The Duke's Proposal

Leslie LaFoy

St. Martin's Paperbacks

Chapter One
London, England
May, 1891
Duty is such a bore.”
The orchestra swept into a waltz and Harry lifted his glass of champagne to reply over the sounds of merriment, “Which is, I suppose, why they call it duty and not a grand old time.”
Ian Cabott looked over the crowd, over the brilliantly lit ballroom, and couldn’t see one person who appeared to be genuinely happy, or a single bit of decor that had been done for any reason other than to impress. A grand old time the London Season was not. It was serious business.
Business in which he was duty bound to engage with great fervor, a keen eye, and laudable success. He was a duke: an elevated member of the elevated class. The very foundations of the Empire rested on his ability to properly select an appropriately pedigreed wife and then successfully breed a new generation of Cabotts to shoulder the duties of wealth and privilege and political power.
He’d rather have a boil lanced. Or, more appropriately, be lancing boils. Or sewing back together a mangled soldier. The only casualties likely to be seen in tonight’s gathering were a busted gut or two after dinner. The entire affair was an utter waste of his time, not to mention his medical skills.
But he’d promised his mother that he’d end the Season with an announcement of his pending marriage; and a promise, shortsighted and overly optimistic as it was, was a promise.
“Who are this evening’s desperately hopeful?” he asked his cousin. Other than myself.
Harry sighed the sigh of saints and shook his head. “If you would make just half an effort to remember names, we wouldn’t have to go through this at every social affair.”
Ian snorted. “In the first place,” he countered, “if any of these people were memorable, it wouldn’t be a problem. But they’re not. And in the second, if we didn’t have to go through this, what would I need you for?”
“Good point,” Harry allowed, grinning and saluting him with the champagne glass again. “Over by the center door leading to the balcony.”
Ian looked. Dutifully. “I see three young ladies and a horse.”
“The horse,” Harry said dryly, “is Lady Edith, the daughter of Viscount Shaddock. This is her third Season.”
“It won’t be her last.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Harry drawled. “Her dowry is rumored to be huge.”
It would have to be. “Just out of truly idle curiosity . . . how huge?”
“Staggeringly. Property and thousands of pounds.”
Ian cocked a brow and sipped his champagne. “A purchased husband being better than none at all.” His gaze skimmed the other corseted curves in Lady . . . whoever’s group. “Who are the women with her?”
“The creature in the peacock headdress is Lady Sylvia, daughter of Viscount Wiston. This is her first season.”
The gigantic peacock headdress. “Her attributes?” Obviously not a demure fashion sense.
“A reasonable dowry,” his cousin supplied. “She is reportedly very good at making a pence do the work of a pound.”
Which suggested that somewhere someone had a dazed and embarrassingly bald peacock running around their garden. “Negatives?”
“I believe that the expression has something to do with being able to eat an apple through a picket fence. She also seems to lack a sense of appropriateness when it comes to being frugal. In case you haven’t been paying attention, which I sincerely doubt that you have, that’s the third time she’s worn that particular ball gown this Season. The feathers, however, are new this evening. I’m sure we’ll see them another half dozen times before the week is out.”
Not if the peacock tracked her down and exacted revenge. “Who’s the one beside her wearing the floral wreath across her torso?”
“Lady Sarah, daughter of Baron Heathwhite. In her second Season.”
“Her positives?”
“I would have to say that it’s largely optimism. Not much of a dowry to speak of. The barony was a grant from the Queen, reportedly for some minor miracle he performed in the Foreign Office while assigned to New South Wales. She’s been sent back to snag a titled husband before the ink fades on the grant and her family goes back to the ignobility of being gentry. As I recall, she’s under the sponsorship of Lady Atwell.”
A brunette. Pleasingly tall, but not terribly big boned. “She’s not unattractive.” If she were to lose the silk floral wreath, she’d look considerably better. Not quite so much like the winning Arab at Ascot.
“True,” Harry allowed after a sip of his drink. “But she’s not a beauty, either. And, to be perfectly honest about it, having not been born to the peerage, she’s lacking a natural social grace.”
He could think of a good number of women who had been born to the peerage about whom the same thing could be said. Not that he could tell anyone their names. “And the other one?”
“Lady Anne, I believe,” Harry said, squinting and leaning slightly forward—as though the few extra millimeters would make a difference in the clarity. “I think that one’s father is the Marquis of Ditmoor.”
Ah, yes. He remembered how his mother had always cringed when the Ditmoors’ carriage had rolled up the drive for a house party. They were first to arrive and the very, very last to leave. In between they ate as though there were no tomorrow, imposed on everyone else’s servants, and generally wallowed in the hospitality and luxury they couldn’t afford for themselves. “Land rich, pocket poor,” he murmured, quoting his father.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” his cousin replied. “She’s looking to marry well so her papa has new pockets to rifle. Not that the odds of success are good. She’s the second daughter and with a younger brother who’ll actually inherit the title. Which is about all the poor blighter will get at the end of things.”
And continue the family tradition of sponging off the social generosity required of others. Having exhausted the possibilities in that little feminine knot, he looked beyond it. “In the yellow dress over by the punch bowl.”
Again Harry sighed. This time not sounding nearly as saintly as he had before. “You danced with her at Lady Atwell’s ball. She’s the one who is directly descended from Charlemagne. Remember?”
God, yes. How could he have forgotten? He’d been surprised that they’d finished their dance without her having hauled the ancient family patens out of her bodice. “Oh, yes. And William the Conquerer.”
He took a drink and looked farther still. His gaze skipped over a trio of women at the back of the ballroom and then arrowed back to the one in the vividly purple gown. “What about the redhead over by the stairs?” he asked his cousin. “I haven’t seen her before. A woman like that I would have remembered.”
Harry chuckled. “I was wondering how long it would take you to find her. That would be the infamous Lady Baltrip. Twice widowed in nine years. Both of her late husbands reportedly died in great satisfaction. She’s just this week come out of mourning for the last one.”
Great satisfaction? No doubt. He’d wager a hundred pounds that no man had ever left her bed unhappy. Ian slowly smiled. “Not exactly what my mother has in mind for a daughter-in-law, I’m sure.”
“Oh,” Harry drawled, “I think you could safely bet your personal kingdom on that.”
“I assume she’s of independent means?”
Harry nodded. “And temperament. At least as I hear it.” His cousin slid his gaze over to him. “You aren’t seriously considering her, are you?”
“Not as a wife, Harry,” he assured him as his brain worked through the details of his immediate plan. “But I think she’d make a highly interesting diversion while I wade through the more appropriate, and considerably less appealing, matrimonial choices. Who are the women with her?”
“The older one is Her Grace, the Duchess of Ryland.”
“Ryland,” he said softly, searching the recesses of his brain for memories. “We’ve been introduced, haven’t we? As I recall it, His Grace was a distant relative of the old duke who inherited the title after Dinky cocked up his toes in Paris.”
“You recall correctly.”
“And he married the eldest of his wards.”
“Reportedly after having already begun a torrid affair with her,” Harry added. “It was the scandal of the Season that year. Of course it’s been some ten or so years ago.”
As Ian watched, Lady Ryland reached out and casually adjusted the diamond brooch that glittered in the center of Lady Baltrip’s invitingly low décolletage. “She seems to be well acquainted with Lady Baltrip.”
“The story, as I’ve heard it, anyway,” Harry said, “is that she and Lady Baltrip have been friends forever and a day. Since before Her Grace was recognized, legitimized, and elevated by the Crown.” He smiled and took another sip of his drink. “Lady Baltrip married up, as they say. Scandalously.”
Of course. And laughing all the way. Just as she’d laugh all the way out to the garden with him this evening. His gaze slipped over to the third woman in the knot. “Is the younger blonde the duke’s daughter?”
“No, Ryland’s children are all very young. That’s Lady Fiona Turnbridge there, Her Grace’s half-sister and the youngest of the old duke’s by-blow daughters.”
She was turned, talking to her sister and Lady Baltrip, and he couldn’t see her face. She was a small thing, just barely a wisp. “We haven’t been formally introduced, have we?”
“Not that I recall.”
“Then obviously we haven’t danced.”
“I very much doubt it. She reportedly doesn’t dance.”
A woman who didn’t dance? If only the hundreds of others who couldn’t would have the sense to stay off the dance floor. “Any particular reason why?” Ian wondered aloud, smiling as it occurred to him that Lady Fiona’s aversion could be used quite nicely to his benefit.
“I haven’t the foggiest notion.” Harry leaned closer to say confidentially, “The rumors are that she’s a tad touched, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m afraid that I don’t,” Ian countered, mildly irritated. “Touched in what respect? Mentally impaired? Or compromised?”
“Well, if she’s at all like her older sisters, I wouldn’t be the least surprised to learn that she’s defied convention and taken a lover.”
Oh, yes, the little wisp was such an obvious firebrand of rebellion, a bubbling cauldron of unrestrained passion. God, Harry could be such a lackwit at times. “But you haven’t heard of any such thing,” Ian pressed.
“Which leaves a mental impairment of some sort or another.”
Harry nodded and again dropped his voice. “They say she looks through people. As if they weren’t there, I presume. They also say that she can read minds.”
“That would be rather unsettling,” Ian allowed, wondering if it were even close to true.
“And she’s renowned as an animal lover. Every stray in London is good for a free meal in the Ryland kitchen.”
Well, once Lord Ditmoor and clan heard about that . . .
“This is, as I recall, her second Season,” Harry went on. “Despite her dowry, which is reportedly a healthy one, no one regards her as a serious participant in the marriage market.”
“Why’s that?”
“Given her eccentricities,” Harry said on a deep sigh. “I swear, I don’t know why I bother to tell you a thing. You listen only half the time and hear only a quarter of what I’m saying.”
True. Probably because half the time it was boring information and three-quarters of what was interesting was worthless. “You’d think her sister would have some pity and not drag her out for the gawkers.”
Harry shrugged and finished off his champagne. “Perhaps Lady Fiona’s unaware that people are gawking.”
“All for the better,” Ian said cheerfully, handing his champagne flute to his cousin. “Her feelings aren’t likely to be hurt when I sweep Lady Baltrip away from the conversation and out for a private stroll in the gardens.”
“Rather confident, aren’t you?”
Ian shot his cuffs, studying the red-headed, purple-wrapped morsel on the other side of the ballroom. “Not exceedingly so. I can be quite charming when I want something that charm will get for me.”
“She has been in mourning for the past year.”
And sometimes, just mere seconds later, Harry could be remarkably astute. “And she is undoubtedly well past ready to create happier carnal memories. See you at dinner.” He started away and then stopped, turning back to grin and add, “If I’m not there, please assume that I’m feasting elsewhere and don’t come looking for me.”
Harry saluted him with the glass and a wide smile. Properly encouraged, Ian set out to snare his quarry.
Cover photo © Shirley Green. All rights reserved.