The Duke of Danger Preview

About the book


The moment her father died, Minerva knew trouble awaited the Allen family.

As she’s left responsible for her two younger sisters, Minerva makes the hardest decision of her life: she keeps her father’s death a secret and shuts herself off in the manor. But when the mysterious—and cold—Duke suspects something is wrong, she knows this could be her end.

Simon Comeford is a cold and shut-off man. After he lost his parents, he cares about nothing and no one. When he’s forced to attend a ball by his dear friend, he is given a mission: find out what happened to the Allen family. But when he travels to the Allen estate, he never expected to meet Minerva, the unapologetic, attractive spinster who manages to steal his heart.

Two weeks. That is precisely how long Simon will remain in the Allen estate; just enough until their father arrives. But as the time nears, a deep, dark secret soon comes after him... and the woman he has fallen in love with.

Chapter One


“Lady Minerva, might I have a word with you?”

Minerva looked up from the breakfast table, her easy smile fading when she saw the look on the butler’s face. The man who had been with her family from her earliest memories had a ghastly look on his already stern countenance and looked as though he had aged twenty years overnight.

“Joseph. Of course.” She met his eyes and caught a subtle nod toward her two younger sisters, who had stopped their usual morning chatter and were now staring at her. “In the library, shall we?”

Eloise made a motion to stand, but Minerva shook her head. “Finish your breakfast, my dears. I shall just be a moment.”

Joseph bowed his head and motioned toward the door, and Minerva swept past him and moved quickly down the hall. The few bites of breakfast she had already consumed threatened to turn to rot in her stomach. She had an overwhelming feeling of dread; she heard her heartbeat in her ears and absently brought a hand to her throat. Quit your flights of fancy. It will avail you nothing, she scolded herself, letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Father hasn’t been feeling well; perhaps we merely need to send for the Doctor. Speculation would be of little use. Joseph would give her all the information she needed soon enough.

***

Grace watched nervously as her eldest sister left the room, followed by Joseph.

“Eloise–”

“Hush now,” Eloise said, her gaze set on the hallway door. Her face softened as she returned her attention to the breakfast table. “I am certain everything is fine. Come, you must finish your breakfast so that you may start on your studies for the day.”

Grace groaned. “Father released the governess. Why can I not hide away and read what I wish, as you do?”

Eloise pressed her lips together and attempted to remain stern, but Grace knew this to be a sham. There was a sparkle in her eyes that belied her act. “It is all good and well that you wish to read. However, there is much about the world to know, and not all of it is to be found in books.”

“And what use would I make of it? To be married off to some stiff, rigid rake who is unable to breathe below his neck?” Grace wrinkled her nose as if an offensive odor passed in front of her. “My dear sister, do ensure that the Harringtons are not invited to our gathering. We cannot have our Manor sullied by their presence.”

Eloise’s eyes widened in shock, and for a brief moment, Grace thought she might have gone a step too far. 

“Of a certainty, I will. Our reputation would never survive such an occurrence.”

Grace giggled with relief, and her sister smiled at her.

“I am not so much older than you that I have forgotten how dull all these studies can be. Be truthful to me, though; you do enjoy your studies of the globe, yes?” Eloise paused until she nodded, then continued. “Well, what if you found yourself fortunate enough to take a holiday to one of these faraway places? If you were to find yourself in France, would you not rather be able to understand and converse for yourself, rather than rely on someone to translate who may be inaccurate or mayhap prone to cruel pranks?”

“Always.”

“Now, imagine yourself on this holiday, and you find yourself in an isolated Manor because of unfavorable weather. Your entire party is becoming rather cheerless and of a foul mood out of boredom. You sit down at the piano and begin playing your favorite composition. Would you not be hailed and praised for restoring cheer and sanity? Or perhaps to quote poetry, or speak of a remarkable thing you have read, or a story you wish to recount.”

Grace thought on this. She knew her sister was attempting to encourage her rather than scold her into submission. Her studies just seemed without end, and there were so many more exciting ways to occupy her time. She could listen to Father tell stories for hours on end. Though she had no memories of their mother, who had entered into the next world while bringing her into this one, she felt she knew Mama intimately. Father’s eyes twinkled, and he wore such a look of love when speaking of her. She longed to visit all the places he spoke of, to see for herself what she had until now only visited in her mind.

“What is taking them so long?” Eloise’s voice pulled her out of her thoughts. “Perhaps I should go see what the matter is.”

“Neva will be cross.” Grace pointed out.

Eloise smiled again. “And was it not just I willing you to be patient with your studies? Of course. We will give them a few more moments. Now, let us finish our breakfast, shall we? We wouldn’t want Father to accuse us of lounging about, now, would we?”

Grace tried to turn her attention back to her plate, but her eyes kept straying back to the doorway, hoping she would see Minerva sweeping back in, eager to tell them about what trifling annoyance had caused the butler to pull her away from her morning meal. The knot forming in the pit of her stomach was not exactly welcoming for food, however, and the feeling of dread was pulling at her.

You are imagining things, she scolded herself. Any moment now, Neva will be seated at the table inquiring after my studies. Then I will be sent to prepare for my day. This anxiety is for naught.

***

“You are certain?”

Minerva paced the library, her head swimming from the news she had been dealt. She stopped mid-pace and looked at Joseph. Though his countenance remained calm, she could see the grief in his eyes and, indeed, hear it in his voice, although his words did not falter.

“I’m afraid so, Lady Minerva. I entered to assist him in preparing for the day, as I do every morning. I was a little earlier than normal, as he had requested last evening to be awoken sooner than his norm. When he did not respond, I moved closer, thinking he did not hear me. He had a deathly pallor, and he was already cold to the touch.”

Minerva raised her hand and covered her mouth. She felt tears welling up in her eyes, but she could not let them fall. This could not be happening. Of a certainty, she was still sleeping, suffering from some nightmare and she had yet to awaken. She would wake up startled but would quickly realize that it was all folly of her mind in slumber. Indeed, this had to be the case. She would awaken and then perhaps realize she had arisen late. There would be a rush to get dressed and prepare for the day, to see to–

“My sisters,” she said, gasping.

Joseph rushed toward her.

“My Lady, perhaps you should sit.”

“Joseph, what do I tell Eloise and Grace? What will become of us?”

It had been a concern, worrying at Minerva’s mind for some time as her father’s health had deteriorated. The title and the Estate were subject to an ancient clause, an entailment, which meant that only a male could inherit. This had been kept from the other girls but shared with Minerva as the eldest. Her father had taken her aside and laid the burden of knowledge upon her shoulders. Upon his death, the Estate would fall to some far distant cousin, barely a familial relation at all in any sense. That was simply how the Lord had seen fit to bestow his gifts on the Allen family, and how the law was to be applied.

Joseph gently rested a hand on her arm, the familiarity borne from long years of service to the family that had seen him care for all three children from their earliest years. Joseph was considered more an uncle than a servant. He led her to the wide-armed library chair and handed her a kerchief. She realized that his hands were shaking. 

“Did your father tell you, may I ask, the identity of the man who is to take advantage of this monstrous boon?” he asked.

Minerva shook her head, dabbing at her eyes. Underneath the tears, though, her features were firming in anger at the sheer injustice of it. With the announcement of her father’s death, a terrible machine would be set in motion, of which neither she nor either of her sisters had any control. She had never been particularly close to her father, a distant man, who would surely have preferred a son to his three “silly girls” – as he so often referred to them. But beneath this façade, there was a sense of genuine loss, one which Minerva now felt acutely, as tears rolled down her cheeks.

Whoever he was, out there in the world at this very moment, he was heir to the Drakeford Estate, the Earldom and the fortune. He would evict the girls, steal their future, and leave them destitute. Worse, much worse to Minerva’s mind, they would be forced to rely on marriage to secure their futures. They would be forced to rely on finding men to look after them, their destiny in the hands of others.

“No, he never did. I’m not sure he knew. The family has so many broken branches and divisions. But this was not why Father worked so hard to build his fortune. That was meant for Grace and Eloise, so that they could be in control of their own destiny. It is so unjust!” she replied.

“It is that. I have often thought it, and the Earl said so in my presence. He saw it as a curse handed down from father to son, kept at bay as long as there was a son to inherit. When your good mother was taken from us–”

“I remember,” Minerva said. Father was devastated. But there was something more to his grief. I felt so at the time, but I did not know it. He knew that the entailment must now come into effect, because Mama had not been able to bear him a son.” Joseph nodded sadly, patting Minerva’s arm with a gnarled hand.

“I would suggest not telling the others just yet, My Lady. If I may be so bold.”

“But–”

“I have something of great import to tell you. Your father has been quite ill for some time–”

“Yes,” she interrupted, “his health had taken a downward turn of late.”

“It had for quite a time longer than he let on, I’m afraid. On his last return from London, he penned a letter that he then instructed me to give you should this very event occur.”

The older man drew an envelope out of his breast pocket and handed it to her, remaining silent as she stared at it. On the front of the envelope, her name was written in the elegant script that he so proudly maintained. 

She traced each letter with her fingers, again willing the tears away. She turned it over in her hands and ran her fingers over the wax seal imprinted with her Father’s initials.

“I have not laid eyes upon it, as it is not for me to see. Know, though, that the Earl had a plan laid out, and I know what my part in it is to be. I shall attend to your sisters to afford you some privacy. I will say that the Earl is not leaving his bedroom today and is not to be disturbed. If I may excuse myself –”

“Please. And Joseph?”

“Yes, My Lady?”

Although her heart was shattered and her head was swimming with conflicting and confusing emotions, she managed a weak smile as she touched the kerchief he had given her to her eyes. “Thank you.”

The butler nodded to her and made his exit.


Chapter Two

Minerva sat at the desk in her room with her forehead resting on her hand, her eyes weary and weak with the strain of the day. One lamp remained lit, giving just enough light to read her father’s handwriting. She had little need to read it now, having already committed it to memory from so many readings over the last several hours. Yet, she could not stop looking at it.

My Dearest Daughter Minerva,

If you are reading this, then it means that I am gone. My health has been failing me for quite some time, despite the best efforts of Doctor Mayfair. Please try not to mourn. Think instead that I am reunited with your beautiful Mama, my beloved Elaine.

The matter of utmost importance to me is the safety and comfort of you, my brilliant Neva, and your sisters. Please take care of darling Eloise and my precious Grace. Keep my passing from becoming public knowledge for as long as possible. I know I ask a lot of you, but I know also that you will rise to meet every challenge. Joseph and Doctor Mayfair will aid you where they can; I have left instructions with both of them. Trust no one else. As my public appearances have been few as of late, this will hopefully aid you in the purpose I have set out before you.

Of the man who stands to inherit, I know very little. I have undertaken some research in this direction and discovered only that he is a man of rank and that he is aware of his inheritance. It is to keep from him the fact of my death that I urge you to secrecy. The longer it can be kept from the being public knowledge, the longer you and your sisters will have to secure your future.

Know that I am proud of all three of you. I could not have dreamed up better daughters than you three, and I will always love you. Above all, take care of one another and remain the strong and capable young ladies I know you are.

With All My Love,

Father

Her fingers traced her father’s lettering again and again. She had allowed one tear to fall onto one of the words near the bottom of the first page, and she cursed herself as the ink stained into the surrounding space. Since that moment, she had been careful when handling the pages. Not another tear would fall, for this was all that remained of her father’s precious memory. What he asked of her was quite incredible, but she knew it was her duty to honor his wishes, knowing he desired only what was best for them all. 

Oh, Father. What will we do without you?

What, indeed? Drakeford Manor had overnight become a Manor of women in a world made for men. While their Father had doted on them, he also knew what their fates might be should he die with them unwed. Minerva had too soon become the Lady of the Manor at the tender age of sixteen, when their mother lost her life on her birthing bed.

Fortunately for Minerva, both Father and Mama had been diligent in teaching her how to manage in a man’s world. She had stepped into the role of Lady of the Manor and soon fell into the part of protectress of her sisters. 

When she was of age, Father had encouraged her to go to London for the Season, but he never forced her hand. While many would consider it inappropriate for either Eloise or Grace to marry before the eldest daughter, Minerva would gladly make that sacrifice for her sisters.

But they were beyond that at this point, weren’t they?

After Joseph had allowed her a respectable amount of time to read Father’s letter and compose herself, he had returned to the library, where he shared Father’s plan with her. Once she had a firm grasp on the plan and Joseph moved to set it in motion, Minerva called her sisters together in the sitting room and, as gently as she could, informed them of Father’s death. Grace had screamed, and the three of them had collapsed into one another’s arms. Minerva kept a protective arm around each sister, and they sobbed while she herself remained stoic. She would handle this the way she handled her mother’s demise: crisis first, emotions later.

Minerva suddenly jerked her head around at the sound of a soft tapping at her bedroom door. Wearily, she stood and walked over to the door, opening it to find Grace standing there.

“And what are you doing out of bed, little one?”

“I can’t sleep.”

“Why don’t you come in for a while?” Minerva stood aside and motioned Grace to come into her room. The child came in gratefully.

“You haven’t been to sleep yourself yet, have you?”

“Well, I had to get up to answer my door, didn’t I?” she teased.

Grace shook her head. “You’re in your nightdress and your sleeping cap, and your bed has not been touched.”

“So, you do pay attention to your surroundings. Come, sit by me. Speaking of sleeping caps, what is going on with this mop?” She tousled the girl’s hair playfully.

“I get weary of trying to keep the curls presentable. Besides, if you’re sleeping, who is going to see your hair?”

Minerva conceded the point but picked up her brush and started going over the younger girl’s hair with it. Grace gave a heavy sigh, making a great show of toleration, but Minerva knew the child enjoyed the motherly attention.

“What is going to happen to us, Neva?”

“We,” she said as she put the brush down, “are going to carry on just as Father asked us to do. I know it shan’t be easy, but we honor Father by doing our best.”

Grace sighed again, and Minerva draped an arm over the girl. They sat in silence for a few moments, and Grace relaxed into the embrace, leaning her head into Minerva’s shoulder.

Slowly, Minerva lifted her other arm and started softly stroking Grace’s hair. 

“It’s all right, child,” Minerva whispered. “We will be all right.”

Then came a question that Minerva was not expecting.

“Neva? Did I kill Mama?”

Minerva became still as a statue. Her breath caught in her throat. “Why ever would you ask such a thing?” she asked, when she finally found her voice again.

Grace pushed away from her a little and looked up at her. “Well, did I?”

“Of course not. We nearly lost you as well as Mama. You were both very sick when you were born. Do you know how you were given the name Grace?”

Grace shook her head.

“You were bestowed the name Grace because you were a little miracle, and it was only by the Grace of God that you came through it.”

“And we are going to stay together, always? No one will take us away from one another?”

Minerva stood, and, leaning over Grace, cupped the girl’s face in her hands. “No one is going to separate us. Eloise and I have both sworn that we shall never marry. We have one another, and we will take care of one another.” She planted a soft kiss on Grace’s forehead. “Now, no more nonsense. Back to bed with you. I will see you on the morrow.”


Chapter Three

“Simon, the entire purpose of having this ball is to be social. You won’t accomplish that by standing against the wall.”

Simon gave his companion a sideways glance. “I believe that was your entire purpose, William,” he said quietly through clenched teeth. “I was quite content without this, and if you weren’t my closest friend, I’d have you drawn and quartered.”

Simon was tall and slender. His hair was dark and curling, fashionably wild and tousled. He had dark eyes with a natural aloofness to their gaze that he understood and exploited when he wished to be undisturbed.

“Well, you’ve gone and spent the money to fund this grand party. You should at the very least be a gracious host.” William retorted.

He stood six inches shorter than Simon, with a round, open face with fair hair. Smiles came easily to William, a Marquess with lands in Essex, and with whom Simon had been up at Oxford and served abroad with, and they were bestowed around the room generously. He was a stark contrast to his supercilious companion. Around them a ball glittered and danced. Present in the opulent room were the great and good of London society. The room dripped gold and finery and the people within the room reflected the extravagance of their surroundings, like mirrors.

“I think I am being a delightful host. Tales will be told of the generosity of the Duke of Barington.”

And that was the point. For Simon, nothing could be worse than for the true state of his finances to become known. Were certain men in this room to know how close he was to a debtor’s prison, they would desert him like rats fleeing a sinking ship. And with them would go his last hopes.

William snorted. “Oh, tales are told, I am sure, but I doubt you have been generous of much other than lechery.”

Simon permitted himself a small smile. His closest friend’s sublime ignorance of his true position was something of a comfort. It allowed Simon to forget, at times, the constant gnaw of worry over money. He decided to indulge his old school friend’s ribbing.

“I’m a little more discreet than that old friend. I will not be the cause of some maiden’s dishonor. I remember a certain young man and his near legendary exploits as a dashing officer in India. You made me look like an innocent schoolboy, William, old boy.”

William guffawed at the memory. “Touché, my dear chap. Touché. But if you have decided to be a monk, then why not take this opportunity to make an honest woman of one of these fine ladies?”

“Perhaps holy orders are the direction I must take, William.” Simon replied with a forced joviality that was completely missed by his companion. “If only to be freed of the damned need to obey the rules of the great, all powerful society,” he glared around the room, “fine. I will wander among the guests and be social. But I refuse to be happy about it.”

William guffawed again, taking the ill humor to be an act, and slapping his friend on the back. Simon walked away and quickly lost himself in an ocean of people. Peacocks prancing about, he grumbled to himself. He despised the London Season. He absolutely deplored having to put on his false face, smile in the presence of the ton, the balance of whom he could barely tolerate in his sight. The lowliest street cleaner had more honor than some of these Lords.

And yet there were those among them whose company he sought. Or rather, he sought the company of their money. He had marked the position of several men in the room whom he thought to be likely investors. He had held himself aloof, playing the arrogant young Duke to the hilt, but he had them in his sights.

He was weaving in and out of the dancing masses, making his way to one of those targets, when he was suddenly caught in a swirl of fabric and felt his arm being tugged.

“Oh, my apologies, Your Grace.”

Simon found himself catching a young lady who had “tripped” and had come away from her dancing partner. He winced inwardly at the bad manners on display, feeling particularly sorry for the gentleman she was dancing with, whose color had drained from his face upon recognizing Simon. Perhaps William wasn’t far off from the truth when he said that the Duke of Barington was likely only known for lechery. The would-be suitor needn’t have worried, though. This little tart was far too forward – and far too blond – for his tastes.

“Oh, I beg your pardon, My Lady.” He nodded to the young man with a wink. “My good Sir, please forgive the intrusion.”

As he turned away, the lady who had attempted to introduce herself groaned in audible frustration and stomped away, leaving the young man to stand, stunned, where his partner had left him.

He continued his journey but had not gotten far in this damnable sea of people when he heard someone call out to him.

“Simon Comeford, Duke of Barington. Have you really grown so much?”

Now it was he who groaned, although inwardly. He recognized the nasal pitch of the voice as well as the affected accent. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath to ground himself, forced a smile, and turned around.

“Why, Duchess Grandover. Welcome! How nice to see you,” he exclaimed, forcing his face into a smile and wishing he was anywhere but there.

Martina Winston, Duchess of Grandover. Matron of a family that were one of his major creditors. The Duke of Grandover had invested heavily in the coal mines that were being worked on Simon’s properties in southwest England. And his shipping concerns.

All were failing, though he had so far kept the extent from the Grandovers.

He had to admit she had held up marvelously well. She was still a handsome woman, outwardly if not inwardly. Her face was plump and her skin, while age had dulled it some, still had some of its youthful glow. She was not in the company of her husband, but that was irrelevant. She was the power behind the name, he merely a figurehead.

“Look at that marvelous head of dark hair. You remind me so of your father.” she said, “I do see your mother in your eyes, though. Such lovely deep brown eyes. Is the rest of your family here?” she asked, peering around him as though she expected his siblings to appear behind him magically.

“They are in the countryside, I am afraid. The responsibility for their education falls to me, and I will not fail them in that.”

“Ah, I hope they are well. Do you remember my daughter, Madeline?”

Simon bowed and lightly kissed the gloved hand offered to him. “My Lady.”

“Tis a pleasure, Your Grace.”

He kept a smile plastered on his face, and he hoped his eyes were not actually rolling back in his head, as they felt like they were. This girl was barely seventeen if she was a day, too young to be presented to society. Not that he held to traditions himself, and morality was not exactly his forte, but he absolutely drew the line at what he considered to be the selling of a child to the highest bidder.

“Indeed, the pleasure is mine. Now, if you will excuse me, I have other guests to attend to.

A flash of anger crossed the Duchess’s face, but to her credit, she covered it quickly. He felt a twang of guilt at the look of fear and embarrassment that crossed the young lady’s face. Of a surety, she would get a tongue lashing from her mother in private. He felt a surge of protectiveness for the girl as he would for his own sister, but he quickly pushed the emotion aside. A knight in shining armor, he was not. He had enough on his hands protecting his own siblings.

“Would you perhaps grant my daughter the honor of a dance this evening?”

Again, he forced a smile. “It would be my honor. I am sure if you speak with the Master of Ceremonies, he will let you know when I am free. For now, I am afraid I must take my leave.”

With that, he turned and headed away from the young lady and her mother. It was positively distasteful, not only to be constantly clamoring for status but to use one’s own children to be furthering that status – no, he would not think on it.

His actions would have antagonized the Duchess, but he could not bring himself to pander to her mercenary attitudes to her family. He was a rogue himself, a cheat and a liar when required. He had dallied with the hearts of more women than he could count and had, in his youth, dabbled with as many forms of dissolute behavior as he could concoct.

But he had his own sense of honor, some lines that he would not cross. His sisters would not find themselves sold into marriages with rich old men in order to further the interests of their brother or the family. Regardless of how such practices were regarded as the norm within society. It just made society wrong.

He took a drink from a passing servant, who carried a tray of glittering crystal goblets, each containing blood red wine. For all his bravado, he needed to keep a steady flow of drink in order to steel his nerves for these events. He saw that his target, the Duke of Holmfield and a Minister in the current government, had joined the dancing.

Simon ground his teeth in frustration, looking around for the others on his list.

“Wonderful event you’re having, Barington.”

Simon recognized the voice immediately and offered a silent prayer to a god that he often used opportunistically. He turned to an older gentleman with generous side-whiskers, which joined with a substantial mustache. He wore the uniform of a cavalry officer, weighed heavily with medals that Simon knew had all been hard earned.

His own medals were long ago pawned.

“Greenmantle. I hope you are well.”

“I am indeed. You are looking marvelously well yourself. I would imagine that the eligible young ladies are tripping over themselves hoping for a chance to dance with you.”

“Alas, as host I must remain aloof and spread myself as thinly as possible.” Simon replied smoothly.

“Thinly, yes,” George replied with a jaundiced air, “speaking of which, a little bird whispered to me you might be spreading yourself thinly in other ways too. A bird from Lloyds.”

Ice gripped Simon’s heart. Lord Alfred George, Duke of Greenmantle, was the owner of lands in South Africa and essential to Simon’s plans to trade goods with India. But two of his vessels had been lost in three months, cargos and crew all at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

“Not at all. Some reversals of late it is true. But nothing I can’t absorb.” Simon said easily. He forced himself to meet the glittering blue eyes of the old warrior in front of him, meeting steel with steel. “In fact, I had intended to discuss the matter with you. I hear your South African lands are prospering.”

“So they are, bringing in a nice little income. But there are rumblings in the interior, so to speak. The Dutch farmers inland. Troublesome lot. Couldn’t possibly consider any new enterprises at the moment. Not until they’ve been settled down. Might come to blows before long.”

It wasn’t the news Simon had wanted to hear, but he did have a card up his sleeve that might provide leverage with this man. He had a close friend, a fellow warrior. The two had even attended the same school.

He nodded, swirling the wine in his glass and pretending to study the ruby color, pondering how best to approach the delicateness of the situation which surely required all his tact.

“I have not seen Drakeford yet,” he said. “I was looking forward to welcoming him and at least one of his daughters tonight. They were invited.”

“Drakeford hasn’t been to Town for several months. I have missed his company. Fine bridge player is old Drakeford,” George replied.

Well, he knows he has a standing invitation to visit my townhome any time he sees fit. When was the last time that you saw him, Greenmantle?”

“I dare say it has been months, if not a year.”

“Well, he does live quite a distance from Town, out in the sticks in that ghastly old Manor. Perhaps the winter has not eased off as easily in some of the outlying areas.”

“It is nearly May, my dear boy. Even allowing for some holdover of poor weather, I should think the main travel ways are clear.” The old man took a sip of his bourbon. “Doesn’t your family have an Estate out in that direction? Have you visited your siblings recently?”

“I have not,” he admitted. “I have quite a bit of business that has kept me in Town. My Hall in the country is not quite as remote as Drakeford’s Estate, but our home is in that direction.”

He knew the question that would follow next.

“I don’t suppose you would consider a visit, and perhaps continuing on a bit to check on the old chap, would you? Or at least sending a servant to inquire after them?”

“I do have some time coming up within the next few weeks. Of course, I would be happy to check on them myself. I will wrap up a few things here in Town, and then I will set out within the week. Will that be sufficient?”

George looked relieved.

“I would appreciate it. Drakeford did not look well the last time I saw him. I believe grieving for his wife was taking its toll on him. I would go myself, but my gout has been playing the merry Andrew these last few months. The Duke of Holmfield and I are worried about him, for we all have business interests together, and such matters must be attended to. A journey as long as that would be most disagreeable. Perhaps, once we’re both reassured as to old Drakeford’s wellbeing, the three of us can discuss other matters,” and he fixed Simon with a steady eye, “overseas matters, eh?”

Simon bowed to George, inwardly cheering the irascible old man.

“Then it will not only be my pleasure, but my duty to see about the Drakeford family. I shall make arrangements straight away.”

“I do appreciate it. Good man.”

Simon waved it off. “Think nothing of it. I am happy to be of service.”

Simon excused himself and moved off into the sea of swirling nobility once more. This time, he cut a path through it to the main doors. He would waste no more time with these people. The Duke of Greenmantle had been his prime target and if it took a trip to the country to get his money, then so be it.

As he neared the doors, he saw the butler gliding toward him, a sealed envelope in his hands. Jeffries had been a member of Simon’s household for a number of years and was a fine manservant. His hair was steel gray, above eyebrows of jet black and a square face that might as well be granite for all the emotion it showed.

But Simon could read the outrage in those carefully veiled eyes. It was evident in the slight down turning of the lips and the clenched jaw. No one else in the room would be capable of seeing it, but to Simon it told a story.

“Your Grace, a… gentleman at the tradesman’s entrance, left this for you. He insisted it be delivered immediately. And… threatened to bring it to the ballroom himself if not.”

Simon didn’t open the envelope, didn’t need to. He motioned Jeffries toward the door and strode that way himself. Once out of the ballroom, he crossed the hall beyond in quick strides, heading for the staircase that dominated the room. He took the stairs two at a time, Jeffries following.

“Was it an Italian gentleman?” he asked, reaching the first floor and walking down a long-carpeted corridor, at the end of which was his study.

“Yes, Your Grace. A common, most disagreeable chap.”

“He would be. He represents a gang of ruffians in Sicily that are the very definition of disagreeable. My God, but I didn’t think even they would have the nerve to come here.”

He waited for Jeffries to open the doors to his study and made straight for the display on the wall above the stone fireplace. There hung the ferocious cavalry saber that had been his constant companion for five years as an officer in the King’s militia. Beneath it was a pair of pistols, gleaming with the oil that was applied to them frequently, ever ready for trouble, which seemed to have a nasty habit of following him wherever he went.

Simon took all three from the wall and tossed one of the pistols to Jeffries.

“Load it,” he ordered, opening a drawer in his desk and proceeding to do just that with the pistol he held.

Jeffries complied, eyes bulging but working competently. Simon’s heart hammered in his chest. His mouth was dry, though his palms were wet. He had no choice but to meet with the Italian man. But he didn’t know whether either of them would leave that meeting alive or dead – Italians could be very dangerous when they wished to be.

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