HE IS THE LAST DUKE STANDING
. . . the sole remaining bachelor of the three self-proclaimed Decadent Dukes. Yet Davina MacCallum’s reasons for searching out the handsome Duke of Brentworth have nothing to do with marriage. Scottish lands were unfairly confiscated from her family by the Crown and given to his. A reasonable man with vast holdings can surely part with one trivial estate, especially when Davina intends to put it to good use. Brentworth, however, is as difficult to persuade as he is to resist.
The Duke of Brentworth’s discretion and steely control make him an enigma even to his best friends. Women especially find him inscrutable and unapproachable—but also compellingly magnetic. So when Davina MacCallum shows no signs of being even mildly impressed by him, he is intrigued. Until he learns that her mission in London involves claims against his estate. Soon the two of them are engaged in a contest that allows no compromise. When duty and desire collide, the best laid plans are about to take a scandalous turn—into the very heart of passion . . .
Madeline Hunter’s novels are:
“Brilliant, compelling. . . . An excellent read.”
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Davina touched the crown of her bonnet to make sure it was still angled correctly. She smoothed the leather of her gloves. The anteroom in which she sat held two other people, both gentlemen from their bearings and garments. She assumed she would have to wait for them to be seen first.
The summons had arrived three days ago, impressive in its cream laid paper, exquisite penmanship and crested wax seal. It instructed her to arrive at St. James's Palace at one o'clock today, and to give the summons to a page at the door of the Tapestry room. That young man had brought her to this chamber to wait.
What a commotion that letter had caused. Mr. Hume, her employer, had insisted on reading it, then demanded her attention for almost an hour while he instructed her on how to behave, what to say, what not to say, and how to subtly make threats without doing so outright. She hoped she would be spared the last. On her lap she had the letter her grandfather had received from Court. Surely once it was seen all would be rectified.
She fingered the other paper she carried, the one in her father's hand where he explained all he knew about the legacy. He had given it to her when he became ill with the malady that would kill him. I am entrusting all this to you, for what good it will do. Still, you've a right to know. She wished she had him beside her now. His quiet, steady manner had always given her confidence.
A different page appeared in the chamber. He approached her. The two gentlemen did not take that well. Their glares followed her while the page escorted her out.
She was almost never nervous, but her stomach churned now. Still, she needed to keep her wits about her if she were going to speak to the king.
The page brought her to an office not far from the anteroom. A man greeted her and bade her sit on the blue-silk upholstered chair near the large window. He then sat nearby in a wooden chair that kept his posture very straight.
"I am pleased to meet you, Miss MacCallum. I am Jonathan Haversham. I am of the Household."
He meant the king's household, of course. Perhaps he was an important functionary in it. Maybe not. For all she knew Mr. Haversham was nothing more than a very old page. He certainly wasn't a young one. He looked to be about fifty, his gray hair had turned sparse on the sides and absent on the top. Lean and angular, his heavy-lidded dark eyes and wide, flaccid mouth gave the impression he resented having to deal with her.
"Your petition for an audience was received," he said.
"I have sent others."
"I am aware of that. I am sure you can imagine how busy His Majesty is. He is not indifferent to the concerns of his subjects, however, so he has asked me to speak with you."
So she would not see the king. At least she was being seen by someone, however. "As I explained in each of my letters, I have evidence that my great-grandfather's estate was taken by the Crown after he died. I know that in many such cases the property was later returned to the family. I have a letter from the king's father that he would do the same for us." She handed over an old folded parchment. "The king himself told me when he was in Edinburgh that he would address the matter."
Mr. Haversham perused the letter. "What makes you think your grandfather was the heir to these properties?"
"He told my father that he was, before he died."
Mr. Haversham smiled slightly. "There have been errors on such matters."
"The last king did not think so." She gestured to the letter he still held.
"The last king was at times confused." He looked down at the letter. She wondered if he wanted to claim it was a forgery. That would be hard to do, because it bore a seal. "Do you have whatever proof was sent to the palace, to convince the last king of your grandfather's claim?"
"I assume it was kept by the king."
"We have found no evidence of it."
Her heart sank. She could not guarantee there ever had been evidence, so she could hardly now demand they find it.
"The king, this king, the living one, told me personally that he would look into this and deal with it. He was in Edinburgh and I had an audience. You were not there, but I am sure he remembers and, if not, there were others like you present who certainly do. The man who obtained the audience for me does." I have proof of this at least, so don't try to put me off.
His lips thinned and folded like a frog's. "No one questions that meeting, Miss MacCallum. We will indeed look into it. We have already begun. Hence my comment about the proof. It will be needed. Kings do not hand over land to claimants merely on their say-so. As for this," he waved the letter that he still held. "It will figure in the final determination of what to do once that proof is found."
She took the opportunity on one wave to snatch it away. "I will hold it, if you do not mind. I would not want it to be lost and I am sure you have thousands of letters here."
"Of course. As you wish." He glanced at the letter greedily.
"I will also endeavor to provide yet more proof, to support that which was sent all those years ago," she said. "I am determined to settle this."
"As are we, I assure you." He stood and offered his hand to help her up. "You will give His Majesty's regards to the duchess, I hope. He was delighted to receive her letter."
Davina doubted that. However, that letter was probably why she had been received by anyone at all. If not for the Duchess of Stratton, this entire journey to London would have been a waste of time.
Again a page escorted her through corridors and chambers until he deposited her in the drawing room.
No one took note of her. A few glances came her way but immediately moved on. Too unfashionable to be important, those fluttering lids said. She didn't care. She had not come here to impress anyone with her style and wit. She had come for justice, for herself, her father, and the grandfather she had never met.
Her mind returned to her meeting. She picked through the memory, seeking evidence it had gone better than her dampened mood believed. As she did so, the door to which she walked opened and a man entered.
She halted in her tracks. Considering what had just transpired with Mr. Haversham, this man's presence only increased her consternation.
He entered like he had been here a hundred times before, which he probably had. No need for him to gawk at the large chamber's appointments the way she did.
He made his presence known through no effort or intention. Everyone noticed him arrive. Some ladies repositioned themselves so they might catch his eye.
He stood taller than anyone else and his bearing insinuated a man who did not bend easily. His vague smile implied tolerance more than friendliness. His handsome, chiseled face, with its straight nose and square jaw, reflected the Germanic blood brought into the family line by a great-grandmother. His eyes, more a dark gray than blue, created a steely gaze that shot through all that it saw.
Eric Marshall, the Duke of Brentworth. The most ducal duke, he was called.
Davina had been introduced to him several days ago, at a party to celebrate the Duchess of Stratton finally taking credit as the patroness of Parnassus, a woman's journal of increasing renown. Davina had been invited because she contributed essays to the journal. That was the only reason she knew the duchess, or any of the other ladies present. Almost everyone in attendance far surpassed her in social standing.
The duke had condescended to have some conversation with her at that party. She had held her own, using the opportunity to take his measure. One should do that with a person who might be an enemy. Of course, she had known when they met that she would have this meeting today, and had anticipated a much more favorable outcome then. A summons from the king gave one a lot of confidence when meeting a duke.
She had no interest in conversing with the duke today. She averted her gaze, and aimed through the chamber, turning her thoughts again to the potentially insurmountable problem of finding more evidence to support her petition about her legacy.
* * *
It was rare for Brentworth to receive a summons to Court. Granted, it had not been a true summons. More of an invitation, to the extent that kings ever invite instead of summon. His Majesty would be happy to receive you tomorrow at two o'clock.
He entered St. James's Palace at fifteen minutes to two, wondering why the king would want to see him at all. He and the king did not rub well together. The king was a fool and Brentworth was not, so they had little in common.
He considered that it might have to do with the meeting he had attended earlier in the day. The king may have learned about the renewed efforts to again pick up the question of abolishing slavery in the colonies. He might want to voice his views on the matter and think an informal conversation with a duke would be the best way to do that.
Brentworth had no idea what that view would be. This king was not known for engagement in political questions, or in much, really, except his pleasure. He probably did have opinions, however. Most men did, no matter how ill-informed those men might be.
It was not a drawing room day, so few people were about. There was no crush in the anteroom of those hoping to obtain vouchers to watch the nobility on parade. He strode through that chamber and the next and entered the drawing room. At most twenty people moved through it, chatting.
He did not announce himself to any of the pages. They knew him, and upon his arrival one hurried across the chamber and disappeared through the door that led to some offices.
He idled in the drawing room, awaiting either the king himself or an escort to wherever the king lounged. While he did he saw a young woman in serviceable blue garments and bonnet stride across the chamber. He recognized her as Miss MacCallum. He had been introduced to her at a party earlier in the week. She was a writer with an unusual interest in medicine.
She had impressed him with her ability to hold her own in a chamber full of nobles and members of the ton. He could not ignore that during their brief conversation she had been sincerely unimpressed with his title or status. That almost never happened, especially with women. Most peers would be annoyed. He had been intrigued.
Her bonnet obscured most of her blond hair, hiding its short length. That cropping had been apparent at that party despite a heroic attempt to disguise it. He had concluded that her interest in medicine derived from a serious illness of her own, a recent one in which her hair had been cut off to help with the fever.
Right now she appeared both out of place and distraught. He intercepted her before she could leave.
"Miss MacCallum, what a pleasant surprise."
She halted abruptly and blinked away whatever had been distracting her. She executed a neat curtsy. "Your Grace."
"Are you unwell? You appear haunted."
She glanced back at the door that led to the long wing with offices. "Not haunted so much as distressed that my business here is being treated lightly."
"You have business at court?"
"I do. I think it unlikely it will ever be addressed as it should be, however. I learned that much today." Her features, too bold to be fashionable, moved easily to express her thoughts and moods. Right now she appeared to be fighting both despair and fury.
"It is nothing serious, I hope."
The anger won. "Do I appear to be a woman who would waste a monarch's time with frivolous matters?"
"Of course not," he soothed, drawing her aside. "If you were in some way insulted you must let me know. I will make sure it does not happen again."
"Not insulted as such. Just dismissed as unworthy of fairness." She looked down on herself, on the neat but simple blue muslin dress and deep blue spencer. "Perhaps if I had dressed like ..." She gestured to the ladies chatting nearby. "Like them, it would have helped."
Probably so. "Not at all. You look fine." Solid and honest and with a character not dependent on garments and fashion. A self-possession that he had noticed when they met at the Duchess of Stratton's party still ruled her, but her distress softened her enough that his protective nature emerged. "Can I help in some way?"
His offer startled her. She regarded him, cocking her head, as if she considered ways in which he could indeed help before thinking better of it. "It is a private matter, thank you. Only the king can help me, and I fear he will not. I must decide whether to accept that or battle on."
"If you are in the right, do not lay down your arms now. The Household strives to protect him and remove problems before they even know if a problem truly exists. If you persevere you may yet succeed." Oh, how smoothly it all came out. He did not really believe a word of it. Those men back there would bury whatever she claimed needed fixing forever if they thought it best for their master.
She nodded firmly. "You are correct. Your reminder is well taken. I can still muster the evidence I need to get his attention."
The door across the chamber opened and a balding crown emerged. Miss MacCallum noticed. "I must go now, Your Grace. I do not want to see that man again until I am ready for him." She dipped a fast curtsy then disappeared while the bald head worked its way across the large chamber. It finally stopped right in front of Brentworth.
"Your Grace, thank you for coming."
He knew Haversham. The man had been in the king's tow for decades. He could not see him without thinking of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Cassius has a lean and hungry look. Let me have men about me that are fat.
"My liege summoned me. Or so I thought."
Haversham flushed. "I wrote at his instruction, but today he asked me to speak for him."
"I am not accustomed to having anyone, even a king, foist me off on a clerk."
"Foisted? Good heavens no. Not at all. It will save you much time if I do the preliminaries, so to speak. Explain a few things. Then should you meet with His Majesty you will not have to wait on his explanation, which might be less direct." He coughed into his fist. "If you understand me."
He understood. It could take the king an hour to say whatever Haversham would complete in ten minutes. "At least you were not so stupid as to have me delivered to you by a page."
"Of course not! Truly, it is best if we speak privately before — that is, the matter is of some embarrassment to His Majesty and he would prefer if I — If you could sit with me over here, I will try to explain."
Here were two chairs tucked behind a statue in an attempt to create a bit of privacy. Brentworth threw himself into one of them and waited for Haversham to get on with it.
"As you know, after the Jacobite rebellion, a number of Scottish titles were attainted. In the case of some commoners, lands were taken," Haversham began. "In a few cases, the lands of deceased feudal barons reverted to the Crown due to there being no heirs or descendants. In such cases, official attainder was not pursued."
"All of that was settled a generation ago."
"True, but — on occasion, we will still receive a petition to reopen the matter regarding this estate or that. Someone will claim to be the descendant of one of those men, and want the land back. Charlatans normally. Adventurers." Haversham dismissed the frauds with a sneer. "It happens more often than you would guess. Some petition the Crown after the College of Arms rejects the claim. We have a letter we send to all of them, warning them off under penalty of imprisonment. That normally does it."
"And when it doesn't?"
"I deal with them. It is lengthier, but eventually they go away."
"Good. Why did this bring me here today?"
Haversham appeared surprised. "Oh! I thought you knew. Well, this is embarrassing." He leaned in. "Recently, such a descendant came forth. Only this one has a letter from the last king that all but acknowledges the claim."
"How awkward for you."
"Most awkward. It is not a forgery. It is a signed and sealed letter all but admitting that the descendant is indeed a descendant and all but promising the estate will be returned. Well, of course the king was mad at the time. Who knows what he would write? Yet, there it is."
"Do you want my advice? Is that why I was summoned here? I think you should —"
"With respect, Your Grace, that is not why you were invited. When I came out and saw you I assumed you knew. You were speaking with Davina MacCallum. She is the claimant in question. She is insisting on another audience with the king to discuss the matter. I have been charged with seeing that never happens."
"I regret to say they met in Edinburgh."
"If a five-minute audience will placate her, I don't see why —"
"In addition to the letter from the last king, I regret to say she has a promise from this one, obtained in Edinburgh. The entire matter promises to be a potential embarrassment to His Majesty. A very big one. It is vital that the whole story does not be bandied about."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Never Deny A Duke"
Copyright © 2019 Madeline Hunter.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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