Giles Vayne, the eighth Duke of Winterton, dismissed his valet and prepared to retire for the night. Climbing into his massive four-poster bed, he was about to blow out the candle when he heard his deceased father's voice.
"You must marry. Produce an heir. Your duty. A suitable gel. Honor to Vayne."
"Devil take that bird," the duke muttered as he threw the bedclothes back and crossed the room. He picked up a cover and angrily threw it over the large birdcage standing in the corner, effectively stopping the parrot before the bird could deliver himself of the rest of the oft-repeated lecture.
The occupant of the cage let out a loud squawk of protest at this Turkish treatment but shortly settled down to rest. A gray bird with red tail feathers, the parrot was an adept mimic who had lived with the previous duke for ten years. He could expound at length in the old duke's voice on that man's favorite subject: what Giles owed his family name.
The duke, weary, but now too agitated to sleep, poured himself a brandy from the tray left by Tyler, his valet. He wondered, not for the first time, if any other man was plagued with parental dictates from beyond the grave by a member of the avian family.
His father, a controlling, hardened aristocrat, had died the previous March in a fox-hunting accident, leaving the dukedom to his only son. According to the terms of the seventh Duke of Winterton's will, Giles was to take especial care of his beloved pet, Sir Polly Grey--the "Sir" was only a courtesy title, the old duke having knighted the bird himself.
For reasons that had become all too clear to Giles, the parrot was to be given houseroom in his bedchamber until the event of Giles's marriage.
Practically speaking, there was no way for this edict to be enforced, but Giles was a loyal son and, what's more, had a strong sense of duty. Sir Polly Grey, therefore, resided with Giles in London at the duke's town house in Park Lane, or as such was the case at present, the ducal estate, Perrywood, in Sussex.
His father would have been pleased to see the effect the bird's repeated nagging was having on Giles.
In his nightshirt, the duke sat with his brandy by the glowing fire, and considered the matter. The Season would begin in one month. He should at least look over this year's crop of hopefuls, he mused. He knew what was due his name, and it was time, perhaps past time, at the great age of two and thirty, to set up his nursery.
He ran a long-fingered hand through his dark hair. While any rich duke was reputedly attractive, Giles's easy elegance, strong air of command, and pleasing, if austere, countenance would draw the ladies whatever his position in Society.
Just then, a look of disdain marred his handsome face. What an odious task laid before him, he thought cynically. How could he possibly agree to
leg-shackle himself to one of the simpering young misses who, hoping to acquire his title and fortune, used every wile and ploy imaginable to draw themselves to his attention? He much preferred the jaded charms of the sophisticated ladies of the ton or the demireps, who could satisfy his baser needs without unwanted entanglements.
Unfortunately, he believed Sir Polly Grey was right. He must go to London and find a beautiful girl of impeccable family, one with a fortune that could be added to his own; a miss who excelled in all the ladylike accomplishments, capable of gracing his table and bearing him fine sons. If she didn't bore him to death first.
The thoughts of breeding turned the duke's mind to a different crop of eligibles. The new foals at Squire Lanford's. Everyone knew the squire bred superb Thoroughbreds to be trained for racing at Newmarket. As a member of the Jockey Club, the organization that governed the horse-racing society known as the Turf, the duke had a keen interest in horseflesh. Perhaps he would allow himself the diversion of breaking his journey to London at the squire's.
His mind set, the duke returned to his bed.
On the other side of the room, Sir Polly Grey let out a satisfied cluck and fell asleep.
Three days later, at Squire Lanford's estate in the village of Hamilton Cross, Miss Henrietta Lanford went about her morning duties. She was clad in a drab round gown, her dark brown hair pulled back and held with a fraying ribbon.
She entered the hot kitchen in the back of the house and inhaled the spicy aromas.
Engaged in mixing a pudding, Cook, a grey-
haired woman in a large mobcap, eyed Henrietta fondly. "Did ye enjoy the rolls on yer breakfast tray, Miss Lanford?" Mrs. Battersby asked, a knowing twinkle in her eyes.
Mrs. Battersby had been Cook at Squire Lanford's for as long as Henrietta could remember. "You know very well I did," Henrietta replied in mock reproach, her hands on her hips. "It was quite unkind of you to place three of my favorites within temptation's reach. I shall grow fat."
"Faugh," Mrs. Battersby snorted, straightening her apron over her own ample girth. "'Tis a wonder you don't perish away to nothing, so little you eat."
The two women spent an amicable hour together planning the week's menus. At nineteen, the squire's daughter already possessed four years of experience in overseeing the domestic aspects of running her family home. Her mother showed no interest in such things.
Both of Henrietta's parents were horse-mad. When the midwife presented Mrs. Lanford with her baby daughter, the squire's wife found herself somewhat surprised and confused about what to do with an infant, her knowledge of the young confined to that of the breed with four legs.
Henrietta was brought up by her governess, Biddles, who'd left the Lanford home last year to take care of her sickly mother. Being of an overly romantical nature, as ill-favored spinsters are apt to be, she'd left behind an extensive supply of Minerva Press novels, hoping the books would provide Henrietta with a much different view of men than the one her horse-mad father and the dull local boys presented.
Henrietta was ordinarily a practical girl with a clever mind and a good nature. Biddles would have
been shocked to see a dreamy side of the young lady's personality emerge after spending a winter of long evenings curled up with those novels. For Henrietta increasingly spent her time dreaming of falling in love.
This morning was no exception. After dealing with Cook, Henrietta threw a heavy, hooded cloak over her gown, protected her hands with a pair of woolen gloves, and took herself off to her beloved garden. Armed with shears and workbasket, she could daydream the morning away.
The freezing winter was turning into a frigid spring. She shivered in the crisp air, sniffing appreciatively at the not unpleasing smell of wood smoke and damp earth. Henrietta soon forgot the cold as she cleared away dead twigs and leaves. She was lost in her favorite fantasy.
In her imagination, he would be tall, dark-haired, and ride a large, white horse. She pictured herself strolling through a meadow on a sunny summer day, wearing a flowing pale gown of gossamer material. Her infuriatingly straight hair curled around her head like a halo. He would come charging through the woods into the meadow and rein his horse to a sudden stop at the sight of her beauty. Swinging down from his saddle, he would say he was a Prince from a Faraway Land. He'd beg her to tell him the name of the maiden standing before him who had captured his heart. The Fantasy Henrietta would coo a seductive reply, upon which the raven-haired god would be so overcome, he would ...
"Miss Lanford, Miss Lanford! Ain't ye hearing me then?" The little housemaid tugged impatiently at Henrietta's sleeve.
"What?" The Practical Henrietta blinked. "Oh, Megan, whatever is it?"
"I been trying to tell ye but couldn't get ye to mind. Cook's all in a lather as we've an unexpected guest for luncheon."
Henrietta stared at the red-haired maid in confusion. "A guest? Pray, who could it be?"
"I'm not rightly sure, miss. Alls I know is that Cook said I was to find ye right away. She said ye should be present at table."
The news of the Duke of Winterton's arrival had spread through the house with alarming speed. It wasn't often that members of the haute ton lingered for a meal at the squire's once they concluded their business. Not that the squire and his wife were in any way toad eaters. They simply had no conversation at all other than horse talk, which could be wearing to even the most devoted of Newmarket followers.
Her curiosity aroused, Henrietta entered the house through the kitchen, handing Megan her cloak and gloves. Having no time to waste, she hurriedly washed her hands and barely glanced at her untidy reflection in the looking glass she passed in the hall. It seemed her parents and their guest were already seated in the small dining room.
Henrietta checked as she crossed the threshold into the room, staring fixedly at the stranger rising to stand at his place at the table. Here he was at last! The hero of her daydream come to life.
Tall, with an athletic build, he was immaculately dressed. The snug fit of his blue morning coat must have been his tailor's proudest moment. His buff pantaloons had the effect of leaving little to the imagination, while at the same time allowing that imagination to roam. He wore his black hair longer
than the current fashion dictated, and his eyes were a cool gray.
Never, outside her imagination, had Henrietta seen a more impressive, handsome man. Discomposed, she blushed. As he mockingly returned her stare, her gaze dropped to the carpet and she moved toward her chair.
The duke stood by his place, his cultivated air of boredom masking his surprise. The Lanfords had made no mention of a daughter during the morning's inspection of the squire's foals.
He saw a petite young girl in an unappealing gown. Confined at the neck, her dark hair fell in a straight mass down her back. Across her forehead were longish strands of hair which she brushed to one side in what he recognized was a nervous gesture. He caught a glimpse of large blue eyes and a small mouth before the color rose in her cheeks and she lowered her head.
The thought crossed his mind to be on his guard in case the Lanfords were using this opportunity to throw their daughter at his head. He'd certainly had every trick played on him by matchmaking mamas since he'd come of age.
Squire and Mrs. Lanford were taken aback as well at their daughter's presence. So wrapped up were they in the world of the Turf, they often forgot her existence.
The stocky squire was the first to recover and effected the introductions.
The duke responded to Henrietta's curtsy with a brief bow and sat down, hardly waiting for her to be seated.
Granite-faced Mrs. Lanford smiled at the duke, revealing a mouth full of large teeth. She resumed the conversation, saying with conviction, "I do not
hold by the popular belief of trainers, your grace, who keep horses in overheated stables without any fresh air."
"Indeed." Squire Lanford took the reins of the conversation. "I have an article published in the Sporting Magazine detailing my abhorrence of the practices of some trainers. Purges, sweats..."
Nodding to a servant holding a plate of cold meats, Henrietta heard her father's voice drone on. She was used to turning her mind off once he got started on the subject of his precious horses. She had heard all his theories before, and could recite most by rote.
She toyed with her food, all the while covertly studying the duke from under her lashes. Biting her lip in vexation, she found herself wishing desperately that she were wearing her best gown.
Henrietta's knowledge of fashions was limited to the few fashion plates that occasionally circulated in the village. Still, she did not need the current issue of La Belle Assemblee to know the picture she presented at the moment was not the first impression she would have wished to make.
The duke's attention, however, appeared taken up by his host. As the minutes went by, Henrietta found herself becoming cross with him for not including her in the conversation. She remained silent, though, knowing it would be most improper for her to speak to the duke without his first addressing her.
The Practical Henrietta's mind lectured that Papa was hardly letting the duke speak a word, so how was he to show any interest, polite as it could only be, in herself?
The Fantasy Henrietta began weaving a rosy dream in which the handsome duke saw beyond
her countrified appearance and gazed longingly into her eyes. Miss Lanford, he would say, I am blinded by your beauty. Come away with me and be my duchess.
It was at the straining point in these ruminations that the duke did, indeed, turn to Henrietta.
"Do you share your parents' love of horses, Miss Lanford?" he asked in a tone of complete indifference.
Giles could hardly have chosen a worse opening remark, innocent as its intention may have been, if he tried.
Over the years, Henrietta had resented her mother and father's preoccupation with their stables. In time, with Biddles' affection and guidance, she'd accepted her situation and come to realize her parents loved her in their way. Deep inside, though, she really didn't think much of herself. And she'd certainly never acquired her family's obsession with horseflesh.
"No," she replied with deceptive calm as her temper rose. Pique caused her to condemn even her own sweet mare. "I find them nasty, smelly beasts."
The squire glared at his daughter, his face turning an unusual shade of purple as he sputtered, "See here now!"
But he got no further, because Winterton, sensing an oncoming familial scene he had no desire to witness, smoothly interjected, "Do you go to London for the Season, Miss Lanford?"
Henrietta opened her mouth to say she had no such plans, when Mrs. Lanford answered matter-of-factly, "Yes, Your Grace, Henrietta will make her come-out this year."
Both husband and daughter looked at her as if she were touched in her upper works.
Before either could refute her claim, the duke spoke again, looking down his nose at Henrietta. "You will, no doubt, enjoy the amusements London has to offer, Miss Lanford. And one can hardly detect the scent of horseflesh, I assure you," he ended sardonically.
Henrietta's cheeks flamed from a mixture of annoyance at herself for making such a silly remark and the duke's insolence at reminding her of it.
After a few moments, Winterton rose from the table. "I fear I must take my leave of you so I may continue my own journey to Town." He raised a hand in an imperious gesture. "Pray do not trouble yourselves to see me out. I thank you for your hospitality."
"The foal will be well taken care of, Your Grace," Squire Lanford said, rising from his seat.
"I have no doubt of it, Mr. Lanford." The duke made his bow. "Mrs. Lanford, Miss Lanford, I bid you good day."
The Duke of Winterton's traveling carriage waited outside. It was followed by a fourgon, heavy with trunks that Tyler presided over with haughty majesty.
When the duke entered and gave the order, the carriage moved off. Leaning back against the comfortable squabs, he considered his morning. Certain the colt he'd selected would someday win at Newmarket wearing his colors, he felt a sense of satisfaction.
He thought of the squire and Mrs. Lanford unfavorably, condemning them as hopelessly provincial, although he had enjoyed examining the stables with the bluff squire.
A bump in the road brought a protesting squawk
from the other occupant of the carriage. Placed on the seat opposite the duke, Sir Polly Grey, sequestered in his own covered travel-cage, was unhappy with the ride.
In the distinctive voice of the old duke he grumbled, "Giles. A suitable gel. Marriage."
Giles ignored the bird and wondered idly if the unworldly, artless Miss Henrietta Lanford would have suitors when she went to London. Perhaps with enough Town bronze and that rather charming blush she might be lucky and attract a well-to-do landowner.
Thankfully, her parents had done nothing to push the girl forward, nothing to bring her to his attention. Just the opposite looked to be the way of things. With a wry twist of his lips, Giles recalled the squire's reaction when Miss Lanford maligned horses. Obviously she took second place to the cattle in her family's affections.
No doubt he would not meet her again as they would hardly be moving in the same circles in Town. He flicked the memory of the girl from his mind.
The second the duke had quit the room, an excited Henrietta rounded on her mother. "Mama! Pray tell me at once if it is true I am to go to London."
The squire's jowls quivered with indignation. "Yes, Mrs. Lanford. Tell us how we are supposed to take our leave of three mares ready to foal in the next fortnight to go roistering up to Town! You know very well I cannot abide London at any time, and the thought of doing the pretty to a pack of high-in-the-instep fools discussing politics, gambling on cards, while my dear horses ... It is not to be borne, madam!"
Mrs. Lanford had experienced the uncomfortable feeling a mother has when she realizes she has somehow been remiss in her parental role. The Duke of Winterton's presence reminded her forcibly that it was past time her daughter had a husband. Not that she considered Henrietta capable of attracting someone of the Duke's rank and standing in Society.
"Of course, we will not go to Town, Mr. Lanford. What a chuckleheaded notion. Henrietta will go to my sister in London, Lady Fuddlesby. Clara is very much of the bon ton and received everywhere. She keeps a town house in Grosvenor Square. Count on it, she will find our gel a suitable husband."
"London ... a husband," Henrietta uttered faintly. The Fantasy Henrietta's thoughts rushed ahead to a courtship filled with romantic nights beneath a glowing moon, poems written in her honor, beautifully decorated ballrooms where he would twirl her round and round in his arms in that shocking dance, the waltz.
Still unmollified, the squire asked, "Are you not
thinking of the expense, Mrs. Lanford? Why, I could
expand the stables, improve on the lower pasture."
For once, Mrs. Lanford's ambitions were solely for her daughter. "Nonsense. It will be horribly dear, naturally, for Clara will need funds for Henrietta to have a complete new wardrobe, pin money, and oh, any number of costly things. And a decent dowry must be offered. But you are not thinking, Mr. Lanford! It is our duty to see our daughter married well."
There was no argument to that statement. The
squire heaved a great sigh and said, "Yes, I suppose you're right, m'dear. Well, it's off to Town you go then, Henrietta. See that you know what is owed us after all the care we have given you over the years." Wagging a finger at his daughter, the squire admonished, "If you play your cards right, you might just snare a gentleman from the Four in Hand Club."
With this speech, the squire considered his duty done and took himself off to sit in front of the library fire with a copy of Pick's Racing Calendar. Mrs. Lanford went to her desk to write Lady Fuddlesby that she was to bring out her niece, and Henrietta floated up the stairs to her bedchamber to dream about her imaginary beau who now wore the Duke of Winterton's face.
Several days later, at Lady Fuddlesby's town house in Grosvenor Square, a cat walked up the stairs with a letter clamped in his jaw. He was an unusual looking animal. Stark white with a black tail, he had a wedge of black that extended across his eyes, quite like a domino mask.
A push with his shoulder opened Lady Fuddlesby's bedchamber door, always left ajar for just this purpose. He swaggered across the room to where the lady, seated at her toilet table, applied rouge with a light hand to her round cheeks.
The soft pink of the cosmetic matched the decor of her ladyship's apartments. Most of the gowns in her wardrobe were of that same hue, pink being her favorite and most becoming color.
Unlike her horse-mad sister, Clara, Lady Fuddlesby was all that was feminine. She could lay claim to great beauty in her youth and, despite the addition of thirty unwanted pounds, was still attractive at three and fifty.
"Oh, my dearest Knight, whatever have you there?" she asked, eyeing the parchment now dented with fang marks.
Knight in Masked Armour, for that was his full name, stood on his hind legs and dropped the missive in Lady Fuddlesby's plump lap.
Breaking the seal, she said, "A letter from my younger sister. How singular! One wonders how she found the time away from her horses."
Lady Fuddlesby perused the lines, clucking her tongue and emitting an occasional gasp. Knight sat at her feet in a patch of afternoon sunlight, his tail twitching with interest.
"Oh dear, oh dear. We are to have company, Knight. My niece, Henrietta. You have never met her, for she has spent her life isolated in the country, the poor dear. Goodness, she may arrive tomorrow!"
Perhaps in understanding of this bit of intelligence, and loath to share Lady Fuddlesby's attentions with anyone, Knight turned his whiskers down. It had just been the two of them these past five years, unless one counted a house full of servants. Viscount Fuddlesby had died of an apoplexy one evening at White's, over a particularly unfortunate hand of cards.
At the viscount's death, Lady Fuddlesby had been obliged to pay off his excessive gambling debts. While she was left with the town house, and a sufficient but not large income, she found the cost of living in London and being in Society to be exorbitant. A more clever woman might have managed well, but while Lady Fuddlesby had a kind heart, she was somewhat lacking in judgment when it came to practicalities and economies.
"Well, it seems my sister has made a mull of it. I shall be obliged to introduce the gel to Society and find her a husband. Oh dear, oh dear, I do hope she's in looks. It does make finding an eligible parti easier if one has beauty, especially when one is a mere squire's daughter."
A furrow that had appeared between Lady Fuddlesby's brows eased. "I daresay I shall come about, Knight. After all, a generous draft on Mr. Lanford's bank is included, so we needn't worry the cost, and oh, I am sure Henrietta is a delight since her mama deplores her lack of interest in horses. It will be quite as if I had a child of my own."
At these last words, a reproachful meow came from Knight's throat.
"Oh! Forgive me, my darling boy," Lady Fuddles-by cried. She reached down to scratch behind Knight's ears, bringing an expression of intense contentment to his masked face.
Lady Fuddlesby straightened in her chair. In her mind she began to go over the upcoming Season's list of eligibles. She did not get far in these musings before the Duke of Winterton's name cried out in her brain.
No! Flying much too high, she thought. Still, how wonderful it would be, after all these years.
Clara had made her come-out the same year as Lady Matilda Danvers. They both had been drawn to the seventh Duke of Winterton. Matilda had won him, though, since she had been an earl's daughter, while Clara was only a plain miss.
Forgetting almost thirty years of a comfortable marriage to Viscount Fuddlesby, Lady Fuddlesby grew agitated at the memory of her defeat.
How gratifying it would be if she could bring about a match between her niece and the present Duke of Winterton. Perhaps she would send him a card, asking him to call ... but she would have to see the girl first and be sure she dressed in the first stare of fashion, and...
"Oh, Knight," Lady Fuddlesby said, pressing her fingers to her temples, "I fear I am bringing on one of my headaches with all this thinking."
Knight sauntered over to her ladyship's bed, jumped up on the pink coverlet, turned around clockwise three times, lay down, and closed his eyes.
"My dear boy," Lady Fuddlesby crooned as she crossed the room and prepared to lie down next to the sleeping cat, "you always know what to do. A nap, of course, is just the thing to put me to rights."