasant memories of my beautiful sister.
However, one memory did insist on insinuating itself into my mind. As a curious eight-year-old, I had ventured from the nursery into the apartments that were Caroline's. I wanted to know from which bottle my beautiful sister got one of the sweet scents that always surrounded her. To that end I was carefully lifting the stopper from each faceted crystal bottle and raising it to my freckled nose.
Caroline caught me with one halfway open. She grabbed it from me with one white hand and dealt me an open-handed blow with the other. "Don't ever touch my things again," she hissed, her face a harsh mask.
And I never did. With my cheek stinging, I ran from the room. I didn't want to smell like a garden, I decided then and there. For years after, I refused even to consider wearing a scent.
Papa's calm reaction to the news of my sister's death did not surprise me--she had been no better a daughter than she had a sister--but I do own to a little gasp of astonishment when I heard of the manner other passing. "Stomped to death by that great stallion of his," Papa said, shaking his head sadly.
"But how?" We both knew Caroline for a wonderful horsewoman, renowned over the entire county for the slam-bang way she rode to hounds. There was no horse on the face of the earth that Caroline couldn't handle. I said as much to Papa that day as we gazed at the letter.
"I'm afraid she met her match," he replied sorrowfully. "A great stallion shouldn't be attacked with a riding whip. Not by man or woman." He frowned. "She was a wild one, that's for sure. Not like you, Nessie."
Papa's praise warmed me, as it always did.
"I do feel sorry for Richard, though," Papa continued. "He was besotted with the girl. And then there's the little one. Though the Lord knows I can't imagine Caroline as a mother."
Remembering that long-ago scene with the scent bottles, I had to nod. The Caroline I had known had always been concerned only for herself. To imagine her caring for someone else was virtually impossible.
We said no more about Caroline's passing. I knew Papa sent Richard a letter, commiserating with his loss, and then we went back to our land plans.
Another year passed. Green shoots were poking their heads above the ground. We had put off our mourning barely the week before, when Dickson came to me in the library where I was doing accounts. "A visitor, Miss Vanessa," he said.
I didn't look up. Papa and I had many visitors, all about our land reform plans. "Show him in," I said.
I heard the sound of male footsteps entering the room, but I finished my sum before I looked up.
"Good morn--" I began. The words died in my mouth, and the pen fell from my lifeless fingers. Richard, duke of Greyden, stood before me. His riding breeches and expensive coat of super-fine were crumpled and travel-stained, his Hessians covered with mud and dust. His lean, dark face was etched with lines of weariness, but in any condition he was to me a most beautiful sight.
"Your Grace." I struggled to my feet, inordinately pleased that that morning I had chosen my new apple-green gown with the velvet ribbons.
For a long moment his dark eyes stared deeply into mine. I felt rather like I was sinking, but it was a most enjoyable sensation.
"Nessie," he said finally, his voice even more thrilling than I remembered it. "The years have been good to you. You have grown even more beautiful."
I blushed then. I, who had shrugged off other men's compliments with disdain, felt like the greenest schoolroom miss. "You are very kind, Your Grace."
My eyes hurried over his features. It was easy to see that the years had not treated Richard kindly. Gray dusted the dark hair at his temples, and there was a hardness to his eyes that I did not remember. There were more lines of strain on his face than could be accounted for by his trip or the decade that had passed. I longed to reach out and smooth away his cares. Instead, I dug my hands into my skirts, reminding myself that this rush of feeling was hardly seemly.
"We are pleased to see you," I said, summoning my best company man-ners. "Papa is away from home just now, but--"
"I'll be pleased to see your father," Richard said. His gaze was still on my face, giving me the strangest sensations. "But I'm glad he's away at the moment. I've a matter to discuss with you."
I stared. I knew it showed ill-breeding to do so, but I couldn't help myself. What possible matter could Richard, duke of Greyden, have to discuss with me?
"If you'll come out from behind that desk and sit beside me over here.... "He gestured with a lean dark hand.
"Of course," I mumbled, wondering if I could pinch myself without his noticing. I desperately needed reassurance that I wasn't dreaming the whole amazing scene.
I managed the pinch, but it was a useless effort. Richard was still standing there, watching me expectantly. I left the shelter of the desk and moved toward him. "You look weary," I said, perhaps sensing even then that something was not right in his life. "Would you care to wash, to rest? I'll have Franks fix a room for you."
My hand was halfway to the bellpull when Richard said, "Later. Come here."
I was not accustomed to obeying male commands--even Papa treated me more as a hunting crony than a daughter--but when Richard spoke to me like that, I went to him immediately. It was not because he was a man, of course, it was because he was Richard.
"Sit here, please," he said, indicating the sofa.
I sat, my heart dancing on my stomach. Or so it felt.
Richard seated himself beside me, so close my nostrils were filled with the good scent of him--leather and horses, and something else I could not quite define.
He reached over and took my hand in his. It was thunder and lightning again. The years had done nothing to eradicate that. The duke made me feel strangely unlike my usual no-nonsense self. Looking down into my lap, I reminded myself that I was no longer a gawking girl. "Yes, Your Grace?" I asked.
"Please look at me, Vanessa."
I looked. His eyes were dark pools of jet. I could read nothing in them.
"I am looking," I said, because his gaze was still making me out of breath.
"Yes," he replied, his voice low. "But now that you are, I'm not sure I can begin."
For a moment I forgot the dark hand holding mine. How could this man possibly have trouble speaking to me?
"Please," I said. "You may say anything to me, Richard." I almost gasped at my own audacity, calling him by his given name, but the smile he gave me erased all my fears.
"Yes, Nessie," he said. "I believe I can." His dark eyes were solemn. "Please, though, hear me out before you make a decision. This is a matter of some importance."
"Yes, Richard." I wondered if he had forgotten that he held my hand. I had not. I could not. My heart continued its strange dance, and I found it even more difficult to breathe.
He inhaled deeply, and his fingers closed around mine. For all the world as though the man needed courage!
I stared down at the hand that held mine. Perhaps if I did not look at him, he would find whatever he had to say less troublesome.
"It's been a year since Caroline's death." His voice held no hint of emotion. Though I tried, I could tell nothing from it. "It was, of course, a great shock."
"To us, too," I replied, venturing a quick look at the face I had dreamed of so often.
"Yes, yes." He looked straight at me now, and I fought not to let the man see how his presence affected me.
"At any rate, the year of mourning is over." He sighed. "There's the child, Vanessa. A young child. She needs mothering." He looked at me earnestly.
"Yes, of course," I replied, not understanding any of this.
"Cornwall is a dismal place for many people."
I was bewildered. With Richard holding my hand, it was difficult to think properly, and I could make no connection between Cornwall and finding the child a mother. Because I could think of nothing to say, I said nothing.
"The moors are desolate. Society is meager. There are few parties and fewer balls."
I simply could not stand it any longer. His meandering was raising such apprehensions in my breast that I thought I should have an attack of the vapors. I! Who was strong as a horse! "Richard, please! Come to the point. What is it you wish of me?"
His black eyes gazed deeply into mine. His lips formed into a thin line. He shook his dark head. "Matrimony," he said finally.
The breath went out of me in a great whoosh, and my eyes fell away from his. Richard had come to me to help him find a wife! If only he knew.... But he couldn't. He couldn't possibly. I licked my dry lips. "I am hardly a good maker of matches. I know few young women and very little about--"
The pressure of his hands on mine stopped me in midsentence. "No, Nessie," he said, and strangely enough he was smiling. "I do not want your help in matchmaking."
"But..." By this time I was completely bewildered. His presence so close to me, his hands on mine, his strange words--all combined to make me feel lightheaded and more than a little stupid.
"Nessie, my dear." For a moment I heard only the dear, but then he went on. "Can't you see what I'm trying to say? I'm asking you to come to Cornwall with me. To be my duchess."
"I? A duchess?" I could not believe my ears. I clutched at his hand. It seemed the only solid thing in a world gone suddenly head over heels.
I pinched myself with my free hand again. I had dreamed of Richard often, especially in those first years after he had married Caroline. But never, ever, had I dreamed anything approaching this.
Richard reached over and pulled my hand from my skirts. "What are you doing?" he asked, smoothing out my clenched fingers.
"I ... I cannot believe this is happening." I could not tell him the childish thing I was doing. I could not think what to say to him, my mind was all awhirl.
His face darkened, and he withdrew his hand from mine. "I should have known I was asking too much. You've heard the rumors. You believe I had something to do with Caroline's death."
While I sat paralyzed at this astonishing piece of information, he leaped to his feet. "I don't blame you," he cried, bitterness lacing his voice. "I'll leave immediately. And Vanessa, there's no reason to bother your father with any of this. I should like to keep his good will, at least." Without looking toward me again, he started for the door.
It was the darkest moment of my twenty-three years. I willed the life back into my paralyzed limbs and commanded my tongue to obey me. "Richard! Stop!"
He swung on his heel, his face so hard and grim I could scarcely recognize the man I'd remembered with such longing.
"Please, Vanessa. There's no need for this. I fully understand."
I lurched to my feet and stood glaring at him. "No, Richard, you understand nothing."
His face grew grimmer. "I understand that my trip here was futile. You have refused me."
The moment seemed to call for dignity. I pulled myself to my tallest. "I have--" My hastily summoned dignity suddenly deserted me, and I became again a thirteen-year-old child. "Please, Richard." My voice quivered in spite of all my efforts to keep it from doing so. "I ... I..."
My tongue simply refused to work, but fortunately instinct took over, blind feminine instinct. I literally ran across the library and threw myself against Richard's waistcoat. If his arms had not opened to catch me, I doubt that my legs would have held me, but his arms did open, and I was gathered tightly against a muscular chest where I finally managed to sob, "Yes, oh, yes. I will marry you."