Rules of Conduct [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Maggi Andersen
eBook Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
eBook Description: SHE IS A WOMAN OF SECRETS After losing her memory, Viola knows only of her Classical education, and her love for the Duke of Vale. In her flight from danger, she has broken all the rules of conduct. As she falls further in disgrace and her choices narrow, she must fight for what is hers. HE IS A MAN OF HONOR The Duke of Vale is destined to marry the woman his parents have chosen for him. But he cannot forget the beautiful and mysterious woman he calls Viola.
eBook Publisher: Awe-Struck E-Books, Published: 2009
Fictionwise Release Date: January 2010
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14 Reader Ratings:
The 3rd Duke of Vale, Hugh Beauchamp, propped his polished brown Hessians on the seat opposite, just as the coach hit a deep rut in the road and lurched on its springs. Cursing, he closed his eyes and tilted his hat down over his face. He made a very poor passenger. He much preferred to have his hands on the reins, in control of his destiny.
Hugh was returning to his countryseat in Oxfordshire from a season in London where he'd danced with Felicity twice at Almacks. As one would expect, this caused a flurry of excitement among the dowagers. Hugh saw no harm in it. It was as inevitable as night follows day that he and Felicity would marry. Already an adept flirt, Felicity's playful, brown eyes had sparkled up at him from behind her fan. London Society was new to her and seeing how she relished the scene, he suspected she would always prefer town-life to the country. She expressed a desire to have her favorite horses brought to Vale House after they were married. She planned to ride every day in Regent Park. An agreeable life awaited them both, but somehow this trip left Hugh restless and dissatisfied.
At the urging of concerned friends, Hugh had attempted to smooth over his disagreement with the Prince of Wales. The meeting was a dismal failure, as neither he nor the Prince Regent would budge an inch. Prinny had turned his back on Hugh in the end.
We are a spoiled and arrogant pair, Hugh admitted to himself as he stormed out of the Prince's apartments. Leaving St James' Palace in The Mall, he instructed his coachman to depart London by the Oxford Road. If the rain held off they would reach home before nightfall.
Now, as he listened to the perfect rhythm of his horses as they raced towards Vale Park, he was determined to put the whole episode with the Prince behind him. Country life seemed far less complicated.
He gave up trying to sleep. Leaning out the window, he filled his lungs with fresh air. Leafy woods of oak, ash and beech swept by, giving way to fields of russet earth enclosed by thorn hedges, plowed and planted with spring crops. And London, with its depressing smells of decay, coal fires, and the rotten stink rising from the Thames at low tide, slipped from his thoughts.
The towering roofs and chimneys of High Ridge Manor appeared through the trees, the home of his boy-hood friend, Harry Carstairs. Years had passed since he and Harry rode fearlessly over those green fields, their horses clearing the fences like Pegasus in full flight. At the thought, Hugh felt like a boy again and quickly removed his feet from the seat as if Nanny was about to rebuke him. He grinned, admitting even now at seven and twenty, the devil seized him and made him jump a gate or two. He wondered if Harry still suffered from a similar impulse, although he doubted it. Harry was now a serious Member of Parliament and committed father of two.
A shout roused Hugh from his reverie as the coachman hauled the horses to a stop in the narrow laneway. His manservant, Peter, jumped down.
"What is it?" Hugh threw open the carriage door and leapt out, pistol in hand. He looked around. Surely, highwaymen wouldn't attempt to rob him again. They'd come off the worse last time, with one man dead and the other wounded in his escape.
At dusk, it was shadowy and dim beneath the thick canopy of leaves. There were no highwaymen to be seen, but when Hugh moved forward, he saw a body lying on the road, perilously close to the plunging hooves of the horses.
A trick? Hugh tightened his grip on his pistol. "Back up the horses," he urged his men. "Be quick about it."
Peter grabbed the traces, and he and the coachman edged the nervous horses away, their flesh quivering and their nostrils steaming in the cold air.
Hugh checked the silent, dark woods on each side of the road again before kneeling beside the inert form. Gently rolling the body over, he reached into the lad's shirt to feel for a heartbeat.
He pulled his hand out again as if stung. "Devil take us, tis a woman!" As he moved her, the woman's cap fell off and long strands of fair hair escaped, spreading over her shoulders.
Rendered speechless, they stared at the slight body dressed in men's clothing. The thin material barely concealed the thrust of firm breasts beneath it. Pantaloons hugged slender legs, her bare feet thick with grime. The shirt strings lay open across a delicate throat, where a silver locket caught the light.
Hugh smoothed the hair away from her mud-streaked face. "I can't find any signs of bleeding, but she has a bump on her head the size of an egg," he said. He thought her far too pale, but her pulse felt strong.
"Cor, she ain't half dirty, your grace," said Peter, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "She smells of the barnyard."
"That she does." Hugh slipped one arm under her shoulders and one beneath her knees. With scant regard for his new, silk-lined and multi-caped greatcoat, he lifted her up, placed her on the seat of the coach, and tucked a travel rug around her.
"Better light the lanterns, John, then on to Vale Park."
A mist-shrouded moon shone its frail light into the carriage. The young woman did not stir. Hugh picked up one of her hands and patted it, but there was no response. Burned feathers or smelling salts might bring her round once they arrived home, he reasoned.
He turned a small hand over in his large, brown ones. Her skin was soft and showed no evidence of hard labour. She was no housemaid then. Perhaps a seamstress or a governess from one of the big houses in the district, though what she was doing here dressed like that he couldn't imagine.
Within the half-hour, the coach entered the gates displaying the Vale family Coat of Arms. The gatekeeper saluted as they passed by, carriage lamps flickering, and they plunged into the solid darkness of the home wood.
Hugh sat forward as the coach rounded the last bend and emerged from the trees. As its wheels clattered over the bridge, he caught sight of the church spire against the dark sky.
This first glimpse of the old house never failed to move him. The windows on the ground floor were alight with candles. Braziers burned in their sconces along the lake wall, turning the water to rippling fire and casting a warm, orange glow over the stone of the crenellated towers.
Parts of the building had been built as early as 1480. Hugh's ancestors had added wings throughout the years according to needs and fashion--the last in the 18th Century. Despite this, the house retained its symmetry and beauty.
As the coach pulled up, several members of Hugh's staff were there to welcome him. The butler, Porter, began a careful descent, but was brought to a halt as Hugh rushed passed him. Hugh took the stairs two at a time, the unconscious woman in his arms, her hair swinging down.
"Been at the malt again, Porter?" he called back over his shoulder. "I want a bedchamber prepared. Mrs. Moodie will oversee it. Send a boy to the village for the surgeon. Immediately!"
Porter moved to obey the order. An occasional tipple when his grace was away was an unspoken agreement between them, but now with the Duke in residence he knew he must keep the cork in the bottle.
At Porter's direction, the housekeeper and the maids scurried upstairs, and one of the under-grooms rode off to the village some five miles away for the doctor.
As Hugh entered, a maid removed the warming pan from between the sheets and a footman knelt beside the fire, fanning it into hearty flames. Hugh gently lay the woman on the bed.
Although this chamber seldom saw a visitor these days, there wasn't a speck of dust to be found. The assiduous Mrs. Moodie, housekeeper at Vale Park, made sure of that. Her iron hold over everyone in the house except Porter, made her much disliked by almost all of the forty people employed there. Most were afraid of her temper. An Irish kitchen hand had called her 'The Banshee' behind her back, and although he'd left the Duke's employ--with Mrs. Moodie's help--the name had stuck.
At this moment, Mrs. Moodie appeared at her most formidable as she stood at the end of the bed, her arms folded and lips pressed together.
Hugh moved the candelabra closer to the woman's face. "She's to be washed as soon as the doctor has seen her," he said to Mrs. Moodie before leaving the room.
As he walked down the staircase, Hugh wondered at his judgment. How quickly he'd allowed a possible intrigue to distract him from his worries. He would have to deal with this swiftly before gossip spread. The ton loved a scandal. Rumors, completely unsubstantiated and unfair, were already doing the rounds in London concerning his relationship with Princess Caroline, after he travelled to Italy to see her. Rumors didn't concern him overmuch. He knew his friends would never believe salacious lies about him, but they did believe he had been impetuous in his dealings with Caroline and didn't hesitate to tell him so.
He could only imagine what they would think of him now.
Hugh sat savouring a glass of wine, his two hounds at his feet basking in the warmth of the fire and the joy of their master's return, when the surgeon, Matthew Gayle, entered the room.
"Glass of wine, Matthew?" Hugh asked as Porter drew a chair closer to the fire.
"Lord, yes. Thank you, Duke."
Matthew, a hard working man, was the younger son of an impoverished Lord. Hugh had great respect for his skill, as Matthew had trained at Oxford, forgoing a life of distinction and wealth as a physician in London to remain a surgeon in the countryside where he was born.
Matthew laid a piece of jewellery on the arm of Hugh's chair. "This was around her neck. It's quite good, I think. Some fine jewels there." Taking a sip of wine, he sighed, enjoying a rest after a long, demanding day. "This is a demme fine vintage. So light, such balance. What is it?"
"A good friend sent me a case from France, Chateau Lafite Rothschild," Hugh said, his full attention on the silver locket inlaid with rubies and pearls. He flipped it open with his thumbnail. The likeness inside was badly water-damaged. He could just decipher a man's face, but not if he was young or old. Hugh turned it over in his palm. "There's some kind of crest on the back, hard to make out. It's very faint. Do you recognize it?"
"Nothing I've ever seen." Fatigue lined Matthew's face. He stifled a yawn.
"You work too hard, Mat."
Matthew shrugged. "I have an apprentice. John Miller."
"He shows an eagerness to learn beyond just that of a pill pusher."
"This country is growing; we're going to need many more good doctors." Hugh held the locket up to the candlelight and studied the delicate filigree. "Tell me, what state is the young woman in? Are her injuries serious?"
"She's in no danger. She came around briefly. Doesn't appear to know who she is, or what happened to bring her to this sorry state. She's lapsed into a deep sleep, the best thing for her." He drained his glass of the last drops, and held it up to Porter who hovered with the decanter. "There's nothing to be done. She has a large bump on her head, but she is young and strong. Let her sleep for a day or so. Where did you find her?"
"Back up the road a way, halfway between Molton's Cross and Vale Park. As you know, there's nothing around there for miles. Might she have fallen from a vehicle? Or been thrown from her horse? Intriguing eh, Matthew?"
"Indeed. She's not from around these parts, I'll wager. She's no raw-boned wench--has the look of a blueblood--that patrician nose. You'll see what I mean. Reminds me of someone...can't think who, perhaps the wrong side of the blanket, eh? Aristocrat's and Royal bastards are tucked away in the country everywhere. There's that piece of jewellery...well, she may have stolen it. Mrs. Moodie has had her bathed. She looked like she's been sleeping with the livestock. I must say, I'm surprised she's in one of your best chambers. I thought the servant's quarters would have done."
Hugh shifted in his chair, surprised by his decision himself. "It was convenient, but that's where she'll more than likely end up, when she recovers."
"Rest is what she needs, and then we may get some answers."
"May?" prompted Hugh.
"Well, in these cases you never can be sure. Usually memory returns quickly--within days, but in the odd case, never."
Hugh gazed into the fire as if answer was there in the flames. This episode had driven his problems from his mind. Now they were back, settling over him like a dark cloud. He stirred a sleepy spaniel with his foot. It stood for a moment and shook its head, ears flapping, before settling again with an audible sigh.
Feeling restless, Hugh sprung to his feet. "It was good of you to come so late, Matthew. Will you stay to dine with me?"
Matthew rose more leisurely. "I never say no to an excellent meal at your table, Duke. Do you still employ that French chef, Arnaud?"
Hours later, after a superb saddle of venison and several glasses of mellow port, Hugh climbed the stairs to his bedchamber. He paused in the hall outside the young woman's door, and then on impulse, opened it. The candles had guttered and the fire was reduced to embers. Moonlight shone through the leaded windows, creating a pattern of light and shade across the bed. The girl slept deeply, her damp hair fanned out across the pillow, her face in shadow.
Hugh stood for a moment listening to her quiet breathing. He felt a prickling sensation travel up his spine, as if something of great significance had happened. He was intrigued about the girl. It was inexplicable, and yet he admitted to have struggled with his emotions of late. The thought of this perturbed him even more. He liked to have control over his emotions as he did over his estates, and worried that his needs had begun to undermine him. Loosening his cravat, he silently chastised himself for his romanticism. More than likely, the girl worked at one of the district's big houses. When she regained her senses, he would have her moved to the servant's quarters. She would surely recover by week's end and be gone from this house. He had no time for wool gathering.
He left the room and went to bed.