The Wicked Ways of a Duke
Once upon a time, there was a seamstress named Prudence who lived in a lodging house, worked very hard, and dreamed of a better life. Then she inherited a fortune, met a handsome duke, and fell in love. Her life was wonderful, and it seemed as if she was destined to live happily ever after.
Then she found out money can’t buy happiness, handsome dukes can also be wicked, lying scoundrels, and a broken heart hurts like hell. Will Prudence ever find true love and happiness? Will the wicked duke mend his ways? Will she take him back or kick him to the curb?
Chapter ThreeRhys spent Monday reckoning up what little he had in ducal income and Tuesday wading through the complicated mire of the De Winter family debts. After studying reports from various land agents, bankers, and attorneys, his spirits were nearly as low as his bank balance, and he had no choice but to dine that night at the Clarendon. He consoled himself with a superb beef fillet and a fine bottle of French Bordeaux, and by some clever timing, he was able to duck out without paying the bill, a practice at which he’d become quite adept the past few years.
“No peer should ever pay at the Clarendon,” he explained to Lord Standish later that night at the opera. “Thank heaven for middle class sensibilities.”
Standish, an old acquaintance from days at Oxford and his host for the evening, laughed. “What do middle class sensibilities have to do with you caging meals at the Clarendon?”
“Everything,” he answered at once, turning to accept a glass of champagne from a footman. “The middle class won’t dine at any establishment unless peers frequent it. A fortunate thing for us they are able and willing to pay. Without them, restaurants would be forced to close, and we should never dine out again.”
Lord Weston, whose friendship with Rhys also went back to boyhood, flashed him a wry grin. “Only certain peers are able to get by with that in London nowadays, St. Cyres. Having a duke dine at your establishment still carries a certain caché. I, however, am merely a baron, and can never get by with such things. I know this because whenever I try to evade the bill, they forward it to my residence.”
“All the more reason not to have a residence!” Rhys countered, making everyone laugh.
“But how does one live without a residence?” asked Standish, looking puzzled. But then, Standish had always been one of those upright, scrupulous sorts who wouldn’t dream of spending beyond his means and evading his bills.
“Travel, of course,” Rhys answered him. “It’s very simple. One goes abroad to escape one’s debts at home. One comes home to escape one’s debts abroad. In this way, a man can explore the entire globe for less than five hundred pound.”
Everyone laughed, including Standish. “But where does a gentleman live while here in town?” the earl asked.
“Off his friends, of course!” Rhys clapped Weston on the back. “Have you a spare room, Wes, by the way? I can’t abide Milbray’s town house much longer. His butler’s far too courteous. Let my mother in a few days ago. It was ghastly.”
“Have you in my house?” Smiling, Weston shook his head. “Not a chance of it. I have my sister to think of.”
He grinned back at the other man. “Don’t you trust me?”
“With my sister? Not for a moment.”
A gong sounded, informing everyone in the Royal Opera House that the performance was about to begin, and Standish’s guests began moving toward the rows of seats that overlooked the stage to the left and the floor below.
Rhys started to do the same, but Weston stopped him. “Have you been north since coming home?”
“Visit my own estates? God, no. Inflicting such depressing sights on oneself is unhealthy. If you ever tell me you are paying your estates a visit, Wes, I shall be quite concerned for you.”
Weston didn’t laugh. “I’ve seen St. Cyres Castle. Went hunting near there with Munro last autumn. It was...not in the best condition.”
“Exactly my point. Visiting one’s country houses is too depressing for words.”
“Rhys–” He broke off, then sighed. “You know the rumors floating through town, I suppose?”
Rhys’s smile flattened, but he kept it in place. After all, a gentleman was required to put up a good show. “I say, did you know I have the singular honor of possessing two ducal titles?”
Weston blinked at this seeming change of subject. “Two?”
“Yes. The day after I arrived home, Talk Of The Town proclaimed me not only the Duke of St. Cyres but also the Duke of Debt. And I can be had at a discount.” He took a sip of champagne and grinned. “So clever, these London journalists.”
“How can you laugh it off?”
He shrugged. “No sense losing one’s sense of humor.”
“All joking aside, my friend. Are things as bad as they say?”
“If things were that good, I’d be celebrating. Unfortunately, they’re not. Evelyn, being an idiot as well as a prize bastard, kept everything in land. As if land is any use to anybody nowadays.”
“He had no funds? No other investments?” Weston was understandably astonished. “Even my father, as old fashioned as he was, put a bit of money into Newcastle coal mines and American railroads. Those are the only things saving us now.”
“How fortunate for you. I, on the other hand, am the proud owner of over ten thousand acres of mortgaged farmland and pasture. But I am choosing to look on the bright side. I’ll wager my estates are the prettiest in Britain. Not a coal mine or railroad in sight to spoil the views.”
Weston laid a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, Rhys. Truly. I’m mortgaged pretty heavily myself, but I might be able to raise another loan if you need–”
Rhys, who loathed pity, never gave it to anyone, and never accepted it when it was offered, turned away. “We’re missing the opera.”
“God forbid we should miss Wagner,” Weston murmured behind him, but being a tactful chap, he let the matter drop.
Rhys took his seat, but he paid little heed to the performance. For the first time, a feeling of genuine gloom began settling over him. He might make light of obtaining free meals at the Clarendon and sponging off friends, but beneath his laughter at his own expense was the inescapable taint of desperation.
He’d always been cynical, believing the worst because the worst was so often true, and in regard to the family holdings, he’d been particularly pessimistic. But after seven days home, he was realizing he’d been somewhat out in his assumptions. Things were far worse than even he had thought possible.
If the reports he’d read that afternoon were accurate, then Winter Park was the only property he possessed that was in decent condition, no doubt because that residence was the one in which Uncle Evelyn had spent most of his time. It was also a house Rhys loathed, the house where he and Thomas had spent that God-awful holiday the summer he was twelve. He had no intention of living there at the end of the season. He’d rather live on the streets. Winter Park would have to be leased.
The other ducal estates, he’d been told, could not be let to anyone in their present condition, with the ducal seat of St. Cyres Castle being in the sorriest state of all. The fortified manor-house, its original keep held by his family since the time of Edward I, was apparently a deserted ruin, though he’d been assured it could be made fit to live in. It would cost about one hundred thousand pounds to replace the sold furnishings, fix the roof and the rotted timbering, repair the drains, stock the larder, rebuild the tenant cottages, till and plant the crops, and clear all debts to the village tradesmen.
A hundred thousand pounds? What a good joke. He couldn’t even afford beefsteak at the Clarendon. Rhys rested his head against the seat behind him and closed his eyes. Over the lurid music of Wagner, he heard Letitia’s voice, a voice that beneath her polished veneer of well-bred disdain, echoed the sick fear that was forming in his own guts.
What are you going to do?
He thought of the enormous outlays of cash that would soon have to be made. Death duties for old Evelyn had to be paid to Her Majesty’s government. First quarter interest payments on the mortgaged De Winter lands were due in June. There were jointures to be paid, annuities, servants’ wages, tradesmen’s bills–the list was endless. Where was the money going to come from? He’d apply to bankers for more credit, but there wasn’t a prayer they’d grant it.
A wave of frustration rose within him. He didn’t want this, not the titles, not the estates, and certainly not the responsibilities. Hell, if he’d wanted to be the next Duke of St. Cyres, he’d have murdered Evelyn and given the bugger his just desserts long ago. Instead, he hadn’t even waited for the ink to dry on his examinations at Oxford before he’d taken the money left him by his father, money Evelyn hadn’t been able to touch, and run off to Italy to spend it all in grand style. He’d never been home, never given a damn, never looked back. Until now.
Now, destitution hovered at his elbow like the grim reaper. But really, hadn’t it always been there? Wasn’t that why he had lived so high for so long without thinking of the consequences, without contemplating what was down the road? During his days in Florence, plenty of other peers, Weston among them, had stayed with him. They’d been the ones to joke about dodging the bills at restaurants and living off one’s friends, coming abroad to escape their own inevitable future just as he had done, a future of position with no income to maintain it, possessed of an absolute belief in their superior breeding, yet without the cash to pay for their own meals. He’d known it would come to that for him as well, a brutal truth that had impelled him to spend his money twice as fast after each friend who’d come abroad to live off of him had been forced to depart for home.
Despite his present circumstances, though, he didn’t regret a thing. If he’d been prudent and careful these past twelve years, it wouldn’t have made a dent in the mountain of debt already accumulated by his predecessors. Like himself, the past half dozen Dukes of St. Cyres had lived on their capital, spending their money on extravagance after extravagance and having a hell of a good time in the process.
But now the ball was over. He just happened to be the duke who got handed the bill.
What are you going to do?
Rhys opened his eyes, making a sound of derision under his breath. Pointless of Letitia to ask a question that had only one answer.
He was going to marry an heiress, of course. He’d known that to be his only choice for a long time now. The reports he’d read today only served to underscore the inevitability of his course.
Might as well get on with things. He straightened in his seat and pulled his pair of opera glasses from the breast pocket of his evening jacket to officially begin the hunt for the next Duchess of St. Cyres.
He tried to banish his gloom by reckoning up what he had on his side of the ledger. He was a duke, and as Weston had pointed out, that still counted for something. Rhys was also well aware of his appeal to women, and a most fortunate talent it was, too, when one had to marry for money. As an added bonus, he was sitting beside Cora Standish tonight, a woman who knew everyone in London society and could give him their financial status as well as their social position. If he came across a pretty face, Cora would know the name and dowry that came with it.
He began to scan the boxes opposite, and almost at once found his attention caught, not by an heiress, but by a far more intriguing sight. In a deliciously low-cut gown of pink silk, a simple strand of pearls at her neck and another woven into her dark hair, was the delectable wench he’d seen a fortnight ago mending gowns.
Since when did a seamstress wear pearls and silk and attend the opera? Rhys straightened in his chair and leaned forward, certain he had to be mistaken.
But after studying her for several moments, he knew there was no mistake. It was her. Desire began thrumming through his body, just as it had the moment he’d first seen her down on her knees in that deceptively submissive pose. He imagined her now as he had imagined her then, with his hand in her hair.
Rhys shifted in his seat with a grimace. Such erotic imaginings, as delicious as they were, could not lead anywhere, not with this woman, and certainly not at this moment. Despite that, he found himself unable to look away.
He wondered why she was here. Her silk dress had been borrowed, no doubt, and the pearls had probably come from some Manchester manufacturer rather than from oysters, but that did not explain her presence in an opera box at Covent Garden. Perhaps his little seamstress had decided to embark on a more lucrative career. His gaze slid across a tempting expanse of smooth white skin and came to rest where the low neckline of her gown met the high, round curves of her breasts. Not for the first time, Rhys cursed his present lack of funds.
“What on earth are you staring at?” Cora asked, tapping his thigh with her fan. “I must know what has so captivated your interest that you choose to ignore not only your hostess and your fellow guests, but also the performance.”
He took a deep breath, striving to force down his arousal, but he didn’t take his eyes from the fetching sight across the theater. “I am ignoring the performance because I loathe Wagner. Valkyries always give me a headache. I am ignoring you because you are already married, my sweet, and one of those rare creatures in love with your own husband, a man who is hovering on your other side with tiresome possessiveness. And since Standish practices such strict economies nowadays, you can’t even grant me a loan.”
“So you have turned your attention in a more profitable direction? Some rich heiress, I suppose?”
“Alas, no.” He lifted his gaze, somewhat reluctantly, from Miss Bosworth’s splendid breasts to her face. It was not a beautiful face by any means, but pretty enough, with its dumpling cheeks, turned-up nose, and quite kissable mouth. But it was her eyes-those big, soft, dark eyes–that would make a name for her, if she were truly intent to become a woman on the town. “Much to my regret, the woman in question is no heiress.”
“You intrigue me. Point her out.”
“Straight across,” he obliged, “then two boxes to the right. Dark hair, pink silk dress and pearls.”
Lady Standish peered through her own opera glasses, scanned the boxes across the way, and gave a cry of triumph. “How you do tease, St. Cyres, to say you were not staring at an heiress when you’ve set your sights on the richest one in the room!”
That gained his full attention. “I beg your pardon?”
“The woman you’ve been gaping at is Miss Prudence Abernathy, the daughter of that American millionaire.”
Rhys began to laugh. “You’ve gotten muddled somehow, Cora. Her name’s not Abernathy. It’s Bosworth, and she’s no millionaire’s daughter. She’s a seamstress.”
“She was a seamstress, darling. But she’s also Henry Abernathy’s illegitimate daughter. You’ve heard of Abernathy’s Department Stores, I trust? I’m telling you the truth,” she insisted as he continued to eye her with obvious doubt.
Rhys decided to humor her. “How do you know all this?”
“I saw the girl myself at Madame Marceau’s this afternoon.”
“Exactly. The Marceau woman is who she works for.”
“How you know which seamstresses work for which dressmakers baffles me, St. Cyres.”
He grinned. “I have devoted a lifetime to the study of feminine apparel.”
“Learning how best to remove it, no doubt,” she countered dryly, but she didn’t give him the chance to reply before she went on, “At any rate, the girl wasn’t at the dressmaker’s to work, believe me. She was with her aunt, being fitted for gowns, and Marceau was in such a flutter as I’ve never seen, tripping over herself to make the girl happy. A friend of mine, Lady Marley, was with them–she’s slightly acquainted with the aunt and knows their cousin–Sir Robert Something. He’s a baronet, I think. Anyway, she introduced me, and later, after the girl had gone, she told me the whole story.”
Cora leaned closer, eager to share London’s latest gossip. “Henry Abernathy, the girl’s father, wasn’t always so rich. He was originally a Yorkshire farmer named Bosworth who had a fling with the daughter of the local squire.”
“How naughty of him.”
“Very naughty.” Cora leaned closer and whispered, “Bun in the oven.”
“Ah. Our heiress, I presume?” When Cora nodded, he went on, “I take it the squire had no dowry for his pregnant daughter?”
“Just so. The income from Squire Feathergill’s land wasn’t more than a few hundred a year. So instead of doing the honorable thing and marrying her anyway, Bosworth ran off to America, changed his name to Abernathy, and married some heiress from New York instead.”
“Clever bastard,” Rhys said with appreciation.
“The girl’s mother died some years ago, and the girl lived with her uncle’s family for a time. The uncle, being the squire’s son, inherited the estate, but the family was still quite badly off, and the girl came to London, got a flat, and began to earn her own living as a seamstress.”
“Sounds like something written by a lady novelist.”
“Doesn’t it? But so many girls are doing that nowadays. Girl-bachelors, they’re called. Scandalous notion. Anyway, the father made a fortune in those department stores of his. He recently died, and in his will, he left every penny to the girl.”
Rhys crossed his fingers. “How many pennies, Cora?”
“The income is over a million pounds a year, so they say.”
Staggered, he swallowed hard. “Good God. Even I might find it hard to spend that much money.”
“But there’s a catch. This is the part you’ll be interested in, darling. She has to marry in order to claim the inheritance.”
An image of those big brown eyes gazing up at him in obvious adoration flashed through his mind, and the gloom that had been haunting him began to dispel. He lifted the opera glasses for another look at Miss Bosworth-cum-Abernathy, and found that she was growing more luscious by the moment. “Over a million pounds a year, you say?” he murmured. “Fancy that.”