For the Duke’s Eyes Only – Lenora Bell

Hertfordshire, 1814 Round. Rough. Not-dirt. Not-rock. India’s fingers recognized the hard curve of metal before her brain caught on. “Coin!” she shouted to Daniel. “I think I found a coin!” She pulled a handful of dirt out of the shallow hole she’d dug. Daniel loped over on his long legs, a wide grin on his face. He’d finally outgrown her this summer, a fact he exploited mercilessly by holding things out of her reach or outrunning her across the woodland fields surrounding Bracket Hall, her family estate. “Let me see.” He held out one of the delicate bowls they’d stolen from a china cabinet. She released her handful of soil into the bowl. There was a metallic clinking sound. A glint of copper. The most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, except for Daniel’s copper-brown eyes, shining with excitement as he knelt beside her in the dirt.

They’d been excavating the woodland fields around Bracket Hall every summer for years and hadn’t found anything more interesting than grubs and the occasional rusted farm tool. “We did it, Indy. We found buried treasure,” he said in an awed voice. The pet name made her heart glow. No one else shortened her name. Her elder brother, Edgar, was away at school and her mother wasn’t given to endearments. Father was more likely to call her a noisome pestilence, if she was unlucky enough to catch his notice. Daniel’s fingers shook as he brushed dirt off the coin. He polished the small disc with his shirt hem and held it up to the sun. “I think it’s Roman.” She stretched out her palm. “Let me have a look.” The coin was warm from his touch and from the sun. She traced the rough, embossed surface with her fingernail. “An emperor wearing a pearl diadem.

Honorius? We’ll consult a coinage guide.” “There can’t be just one.” Daniel held her gaze, anticipation lighting his eyes. “You know there’s always a hoard of coins.” Most of the time they fought about almost everything. Who could jump their horse higher, or eat the most apples, or whose elbows and knees had the most bruises and scrapes. Bruises were a badge of honor in their summertime world. A day with Daniel meant dares and danger, but today they labored as a team, dirty and happy, grinning wider with each new discovery. They dug until their arms ached and until the sun had nearly abandoned them. The coins piled higher. They were mostly copper, corroded by age and speckled with pale green, but there were several silver coins as well. The person who had buried these coins had thought they would come back for them later. What had happened to prevent their return? War. Disease. A life interrupted.

A living connection with history—not an etching in a book but tangible and real. Not just two children digging in the dirt. Historians. Adventurers. “Must be fifty coins by now,” crowed Daniel. “We’re rich!” “We’re already rich, you dolt.” Both of their fathers were dukes, their estates in the town of Hartfield separated by a two-hour walk. Bracket Hall was on the eastern side, while Daniel’s home, Hartfield House, was on the northern end. Somewhere in France, Daniel’s father, the Duke of Ravenwood, a diplomat and army commander, was bravely battling Napoleon. India’s father, the Duke of Banksford, was . probably drunk by now. He’d been in one of his mean-red tempers when she’d escaped the house. Stomping around, shouting at the servants and haranguing her mother over an imaginary mistake in the housekeeping. But she wouldn’t think about that. Not now.

Not on this a perfect day. “Stop a moment,” said Daniel, flopping onto the ground. “I’m thirsty.” She sat down beside him. He wiped the back of his hand across his cheek and left a streak of dirt. She knew her face was similarly filthy but she didn’t care. She never had to care what she looked like with Daniel. She’d tried to explain as much to her mother but the duchess hadn’t understood. You’re his betrothed. Do you want him to remember his bride as a young harridan with soil under her nails and scrapes on her knees? Now do sit up properly, fold your hands, and kindly refrain from using the vulgar tongue. We are not Bow-bell cockneys. India knew her future groom couldn’t care less if she sat properly and used correct speech. His knees had matching scrapes and he was the one who’d taught her the naughty words. He was twelve, which made him only one year older, but he liked to think he was far more experienced and worldly. He handed her the water flask and she gulped the cool stream water.

“This is only the beginning, Indy,” Daniel said dreamily. He rolled onto his side to face her. “After I return from my schooling we’ll be married and then we will travel the world and become famous archaeologists.” She nodded enthusiastically. “Where will we travel to first?” “Athens, to see the Parthenon!” “And then we’ll journey to Egypt and search for the long-lost tomb of Antony and Cleopatra.” They lay back in the grass, the crowns of their heads nearly touching, staring up at the sky. There were so many possibilities written in those purple-tinged clouds. “We’ll make astounding discoveries,” Daniel said, with great confidence and conviction. He flipped one of the Roman coins across his knuckles so it appeared to walk across the back of his hand. He was far more dedicated to learning coin and card tricks than Latin verbs. Sometimes he pulled cards from the bodices of her gowns and coins from her ears. She pretended to be annoyed but secretly she loved it. Secretly, she loved him. Even when he was annoying. Even when he made fun of her studiousness and called her a stick-in-the-mud.

She wasn’t one of those girls who cried when he tugged on her plaits, or screamed if he opened his cupped palms to reveal a wriggling centipede. He’d never told her in words but she could tell that he loved her. More than anyone else in the world loved her. And loved her for her. He liked her adventurousness and the way she could best him at just about anything. Well, maybe he didn’t love that part. But he never belittled her for wanting to become an archaeologist. And she was hopelessly devoted to him. Not that she’d ever tell him as much. His head was swollen to grandiose proportions already. Everyone doted on him, especially his beautiful, sweet-tempered mother. India’s mother was beautiful as well, but she was cold through and through, like a coin buried too deep to reach. Daniel stacked the coins into a tower. “Let’s keep these just between us,” he said casually, but she heard a hint of hesitation in his voice. “What do you mean? We must give them to the British Museum.

We’ll have our names in the papers.” “Must we give them to the museum? We could . keep them . only for a little while.” He cupped her hand with his and poured several coins into her palm. “Feel that, Indy. Copper and silver. Doesn’t it feel right? It’s an omen from the Roman gods. It means that all of our dreams will come true.” Did he dream of their future together as he lay in bed at night, just as India did? He closed her fingers around the coins. “This is our treasure. If anything happened to our families or our fortunes, we could sell these and it would be enough to finance our first adventure.” She pulled her hand from his grasp and tumbled the stack of coins into a messy pile. “Don’t be silly. We can’t own these.

They’re a piece of history. They have stories to tell.” “We found them.” “We can’t own history. The coins belong in a museum for everyone to admire and study.” Her earnestness was met with a mischievous smile. “Let’s keep them just for a few days. What’s the harm? It will be our little secret.” Our little secret. Her heart beat faster. It would be nice to share a secret with Daniel. “If we keep them it can only be for a few days,” she said firmly. “You will sketch the coins and I’ll write detailed descriptions and then we’ll present our findings to the museum.” “Who’s to know if we keep just a few as tribute for our hard work?” Daniel rifled through the coins. “What about this one? Look.

” He held it up between his thumb and forefinger. “It’s you, Indy.” “What do you mean?” She looked closer at the coin he held. Minerva, goddess of wisdom and warfare, standing tall with a spear in one hand, an owl perched on her other hand, and a shield at her feet. “Are you saying that I remind you of a goddess?” she asked teasingly, punching his arm lightly. “Ha.” He poked her arm with the edge of the coin. “I’m saying you always have your nose in a dusty old book if you’re not fighting with me.” Very true. Reading was her favorite escape from her father’s unpredictable rages. She liked reading Mr. Shakespeare’s dramas most of all. She imagined herself as an actress portraying Juliet to Daniel’s Romeo, or Cleopatra to his Antony. She rifled through the slender crescents of temptation. There was victory in the lopsided curve of Daniel’s smile.

He knew he had her. She’d never been able to resist his grin. “This one should be yours,” she said a little shyly, dropping a coin into his palm. He examined the coin. “I thought you would choose Hercules,” he teased. She rolled her eyes. “You wish.” She’d chosen a silver coin showing two clasped hands. “It probably symbolizes a military treaty, or something like that, but I thought . well it reminded me of our . friendship.” “It’s perfect, Indy.” His gaze locked with hers and there was a new softness in his eyes. He closed his fingers over the two coins. Her heart warmed as though it hadn’t seen the sun in thousands of years.

Happiness clasped her mind . until a strident voice ruined the moment. “Lady India, you’re covered in filth! Come away this instant.” “Mother?” India leapt to her feet. “What are you doing here?” Her mother rarely ventured from the house, and she always sent a servant if she needed to fetch her daughter. Something was wrong. Daniel jumped up as well. “Your Grace, we were just play—” he began, but the duchess cut him off. “Not another word. Follow me, both of you.” She caught Daniel’s eye. “Your mother is here to collect you.” India and Daniel exchanged a look. Something was afoot. He always rode his horse to India’s house.

Why had his mother come searching for him? “What on earth are those?” asked the duchess, gesturing at their treasure trove. India moved in front of the coins to block her mother’s view. “Just some old counterfeit coins. Probably worthless.” “Leave them, then.” Her mother made an impatient tsking sound. “Hurry now.” Daniel knelt and scooped the coins into his handkerchief. India tied the ends of the handkerchief into a knot and thrust the small bundle into the inside pocket of her cloak. They followed the duchess out of the woods and back toward the house, tracing the long avenue that branched in two around a circular rose garden with a gray marble fountain at its center. Two crows were bathing in the fountain, splashing the water with blue-black wings, but they cawed hoarsely and flew away when the duchess marched past, her blue gown fluttering behind her in the wind that had suddenly arisen. “Who’s that man?” India asked Daniel in a low whisper. His mother was standing next to an unfamiliar man beside a carriage whose crest she didn’t recognize. “Father’s friend Sir Malcolm Penny. But I thought he was in France with Father .

” India could tell by the uneven set of Daniel’s shoulders that he was worried. Sir Malcolm had his arm about the duchess’s shoulders, helping to support her. Daniel’s mother, usually so cheerful and smiling, looked faded and sad. “Daniel.” She held out her hand. “My dear, dear son.” His mother’s voice caught, and for an awful moment India thought the duchess might burst into tears. Sir Malcolm gripped her shoulders tighter. “Daniel, come with us now.” “What’s happened?” asked Daniel, a rising tide of panic in his voice. “I’ll explain in the carriage,” answered Sir Malcolm. “But I rode Jupiter here,” said Daniel. “Can’t I ride him home?” “We’ll have a groom return him,” said India’s mother. “Come,” said his mother softly. Daniel gave India a wobbly smile and joined his mother and Sir Malcolm without another word of protest.

After their carriage departed, India’s mother turned to her. “Your father wishes to speak with you.” “What’s happened, Mother?” asked India, truly anxious now. “The duke will explain.” “Tell me now, please.” Forewarned was forearmed. “Did I do something wrong?” She searched her mind for a transgression. Had she left a book out of place in his library? She was so careful, so very careful to leave everything exactly as she’d found it. “It’s nothing about you. It’s about the Duke of Ravenwood.” She hurried to keep up with her mother as she marched up the front steps. “What has happened? Tell me, please.” “Scandal.” Her mother set her lips and would say no more, no matter how India pleaded. One word only: scandal.

How could scandal touch Daniel’s perfect family? He had a noble, even-tempered father, a doting mother, and a younger brother who worshipped him. India had always wished they could be her family. The Duke of Ravenwood was a little absent-minded at times, but he’d encouraged her interest in antiquities and had promised to bring her back a pile of books from France. “Compose yourself, my girl. You look a hoyden,” her mother said with a disapproving frown, stopping outside of the duke’s study. India wiped her cheeks with her sleeves and smoothed her plaits as best she could. Her mother laid a hand on her shoulder and steered her into the study. Her father was slumped in a chair near the hearth. She’d learned to swiftly gauge his moods. The bottle of brandy on the table next to him was only half gone. Good. He might still be in the jocular and expansive frame of mind. Singing bawdy songs and recounting hunting stories while the stag’s head mounted on the wall stared down with blank, unseeing eyes. In this mood he might raise a glass to her and toast her betrothal to Ravenwood’s heir. It was to be a financially advantageous match for her father.

She’d overheard the servants whispering about gambling debts and she’d noticed that when her father returned from his trips to London he drank even more. She approached his chair warily, poised to run if she’d miscalculated his mood. She glanced back at her mother, who stood watching from the doorway, her pale violet eyes as blank as the eyes of the dead stag. “Do you know what this is?” the duke snarled, holding up a piece of faded parchment. Fear bloomed like graveyard roses in her mind, dark and filled with the scent of decaying things. She made herself as small as possible, imagining that she was a small woodland creature, too small for a mighty hunter to notice. “No, Father. I don’t.” She kept her voice soft, her words brief. Anything could spark his rage. The wrong word. The wrong gesture. “This is your marriage contract.” He ripped the document from top to bottom and threw it in the fire.



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Updated: 22 January 2021 — 11:56

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