The Last Duke

The Last Duke

by Andrea Kane

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Bestselling author Andrea Kane deftly interweaves her sensual love stories with breathtaking intrigue -- a touch of danger amid glorious romance. Affaire de Coeur says, "Andrea Kane's talent knows no bounds," and now she brings readers an enchanting tale of a rogue with a heart of gold and a desire for one very precious jewel of a woman.

Lady Daphne Wyndham is the only child of the brutal Marquis of Tragmore. Risking a beating each time she sneaks away to help the local vicar, Daphne fantasizes about the legendary Tin Cup Bandit, who robs the rich to aid the poor. His scandalous exploits inflame her rebellious spirit and fire her romantic imagination. And when he appears in her bedroom, she suspects all her wild dreams may come true....

Pierce Thornton grew up in a British workhouse, and now thirsts for vengeance against the nobility -- and the Marquis of Tragmore. As he plots to ruin Tragmore, a twist of fate opens an unexpected door, allowing him to fulfill his life-long crusade: bringing the fashionable world to its knees. But in the process he encounters a far greater peril...losing his heart to Daphne Wyndham.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780671865085
Publisher: Pocket Books
Publication date: 06/28/1995
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.80(w) x 4.22(h) x 1.15(d)

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Chapter 1 Northamptonshire, England


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.

"Your Grace?"

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.

"Pen -- paper -- "

"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.

"You're welcome."

"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."

"Of course."

"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?"

"You do."

"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.

"A problem, Tragmore?" Pierce asked with apparent concern.

"Just a bloody poor informant." The marquis slumped in his chair. "Sorry, Thornton."

"It's your money, Tragmore," Pierce reminded him. "Remember?" Without awaiting a reply, Pierce eased back in his seat, turning toward Daphne.

What he saw made him grin.

Daphne's eyes were sparkling, her chin tilted proudly in his direction. She looked exuberant and thoroughly pleased with herself.

"As I suspected," Pierce murmured, brushing his knuckles across her flushed face. "Your instincts are quite good, my lady."

She stared at his fingers as they caressed her skin. "I'm sure it was luck."

"Perhaps. But good luck, nonetheless." He ran his thumb across her soft lower lip. "Congratulations."

Her breath broke in a tiny shiver. "I'm sorry you lost."

"Ah, but I didn't."

"Pardon me?"

"Your enthusiasm was contagious, as was your logic. I placed my bet on Grand Profit."

"You placed your..." Daphne shook her head in amazement. "All because of what I said?"

"A good gambler trusts his instincts. Always remember that." Pierce winked. "Now, shall I choose the next winner or shall you?"

Daphne's lips quirked. "I don't believe in pressing my luck, Mr. Thornton, good or otherwise. I believe I'll leave the rest of the day's wagers to you. I suspect you are far more proficient at this than I."

"As you wish," Pierce agreed.

The remaining races were exhilarating, as was the extraordinary sum he won, but seeing Daphne blossom like a newly opened flower filled Pierce with more satisfaction than all his winnings combined.

That, and one thing more.

The sheer triumph of watching Tragmore squirm as his losses compounded, plunging him deeper and deeper into debt.

The indications of the marquis's agitation were subtle, but, having survived thirty years on wits alone, Pierce knew just what to search for. He took in each bead of sweat on the marquis's brow, each nervous quiver of his unblemished hands, each uneasy glance over his shoulder as he waited for the axe to fall, for Pierce to publicly expose him to the world.

No, you bastard, Pierce thought grimly. That would be too easy and too painless. Sweat. Die inside. Wonder if you'll survive. Just the way I did.

Beside him, Daphne shifted. Pierce turned in time to see her peering over her shoulder, searching the crowd.

"Have you lost something?" he asked, leaning toward her.

Daphne started, pivoting around in her seat. "No."

"I don't devour innocent women."

Those amazing eyes widened. "Pardon me?"

"You needn't look so terrified. I'm harmless."

Another hesitant smile hovered about her lips. "Are you? I think not, Mr. Thornton. In fact, I'm unsure why, but harmless seems the least likely word to describe you."

Pierce acknowledged her assessment with a dry chuckle. "Uninteresting then? Given the fact that, since our introduction, I've spent an inordinate amount of time viewing your back."

She flushed. "Forgive me."

"And you've done nothing but apologize."

"Don't." He covered her hand with his. "Just don't."

Daphne twisted a loose strand of hair about her finger, glancing nervously toward her father's seat. "Is it unusually warm today?" she blurted out.

"I don't know," Pierce responded quietly, making no move to pull away. "Is it?"

Yanking her hand from beneath his, Daphne swept her hair up to cool her nape. "Perhaps it's the excitement of the race."

"Perhaps." Pierce didn't bother reminding her that neither of them had been watching the horses run for the past quarter hour. Further, although he felt her confusion, her discomfort, it was his own myriad emotions that intrigued him: compassion for the fear that clearly imprisoned this enchanting young woman, hatred for the man he was certain inspired it, and something more, an odd combination of fascination and attraction.

Following the movement of Daphne's hair, Pierce's gaze fell to her throat, exposed now, and bare but for a small strand of pearls.

"Beautiful," he murmured.

"What?" Daphne dropped her tresses as if they were lead.

"Your necklace. The gems are lovely."

"Oh. I thought -- I apologi -- " She caught Pierce's eye and broke into unexpected laughter.

"Your laughter is lovelier still."

"And my parents are ten feet away."

"I'm sure they already know of their treasures."

Daphne's laughter faded and Pierce had the irrational urge to coax it back, to make her glow the way she had when she'd chosen the winning horse. The vulnerability of her smile, the honesty of her laughter, were as tender as a child's, but the resignation in her eyes was old, sad, tempered only by a small spark of inextinguishable pride. The combination was stirring, and Pierce, whose knowledge went far deeper than Daphne imagined, found himself strangely moved by Tragmore's daughter. It was the first time he could remember feeling such empathy for a blue blood. In this case, however...Pierce's gaze drifted slowly over Daphne's delicate features, the alluring curves concealed by the modesty of her day dress. Lord alone knew what she must endure with Tragmore for a father.

The thought left him cold.

"Mr. Thornton, you're staring."

A corner of Pierce's mouth lifted. "Am I? How boorish of me. I'm usually far more subtle in my approach."

"Your approach? What is it you're approaching?"

Again, he leaned toward her. "You."

"Oh. I see." She moistened her lips, venturing another swift glance at her father, sagging with relief when she saw he was absorbed in the last race of the day. "Tell me, Mr. Thornton, are you always so direct?"

"Yes. Tell me, my lady, are you always so naive?"

She considered the question. "Yes."

A rumble of laughter vibrated in Pierce's chest. "How old are you, Daphne?"

If she noted the informality of his address, she gave no sign. "Twenty."

"And why is it, if I might be so bold as to ask, that no worthy gentleman has yet whisked you down the aisle?"

"I don't know, Mr. Thornton," she replied with artless candor. "I suppose none has found me pleasing enough to pursue."

If her tone had not been so solemn, Pierce would have dismissed her comment as being intentionally coy. "You truly believe that, don't you?"

"Yes. However, in their defense, I've done little to encourage them."

"I see. And why is that?"

"Many reasons." Another furtive glance at her father, who was now heartily congratulating himself on a huge win in the final race. "Suffice it to say, I've been preoccupied with other matters."

Pierce noted Tragmore's glee from the corner of his eye. "Too preoccupied to seek a life of your own?"

Daphne paled at Pierce's softly spoken question. "I'm perfectly content with my life, Mr. Thornton. But I thank you for your concern."

If Pierce hated Tragmore before, the stark terror on Daphne's face multiplied his enmity threefold. With visible effort, he retained his composure, settling back in his chair. "I fear we've missed quite a bit of the -- "

At that moment Tragmore stood. "We should be taking our leave now." It was a command, not a request.

Instantly, Daphne and her mother rose.

Slowly, Pierce came to his feet. "We have winnings to collect, I believe."

"Uh, yes, we do."

Pierce turned to the marchioness. "Your husband and I will settle our accounts and order your carriage brought around. Should I not see you again, thank you for your kind hospitality, my lady."

"You're quite welcome, sir."

"Lady Daphne." Pierce bowed, acutely aware of Tragmore's presence beside him. "You've been most gracious, not to mention an astute wagerer. 'Twas a pleasure to enjoy the races with you."

"And you, Mr. Thornton." Daphne's smile was genuine, although, once again, her curious gaze darted from Pierce to her father.

Striding off with Tragmore, Pierce waited only until they were out of earshot. "How fortunate for you the last race turned out as it did. No need to collect your winnings, though. They belong to me."

"What?" The marquis stopped dead in his tracks.

"Interest, Tragmore, remember? You owe me quite a bit."

"You miserable son of a -- "

"Careful," Pierce warned quietly, "else I might be forced to ask why a man who is one step from the gutter can afford to provide his daughter with so costly a necklace."

Sweat broke out on Tragmore's brow. "It's an inexpensive copy of -- "

"On the contrary, the pearls are very real. And very valuable. Had Lady Daphne a shred of your loathsome nature, I wouldn't hesitate to remove them from her neck and count them among my day's profits. But it so happens she's charming, as is your wife. Therefore, consider the necklace a gift from me to you and your family. Surprised? Don't be. On occasion, even I have a heart. To those who deserve it, that is." Pierce plucked the marquis's winning ticket from his hands. "I'll take this. You go summon your coach. My solicitor will contact you tomorrow to arrange a meeting. See that you make it. Unless, of course, you want the entire world to know just how penniless you are." A biting smile. "Enjoy your comforts, Tragmore. For now."

Copyright © 1995 by Andrea Kane

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The Last Duke 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing stories every time!
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.