With her fragile beauty and regal bearing, the Duchess of Warneham knows how to keep her admirers at a distance. Twice wed and twice widowed, Antonia has vowed never again to marry; never again to surrender her freedom. But when her husband's death is deemed suspicious, and his long-lost heir returns to seize control of the dukedom, she finds that fate has placed her future in yet another man's hands -- but not just any man.
They call him a cold-hearted bastard...
Deep in London's docklands, Gareth Lloyd runs Neville Shipping with an iron fist. Unrecognizable as the starving orphan who was abandoned by his family and sent an ocean away from home, Gareth has put his troubled past behind him. That is, until the Duke of Warneham is murdered, and Gareth turns out to be the dynasty's last living heir. Wrenched from his solitude, Gareth neither wants nor needs the honors and obligations of nobility -- especially the Duke's all-too-tempting widow.... Or does he?
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The sun beamed down, warming the fragrant grass of Finsbury Circus. Gabriel played with his wooden animals, queuing them up across his blanket. Papa bent down, his thin, brown hand plucking one from the queue. "Gabe, what is this one called?"
Gabriel moved his tiger into the empty space. "Frederick," he said simply.
His father laughed. "No, what kind of animal is it?"
Gabriel though it a silly question. "Frederick is an elephant. You sent him to me from India."
"Yes, that's right," said Papa.
His mother laughed lightly. "Gabriel had memorized the entire animal kingdom, I think, by the time he was three, Charles. I rather doubt there is much you can teach him now."
With a sigh, Papa leaned back on the bench. "I have missed so much, Ruth," he said, taking her hand in his. "Too much -- and I am to miss a great deal more, I fear."
Mamma's face fell. "Oh, Charles, I did not mean -- " Abruptly, she drew a handkerchief from her pocket and delicately coughed into it. "Oh! I beg your pardon. I sound frightful, do I not?"
Papa frowned. "You must see to that cough as soon as I am gone, my love," he chided. "Gabriel, can you help Mamma to remember? She is to see Dr. Cohen tomorrow -- and not a moment later."
"Yes, sir." Gabriel plucked one of the monkeys from his queue and handed it to his father.
Papa balanced the monkey in his palm. "This is for me?"
"It's Henry," said Gabriel. "He will go back to India with you. For company."
Papa tucked the monkey into his regimental jacket, then ruffled Gabriel's hair. "Thank you, Gabe," he said. "I shall miss you terribly. Are you all right here, you and Mamma, with Zayde and Bubbe?"
Gabriel nodded. His mother set her hand on Papa's knee. "It is better we continue on this way, Charles, until things settle down for us," she said softly. "Truly, it is. Do you mind terribly?"
Papa laid his hand over hers. "The only thing I would mind, my love, would be your unhappiness."
The offices of Neville Shipping along Wapping Wall were a beehive of activity, with clerks rushing up and down the stairs carrying last-minute contracts, bills of lading, insurance policies, and the occasional cup of tea. London's muggy August heat did little to calm the fervor, though every window had been thrown open to the morning breeze, which was just strong enough to carry in the stench of the Thames, and very little else.
Standing over her desk, Miss Xanthia Neville scarcely noticed the smell of putrid mud and fermenting sewage. Nor did she hear the rattle of the cooperage's carts, or the lightermen bellowing at one another along the water below. After less than a year in Wapping, she was inured to it all. But this blasted accounting -- ah, that was another matter! Exasperated, Miss Neville threw down her pencil, and raked the hair back off her face.
"Gareth?" She glanced up at a passing clerk. "Siddons, where is Gareth Lloyd? I need him at once."
Siddons nodded sharply and dashed back down the stairs. In seconds, Gareth appeared, his broad shoulders filling the doorway to the cavernous office which they shared. For a moment, he let his eyes roam her face.
"Haste makes waste, old girl," he said laconically, setting one shoulder to the door frame. "Can you not get those numbers to add up?"
"I haven't even got that far," she admitted. "I cannot find Eastley's voyage reconciliation sheets to carry over the amounts."
Slowly, he crossed the room to her desk and slid the reconciliation report from beneath the accounting papers. Xanthia's shoulders fell and her eyes rolled heavenward.
Gareth studied her quietly for a moment. "Nervous?" he finally asked. "It is understandable, Zee. By this time tomorrow, you will be a married woman."
Xanthia closed her eyes and set a protective hand over her belly; a telling, intimately feminine gesture. "I'm scared to death," she admitted. "Not of marriage -- I want that. I want Stefan desperately. It's...it's just the ceremony. The people. His brother knows everyone. And he has invited all of them. Yet I dare not put it off..."
Gareth braced a hand on the back of her chair. He did not touch her. He would never touch her again; he had sworn it -- and this time, he meant it. "You had to know, Zee, that it would come to this," he said quietly. "And this is not the worst of it. When you are Lady Nash and people discover that you have the audacity to actually work for a living, they will say -- "
"I do not work for a living!" she interjected. "I own a shipping company -- or rather, you and my family own it. All of us. Together. I just help...oversee it."
"That's an awfully thin hair to split, my dear," he said. "But I wish you success in attempting it."
She looked up at him then, her face crumpling a little. "Oh, Gareth," she said quietly. "Tell me it will be all right."
She spoke not of the marriage, he knew, but of the business, which was almost like a child to her. Indeed, it was far more important to her than he had ever been. "It will be all right, Zee," he promised. "You are not leaving on your wedding trip for another week or so. We will get all this caught up. We will hire someone if need be. I will be here every day until you come home."
She smiled faintly. "Thank you," she answered. "Oh, Gareth. Thank you. We shan't be gone long, I promise."
Then he broke his pledge not to touch her and slid one finger beneath her chin. "Please don't worry, Zee," he murmured. "Swear to me you won't. Think of the new and happy life which awaits you."
For an instant, her face brightened in a way which was attributable to only one man. "You will be there tomorrow morning, will you not?" she asked almost breathlessly. "At the church?"
He cut his gaze away. "I do not know."
"Gareth." Her voice was suddenly raw. "I need you to be there. You are my...my best friend. Please?"
But Gareth did not get the chance to answer. A faint knock sounded. Gareth turned to see an elderly, silver-haired man standing in the doorway, and their chief accounting clerk, Mr. Bakely, hovering in the shadows behind, looking gravely ill at ease.
"May we help you?" Xanthia's voice was a little impatient. It was Bakely's job to keep visitors in the counting house below, not in the management offices above.
The man stepped fully inside, allowing the sunlight to fall across his simple but well-cut suit. He wore a pair of gold spectacles and carried a burnished leather satchel. A banker from the City, Gareth guessed -- or worse, a solicitor. Whatever he was, he did not look as if he brought glad tidings.
"Miss Neville, is it?" said the man, bowing stiffly. "I am Howard Cavendish of Wilton, Cavendish and Smith in Gracechurch Street. I am looking for one of your employees. A Mr. Gareth Lloyd."
Inexplicably, the tension in the room leapt. Gareth stepped forward. "I'm Lloyd," he answered. "But you'll have to take up your legal business with our solicitors in -- "
The man lifted a staying hand. "I fear my errand is of a more personal nature," he said. "I urgently require a moment of your time."
"Mr. Lloyd is not an employee, sir, he is an owner." Xanthia's voice was haughty as she swished from behind her desk. "One generally makes an appointment in order to see him."
Surprise sketched across the solicitor's face but was quickly hidden. "Yes, I see. My apologies. Mr. Lloyd?"
Resigned to what seemed inevitable, Gareth returned to his glossy mahogany desk and motioned for the solicitor to take the leather chair opposite. The man made him deeply uneasy, and Gareth was inexplicably glad that Xanthia had just spent a small fortune refurbishing their once-shabby office, which now looked as elegant as any solicitor's might.
Mr. Cavendish flicked an uncertain gaze at Xanthia.
"It's quite all right," said Gareth. "Miss Neville and I have no secrets."
The man's dark brows flew up. "Indeed?" he murmured, snapping his leather case open. "I trust you are quite sure of that."
"Dear me!" said Xanthia sotto voce. "This sounds exciting." Curiosity etched on her face, she took the armchair to the left of Gareth's desk.
The solicitor was withdrawing a sheaf of papers from the satchel. "I must say, Mr. Lloyd, that you have proven an admirable quarry."
"I was unaware of being hunted."
"So I gather." The man's lips had an unpleasant curl, as if he found his duty distasteful. "My firm has been searching for you for some months now."
Despite his cool tone, Gareth's unease deepened. He cut a glance at Xanthia, suddenly certain he should have sent her away. Sharply, he cleared his throat. "Precisely where were you looking, Mr. Cavendish?" he asked. "Neville Shipping was headquartered in the West Indies until a few months past."
"Yes, yes, I managed to discover that," Cavendish said impatiently. "Though it took me long enough. There are not many people left in London who remember you, Mr. Lloyd. But I finally managed to locate an elderly woman in Houndsditch -- a local goldsmith's widow -- and she remembered your grandmother."
"Houndsditch?" said Xanthia incredulously. "What has this to do with you, Gareth?"
"My grandmother lived the last months of her life there," he murmured. "She had many friends, but I imagine most of them are dead now."
"Quite so." Mr. Cavendish was sorting through his papers. "The only one left was senile. She told us you had written your grandmother once -- from Bermuda, she claimed. And when that turned up nothing, she decided it was the Bahamas. Alas, no. So she decided to try another letter of the alphabet, and sent us haring off to Jamaica."
"It was Barbados," murmured Gareth.
Cavendish smiled faintly. "Yes, my clerk has practically managed to see the world whilst attempting to find you," he said. "And it has cost rather a fortune, I fear."
"How regrettable for you," said Gareth.
"Oh, I am not paying for it," said the solicitor. "You are."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Or rather, your estate is," the solicitor corrected. "I work for you."
Gareth laughed. "I'm afraid there must be some mistake."
But the solicitor had apparently found the paper he wanted, and he slid it across the desk. "Your cousin the Duke of Warneham is dead," he said flatly. "Poisoned, some say -- but dead nonetheless, most conveniently for you, Mr. Lloyd."
Xanthia was gaping at the solicitor. "The Duke of who? -- "
"Warneham," repeated the solicitor. "That is the coroner's report. Death by misadventure was the verdict, though scarcely anyone will believe it. And this is the research from the College of Arms designating you as the heir to the dukedom."
"The...what?" Gareth felt numb. Sick. There must be some mistake.
Xanthia leaned toward him. "Gareth -- ?"
But Cavendish was still speaking. "I also have several items which urgently require your signature," he continued. "Things are in rather a mess, as you might imagine. The Duke died in October of last year, and the rumors surrounding his death have only grown more speculative."
"I am sorry," said Xanthia, sharply this time. "What duke? Gareth, what is he talking about?"
Gareth pushed the papers away as if they had burst into flame. "I don't know." He felt suddenly unsteady. Angry. He had not thought of Warneham in a dozen years -- at least he had tried not to do so. And now, his death caused Gareth not the pleasure and satisfaction which he had long expected but instead just a strange, unpleasant numbness. Warneham poisoned? And now he was to inherit the dukedom? No. It was impossible.
"I think you had best be on your way, sir," he said to Cavendish. "There has been some mistake. This is a busy counting house. We have real work here to do."
The solicitor's head jerked up from his papers. "I beg your pardon," he said. "You were born Gabriel Gareth Lloyd Ventnor, were you not? Son of Major Charles Ventnor, who died in Portugal?"
"I have never denied who my father was," said Gareth. "He was a hero, and I was proud to be his son. But the rest of the Ventnor family can burn in hell so far as I am concerned."
Mr. Cavendish glowered over his gold eyeglasses. "That is the very point, Mr. Lloyd," he said impatiently. "There really is no Ventnor family. You are it. You are the eighth Duke of Warneham. Now if you would kindly turn your attention to these documents -- "
"No," Gareth firmly interjected. He glanced at Xanthia, whose eyes were wide as saucers. "No, I want nothing to do with that bastard. Nothing. Good God, how can such a thing have happened?"
"I think you know how it happened, Mr. Lloyd," said Cavendish sharply. "But we must put the past behind us, and move on, mustn't we? And by the way, the law does not permit you to refuse the dukedom. It is done. Now you may attend to your estate and your duties, or you may let it all go to rack and ruin if that is your wi -- "
"But Warneham lived a long and vigorous life," Gareth interjected, jerking to his feet. "Surely...surely there were other children, for God's sake?"
Mr. Cavendish shook his head. "No, Your Grace," he said solemnly. "Fate was not kind to the late duke."
Gareth well knew what the unkindness of fate was like -- and he had Warneham to thank for it. Was it possible the son of a bitch had got what he deserved? Gareth began to pace the floor, one hand set at the back of his neck. "Good God, this cannot be happening," he muttered. "We were barely related -- third cousins at best. Surely the law cannot permit such a thing?"
"The two of you were both great-great-grandsons of the third Duke of Warneham, who fell heroically in battle fighting for William of Orange," said the solicitor. "The third duke had twin sons -- posthumous sons -- born but minutes apart. Warneham is dead, his son Cyril predeceased him, and you are the only living blood heir of the second-born twin. Ergo, the College of Arms has determined that -- "
"I don't give two shites what the College of Arms determines," said Gareth. "I want -- "
"Gareth, your language!" Xanthia gently chided. "Now do sit down and explain all this to me. Is your last name really Ventnor? Did someone really murder your uncle?"
Just then, another dark-haired gentleman came breezing into the room, this one dressed with an almost dandyish elegance. He carried something enormous and shiny before him. "Good morning, my dears!" he sang.
His patience already tried, Gareth wheeled around. "What the devil's good about it?"
Xanthia ignored him. "Heavens, Mr. Kemble," she said, rising. "What have you there?"
"Another of his overpriced trifles, no doubt." Gareth loomed over him.
Mr. Kemble drew the object protectively away. "It's a Tang Dynasty amphora," he snipped. "Don't touch it, you philistine!"
"What is it for?" Xanthia looked disoriented.
"It is the accent piece for the marble window pedestal." Mr. Kemble waltzed across the room and delicately positioned it. "There! Perfect. I now pronounce you Fully Decorated." He spun around. "Now, pardon my intrusion. Where were we? Mr. Lloyd has offed his uncle, has he? I am not surprised."
"I misspoke," said Xanthia. "It was a cousin, perhaps?" Swiftly, she introduced Kemble to the solicitor.
"And I haven't 'offed' anyone," snapped Gareth.
"Actually, we looked into that," said the solicitor dryly. "Mr. Lloyd has the perfect alibi. He was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at the time."
Xanthia seemed oblivious to the sarcasm. "And the most shocking thing, Mr. Kemble!" She laid a hand on his coat sleeve. "Gareth is going to be a duke!"
"Oh, good God, Zee!" Gareth felt his blood begin to boil. "Just hush, please."
"I am perfectly serious," she said, still addressing Kemble. "Gareth has a secret duke in his family."
"Yes, well, don't we all." Mr. Kemble smiled tightly. "Which one is yours?"
"Warnley," said Xanthia swiftly.
"Warneham," corrected the solicitor.
"Neither of them," said Gareth grimly. "Cavendish here is going to have to shake this family tree until another monkey falls out."
Mr. Kemble lifted his hands. "Well, I cannot help you with this one, old fellow," he said to Gareth. "C'est la vie, non? Now, my dears, I really must run. I wouldn't have barged in at all -- but the mention of a murder was too delicious to ignore. I'll get the gory bits later."
"Thank you again for the lovely decorating, Mr. Kemble," said Xanthia.
The dapper gentleman paused to snatch Xanthia's hand, and bowed over it. "I shall wait to kiss this until tomorrow on the portico of St. George's, my dear," he said, "when I may properly call you the Marchioness of Nash."
At that, the solicitor seemed to sit a little straighter in his chair. "I beg your pardon," he said as Mr. Kemble vanished. "Do I gather that congratulations are in order?"
Xanthia blushed. "I am to be married in the morning."
Just then, another shadow appeared at the door. Gareth looked up in frustration. "I do beg your pardon, sir," said Mr. Bakely. "We've just had a rider up from Woolwich. The Margaret Jane has been spotted coming up the Blackwall Reach."
Xanthia pressed her hand to her chest. "Oh, thank God!"
"About bloody time," said Gareth, shoving back his chair with a sharp scrape.
"Do you wish her to put into the West India Docks, sir?" Bakely pressed. "Or shall she come upriver?"
"She's to put in," said Gareth urgently. "And send round for my gig. You and I will go down and see how bad things are."
Xanthia, too, had risen. "I apologize, Mr. Cavendish," she said. "As intriguing as your story is -- and I confess, I am indeed agog -- we must see to the Margaret Jane at once. She's been three months at port in Bridgetown, and lost a third of her crew to typhus. We are gravely concerned, as I am sure you can understand?"
"You are not going down there, Zee." Gareth's voice was stern. He was already drawing on his driving coat, oblivious to anything but the duty before him.
Xanthia's hand returned instinctively to her belly. "No, I suppose I oughtn't." She smiled at Mr. Cavendish, and with grave reluctance, he, too, rose.
"But what am I to do with the ducal papers?" he asked.
Intent on collecting his things, Gareth said nothing.
"Just leave them on Mr. Lloyd's desk," Xanthia suggested. "I am sure he will review them later."
Mr. Cavendish looked irritated. "But we have a number of pressing issues," he protested. "His Grace's attention is direly needed."
Xanthia smiled gently. "Do not despair, sir," she murmured. "Gareth will do his duty. He always has. And I have every confidence he shall handle whatever problems you set before him with his usual cool competence."
The solicitor paid her scant heed. "Sir," he said to the back of Gareth's head, "this really cannot be put off."
Gareth snatched a ledger from the bookshelf. "I'll be back in an hour or two," he said to Xanthia. "I shall give Captain Barrett your regards."
"Wait, Your Grace!" said the solicitor a little plaintively now. "You are expected at Selsdon Court immediately. Really, sir! The duchess awaits."
"The duchess?" said Xanthia.
Cavendish ignored her. "Everything has been left hanging, sir," the solicitor insisted. "It really cannot wait any longer."
"It will bloody well have to," said Gareth, without looking at them. "Indeed, it can hang 'til Kingdom Come, so far as I care."
"Really, sir! This is unconscionable!"
"Blood does not make a man, Cavendish," Gareth snapped. "Indeed, it is more often his undoing." He thundered down the stairs behind Bakely without another word.
Xanthia ushered the solicitor to the door. He looked down at her, his brows drawn sharply together. "I really cannot comprehend this," he murmured. "He is the duke. Surely he realizes his good fortune? He is now a peer of the realm -- one of England's wealthiest, in fact."
"Gareth possesses a self-confidence which can sometimes seem abrasive, Mr. Cavendish," she answered. "He is a self-made man -- and yet money means very little to him."
Both concepts were clearly beyond Cavendish's grasp. After a few more murmured platitudes, Xanthia at last got the solicitor out the door. At the top of the steps, however, a question struck her. "Mr. Cavendish," she said, "might I ask, who is believed to have wished the duke dead? Are there...suspects? Any hope of an arrest?"
The solicitor shook his head. "As with most powerful men, the Duke had enemies," he admitted. "As to suspects, the rumormongers have regrettably targeted his widow."
Xanthia felt her eyes widen. "Good Lord! Poor woman -- if, indeed, she is innocent?"
"I believe that she is," said the solicitor. "And the coroner believed it. Moreover, the duchess is from a powerful family. No one dares accuse her too loudly -- not without evidence."
"Still, in English society, the mere whisper of scandal..." Xanthia felt suddenly chilled, and shook her head. "The duchess must be ruined."
"Very near it, I daresay," said Cavendish sadly.
The solicitor went down the steps, his fine leather satchel in hand, looking a good deal wearier than he had upon his arrival. Xanthia's head seemed to be spinning. Quietly, she closed the office door and set her forehead to the cool, well-polished wood.
What on earth had just happened? What had Gareth Lloyd been hiding all these years? Something a little more serious than a miserable childhood, apparently. But Gareth a duke?
Then she jerked her head up. Her brother Kieran might know the truth. Abruptly, she crossed the room, rang the bell, and began to haphazardly stuff the contents of her desktop into her bulging leather satchel.
"Send for my carriage," she said to the young clerk who cracked open the door. "I am going to take luncheon with Lord Rothewell."
Copyright 2007 by Susan Woodhouse