Never Tempt a Duke – Virginia Brown

“LET MY SISTER be the Earl of Eastland.” “I am afraid that is impossible,” the old barrister said quietly. “I think you must do what is expected of you.” Nicholas Trenton eyed him coldly. “I do not give a fig for what you think, sir.” Master Hornbeak cleared his throat; his smile was placating. “Master Trenton—my Lord Eastland—you are just seventeen. Your life is ahead of you. I see you are upset, as you have every right to be, but—” “I refuse. I’m an American.” “Your father was an English citizen, heir to the Earl of Eastland, and became earl upon his death. You are your father’s only heir and next in line of succession.” “We just trounced the British in a war. They burned the White House. I will not turn traitor.

” Nicholas looked away from the barrister to his twin sister. Alyssa stood next to him, dazed by the shocking news, her eyes focusing at last on her brother. His expression was defiant; blue eyes glittered with outrage, black hair tumbling loose from the tie at the nape of his neck as he shook his head. They were so much alike in appearance, yet so often different in nature. She pleated the folds of her cotton gown between her fingers and plucked uneasily at the blue ribbons that streamed from just under her bodice. The hood of her red cape was thrown back, wool folds keeping her warm in the cold air of the barrister’s office. The news he had just imparted was difficult to absorb. She drew in a deep breath and attempted to soothe her brother. “Nicky,” she said calmly, “perhaps we should consider it.” He looked at her, his jaw clenched.

“Do you like the idea of being shut away in a convent for the next few years?” he asked. “That is where he said you’ll have to go.” Alyssa looked back at the barrister, who was mopping his face with a handkerchief. A dim lamp shed patchy light in the dark cubby he called an office. “Is this true?” she asked. Hornbeak smiled; he spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Only until you marry, my dear. And it is not a convent, but Mrs. Porter’s Religious Academy for Well-Bred Young Ladies. It is all that can be done, you understand.

The unexpected death of both your parents . ” He paused when Alyssa pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle a sob. His voice softened as he continued, “Aye, ‘tis unfair for death to claim them both in a bout of fever and leave you behind with no one to care for you, but life is rarely fair. According to the terms of your late father’s first will, Miss Trenton, you will be given a small legacy that will allow you to live quietly at the academy. Until such a time as you wed, of course.” Mrs. Porter’s! The establishment was notorious for separating young orphans of some means from their meager inheritances, all in the name of religious charity. Any monies went to the pockets of the administrators, not to the unfortunate residents. She cleared her throat. “What is this about a first will? Does that mean there is a second will that replaces it?” After a brief hesitation, the barrister said, “Your father was only newly made aware that he had inherited his father’s title and estates.

He procured me to write his response, and I advised him to make a new will before undertaking a journey across the Atlantic. I am afraid that in my zeal to protect your father’s future, I made no provision for yours. Your brother, however, as your father’s first-born son, inherits whether there is a will or not.” “Then why is some duke involved?” Nicholas demanded. “If I am to be the new earl, do I not make my own decisions?” “Yes. As soon as you reach your majority. Until then, the duke is your guardian.” Alyssa pulled her cloak more tightly around her, shivering slightly, but managed to keep her voice steady. “Am I to have no guardian?” Master Hornbeak sighed. “His grace, as guardian by the terms of your grandfather’s will, will guide you both to your majority.

He has stipulated that you abide by your father’s wishes and enter a religious academy that I have chosen for you.” “Damned nonsense, if you ask me,” Nicholas snapped. Hornbeak’s veined hand shook with agitation as he spread the letter out on the scarred desk. “Young Master—my lord,” the aging barrister tried again, “your father had the utmost faith in my judgment. Look at your situation. The house is falling to ruin after this last storm; your only retainers are old and have been pensioned for good and faithful service. The estates here have dwindled because of bad crops, death duties, and high taxes—but you have now been given a gift. One cannot get on in this world without a proper education, and for a young man of your now limited means . surely you see the sense in compliance.” Nicholas shook his head.

“Am I to answer to some English duke I do not know? This is not what I planned, not what my father planned for me. I was to attend West Point, then take a commission, not go off to England to serve the mad king. No. I would rather starve.” “And your sister, do you wish that for her, too?” Master Hornbeak pressed his advantage when Nicholas glanced at Alyssa and didn’t respond. “Think of it. An extensive tour abroad, an excellent education, a title, all that wealth and position can offer, and it will be yours.” “But not Alyssa’s,” Nicholas pointed out, and the barrister’s thin face darkened slightly. “She will thrive at Mrs. Porter’s and be given every opportunity to marry well.

” He coughed delicately. “The duke has expressed his preference for not being saddled with a young female. Surely you can understand that. He is an unmarried gentleman of some worth and would find it . ” He paused, obviously searching for the right word. “Annoying?” Alyssa suggested, unable to keep quiet a moment longer. “Inconvenient?” Her cheeks flushed with heat. “I do not care to be shoved into an academy and forgotten, Master Hornbeak, and you can inform the duke of my decision. I will remain in my parents’ house.” Hornbeak looked startled.

He’d obviously thought—until that moment—that a young girl would be much more tractable than her brother. She could have told him she was not. His lantern jaw tightened, and his voice was unhappy. “You have few choices, my dear, as does your brother. Unless you fall in with the duke’s plans, no monies will be advanced. The house and land will be sold for taxes.” He let them absorb that for a moment before he added, “Your dear departed father would be pleased that his only son has inherited the title and sizable legacy that was to be his, and—” “I don’t think so,” Nicholas interrupted harshly. “He did not think enough of it to ever mention that he had a father who was an English earl.” Heavy silence greeted this statement. “I believe there was a disagreement when he did not return to England,” Master Hornbeak finally said.

“The earl was distressed that his youngest son had remained in the Colonies.” “Then he would definitely be upset that a Colonial has inherited his estates and title,” Nicholas pointed out. “It sounds illegal.” As the barrister began a lengthy explanation of the English system of inheritance, Alyssa simmered with hurt, outrage, and rejection. It seemed as if Master Hornbeak was right, and that there was little they could do. But she and Nicky had never been separated in all their seventeen years, and it seemed so cruel to separate them now, with their parents dead a few months. Just the thought of them made her throat hurt, their loss a stabbing pain that nearly took away her breath when she let herself dwell on it. How could she bear to be separated from Nicky? He was all she had left of their family. She knew he sensed her distress, because he put an arm around her shoulders. He was taller than she by several inches, his body already filling out in the chest and arms.

His voice was deeper, his anger now tempered with resolution. “No, Master Hornbeak, we refuse. We’d rather make our own way than live as what we are not. I can go to sea and support us.” Master Hornbeak said rather sharply, “You have no other option, young sir. While you may think it a fine lark to go off on your own, think of your sister. She would not have as fine a time of it. She would be left behind, a maiden alone, defenseless from the cruel mercies of the world.” Nicholas hesitated, and when he looked down at Alyssa, she saw the doubt in his eyes. “We will be fine,” she reassured him.

“I shall be with you, and perhaps Mrs. Pomfrey will let me stay with her while you are gone to sea. She has that small cottage she can share.” “Ah, Ally. Mrs. Pomfrey is near eighty. What if she dies while I am out to sea? Then what would you do? You would be alone and unsafe. Perhaps Master Hornbeak is right.” Panic clawed at her so that she could hardly speak, desperation forcing words out as if they came from someone else. “No.

No, we’ve never been separated. Not for long. Not for as long as it would be if you lived in England and I stayed here. It’s so far and I might never see you again. No, if you leave, I’ll go with you.” Master Hornbeak spoke up in alarm. “Don’t do that, oh, no, that would be disastrous. I shudder to think what the duke would say if I were to allow you both to turn up on his doorstep.” She turned toward him, sick with disappointment, terrified, angry, and desperate to find a resolution. “You have never met him.

Why do you care what he might say?” “The duke’s influence reaches far, my dear, very far.” Hornbeak pressed the handkerchief to his face and shook his head. “Even in America, he has powerful connections.” Nicholas muttered an oath under his breath, rubbed his hand across his jaw, then swung his attention back to the barrister. “I have never heard of the Duke of Deverell. Until today I had no idea he existed. He cannot be that powerful a man.” “Young master, suffice it to say that if the duke wished to have you brought to him in an apple barrel, that would be how you arrived.” Hornbeak shook his head again. “There is no point in raging against your fate—it has been decided, yes, and your sister’s, too.

I am sorry, but that is the way of it. No magistrate would sanction any other decision. By law, you must comply.” Alyssa sucked in a deep breath, tasted the musty air of the dank office, blinked away hot tears pressing against her eyelids, and tucked her hands into the warm folds of her cloak. It was definite then. She was to be locked away until she reached her majority, then offered as a wife to whoever asked for her hand. She kept her back straight, her chin up, her trembling hands hidden, and it wasn’t until she looked up into her brother’s eyes that she had the first glimmer of hope. He has a plan . “BUT NICKY, THIS seems like madness,” Alyssa protested. “It cannot succeed.

” They stood beneath the skimpy shelter of the arbor some distance from the main house. It, too, had been wrecked by the recent storm, indicative of their shattered circumstances. The wind caught a dead vine and rattled it, and Nicholas jerked it free with an impatient twist of his hand. He barely looked at his sister’s pale, upturned face. “Even madder would be trotting meekly over to England to do the old duke’s bidding,” he muttered. When he finally looked down at her, she managed a faint smile. He sighed. “Don’t look at me so tragically, Ally. This is for the best.” She shivered and flinched against a gust of icy rain that whipped into her eyes.

“But . but when will I see you again?” “As soon as we reach our majority, I can come to England. We will be eighteen in only a few months. Once we are old enough to make our own decisions by law, no one can tell us what to do.” “If only I knew what was best. This is such a risk. What if I cannot do it? What if Master Hornbeak sees through the disguise and calls a magistrate? What if—”Another harsh gust of wind caught her, and she clutched at the side of the arbor. Nicholas reached out quickly to grab her arms. “Don’t swoon on me now, Ally. I have to go.

The captain won’t wait long on me, and I had a devil of a time finding an open berth. It’s the Sea Gypsy, one of the best merchant ships to sail the West Indies.” Alyssa coiled her fingers around his upper arms, digging into the wool of his coat to give him a little shake. “Have I ever swooned?” “No. I don’t think you have.” Nicholas smiled. He braced her with an arm behind her back; his face went taut with suppressed emotion. “So you will do what we planned, right?” She gave a sigh of surrender. “Yes. I will do what we planned.

If it doesn’t work, you can look for me hanging from a gibbet by the seawall.” He laughed. “I don’t think any judge would hang you.” He bent, picked up his sea bag, and hefted it over his shoulder, then caught her in a one-armed embrace. His voice was strangely gruff when he put his lips close to her ear and said, “I will come for you soon, Ally.” She followed him as far as she could go, stopping on the sand spit overlooking the docks to stand for a long time. She watched his silhouette grow smaller and smaller, until he disappeared completely in the fog and mist that rolled in from the sea. Then he was gone, and she trudged back to the empty house. ALYSSA STARED into the cheval mirror. She held long shears in one hand; dark, silky lengths of cut hair draped from her other hand.

Close-cropped curls now crowned her head; her blue eyes were rimmed with dark circles, and the resemblance to her brother was marked if not exact. Her features were too feminine. Where his jaw was square, hers was rounded. His mouth, so quick to turn up at the corners in a smile that reached his eyes, was more masculine. Her lips looked softer somehow, not as quick to smile. Nicky was much taller, having grown half a foot in just the past year, she was sure. She had donned a pair of snug-fitting buff-colored wool trousers he’d worn the year before, and they drooped over her heels in the back. The white muslin shirt was baggy, and the colorful scarlet waistcoat hung past her much smaller waist. “Maybe if I put on his coat,” she murmured and shrugged into a large, unfitted coat with claw-hammer tails. Fortunately, the shirt and waistcoat hid her more feminine attributes and kept her secret from being readily guessed.

It was, she finally decided as she stood in front of the mirror, a passable imitation. Nicky’s old greatcoat would complete it. The final test would be in the morning when Master Hornbeak arrived to escort her to the Hampton Road docks, where she would board the ship for England. But the next morning, Alyssa realized she had overlooked one important detail: her footwear. She was forced to pull on a pair of Nicky’s old boots and stuff handkerchiefs into the toes to keep them from coming completely off her more narrow feet. The final effect was a rather odd one when she hobbled from the house, afraid she would lose a boot with each step. “Where is your sister, lad?” Master Hornbeak asked when she climbed clumsily into the waiting carriage. He was muffled in a greatcoat and scarf with only his eyes showing, as it was a blustery, gray day. Then he leaned forward to stare at her with a frown. “Are you well?” “No.

I have a cold,” Alyssa said in a gruff tone and handed him the folded letter with her own writing on it. The letter stated that she had departed early for the religious academy and that she thanked him for his kind assistance with her parents’ estate. For a moment, she thought he must know of the deception; he did not immediately read the letter. Her heart thumped, a sick feeling gnawed at her stomach, and she wished she had not eaten the last bite of pork pie. Hornbeak finally turned his attention to the coachman, who loaded her trunk onto the boot and signaled he should go. The carriage jerked forward, hooves sounded loud against the cobbled street, and the house where she had lived for seventeen years grew smaller and smaller, then disappeared as the horses picked up the pace and rounded a corner. Her journey had begun; the life she had always known ended. The barrister opened the letter and squinted at the painstakingly worded lines. He gave a satisfied nod. “Ah, she is a good sensible lass.

Now, here is your letter of introduction. Go to the shipping office when you arrive in Southampton, and the duke’s man will meet you there. “Keep in mind that the duke may deal harshly with hotheaded, impetuous young men, so school your temper. Once you arrive in England I have fulfilled my obligations to the duke, and you will be under his charge. Do you understand? Excellent.” He rubbed his gloved hands together briskly. “Now we must get you on that ship so I can get back to a warm fire. It’s been uncommon cold this season.” Before she dared believe that the first part of Nicky’s plan that she had called “a grand, mad scheme” had succeeded, she stood aboard the Fairwinds. She hoped the ship’s name was prophetic.

Docks were loaded with barrels of grain, corn, and whisky; stacks of dried tobacco; and crates of goods imported from England, France, and Spain. Drays pulled by massive horses rolled noisily from wharves to warehouses. Heavy sails flapped overhead like giant birds of prey, and she looked up. Three thick masts speared the gray sky, wrapped in rope and canvas. Seagulls rode air currents with white wings spread wide, seeming to drift lazily, their cries filtering down. The salt air was brisk, cold wind whipped at her coat, and she wondered if Nicky felt the same sense of desolation that she felt now. There was no turning back.

.

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