The Hazards of Hunting a Duke
The Marquis of Middleton, who was the sole heir to the powerful Redford duchy, had an air about him, a palpable energy that exuded power and wealth. There was also the potent sexuality of a very masculine man that was felt by most women—and perhaps a few men. It was indeed a potent sexuality.
The marquis, Jared Broderick, said or did nothing to provoke such feelings in others, for in all honesty, he was quite unaware of his remarkable power. Had someone suggested that he caused women to feel weak at the knees with just a look, he might have laughed and unabashedly confessed to adoring all women, for he did. Poor women, rich women, daughters of Quality or commoners, he cared not—just as long as they were completely and unapologetically female. That meant they must have a scent of sweet waters about them, be soft, occasionally silly, vexing, enticing, and inspiring—both in the boudoir and beyond.
With his darkly golden brown hair, square jaw, broad shoulders, and hazel eyes flecked with gold, he was considered dangerously handsome among the haute ton, the elite society of London. He was tall and broad and lean, possessed of an athletic build. His rakish habits had a slightly sinister side, too, for a man who enjoyed both gaming and women was bound to run into a spot of trouble from time to time. Whispered rumors of a duel persisted, a duel in which he had purportedly proceeded fearlessly and had emerged victorious.
The most recent tale of his recklessness had to do with his performance during the course of a stag hunt last autumn. The stag had sensed the hunters and had broken through the forest to escape. It was said that Middleton risked his neck and that of his big bay horse to catch the stag, leaping over rock walls, storming through dangerous gullies and thickets, racing far ahead of the other riders. But when Middleton had cornered the stag, he reined up, turned his mount around, and returned to the estate. They said it seemed as if it wasn’t the hunt that mattered but the ride.
In the posh interiors of London’s gentlemen’s clubs, more than one man remarked that the marquis rode so hard that day not because he was in pursuit of a prize stag, but because his own demons were in pursuit of him.
Whatever his habits, they were routinely reported, thinly disguised, in the London morning newspapers, and surely none endured around the elite Mayfair district of London as well as the tales of his exploits in the beds of some of the most important women in town. What made these rakish tales even more scintillating was that he was heir to one of the most powerful duchies in England and Wales, and the thought of him siring bastards about town was cause for great distress to his father, the current Duke of Redford.
It was well known that many lords desired that their daughters be groomed for a match with Redford’s son, and the odds-on favorite was thought to be Lady Elizabeth Robertson. Lady Elizabeth’s father was a dear boyhood friend of the duke’s, and it was agreed by all wagging tongues that her pedigree for becoming a duchess was unparalleled.
What the gossips didn’t know, however, was that the marquis and the duke had engaged in many loud arguments about Lady Elizabeth in which the marquis had steadfastly refused to entertain the idea of a match with her and the duke insisted he would approve of no other match.
It was, in fact, another on dit in this morning’s newspaper that had prompted the duke to summon the marquis like a servant once again.
Jared came, but he sat carelessly as his father paced. The duke was gripping the latest edition of the Times in his hand, too angry to speak for several moments. “ ‘A certain widow,’ ” he read, and threw the paper down as he pinned Jared with a cold glare. “I know very well to whom they allude—everyone in town knows of your affair with Lady Waterstone.”
Jared shrugged. So he’d been visiting the widow’s bed—he was a man, and he’d developed a certain corporeal fondness for Miranda, Lady Waterstone.
“Have you no care for your reputation? What if Lady Elizabeth should read this?” the duke asked him through gritted teeth.
“What if she should?” Jared responded irreverently. He owed no measure to Lady Elizabeth that he could see, and frankly, if his father was so keen to see the woman married, Jared thought, perhaps he, a widower for many years, should do the marrying. Jared was completely unrepentant about his refusal—he thought nothing of living every day as if it were his last, and no fatherly desire to see him wed a woman with the face of a horse would keep him from it.
But as Jared’s refusal became more entrenched, the greater umbrage his father took with him, today notwithstanding. “I have suffered the indignity of hearing of your association with this woman at my club—and now I must read it as well?”
“I am not responsible for what is printed,” Jared said.
The duke’s face turned dark. “Yet you are responsible for the contemptible behavior that ignites such rubbish to be printed, are you not? I demand that you not debase our name and title with the likes of that woman, do you quite understand me? You will not lie with a harlot who married above herself,” he snapped. “Now that she is widowed, she would sink her talons in the heir to the Redford title, and I will not have it! Lady Elizabeth is perfectly suited to carry a legitimate heir, and as soon as is possible within the bounds of propriety!”
Jared bristled with indignation. “Is that all that I am, your grace? Breeding stock for your vast realm of influence?”
His father’s dark brown eyes narrowed. “You are vile.”
“Very well,” Jared said, quietly seething, “if the price for having been born to your exalted house is to produce a bloody heir, I shall do so. But I shall do so at my leisure and with whom I please.”
“You will not produce an heir with whomever you please!” his father thundered. “There is much more at stake here than your lustful cravings! I should think you would have learned as much from the ugly consequences of your previous libertine habits!” he said, piercing old wounds. “I warn you, Lord Middleton, if you think to dishonor me further, I will see you disinherited by order of the king!”
Jared threw his arms wide with a shout of incredulous laughter. “By all means, my lord! I will not stop you—I would welcome it, for at least I’d be free of the yoke you have put on me!” He meant that sincerely. Granted, he’d made his fair share of mistakes—but so had the duke. Let him disinherit—Jared was a marquis in his own right; he had no need of the title of duke and frankly, he did not want it.
But his father suddenly sank into his ornate mahogany chair behind an even grander desk and covered his face with his thin hands for a moment. “For the love of Christ, Jared,” he said, his voice hoarse. “For the love of Christ, please do as I ask.” He lifted his head from his hands and looked at his son. “You cannot forget that our family was once steeped in debauchery and made bed with whores and bastards. It took years for our name to be recognized by the monarchy. For you to debase that good name now with your slut is unconscionable. Marry a woman of proper standing and put a son in her, then whore with whomever you please!”
“Just as you did?” Jared asked evenly.
The duke paled. He leaned back in his chair, gripped the edge of his desk, every muscle in his body quivering with rage. “Get out of my sight,” he said quietly.
Jared gained his feet. “Your grace,” he said with a nod, and strode out of the massive town house on Park Lane bound for White’s, desperately angry with his father, and even angrier with the two footmen who had been ordered to follow him.
All his life, he had chafed under the absurdity of his supposed responsibility. His was a dishearteningly simple and primal function—he was breeding stock to the ducal Redfords, valued for nothing more than his ability to procreate. Honestly, he really remembered little else from his childhood, particularly after his mother had died in his fourteenth year. His memory of her was fading, and he could scarcely recall her softness, or the warmth of her breath, or the smell of lilacs on her skin. He remembered that she would laugh when she was with him, but in truth, he saw her only occasionally. His parents resided in London or the country, wherever his father’s mistress resided.
Jared, on the other hand, resided elsewhere, with the nursemaids and governesses and tutors who would sculpt him to be a duke one day.
Even when he’d gone off to school, his acquaintances were closely watched, his schooling carefully monitored. He never felt close to anyone, really, save his two good friends, Lords Stanhope and Harrison, who had been schooled alongside him.
The talk of producing an heir began the moment he’d come of age, the demands growing louder each passing year. Now, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, the demands were deafening.
More than once Jared had wished he’d been born the son of a crofter, a merchant, a banker—any occupation his father might have esteemed above his cock. But he’d been born the son of a duke, and from the time he could remember, his father had sought to control his destiny, whom he befriended, whom he loved.
As a result, Jared loved no one.
He made his way to White’s, the gentlemen’s club to which he belonged, and moped about, refusing to even hold a hand in a game of whist when his friends pressed him. When the game ended, his oldest friend, Geoffrey Godwin, Viscount Harrison, insisted he accompany him to the Fontaine ball. “I can’t let you drink alone,” he’d said, clapping Jared on the back. “You may very well harm someone.”
“I don’t want to go to any bloody ball,” Jared muttered. “I despise the vapidity of the social season. It’s scarcely begun and already there is a parade of debutantes and their mothers before me, all hungry for a spectacular match and unparalleled fortune.”
“Oh now, don’t be so harsh on the poor birds and their mothers,” Harrison said, touching Jared’s glass with his before swallowing the last of his whiskey. “Don’t let the fathers off so easily—there is nothing more bloody stilted than the conversation of a man with an unmarried daughter.”
“Ach,” William Danvers, Lord Stanhope scoffed, waving a hand at them. “Walk in my shoes, will you? Have your fortune entailed for generations to come so that you must be the one to hope for a spectacular match with a woman of unparalleled fortune.”
“Impossible,” Jared snorted. “Women don’t have fortunes—men do.”
“That, sir, is precisely my problem,” Stanhope said, and with a sound of disgust, pushed a hand through his blond hair.
“Come on, then,” Harrison said. “Stanhope is headed for the gaming hells to increase his paltry fortune. But I have it on good authority that there will be a high-stakes table at the Fontaine ball for the wealthy gentlemen who do not enjoy dancing.”
Jared glanced at Harrison. “High-stakes?”
“Very high-stakes,” Harrison confirmed with a smile.
Jared shrugged. “I would prefer the warmth of Miranda’s body to a damn card game.”
“But Miranda is not about, she is in the country. What else shall you do but drink until they carry you home? Come along, then, my good Lord Middleton—come and win a tidy little sum to take your mind from your troubles.”
Perhaps a bit of friendly wagering would serve as a useful diversion from his dark thoughts about his father. “Very well,” he said with a sigh, and scowled when Harrison and Stanhope applauded his decision.
And when he and Harrison stood at the door of the Fontaine ballroom, both of them a head taller than most, Jared felt a familiar bit of happiness at seeing so many agreeable and attractive women. He missed Miranda in his own way, but Harrison was right, she was not about. Therefore, the sporting man in him determined that he should give the night his best effort.
• • •
Across the room, Ava Fairchild nudged her sister and cousin and nodded at the two impeccably dressed gentlemen standing at the entrance, both of whom were clad in black tails, white silk waistcoats, and expertly tied neckcloths. The only distinguishable difference was that Middleton wore a badge on his breast that marked his title superior to that of Harrison.
“Oh my,” Phoebe sighed appreciatively as they gazed at the two men. “I should very much like to make their acquaintance one day, if only for the pleasure of a single dance.”
“A dance? I had in mind something far more exciting,” Ava said. Her sister and cousin looked at her expectantly, and Ava winked at them. “A torrid love affair. With Middleton.”
It was a game the three of them played, a bit of lustful wondering about the opposite sex. But Ava’s choice caused Phoebe to snort indelicately. “Darling, I do believe you have gone completely daft. You’ve not a hope for a proper introduction to Middleton, much less a love affair, not with every breathing debutante queuing before him…unless, of course, you are willing to offer up your good virtue.”
“Perhaps even your life,” Greer added. “He’s got a recklessness in him that borders on madness. And when he does deign to dance, it is only to seduce. That is how his affair with Lady Waterstone began, you know.”
Ava smiled with surprise. “You seem to be uncommonly well informed about him, Greer.”
“I’ve overheard quite a lot about him, and none of it good,” she said with a shrug. “Have your affair with Harrison, Ava, for he’s every bit as handsome. Really…every bit,” she said wistfully.
The three young women looked at Harrison for a moment. With his dark hair and clear blue eyes, he was quite handsome—but Ava’s gaze slid back to Middleton, who was smiling alluringly at a woman near him.
She could imagine he seduced women all the time, which was, frankly, part of his allure. But she was not so foolish that she didn’t know Middleton was just a dream to mere mortals such as themselves. While on paper their standing in society was quite respectable—their late father had been an earl—their real social standing did not meet the standards that would be expected for a future duke. Middleton’s title and income—not to mention his fine looks and charming manner—were such that he could attract any woman he desired. Surely all women desired him—the words he uttered in the course of his casual flirtations were legendary, known to most women through the excited whispers in ladies’ retiring rooms about Mayfair.
Ava had no expectation of ever being noticed by a man of his stature, much less engaged in any sort of affair. Nevertheless, she found the fantasy delightful. “Then perhaps I shall just marry him,” she said gaily, startling her sister and cousin. “Why shouldn’t I?” she said to their twin expressions of shock. “I am the daughter of an earl, and I’m at least as desirable as Lady Elizabeth.”
The three of them glanced to their left, where Lady Elizabeth, wearing a drab yellow gown, was holding court with a coterie of debutantes who flocked around her like so many geese. Unfortunately, she stood next to Miss Grace Holcomb, the daughter of a very wealthy merchant who had just arrived in London, from as far away as Leeds. Miss Holcomb, an amiable young woman by all accounts, was quite eager to take her place in a society that valued birthright as much as fortune, and had made the grave mistake of attaching herself to the humorless Lady Elizabeth. Perhaps as a testament to her wealth, Miss Holcomb was wearing a very bright rose-colored gown and lots of glittering jewelry. Elizabeth faded quite from sight next to Miss Holcomb, a situation Ava was certain Elizabeth would remedy in short order.
“Well, then?” Ava asked. “Am I not at least as desirable?”
“Obviously, you exceed her in looks and bearing,” Greer said thoughtfully, receiving a small but grateful nod of acknowledgment from Ava, for Elizabeth did indeed have a rather spectacular nose, “but everyone expects her to be the Season’s favorite. And you, dearest, have been out for three years now and remain quite unmarried.” She wiggled three gloved fingers at Ava to press home her point.
Ava grabbed those fingers and squeezed playfully. “Not from a lack of opportunity,” she said. “I’ve had more than my fair share of offers, just like you, dearest.”
She did not look at Phoebe, who’d not had an offer since her coming out last year—the poor dear was painfully shy around gentlemen. Greer, on the other hand, was so clever that gentlemen always sought her partnership in parlor games. And Ava—well, Ava was quite happy to enjoy the courtly attentions of a variety of gentlemen, and in fact, encouraged it. “I happen to enjoy being unmarried. Life is far more exciting with the attention of many handsome men and I suspect exceedingly dull with the attention of only one.”
“Then you and Lord Middleton must be very much alike,” Phoebe opined. Greer laughed roundly at that, and Ava inadvertently glanced at the entrance of the ballroom again. Unfortunately, her fantasy had disappeared along with Harrison into the crowd. Worse, Sir Garrett was closing in on her, striding as quickly as his corseted girth would allow.
“Oh how divine,” Greer said cheerfully. “Now you may enjoy the attention of Sir Garrett.”
Ava groaned; Sir Garrett was a very large and gregarious man with thick lips and a tuft of hair on the crown of his head. He had, over the course of two Seasons, developed great affection for her. Lately, he’d begun to make a nuisance of himself—he sought her out at every opportunity and had begun to monopolize her at every event.
Yet Ava took pity on the man. He’d never married and seemed to be rather lonely. She could hardly deny him a dance now and again, but the poor thing was rather thick when it came to her gentle rebuffs. He did not seem to understand that agreeing to dance with him was her way of being polite.
As he arrived at her side, Ava heard Phoebe giggle and felt her elbow at her waist, yet she smiled graciously as Sir Garrett reached for her hand. “Lady Ava,” he said, bending over it.
“Sir Garrett, what a pleasure,” she said, dipping into a curtsy.
He grinned broadly, bumped the back of her hand with his lips, then turned his grin to Phoebe and Greer as Ava pulled her hand free of his bearlike grasp.
“If I may be so bold,” he said, turning his attention to Ava once more, “I would remark that you are by far the fairest of all the many ladies in attendance tonight,” he said, sweeping his arm wide to indicate all the ladies, and obviously forgetting Greer and Phoebe.
Ava reminded him with a small inclination of her head.
Sir Garrett instantly realized his faux pas; his florid face flushed even more. “That is to say…the three of you, ah…Fairchilds, all of you…are quite…fair,” he stammered, turning hopelessly redder.
Phoebe and Greer smiled demurely and thanked him for his kind words, as they had on at least two previous occasions.
He removed a kerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his forehead, his gaze on Ava again. “Miss Fairchild, would you do me the honor of standing up with me on the next dance?” he asked, dabbing at his temple. “I believe it will be a quadrille, and I assure you, I have endeavored to learn the steps in the correct sequence so there will not be another incident as you had the misfortune to endure at the Beltrose ball.”
The misfortune being that Sir Garrett had mashed her poor toes quite flat on a quadrille. But Ava felt that old tug of sorrow for the hapless knight and smiled. At least she would get the dance over and done with. “I’d be delighted, sir.”
His face lit up with his pleasure. “Oh!” he exclaimed, and clapped an arm across his barrel chest, the kerchief waving like a little flag between his fingers, “you do me such honor, Lady Ava!” He quickly stuffed the kerchief in his pocket and offered his hand, broad palm up.
Ava reluctantly slipped her hand into the paw he offered and shot a look of helplessness at Phoebe and Greer as Sir Garrett marched her toward the dance floor.
• • •
On the opposite side of the ballroom, Harrison had kicked Jared onto the dance floor so that he might have a moment with a young woman who seemed more interested in Jared than him. Jared had obliged Harrison’s interest in the woman by asking Mrs. Honeycutt, a woman whose personal company he had enjoyed for three full weeks one summer while her husband was in Scotland, to stand up with him for a quadrille. He preferred the quadrille for old lovers, as the dance was performed with four in a square, which meant there was really no place with sufficient privacy to talk about hurt feelings over old news, as women were wont to do.
A waltz, on the other hand, was a very private dance and lent itself to the whispering of amorous suggestions to women he had not yet had the pleasure of knowing.
Mrs. Honeycutt was determined, however, to tell him what she thought. “I have missed you,” she whispered as he took her arm and twirled her around. Jared said nothing, just smiled, let her go, and moved around the square to Lady Williamson. But when he turned to face Mrs. Honeycutt again, she looked at him like a sad little puppy that was not permitted to go abroad with its master.
Jared smiled charmingly, bowed his head, and stepped forward, took her hands in his, went round, and let her go. And when he stepped back to his position, he collided hard with someone at his back.
“Oh dear!” Lady Williamson exclaimed, looking over his shoulder.
Jared quickly pivoted about; the person who had collided with him was an attractive young woman with dark blond hair and startlingly pale green eyes. She was, unfortunately, in the hands of Sir Garrett.
“I do beg your pardon, my lord,” Garrett blustered, and groped awkwardly for the hands of his dance partner as a bead of perspiration ran down his temple.
The woman glanced over her shoulder and smiled at Jared in a funny way, as if she was perhaps a bit mortified, but far more amused to have been swung so violently into him. And if he wasn’t mistaken, she gave him an apologetic shrug of her shoulders before turning her full attention to Sir Garrett again.
As well she should have. Her very life was at stake.
Jared turned back to his square and fell easily into step once again. But as he passed around the circle, he caught the eye of the woman again. She smiled fully at him, and it struck him that there was no vanity or guile—or perhaps more important, no avarice—in that smile. So many women looked at him with the gleam of want in their eyes.
But this one had green eyes full of laughter, and he realized, watching her be manhandled by Garrett again, that she was not attempting to gain his attention as he might have expected, but was genuinely amused by the clumsy dancing she was being forced to endure.
That, he thought, was refreshingly different. He knew far too many members of the fairer sex who would have been quite appalled by Garrett’s handling and would have said as much. The man was a war veteran and fiercely loyal to the crown, and what he lacked in social finesse he made up tenfold in courage. Jared respected the woman’s ability to see beyond her partner’s bumbling dance.
He had no notion of who this woman was, but he was mildly intrigued.
When he came around to the side where he might see her again, Sir Garrett’s body shielded her from view, and he did not have occasion to catch sight of her again on the dance floor, and for that he was sorry.