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Excerpt 1: Five Ways to Seduce a Duke

Meet the Duke of Wrexham

Cambridgeshire, October, 1870

Simon Wellesley, the Duke of Wrexham, stood in the entry hall of the family seat. He was surrounded by groundskeepers, household staff, and Bercham, his majordomo. Surrounded by everyone this fine morning, it seemed, except the one man whose presence he required: his brother Robert.

He dispatched orders quickly, not because his guidance was required. Bercham ran a tight enough ship in his absence, But because it was customary. Expected. Dutiful. Within minutes, Cook had hurried off with instructions for the next few days’ meals, the housekeeper had left to oversee the set-up of rooms for the guests who would arrive on a later train, and the footmen had scattered to attend to various tasks, including unpacking the duke’s bags and drawing a hot bath so he could wash off the remnants of travel.

When they were alone, Bercham spoke. “Your Grace, might I inquire as to what time the captain, the countess, and the young lady will arrive, to ensure the carriage is at the train station to meet them?”

Granston, his wife, and his sister were supposed to have arrived with Simon this morning, but the countess had obligations to some sort of charitable undertaking. It occurred to him—and not for the first time—that his friends’ wives were busier than their husbands, overseeing everything from university scholarship programs for women to business opportunities for poor widows. What if Daphne had stayed with him in London instead of banishing herself to the cold, imposing stone walls of his hundreds-of-years-old ancestral home? Would she have been happier? Might she have found some life’s purpose to save her? And if she were still alive, would he and his brother have made amends?

Simon waved his hand in the air to chase away the ghosts. “Their train arrives at nine thirty this evening. Which reminds me,” he pinched the bridge of his nose, unused to being forgetful, “please inform Cook that they will not be supping with us, but I should like to have a light repast available for them.”

“Of course, Your Grace. It is regrettable they were delayed, but the staff looks forward to making their visit a pleasant one. If I might be excused, I will speak with Cook now.”

“Not quite yet, Bercham. There is one more thing.”

Bercham gave a small bow. “Your correspondence has already been laid out in your study to be attended after your bath.”

“Thank you, but that wasn’t the matter at hand.”

“Perhaps a late breakfast, sir? Or an early luncheon?” Bercham stood ramrod straight and at the ready.

Simon quirked an eyebrow. Bercham’s shoulders slumped.

“Where is he, Bercham?” Simon asked.

“Are you inquiring about Lord Robert, Your Grace?”

Simon crossed his arms over his chest, but held his temper. The duke wields awesome power which must never be abused; thus, the angrier you become, the more quietly you must speak. His father uttered those words to Simon so many times and from such a young age, it was embedded in his mind alongside the nursery rhymes Nanny had sung to Robert and him.

Following the late duke’s advice, as he always did, Simon made his voice calm and smooth as silk. “As I have seen the face of everyone else residing on the estate, it stands to reason that I am inquiring about my brother, does it not, Bercham?”

Bercham, too, knew the late duke’s philosophy, and judging by the way the color drained from his face, the majordomo was aware he had reached the limits of his lord’s patience.

“Still abed after a long night of imbibing, I expect,” Simon continued.

“Actually, Your Grace, outside of the occasional after-dinner brandy, his lordship has been abstaining from drink.”

That surprised Simon like nothing else would have. Not that he had much room for judgment, given the way he’d sunk into his cups after the demise of their old and ill father, followed quickly by the death of Simon’s young and healthy wife. But as Simon’s bad habits had improved, Robert had seemed to take up the mantle of oblivion for them both. A change to that state would make Simon’s undertaking much easier. When Robert was suitably sober and married off to a respectable woman, he would be in fine position to take over the Duke’s Charitable Trust, giving the young man a much-needed purpose in life. The late duke would be proud of Simon accomplishing a feat the old patriarch hadn’t lived long enough to achieve himself.

“That’s remarkably good news,” Simon said. Although it did mean Robert was likely avoiding him out of malice. “Now, where the devil is he?”

“He is visiting the neighboring property.”

“The Barstow estate?” Finally seeing to the task Simon had assigned him months ago. Perhaps Robert really had turned a corner, and their brotherly bond could be salvaged. It had been a fortuitous opportunity to give Robert some direction and responsibility while relieving Simon of the annoyance of dealing with the young lady who had inherited her parents’ estate. If the rumors were to be believed, she was as eccentric as her mother had been. “That’s excellent. I trust he’ll conclude our business presently.”

Bercham paled, then turned quickly at the sound of a footman’s steps on the gallery floor above them. Not quickly enough for Simon to have missed it.

“What are you not telling me, Bercham?”

The majordomo nodded to acknowledge the footman’s presence that indicated Simon’s bath was prepared, then turned back to his master. “Please, Your Grace, it is not my place.”

The reprieve Simon had enjoyed scant seconds earlier evaporated. He could insist, demand, yell at his servant to reveal Robert’s secrets. But the man was right, it was not his place to interfere with family matters. Besides, the late duke would never have approved of such haranguing. “Perhaps there is a clue to be found in my brother’s private rooms?”

“I honestly could not say. But there is a message I was instructed to pass along to you after you’ve finished your bath.”

“Let’s have it now instead.” Simon pressed his lips together and girded himself for Robert’s nonsense.

“Lord Robert requests you join him at the Barstow estate at your earliest convenience.”

“Does he?” Simon shook his head. Even for Robert, that was beyond the pale. “He has invited me to Miss Barstow’s home?”

“Not precisely.” Bercham stood up straighter to deliver the full message. “He requests that you join Miss Barstow and him on the plot of land in question.”

“In question?” Simon’s voice came out louder than he intended. “He expects me to join them an empty hilltop to discuss the revocation of the temporary easement I granted Miss Barstow. Is there anything else I should know before I bathe and dress and join my wayward brother?”

Bercham didn’t turn away, but he didn’t meet’s Simon’s eyes, either. “Just that the hilltop is not empty. I haven’t seen it for myself, but I understand a structure has been erected there.”

“A structure? When? I rode over the hill just last spring.”

“A small building was constructed this summer, as I understand it.”

“I wonder to what end.” It was a question to himself, but Bercham answered.

“My understanding is it’s a studio for Miss Barstow’s artists’ colony.”

“Artists’ colony.” Movement and sound slowed down around Simon as anger settled over his chest like a smothering blanket. “Just to be clear, Bercham, you’re telling me there is a colony of Bohemians living next door, led by a twenty-two-year old girl. The lot of them have taken over the hilltop where I will be establishing a memorial garden for the late duchess. And Robert has been unable to evict this girl and her friends.”

“Not precisely.” Bercham said again. This time, he pursed his lips and looked as though he were having a private conversation with himself.

A cold calm flowed through Simon’s veins. “I must insist you tell me what Robert has so obviously been keeping from me. I’m sorry to put you in this position, but it might help you to know that giving me fair warning might save my brother’s duplicitous hide.”

Bercham paled again, but nodded. “I do not believe Lord Robert has any problem with Miss Barstow. Quite the opposite. In fact, they’ve grown quite close.”

Robert had grown close with the girl who had squatted on Wrexham lands, the young miss he was supposed to have sent packing by now. Spots danced at the edges of Simon’s vision. “How close?”

“Close enough to have become engaged.”

♥♥♥

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