Wendover, England, August, 1816
A silence settled over the large drawing room, like a storm cloud moving in and stealing all the light from the air. Conversations halted, and there was a palpable feeling of expectation.
Ivy Breckenridge looked up from the book she was reading and instantly found the source of the disturbance.
He stood just over the threshold, talking with Lord Wendover, the host of the house party. Tall, with eyes as dark as sin and hair that was even blacker, he looked like some sort of hero of old—all he needed was a sword in his hand and mail across his wide chest.
“My goodness, is that the Duke of Desire?” one of a pair of women, seated a few feet away from Ivy on a settee, asked breathlessly.
Such a dreadful nickname, and Ivy had only herself to blame for it. Herself and her best friends, that is.
Thinking of Aquilla and Lucy, she felt a burst of sadness. They were married now. Shackled into that estate that Ivy would never, ever agree to. They’d insisted their friendship wouldn’t falter, but it had already changed. Yes, they still wrote to each other—nearly as much as before—but the tone was different. And how could it not be? They were not only married, they were blissfully happy.
Ivy wouldn’t—she couldn’t—begrudge them that. Even if she’d never understand the allure to which they’d succumbed.
“I wonder who he’s here with,” the other woman asked softly, but loud enough for Ivy to hear. They were around Ivy’s age, but they were respectable married women, while Ivy was merely a lady’s companion. Hence, her position on the periphery. She glanced toward Lady Dunn, her employer, who sat nearby with her friend Mrs. Marsh.
Ivy let her gaze travel back to the doorway. The duke seemed utterly oblivious to the stir his arrival had created.
Lord Wendover looked around the room. “The Duke of Clare has arrived. And now our house party is complete. Lady Wendover and I are looking forward to the next fortnight and all the exciting events we have planned, starting with tonight’s formal dinner.”
There was a light round of applause, and the earl bowed before returning to his conversation with Clare.
The pair of women on the settee in front of Ivy leaned their heads together and spoke quietly, but Ivy was still able to hear them. “Did you hear the latest about Clare?” the blonde woman asked. She had a small nose that twitched periodically, which reminded Ivy of a rabbit.
“I think so, but it seems there’s always something,” the dark-haired woman responded. “Is this about his latest affair?”
“No, the rumor that he fathered Goodwin’s younger son,” said the rabbit. “That boy has hair the color of midnight.”
The other woman sucked in a breath. “And Lord and Lady Goodwin are both fair-haired. I had not heard that.”
The rabbit blinked at her. “It was in the paper a few weeks ago. How did you miss that?” Her voice climbed a bit.
The woman exhaled. “I’m afraid Mr. Pippin doesn’t appreciate my reading the scandal pages so he tries to hide them from me. Sometimes he is, unfortunately, successful.”
“That is unfortunate,” the rabbit murmured so that Ivy had to strain to hear.
Ugh! She didn’t want to listen to them at all. Snapping her book closed, she stood and walked along the windows. The day was cloudy and cool. At least it wasn’t raining. Such a dismal summer they were having—it had even snowed in June.
Ivy reached the opposite end of the room and pivoted for the return. Lady Dunn ought to be ready for her afternoon respite soon. Then Ivy could investigate the library she’d seen on their tour after they’d arrived yesterday. Her anticipation occupied her mind so deeply that she failed to notice the large male body until she nearly ran into it.
“I beg your pardon,” she said, lifting her chin to see whom she’d nearly collided with.
Of course it was him.
His fingertips brushed against her arm. “I didn’t mean to block your path.”
Ivy jerked back, putting distance between them. But not before she caught a nose full of his scent—sandalwood and pine. He smelled divine. Damn him.
“It’s quite all right.” She forced a brittle smile and made to step around him.
He pivoted with her. “Have we met?”
“No, Your Grace.”
“But of course you know who I am.” His deep voice held a warm tone of mirth. “Everyone does, I’m afraid.”
Ivy was a bit surprised by his self-deprecation. She didn’t let it charm her, however. “You are a duke.”
“Indeed I am. And you are?”
“A lady’s companion.” She stole a look around them, feeling the divide between them like a great, yawning chasm. People had to be wondering why they were standing here speaking to each other. She had to put a stop to it immediately. “Good day, Your Grace.”
Ivy bustled past him before he could continue their ill-advised interaction. She returned to her seat and was about to sink down with relief when Lady Dunn caught her eye. Even better—they could finally leave. Thank goodness.
Ivy went to help Lady Dunn rise, but the viscountess didn’t need her help. The break in the wet weather likely had her feeling more spry. Though Ivy had only been with the viscountess about five months, she’d come to recognize that her employer felt her aches and pains more keenly on rainy days.
“We’ll see you at dinner,” Lady Dunn said to Mrs. Marsh before heading toward the door with Ivy.
As they left the room, Ivy turned her neck just enough to see Clare standing near the windows where she’d left him. His dark gaze was pinned on her. She jerked her head back around and departed with Lady Dunn.
“What were you talking about with the duke?” Lady Dunn asked as they walked through the cavernous central hall toward the wide staircase. “I didn’t realize you knew each other.”
“We don’t,” Ivy said. “He was merely being polite. Commenting on the weather.”
Lady Dunn clucked her tongue. “Nothing pleasant to discuss there. I do hope the rain will stay away for the various activities they have planned. I daresay you’re looking forward to the visit to the workhouse.”
“Indeed.” Ivy supported multiple charitable endeavors in London, particularly those that aided young women.
As they started up the stairs, Lady Dunn asked, “Remind me how long it’s been since you attended a house party?”
“Four years.” Ivy had served as a lady’s companion for six years, and Lady Dunn was her third employer. Mrs. Chapman, her first employer, had enjoyed attending house parties. In fact, it was at one such event that Mrs. Chapman had fallen in love with her future husband. That was when Ivy had moved on to her next post. “Though this one is quite a bit larger than any of the ones I’ve been to.”
“Yes, the Wendovers do tend to over-invite. I sometimes wonder how they squeeze everyone in, but the house is massive.”
Ivy imagined it helped that she was sleeping in the viscountess’s dressing room on a small cot. Still, judging from the tour yesterday, Wendover was probably the largest house she’d been to. They turned and continued up the left side of the staircase, which would lead them to the north wing. “You’ve been coming here for several years, have you not?” Ivy asked.
Lady Dunn nodded. “Lady Wendover’s mother was a dear friend of mine. I must say I was honored that she continued to invite me even after Barbara passed. And she’s been kind enough to include my friend Mrs. Marsh so that I will have a confidante.” She glanced over at Ivy as she clutched the balustrade. “It’s so important to have one at a party like this. So much happens that requires discussion and reflection.” Her eyes twinkled, and she grinned.
Ivy was certain she was referring to all the matchmaking that went on—both out in the open and behind closed doors. “Is there something I should be looking for?”
“I imagine there will be a match or two among the younger set. I’d wager Miss Forth-Hodges will snare a husband, should any of the young bucks appeal to her and her parents. I feel bad for the way things turned out for her with Lord Sutton.” She looked over at Ivy. “I mean no offense to your friend.”
Aquilla had married Lord Sutton a few months ago after a rather fast courtship. It was notable because Sutton had paid attention to several young ladies over the course of many seasons and hadn’t married any of them. Miss Forth-Hodges had been the last woman he’d been expected to marry until he’d moved on to Aquilla and married her instead. That he’d finally gone through with it had been a source of endless discussion and speculation, which Ivy found unfortunate—both for her friend and for Miss Forth-Hodges.
“I take no offense. I feel bad for Miss Forth-Hodges as well, and I do hope she finds happiness.” Ivy didn’t bother adding that she might do well to look away from matrimony. Marriage wasn’t for everyone.
They reached the top of the stairs and moved toward their bedchamber. “There are plenty of eligible men in attendance. Why, she could catch the eye of the Marquess of Axbridge.”
An image of the fair-haired Axbridge came to Ivy’s mind. Lady Dunn might call him eligible, but Ivy and her friends called him an Untouchable. They were the noblemen who were so far above them so as to be completely unreachable. Until they weren’t. Both Lucy and Aquilla had married Untouchables.
They also gave those men titles that fit their behavior. Axbridge, for example, was the Duke of Danger. “I don’t know that I’d wish him on her. His reputation is a bit questionable, isn’t it?”
Lady Dunn bobbed her head. “It is, it is. But he’s a genial sort, despite his ruthless nature.” She tapped her finger to her lips. “Although, I don’t know that dueling makes him ruthless. I forget, did he initiate them?”
“I don’t recall.” Ivy followed gossip somewhat, but only to keep up with her best friends. Generally, she avoided discussing such things with anyone else. However, Lady Dunn liked to track the latest scandals, and so Ivy had learned to pay closer attention in the last months.
“Perhaps not Axbridge, then. And we can’t even consider Clare. Have you heard what they’re calling him?”
“Yes.” Because he was an Untouchable, and she and her friends had given him his nickname. However, Ivy had preferred the Duke of Debauchery. Desire made him sound attractive or like something you should want. And Ivy pitied anyone who wanted him.
“I suppose it fits, and since his affairs are widely known, it’s not as if it would bother him, I imagine,” Lady Dunn said. “He seems to wear his debauchery with pride.”
Ivy swallowed a laugh. “Yes, he does. Debauchery is a much more apt description. Perhaps we can go about altering his name.”
Lady Dunn chuckled. “People will be looking to see who he takes as his next lover. Perhaps she’s even at this house party.” Lady Dunn glanced over at her as they entered a sitting room, to which three bedchambers, including theirs, adjoined. “I probably oughtn’t speak of such things around you, dear.”
Ivy waved her hand. “It’s quite all right. In my profession, I’ve heard that and much worse.” At seven and twenty, she was also no green girl. “I’m quite aware that the primary function of house parties is matchmaking—both for marital purposes and other less…respectable activities.”
“Just so.” Lady Dunn reached for the door and frowned. “I just realized I didn’t use my cane. I guess I’m feeling quite well today.” She looked up at Ivy, who had a good five inches over the petite woman.
“I’ll run down and fetch it,” Ivy said.
Lady Dunn gave her a warm smile. “Thank you, dear. Do you still plan to visit the library after that?”
“Excellent. I’m so pleased you’ll be able to enjoy Wendover’s collection.” She went into the bedchamber, and Ivy knew she was in the capable hands of her lady’s maid, Barkley.
Ivy hurried downstairs and made her way across the hall to the drawing room, which was the center room at the back of the house. The group had started to thin—either to take part in some activity or rest before dinner.
But because Ivy had the luck of the devil, she found Lady Dunn’s cane in a most inopportune place: the clutches of the Duke of Clare.
He stood near the chair Lady Dunn had vacated, her cane in his hand. His dark gaze swept toward Ivy. “It’s you.”
She resisted the urge to snatch the cane from his grasp and flee. “Yes.” She flicked a glance at his fingers. They were long and rather slender. Almost elegant. “I came for Lady Dunn’s cane.”
“You are her companion, then.” It wasn’t a question. He’d deduced the answer, and they both knew it. There was a cool confidence about him that was just shy of arrogance. His gaze raked over her, and she decided he wasn’t shy of anything.
“Yes. May I have it, please?” She held out her gloved hand.
“How about I offer it in trade for your name?”
She scowled at him. “How about you just give it to me and cease this preposterousness?” She kept her voice low, and the end of that word rushed from her mouth in an angry hiss.
He exhaled but didn’t look perturbed in the slightest. “I don’t know why you find my amiability preposterous.”
Because you’re a degenerate scoundrel. Instead of voicing what was in her mind, she forced a smile. “I am merely in a hurry. I am Miss Breckenridge. The cane, please?”
He set it in her hand but brushed his fingertips along the edge of her palm.
Ivy closed her fist around the cane and yanked her hand back.
He arched a dark brow at her. “You’re a bit touchy, aren’t you?”
“And you’re more than a bit unseemly. Good afternoon.” She turned and marched from the drawing room, paying no attention to anyone who might’ve witnessed their conversation. She hadn’t noticed if anyone was close enough to hear them. No, she’d been too intent on him.
She hurried back upstairs to deliver the cane to Lady Dunn’s bedchamber.
He’d called her touchy. The word made her want to laugh, but there was no humor in it. She hated to be touched by a member of the opposite sex. She hated to speak to them. She hated to treat them with deference. She hated them in general.
And she hated men like Clare most of all. Men who exuded power and influence and who used those things to serve their basest urges. He probably thought her some calf-eyed idiot who’d fall under his spell. Still, she was outside his typical fare, which was married women. Since he was apparently between affairs, perhaps he sought to fill the boredom at this party with someone like Ivy.
Well, he was grossly mistaken. If he approached her again, perhaps she’d offer him a list of women who might be more open to his attentions. Because Ivy wanted nothing to do with him.Return to The Duke of Desire