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Authors: Lynn Michaels

Tags: #Regency Romance

The Duke's Downfall

 

THE DUKE’S DOWNFALL

 

Lynn Michaels

 

Chapter One

 

When the Dowager Countess of Clymore’s letter reached her house in Berkeley Square, the butler, Iddings, gathered his staff in the servants’ hall and read, in sepulchral tones, the brief missive announcing the planned arrival of her ladyship and her granddaughter, Lady Elizabeth Keaton, in town the Tuesday next. The news caused several of the housemaids to swoon, and three of the footmen to give immediate notice.

The hartshorn was sent for, the resignations filled with brawny types more the like of sailors than footmen, and preparations for her ladyship’s arrival began. Each and every saloon was swept of anything breakable (hence the classically uncluttered look so remarked upon by the countess’s set), the heaviest pieces of furniture were repositioned at the corners of the carpets, and the more fragile chairs and settees removed to the attics.

It was, when added to the usual scrubbing, airing, dusting, beating, and polishing, a colossal undertaking. The pipe clay put down on the freshly washed front steps to whiten them had scarce had a chance to dry when the bedlamite clamor heralding the approach of the countess’s carriage was heard outside the spiked iron fence enclosing the house.

Shouting at two of the strapping, newly hired footmen to man the gates, Iddings kept the third at his side and took up his place on the doorstep. When a deep crimson landau careened into the courtyard on wheels thick with road dust, Iddings signed to the footmen, and the gates swung shut on the pack of dogs, urchins, and cats yelping and yowling along in the wake of the carriage.

In the box, next to the portly driver possessed of nerves of steel, perched a greatcoat-swathed figure in charge of the leads and the horses thundering the landau toward the house. On the crimson leather squabs sat the dowager, clearly nonplussed by the alarming cant at which the landau was negotiating the curved yard.

The ends of the emerald ribbons securing her ladyship’s chipstraw bonnet to her head fluttered beneath her ears, while beside her loomed a creature so large that it could, but for its shaggy coat and the deep, excited rumbling issuing from its throat, be mistaken for a fifth to the perfectly matched grays all but sitting back on their tails to slow the carriage and bring it to a halt.

“Beggin’ yer pardon, sir,” muttered the footman to Iddings, “but what manner of beast is that?”

“‘Tis a dog, you dolt,” the butler replied disdainfully. “An Irish hound.”

As the landau rolled to a stop before the steps, the coachman fished from his waistcoat pocket a watch on a gold fob, a gift from the dowager on his twenty years' service to the Keatons of Clymore. He peered at the gilt face, then grinned at his companion.

“Smartly done, Lady Betsy. Shaved seven minutes whole off yer best time.”

“That’s ten pounds then, if you please, Granmama.” Lady Elizabeth Keaton tugged off the oversized, flop-eared hat pulled low over her brow to conceal her blond curls and turned on the high seat to hold out a leather-gloved hand. “You wagered I could trim no more than five.”

As she turned, the heavy, caped coat fell from her shoulders to reveal her slim figure and rumpled blue velvet traveling costume. Despite the wrinkles, her drooping coiffure, and the road dust smudging her nose, Lady Elizabeth had blossomed from the thin, awkward girl Iddings had last seen four years ago into a delectably lovely young lady.

Her lengthy stay at Clymore—enforced by the death of her father following a hunting accident and lengthy illness—had, despite the circumstances, done her obvious good. If the countess could keep check on her granddaughter’s impulsiveness, a trait borne in the Keaton blood, she would, Iddings thought, have no trouble firing the girl off.

“Ten pounds and worth every penny,” the dowager replied sternly, “so long as you keep to your promise that there will be no more driving, no more wagering, and no more conversing with young gentlemen in Greek simply to make them look cloth-headed.”

“I do so swear, Granmama,” Betsy vowed solemnly.

“Then ‘tis a bargain well made.” As her ladyship removed the gloved hand she’d wrapped around the hound’s thick collar in order to open her reticule, he leaped from the landau and shot across the courtyard toward the mob of strays still milling outside the wrought-iron fence.

“Boru!” the countess screeched. “Come back here!”

More sensibly, Iddings shouted, “Stop him!”

Understanding now precisely why they’d been hired, the two footmen at the gate rushed the giant hound gamboling toward them. In the box, Lady Elizabeth plucked the glove from her right hand, stuck two fingers in the corners of her mouth, and gave a short, piercing whistle. Boru wheeled and trotted back to the landau, leaving the footmen to skid to a disgruntled halt and watch the hound, tail swishing the cobbles, sit obediently down on his haunches before the landau. The dowager eyed him balefully; his mistress adoringly as she swung herself down from the box.

“You are too bad, Boru,” Betsy chided fondly, taking the hound’s huge, opened jaws between her hands and rubbing her nose against his.

Boru whined and swathed his long pink tongue across her face. Lady Clymore clapped her hands disapprovingly.

“Stand straight, gel!” she shrilled. “And no more whistling like a cowherd!”

“How else was I to stop him?” Betsy inquired as she straightened. “Please trust, Granmama,” she went on, with a wave about the courtyard, “that I have sense enough to whistle only within privacy of our own property.”

“Kindly make certain you do not forget.”

“Of course I will not,” Betsy replied, and lowered her gaze.

But not before Iddings glimpsed the gleam in her violet-blue eyes. It was devilment, of that he was certain, for that same impish twinkle had been in her eyes the day he’d caught her sprinkling salt instead of sugar on a plateful of biscuits laid out for her grandmother’s tea.

“The steps,” he hissed, elbowing the new man.

Gingerly edging past the girl and the huge dog, the footman placed the steps and opened the carriage door. The slightly stooped but still spry countess alighted, her sharp eyes assessing the breadth of the man’s shoulders.

“You’re new, aren’t you? What’s your name?”

“George, m’lady,” the man replied, with a bow.

“Well then, George, I should like you to meet Brian Boru,” she said, nodding grimly at the hound. “The apple of my granddaughter’s eye, and the bane of my existence.”

Boru hung his head and whimpered.

“Granmama.” Betsy tsked and laid a soothing hand  between the dog’s shaggy ears. “You’ve hurt his feelings.”

“I should like to hurt more than that,” her ladyship muttered, then fixed a commanding eye on the footman. “Since you are of a particular size, George, and Boru requires a firm hand, I am entrusting him to your care.”

“He is gentle as a lamb,” Betsy countered, “and I have always seen to Boru.”

“You will be far too busy,” her grandmother informed her crisply, and turned again to George. “He requires exercise thrice daily. I suggest the back garden, where the wall is quite high. He eats at nuncheon and supper, and feeds like Ninny. Inform Cook to henceforth consider the Regent himself in residence.” From the depths of her voluminous reticule, the countess withdrew a considerable length of stout leather strap and placed it in the footman’s hands. “I think Boru should like a run now, George.”

“Y-yes, m’lady.” The footman swallowed hard and turned to face his charge.

At sight of his lead, Boru lifted his ears and began to quiver with anticipation. He stretched his great head eagerly toward George and gave a single, deep-throated woof that caused his new keeper to nearly leap out of his livery.

“He is quite tame,” Betsy assured him, torn between pity for the poor fellow and fury at her grandmother for painting such a monstrous picture of her darling. She took the lead from George, knelt, and fastened it to Boru’s collar. “He is very strong, but very gentle. He will be a bit frisky from the journey, but will give you no trouble.” Betsy offered the looped end of the strap with an encouraging smile. “So long as you hold on tight.”

The footman swallowed again. “I’ll do that, m’lady.”

No sooner had his fingers closed on the lead than Boru was off, jerking the unfortunate George off his feet. Toes scarcely touching the ground, he bounced along in Boru’s wake like a dinghy on rough seas.

“Why couldn’t you have been content with a Pekinese?” Lady Clymore demanded of her granddaughter, as hound and footman disappeared around the corner of the house.

“Boru is my only friend in the world,” Betsy stated, not bitterly but matter-of-factly, “and my last gift from Papa. I’ll not allow you to separate me from him, Granmama.”

“If you’ve naught but a hound to befriend you,” Lady Clymore retorted, “ ‘tis but your own fault. Your antics have quite put off any young ladies who would associate with you, and no gentleman will offer for a girl who can outride and outthink him.”

“A peahen could accomplish the latter,” Betsy shot back. “And I should like to point out that you were a far better markswoman than I, a top-of-the-trees sawyer, and that you once nicked Grandfather—Lord rest his soul—for fifty pounds at Hazard. The very accomplishments I learned from you—nay, that you took such pains to teach me—you now refer to as my antics!”

“‘Twas a different world when I was a girl,” her ladyship declared vehemently. “What then was considered admirable and sauce for the goose, is now thought shocking and no more than scandal broth for the gosling! You must keep to your promise if you truly wish to find yourself a husband. If you do not, we may as well turn the carriage about this instant and return to Clymore!”

“Where dear Julian waits to snatch me up as he snatched up Papa’s title?” Betsy taunted, her voice tinged with bitterness. “I warn you, Granmama, I will never marry that toad-eating cousin of mine!”

“That toad-eater,” her grandmother replied between clenched teeth, “though it pains me to even think it, is the Earl of Clymore now.”

“You loathe him as much as I, yet you would see me shackled to him!”

“He is head of the family, you silly gel! You should be on your knees with gratitude that I managed to persuade him to give you until Christmas to make a match of your own!”

“With the clear understanding,” Betsy retorted,  “that if I do not, I will marry him! I cannot credit, Granmama, that you have taken the word of a penniless mushroom as that of a gentleman! He has no intention of allowing me to marry elsewhere! Not when he so desperately needs my inheritance to support himself in style as the Earl of Clymore!”

“Neither of us has a choice in the matter,” Lady Clymore replied bluntly. “It is the way of the world. You must marry someone else or accept Julian!”

“I’d sooner take the devil than Julian Dameron!” Betsy lifted her skirts and dashed up the stairs. On the top step she spun about to deliver a last scathing remark, and from her vantage next to Iddings saw the footmen shooing the ragged band of children and dogs away from the fence. “Wait!” Betsy quickly descended the steps. “Silas,” she said to the coachman, “my reticule, please.”

He handed it down to her from the box, and Betsy opened it to remove her coin purse as she crossed the courtyard.

“You’ll only encourage them to hang about when they should be working!” her grandmother called after her.

But for a subtle squaring of her shoulders and purposeful stiffening of her stride, Betsy ignored her. Throwing up her hands in disgust, the dowager marched up the stairs.

“Welcome, my lady,” Iddings said, and bowed.

“And what do you think of that?” Hesper Keaton demanded of her majordomo. “Giving her pin money to urchins?”

“I think,” Iddings replied, “that she has as kind and generous a heart as you, my lady.”

“Hmph.” The countess sniffed disparagingly, but her cheeks pinked. “I’ll greet the staff now, Iddings. Any changes beyond George and the two at the gates?”

“None, my lady.” He nodded to a junior footman and escorted her to the chair placed for her in the foyer.

While the man hurried away to summon the staff from the servants’ hall, Iddings moved to close the doors. As he paused in the threshold to watch Lady Elizabeth dispense coins to the children through the bars of the fence, the coachman caught his eye and winked. Iddings returned the wink, then quietly shut the doors as Silas swung down from the box to light his pipe and keep a watchful eye on Betsy.

The last coin in her purse was a half crown, and the last child was a boy with brown hair, hanging back from the gates clutching a string fastened to the neck of a scruffy dog that looked to be mostly terrier. Both were alarmingly thin and filthy. Betsy’s heart went out to him as she slipped her hand through the bars and offered the coin on her gloved palm.

“Go on,” she said gently. “Take it.”

The child’s eyes widened at the half crown, then shuttered warily. “What fer?”

“For helping me win my wager with my grandmother.”

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