Home > The Worst Duke in the World

The Worst Duke in the World
Author: Lisa Berne

 

Chapter 1

 

Somerset County, England

February 1817

 

His Grace the Duke of Radcliffe had reached the last of the wide marble steps that led from his house onto the graveled sweep and was just about to execute a gentle left turn when from above and behind him came a piercing voice which throbbed with annoyance and disapproval.

“Anthony.”

He turned and looked up.

On the broad covered portico stood his sister Margaret, clad in habitual black from the lacy cap on her head to the trailing draperies of her gown and incredibly flat slippers. Her back was ramrod straight, her brows were drawn together, and her lips compressed into a thin, tight line. She had, in fact, the darkly ominous air of an avenging angel. All she lacked was a fiery sword. He said:

“Hullo, Meg.”

Rather than responding to his civil greeting in kind, her frown only deepened. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“To the stables.”

“Why?”

“To get my horse.”

“For what purpose are you getting your horse?”

He squinted up at her. Really, sometimes Margaret asked the most obvious of questions. “To go riding.”

“Where?”

“To see Penhallow over at Surmont Hall. Apparently the enmity between our respective pigmen has been escalating.”

“Indeed,” said Margaret, although in a noticeably flat way.

“Yes, Johns says Cremwell has been threatening to sneak over from the Hall and put calomel in the Duchess’ slops. Can’t have that, you know. Very unsporting.” Anthony watched with mild interest as Margaret’s eyes began snapping with anger.

“Why you had to name that revolting pig ‘Duchess’ is beyond me.”

“I didn’t have to, Meg. And it was you who inspired me—don’t you remember? Saying that I cared more for the new piglet than I did Selina. Which, of course, was not entirely untrue.”

At this frank reference to his wife, dead these five years, and the unvarnished truth of his marriage—a dry, sepulchral, mutually loveless match of convenience—Margaret said, with more tartness than seemed strictly necessary:

“Your remarks, Anthony, are insupportable. Selina, may I remind you, was the daughter of an earl, and comported herself at all times with the dignity appropriate to her station in life. Moreover, if she had known you named a pig after her—”

“You’re off the mark there, old girl. I didn’t name the pig ‘Selina,’ after all.”

“Off the mark? Why, you—you’re—flippant—and feckless—and—and—” Margaret actually sputtered, briefly fell silent, then gathered herself again for her riposte, as might a duelist prepare for the killing blow. “Your juvenile absence of seriousness on the subject is an affront to anyone with a particle of sensibility.”

“I assure you, Meg, I’m very serious about my pigs.”

“And,” she went on, unheeding, “the manner in which you fraternize with your pigman is a complete betrayal of your rank.”

“Is that what you came out onto the portico to tell me? Far be it from me to throw your own words back into your face, but you’ve said that many times before. Also, you’ll get chilled standing there without a shawl.”

“I came out to inform you,” Margaret said, in the tone of one forced to call upon the last vestiges of extraordinary self-control in the face of unbearable provocation, “that instead of gallivanting off to Surmont Hall to chat about pigs with Gabriel Penhallow, you’re shortly expected at tea, in your own drawing-room, where you are to carry on—if at all humanly possible—a polite conversation with the Preston-Carnabys.”

“Who?”

“The Preston-Carnabys, whose daughter, as I have already explained to you twice today, you are to inspect with an eye toward matrimony.”

Anthony groaned. “Oh, for God’s sake, Meg, another one?”

“Yes, another one. It has evidently escaped your notice that you have but the one son, which leaves you in a very precarious position. You must marry again.”

“Five years with Selina was enough.”

“Your feelings in the matter, Anthony, are irrelevant. You have a duty to the family and to your ancient lineage. The Preston-Carnabys are our guests, and—”

“Your guests. I didn’t invite them.”

“They are our guests,” Margaret said with steel in her voice, “who have come all the way from Yorkshire. Incidentally, Nurse tells me that Wakefield has not been seen since breakfast, and I got a note from the vicar saying that Wakefield didn’t come for his lessons, and your tenant farmer Moore stopped by to complain that Wakefield was seen attempting to ride one of his bulls—all of which means, I daresay, that he could be anywhere by now.”

“Oh, Wake’s somewhere about, you know.”

“Your only child and heir is missing.”

“Not missing, Meg. Just not here. When I was his age I could spend half the day up a tree, or fishing by the river.”

“And look how you turned out. When Wakefield returns, I expect you to discipline him with the utmost stringency. He’s a marquis, after all, and ought to act like one.”

“He’s eight.”

“And in line to inherit one of the most illustrious dukedoms in the country.”

“Very well, stale bread and water for a week. Maybe a few turns on the rack, too.”

In the silence that fell between them after this last utterance, Anthony watched with the same mild interest as Margaret’s face turned so vehemently and comprehensively brilliant a red that she gave the appearance of one wearing an odd (and off-putting) theatrical mask. Finally she hissed:

“You—you’re—you’re . . .”

“Yes?” he said, politely.

“You’re a very bad duke!”

“Am I?” he said, still politely.

“Yes! In fact, you’re the worst duke in the world!”

“Well then.” Warm and cozy in his wool greatcoat and tall hat, his hands stuck comfortably into his pockets, Anthony stood looking up at Margaret on the portico. The black hem of her gown fluttered in a sharp wintry wind, her eyes were watering in the cold, and her teeth chattered ever so slightly. He knew from extensive experience that she would go on standing there until she gained her point, no matter how long it took. Little did he want on his conscience the nasty bout of pleurisy that might develop if she stayed like this much longer, so he said:

“I’ll talk to Wakefield, Meg. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll stop by the stables to tell them I don’t want my horse after all. Then I’ll come back for tea.”

She eyed him narrowly, then nodded and turned around. A footman had obviously been awaiting her return to the house, for the door swung open wide to admit her, and then was closed very, very gently by the same invisible hand within. Had it not been beneath her, Anthony knew that Margaret would have loved nothing better than personally slamming the great oak door shut in a way that would have made her sentiments known to everyone within a fifty-foot radius.

He gave a little sigh.

Poor old Margaret.

He wished she would marry again.

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