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London, November 1814
"We were not expecting you, your grace," Pointer, the butler, said.
Garrick Northesk, Duke of Farne, paused in the act of loosening his greatcoat. The raindrops on the shoulders glittered in the dim candlelight of the hall like dusty diamonds before sliding down to splash on the tiled floor.
"Lovely to see you again, too, Pointer," he said.
The butler's expression did not waver. Evidently, Garrick thought, his late father had not been given to jokes with the servants. Of course he had not. The eighteenth Duke had been famed for many things but a sense of humor was not one of them.
"We have had no time to prepare your chamber, your grace," Pointer continued, "nor is there any food in the house. I only received your message a few hours ago and there was no time to engage any staff." He gestured at the shrouded furniture and grimy mirrors. "The house has been closed. We have not had the opportunity to clean."
That was manifestly obvious. Long cobwebs trailed from the chandelier in the center of the vast hall. The dust and grit of the London streets crunched beneath Garrick's boots as he crossed the floor. The ghostly covers on all the statuaries and the veiled furnishings only added to the sense of Gothic mystery. A mere two candles burned in the sconces, throwing long shadows. And it was cold, very cold. Garrick wished he had kept his coat on.
"I don't require anything tonight, thank you," he said. "Only a candle to light me to my bed and some hot water."
"You have no luggage, your grace?" Pointer's long nose, so appropriate to his name, twitched with disapproval.
"It follows," Garrick said briefly. No carriage could have kept up with his hell-for-leather ride. "And your valet?" "Gage follows, too."
Garrick took a candle from the sconce, leaving Pointer fluttering around in the dark hall like a monstrous moth. He was tired, exhausted really, the fatigue bone-deep, his limbs aching from riding hard all day. He had buried his father only five days before in the family mausoleum at Farnecourt on the west coast of Ireland. Trust the old devil to choose to be buried on his Irish estates with all pomp and circumstance and maximum inconvenience to his family. The late Duke had never cared a fig for Farnecourt in his lifetime, deploring the beautiful Irish countryside as barbarous and the people as heathens.
It was no wonder that few people other than his closest family had turned out for the funeral and those who did had probably only come so that they could be sure the old man really was dead. Well, the vault was sealed now and not even the eighteenth Duke could come back from beyond the grave.
He was Duke of Farne now, with no son to follow him.
Nor would there ever be one.
His first marriage had been disaster enough. He had no inclination to try again.
Garrick paused halfway up the shallow staircase that led to the first floor. The intricately inlaid parquet steps were dull with dirt. The elegant curls and swirls of the iron banisters were festooned with thick white cobwebs. The house was like a tomb. How appropriate.
His father, the eighteenth Duke, had been furious to be dying in such an untimely fashion, with half his life's ambitions still unfulfilled. He had railed against his mortal illness, a reaction that had in all probability carried him off all the quicker. So now Garrick was master of this mausoleum and twenty-six other houses in ten counties, plus an obscenely large fortune. It was more than one man had any right to possess.
Out of habit rather than choice, Garrick pushed open the door of the sixth bedchamber on the left-hand side down an endless corridor that stretched away into darkness. On the rare occasions that he had stayed at his father's house in London this had always been his room.
It was smaller than the state chambers albeit not one whit cozier. Farne House had been designed to awe and impress not to welcome. It would be possible for a small army to be lost in the labyrinth of passages for a number of days. The grate was empty and the whole room cold and inhospitable, although there was an odd scent of smoke in the air as though the candles had recently been snuffed out. A copy of Mansfield Park lay on the floor. Garrick picked it up absentmindedly and returned it to the table.
There was a knock at the door; a housemaid with blessedly hot water. Evidently Pointer had managed to drum up at least one servant to help him. The girl placed the ewer of water carefully on the side table and dropped him a frightened curtsy. Her wide-eyed gaze searched his face before sliding away when he turned to thank her. Perhaps she was afraid of him in case he was like his sire. Rumors of the late Duke's behavior must have made their way into every servant agency in London. Garrick's father had seen the rape of the maidservants as one of his privileges rather than as a heinous crime. The eighteenth Duke had beaten his servants and kicked his dogs, and vice versa. Garrick felt his stomach cramp with disgust and revulsion at the memories.
Once the girl had run away he eased off his boots with a heartfelt sigh. As he had no valet to attend him it was fortunate that he was no dandy. He liked fine leather but he did not want a pair of boots that were so tight they had to be removed by brute force. Nor did his jacket require coaxing from his shoulders. He had even mastered the art of tying his own neck cloth with tolerable ease. It had always struck him as supremely impractical to be incapable of dressing or undressing without help, like a child or an invalid. Besides, for many years he had lived and traveled in places where not even the most devoted servant would ever follow.
The hot water removed the dirt of his journey and made him wish suddenly for a bath to ease his saddle-sore body, but it was late and he had no intention of disturbing the servants again. Tomorrow he would have to start the tedious business of mastering his father's affairs. That was his duty. Being a Duke was a privilege, or so he had been told from the cradle. It was a pity, then, that he saw it as a monstrous burden. He would not shirk it, though. He understood all about duty and service. Now, though, he wanted nothing more than to sleep.
There was a decanter on the dresser. On impulse he poured a glass of brandy, hoping it might warm him a little. It did more than that; it burned fire down to his stomach, reminding him he had not eaten for at least a day. No matter. He refilled the glass, knocked the liquid back again, once, twice? The combination of strong drink and weariness set his head spinning but now at least he might be able to sleep.
He expected the bed to be damp but to his surprise the sheets were cool and smooth but quite dry. He slid between them with a heartfelt sigh and turned his head against the softest of down pillows. A scent arose, elusive, sweet, the smell of a summer garden with shifting perfumes of bluebells and honeysuckle. It filled his senses, heating him from the inside out, awakening urges that were as unexpected as they were unwelcome. Suddenly the silken slide of the sheet felt like a lover's caress against his bare chest. He could taste temptation, sweet, dark and provocative. His body hardened into arousal.
He was dreaming. Fantasizing.
With a groan Garrick rolled over and willed his errant body into submission. Mind over matter. It was easy. He had done it a hundred times before. But this time the desire was too strong and it had come upon him too hard and fast. It swirled about him sinuously until he was helpless in its grip. He lay back and breathed deeply but that merely filled his lungs with that wistful scent of flowers. If it had not been so fanciful he would have sworn that someone had been sleeping in his bed, a wraith, a ghost, imprinting her very presence on him.
It was a trick of the senses. It could be no more. He was tired and drunk, and he had not had a woman in a long time and now his body was rebelling, reminding him of all that he had rejected.
Once, before his marriage, he had been a rake and after his wife had died he had returned to that life for a while. He had tried to drown his grief and guilt in debauchery. It had not worked. Now he lived like a monk. Some physical frustration was therefore inevitable. Or so he told himself.
The ton gossiped about him. They had done for years. He knew it. He ignored it.
Garrick Farne, the man who murdered his best friend, his wife's lover.
It was twelve years but even now he could not remember without a lurch of the heart and that familiar drag of guilt and grief. Which was as it should be. Penance was not meant to be easy.
As he rolled over to blow out the candle the book caught his eye once more. It had a deep red cover and black lettering. Below it, on the nightstand, was tucked a small pair of spectacles. Garrick raised his brows. Had Pointer used this room to escape with a good book? Garrick thought it unlikely. The very proper butler would surely not make free with the ducal bedroom, nor would he approve of fiction for that matter.
He took the book in his hand and turned to the flyleaf. There was an inscription there, the initials M and F entwined, and from the pages came the same elusive scent of flowers. Garrick laid the book aside on the coverlet and thought vaguely that he should perhaps check beneath the bed or inside the wardrobe for the spectacle-wearing, bluebell-scented intruder, but he was too tired. Tomorrow tomorrow he would make a thorough search, but for now he wanted to slough off all the responsibilities of rank, forget his father's grim legacy and sink into unconsciousness.
He was about to do so when the door opened again, most unexpectedly and without the courtesy of a knock first. In the doorway stood a vision of beauty. From her elegantly coiffed dark curls to her pink satin slippers she exuded sophistication and an unmistakable air of raw sexuality. Garrick shot bolt upright with an oath.
"Harriet? What the devil" He was fiercely aware of his huge erection, which had not been roused by Harriet's appearance but by his previous unrestrained imaginings. Thank goodness he had retained his trousers. He had no wish for the evidence of his physical state to be tenting the bedcovers.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded. He should have locked the door, he thought. Except that this was his house and he had not expected a seduction.
He had last seen Harriet Knight five days ago at his father's funeral, when she had been swathed from head to foot in irreproachable black rather than lightly dressed or rather, undressedin this thistledown confection of pale, transparent pink. So much for his belief that he had outrun the rest of the family in his headlong flight back to London. Harriet, his late father's ward, was before him. And she really was standing before him, allowing the gown to fall from her shapely pale shoulders, down over her full breasts and lushly curved hips, to stand beside the bed in all her glorious nudity. Garrick's head spun with drink, tiredness and shock. He had known Harriet was a minx, probably worse than a minx, but he had not thought her quite so brazen.
"Garrick, darling." Her voicethat throaty, seductive purrwashed over him. "I've come to welcome the new Duke to his new position."
Harriet, Garrick thought, had long wanted to be the next Duchess of Farne. She had made no secret of it. She simply had not previously resorted to such sledgehammer tactics.
She stepped up to the side of the bed and he was almost knocked flat by the powerful scent of her perfume. It banished the other softer, sweeter scent of bluebells with the subtlety of a mallet. He almost fell over against the pillows.
"Did Pointer let you in?" he demanded. "At this time of night? Dressed like that?"
Of all the foolish questions A naked Harriet was sitting down on the edge of the bed, a foot away from him, and he was discussing issues of etiquette? He was disorientated, drunk and disturbed. Harriet's left breast brushed his bare arm and he flinched. He was getting confused now. He was weary and more than a little cast away, and he was aching for a woman who was not this one, a woman who was no more than a wraith, a dream. But Harriet was all too real and she did have magnificent breasts.
She also had an enormous desire to be a Duchess and he was in extreme danger. He eased away from her beneath the sheets. She wriggled voluptuously in pursuit.
"Where is your chaperone?" he demanded, breathlessly. "I cannot believe that Mrs. Roach would countenance this"
"I'll send for her if you desire a threesome." Harriet's narrow green eyes glittered like a feral cat. "Darling Garrick, shall we celebrate?"
"My father's death is hardly a matter for celebration," Garrick said. His mind was spinning. "Harriet, no"
"On the contrary." She had thrown one thigh over him now and was pinning him down. Her moist warmth seared him through the sheet. "We are all absolutely thrilled that he has died," she said. "Why pretend? And now you and I can have our own, very special little reunion, Garrick." She slid a hand down over the bedcovers until it met his erection. "Oh, good, you have started already."
She wriggled down upon him, simultaneously pressing her lips to his. "Brandy," she murmured. "Delicious."
She, in contrast, tasted a little sour. Garrick felt as though he was being smothered by a cushion. He groaned in protest. Harriet seemed to interpret this as enthusiasm. Her hands were all over his naked chest now, her lips clinging to his, her thighs gripping him through the bedcovers. In a moment she would surely slip under the sheets, slide down on top of him, and then.
And then there would be the most almighty scandal and Harriet Knight would be Duchess of Farne and his life would be ruined a second time over.
To have one unfaithful wife could be construed as a misfortune. To have two would be worse than careless. He did not want a wife with fashionable morals. He did not want a wife at all.