Read The Gypsy Duchess Online

Authors: Nadine Miller

The Gypsy Duchess

Chapter One

London, February 1815

 

“W
hat do you mean I’ve been appointed guardian to the young Duke of Sheffield? How could such a thing transpire without my consent? And why wasn’t I apprised of this before?” Devon St. Gwyre, Fifth Earl of Langley, glowered at the rotund, white-haired man seated on the opposite side of the desk in the library of his London town house. The fellow had been his solicitor for the two years he had held the title, and his father’s solicitor for twenty years before that, and this was the first time they had had a serious disagreement.

“You inherited the obligation along with your title and lands, my lord, but I saw no reason to bring the matter up until the duke died—which he did but six weeks past.”

The elderly man wiped away the beads of perspiration which had sprung to his brow. “It is a duty your father accepted the day the boy was born. Apparently even then Sheffield was aware of his failing health and with the mother dead in childbirth, what could be more logical than to put the guardianship of his heir in the hands of a trusted neighbor whose land marched with his?”

The day the boy was born
. With all that had transpired since, his father must have forgotten he had made such a promise. “Circumstances have changed,” Devon said. “I cannot honor my father’s commitment. Nor, I think, would he if he were alive.”

A disapproving frown wrinkled the solicitor’s forehead. “In all the years I served your father, I found him to be a man of great honor. I cannot bring myself to believe he would renege on a promise. Nor do I believe he would countenance his successor’s refusing one made in the name of the Earl of Langley.” His frowned deepened. “The young duke is but seven years old. What could he possibly have done to incur your displeasure?”

“I have nothing against the boy, but this document”—Devon stabbed the sheaf of papers lying atop his desk with his forefinger— “clearly states the guardian must take into consideration the wishes of the duke’s stepmother on all matters pertaining to his education and general upbringing. I will not—indeed cannot—work so closely with the present Duchess of Sheffield.”

The solicitor’s eyes widened, as did those of Devon’s close friend, Peter Forsythe, the Marquess of Stamden, who had been watching the proceedings from his vantage point on a comfortable, saber-legged leather sofa. “Admittedly, rumors abound about the duchess’s eccentricities,” the solicitor said, “but that is only to be expected when a beautiful young woman marries a man of great wealth who is thrice her age.”

Devon gritted his teeth. “I do not wish to discuss the matter. My decision is final.”

“Very well, my lord, as you wish.” The solicitor rose to his feet and accepted the papers Devon thrust at him. “I shall relay the information to my colleague who is handling the duke’s estate, but I feel I must express—”

“Don’t.” Devon raised a restraining hand. “We have enjoyed an amicable arrangement so far. I should like to keep it that way.” He stood up, limped to the nearby pull-chord, and rang for his butler to show the solicitor the door.

“Are you going to tell me what that was all about or leave me to expire of curiosity?” the marquess asked when the door had closed behind the indignant solicitor.

Devon stopped to toss another log on the fire, then moved slowly back to his place behind the desk. February in London was never pleasant. This year it had been particularly cold and damp, and his right leg, injured when a horse was shot out from under him at Talavera, throbbed painfully.

“The duchess is the greedy trollop who bewitched my naïve younger brother, then jilted him to marry an old man with greater wealth and social position—and sent Blaine to his death on the Peninsula,” he said, clenching his fists with such force, his knuckles shone white through his deep tan.

The marquess raised a querulous eyebrow. “A trollop she may be, but it has been my experience that most women are at heart. But I doubt she signed your brother’s enlistment papers or loaded the French musket that ended his life.

“Damn your clever cynicism.” Devon declared. “Blaine was a sweet, sensitive boy—the last person in the world who belonged in that carnage on the Continent.”

“I served four years in that carnage,” Stamden said dryly. “I cannot remember having met a man who did belong.”

“But Blaine would never have joined the army if that beautiful, witch-marked vixen hadn’t broken his heart.” Devon absentmindedly massaged his aching leg. “I was the adventure-seeker in our family—Blaine the farmer, with a deep love of the land and the life it produced. Yet he volunteered for the Forlorn Hope, an acknowledged suicide detail, less than a month after reaching Spain. I have to believe he sought his own death rather than live without the woman he loved.”

Stamden’s grim smile was twisted by the cruel scar slashing across his right cheek. “Then the boy was a fool, for no woman is worth such a sacrifice—and suicide is not an act of love.”

Devon nodded. “I know. But do not judge him too harshly until you have seen the duchess firsthand. She is no ordinary woman, but rather the most sensuous creature imaginable with a dark, exotic beauty that has bewitched men far more sophisticated than poor Blaine.”

“Men such as yourself, I take it,” Stamden said stretching his right arm along the carved wood frame topping the sofa, which somehow made the empty sleeve pinned to his left shoulder even more apparent.

Devon cringed. Peter was too astute by half. “I was referring to the Duke of Sheffield,” he said stiffly. “I, myself, met her but once and under circumstances that would scarcely endear us to each other. Blaine was determined to wed the woman since he had obviously had his way with her. But it would have been the worst mistake he could have made
. Except the one she eventually drove him to.
I offered her a generous sum of money to leave him alone, but she merely laughed in my face.”

He closed his eyes against the shame of remembering how he had punished her for that taunting laugh. He, who prided himself on never losing control, had lost it that day. Without conscious volition, he had crushed her slender, pliant body to his and claimed her lips in a brutal, angry kiss.

He had been so swamped with guilt when next he’d faced Blaine, he had failed to see the agony in the boy’s eyes or recognize his need of his older brother’s counsel. By the time he came to his senses, it was too late; Blaine had run off to join the First Regiment of the Guards, which had been in the thick of the action in Spain.

“I never want to see that woman’s face again,” he said dully. “There has to be something evil in beauty that drives men to such extremes.”

“Evil thy name is Moira,” Stamden scoffed.

Devon stared at his friend in amazement. “Where in damnation did you hear that name?”

“Have you forgotten my cot was next to yours in that blasted surgeon’s tent on the Peninsula? You kept me awake a full se’enight with your feverish ramblings and every other word was ‘Moira.’ ”

“Which signifies nothing,” Devon declared in a voice that even to his own ears sounded false. “I had learned of Blaine’s death but one day before I was wounded and was undoubtedly reliving the nightmare in my delirium. I daresay there was many a man out of his head in that hellhole.”

“I am certain of it.” The marquess flexed his fingers absentmindedly, a thing Devon had noticed he often did when pondering the solution to a problem. “However, since just yesterday you informed me you planned to spend this time in London looking over the season’s crop of incomparables with a view to choosing your future countess, I feel obliged to advise you to close the door on the past before embarking on the future. A man who ties himself to one female while he is still blue-deviled over another is looking for more trouble.”

“I am not blue-deviled over any female,” Devon said, unwilling to admit, even to his best friend, how often the exquisite face of Moira Reardon haunted his dreams.

“And cats don’t have whiskers. Though how a fellow who has tumbled as many lightskirts as you have can remember a woman he met only once is more than I can comprehend.” Stamden’s cool gray eyes gleamed with sudden insight. “Unless that episode in hospital explains the feeling I’ve often had that there is more desperation than delight in your flight from bed to bed.”

Devon gritted his teeth. Peter had come too close to the truth for comfort, and he had a sudden urge to shove his words down his throat. “You are treading dangerous ground, my friend,” he warned.

“I know” Stamden said gently. “But I shall risk it in the hope that if you get angry enough you will expose whatever is bedeviling you to the light of day. With the possible exception of mushrooms, things left in the dark too long tend to perpetuate themselves in a most unhealthy manner.”

“And what man could better attest to that than you?” Devon snapped without thinking; then immediately regretted his insensitive words.

“Point well taken,” the marquess agreed, the bitter note in his voice reminding Devon of the anguish and humiliation his friend had suffered when he had returned from Spain to find the girl to whom he was betrothed so repulsed by his disfigurement she had run from him in horror.

Peter had immediately retired from society, seeing only Devon and one or two other close comrades from their old regiment. From that day on, women had been strictly taboo for the once rakish marquess. On the rare occasions when he felt compelled to satisfy his physical needs, he visited one of the notorious bordellos in the London stews, where the prostitutes were so inured to the horrors of their own existence, they could be counted on to show little or no reaction to his mutilated face and body.

“Please forgive me, my friend,” Devon said contritely. “This business with the duchess must have addled my brain. But,” he amended quickly, “only because I find it so annoying—not, as you infer, because I am obsessed with the ambitious little schemer.”

It was the first time he had ever felt the need to lie to Peter, but the thought of discussing the treacherous woman further was almost as abhorrent to him as the possibility of coming face to face with her. He had long ago decided the madness that had gripped him on the spring eve four years earlier was best and safest buried in the darkest recesses of his mind.

 

“Damn his eyes!” Moira Reardon Handley, Dowager Duchess of Sheffield, looked up from the letter she was reading and stared out the window at the rain-drenched Cornish landscape surrounding White Oaks, the country estate she shared with her stepson, the young Duke of Sheffield. “Just as I feared, my solicitor reports the Earl of Langley has refused to act as Charles’ guardian.”

“But why? What objection could he have when the duke is such a dear little fellow?” asked her companion, Elizabeth Kincaid. She set aside the altar cloth she was embroidering and regarded Moira with a puzzled frown. “There must be some misunderstanding. I have known the St. Gwyres all my life. They were my father’s parishioners and Devon, like his father before him, is the most honorable of men. It is entirely out of character for him to shirk his duty and abandon a helpless child to the guardianship of a wastrel and libertine like Viscount Quentin.”

Moira rose from her chair and stalked to the fireplace of the cozy morning room, her bare feet padding silently across the thick carpet. Angrily, she tossed the letter into the crackling flames. “It has nothing to do with Charles. I am the one he refuses to deal with. In truth, the man despises me. But that does not give him leave to vent his hatred on an innocent child.”

She clenched her fists in frustration. “Blast this stupid male-dominated society and its silly restrictions against awarding a woman guardianship of a child.”

Elizabeth’s soft brown eyes widened with disbelief. “But surely you are mistaken about the earl’s feelings toward you, your grace. I know the gossips of the
ton
have been vicious, but how could a man of his intelligence fail to see they are just jealous because you are not only beautiful but all that is kind and good as well?”

Moira’s mouth dropped open. “Lud, Elizabeth, you are a true vicar’s daughter. I swear you are so filled with saintly virtue, you find it difficult to believe the rest of us march on feet of clay. Devon St. Gwyre blames me for his brother’s death—and to a certain extent, he is justified. Heaven knows, I have blamed myself often enough.”

“But how could that be? Blaine died on the Peninsula.”

Moira rested her head against the carved oak chimney-piece and stared into the fire. “Driven there by a greedy, insensitive trollop who won the boy’s heart, then promptly broke it when she threw him over to marry the wealthy and powerful Duke of Sheffield—or so his brother believes.”

“Then you must tell the earl the truth, your grace, as the old duke himself told it to me when he was dying and begged me to always remain your friend.”

Moira stiffened. “And just what was that truth as the duke saw it?”

“Why, that he had persuaded you to marry him because he knew his days were numbered and you were the only woman strong enough to protect his son from his nefarious nephew when he was gone.”

The erratic pounding of Moira’s heart slowed to a normal beat, and she released the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. She should have known the duke would never betray her secrets nor divulge what she had demanded of him in their bargain.

“Think of it, Elizabeth,” she said gently. “I cannot tell the earl such a thing. I owe the duke too much to make him an object of pity in any man’s eyes merely to enhance my own reputation. Besides, I doubt anything I could say would erase the ugly memory the Earl of Langley has of me.”

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