No Other Duke Will Do – Grace Burrowes

“STOP TRYING TO CHEER me up, or I’ll call you out.” Julian Andreas Cynan Evan St. David, twelfth Duke of Haverford, wanted to blast away at something, though the Marquess of Radnor, being both a dead shot and Julian’s dearest friend, made a poor choice of target. “Are you upset with your sister for the expense this house party will cause,” Radnor asked, “or for the number of eligible young ladies you’ll have to partner at whist?” “Dukes do not become upset. If you continue nattering, you’ll frighten the fish away.” Radnor made an elegant cast into the middle of the stream. “Haverford, if it’s a matter of coin—?” “Do you want me to blow out your brains, Radnor, assuming even I could hit a target that small?” Radnor’s line dipped, then bowed down. Julian gathered up his rod and maintained a respectful silence while the marquess did battle with a trout intent on putting a presuming aristocrat in his place. The morning was lovely as only Wales in spring could be lovely, the hills Eden-green, the sky full of fluffy white clouds—lamb clouds, Glenys used to call them—and the breeze scented with freshly scythed hay. The valley was coming into its most impressive verdure, and of course, Glenys had timed her house party ambush to show off the estate as well as her older brother. Radnor swung his line from the water, and Julian took up a net. He snagged the thrashing trout and held it up for the marquess to admire. “Fine specimen,” Radnor said, setting his pole aside. “Though I’m sure we have larger fish in my ponds at Radnor Hall.” “Larger perhaps, but not with more fight.

” Julian gripped the trout about the back and eased the hook free. The fish wiggled in his grasp, fighting to the last, its mouth moving in a desperate effort to sustain life. “He’ll make a lovely addition to the table—what the deuce, Haverford! That is my fish.” Julian tossed the trout back into the water, and it was off downstream with an indignant swish of its tail. “We have enough,” Julian said, nudging a wicker basket with his toe. “That one earned his freedom, while I have tarried here as long as I dare. Glenys expects me for the midday meal, and then I must meet with my land steward.” “I accept your invitation to dine,” Radnor said, reeling in his line. “To do otherwise would leave Lady Glenys to endure a tongue-lashing at table, which thought my gallant nature shudders to contemplate.” “Your gallant nature wants to brag about your success as an angler.

” Radnor was being kind, ensuring Julian would have an ally when Glenys maundered on regarding her plan to end Julian’s bachelorhood. Radnor meant well, Glenys meant well, the damned trout had probably meant well, drat the lot of them. Julian had his own plan for ensuring the succession, and according to that plan, hunting for a duchess would begin in approximately eight years and seven months, assuming no radical fluctuations in market conditions occurred. A costly, pointless house party did not figure into his plans at all. He and Radnor walked in silence toward Haverford Castle’s back terrace. The prospect across the gardens was lovely and should have been soothing. Unlike many titled landholders, Julian had not ripped up his ancestors’ formal parterres to replace them with an artificial—and astronomically expensive—wilderness landscape. His gardens were old-fashioned, and a duchess would consider redesigning them just one of the exorbitant projects she was entitled to undertake. The indignant trout came to mind, thrashing his heart out to preserve his freedom. “The young ladies invited to this house party will exhaust themselves trying to gain my notice,” Julian said.

So would their mamas, if the gathering ran true to tiresome form. “Glenys will also have to invite a suitable number of bachelors. That suggests I can turn the gathering to a more worthy purpose.” “Where young ladies gather, there are also chaperones, widowed mamas, and other delights. Is that the more worthy purpose you refer to?” “Your imagination suffers a sad want of variety, my friend.” “A sad want of variety characterizes your social life,” Radnor countered. “You’re suggesting that Lady Glenys’s attempt to find you a duchess will end in her ladyship’s own engagement?” Radnor was a quick study, for all his cheerfulness. “Precisely. Glenys should have chosen a husband five years ago.” Though how much more bleak would the past five years have been, without her company and good humor? “Lady Glenys will doubtless have a score of offers by the end of the first week,” Radnor said.

“No man with any sense tarries in London during the heat of summer, and the daughters of dukes—much less lovely, sensible, gracious daughters of dukes—are rare marital prizes.” Julian ignored the wistful quality of Radnor’s compliment, just as Glenys ignored every flirtation and lure Radnor pitched at her. “My sister will have offers, and I shall ensure one of them is the right offer. The solution is clear: We must make a list.” The marquess stopped and set the end of his pole on the ground. “Not another list.” “Organization and determination have bested many a challenge,” Julian retorted, without breaking stride. “Glenys has sent out her invitations. I’ll simply send out a few of my own.” On the remaining half-mile hike to the castle, Julian suggested names, all of which Radnor took exception to.

This man was a gambler, though handsome. That one had a solid fortune, but no sense of humor. “Why don’t you offer for her?” Julian asked, as they approached the back of the castle. “You are hopeless, Haverford. One doesn’t offer unless the lady has expressed a desire for one’s company. I’m Lady Glenys’s spare project. When she tires of managing you and Griffin, she manages me. It’s…sweet and vexing as hell.” “Rather like marriage, I suppose.” The sweet part was tempting.

Julian was thirty-six years old, and yet the dukedom could not at present afford a duchess. She loomed in Julian’s future as a reward for years of hard work and selfdiscipline, and by God, he would choose carefully and well when finances permitted him that indulgence. Across the back terrace, a table had been set for the midday meal. Lady Glenys occupied one of three chairs beneath the white canopy, and busied herself arranging a pot of daisies in the center of the table. “If you think to distract me with a picnic, Glenys, think again,” Julian said, brushing a kiss to her cheek. “We are not through discussing this house party of yours.” She shared the height, dark hair, and swooping eyebrows that had been a hallmark of the St. Davids for generations. Her eyes were hazel, while Julian’s were green, and this for some reason made her jealous. At present those hazel eyes were turned on him in a transparent facsimile of innocence.

“Dock my pin money, if you must, Haverford. I am determined to have my way in this, and nobody is more determined than a St. David. Radnor, apologies for mentioning finances before a guest.” Nobody was more determined than a St. David duke, but even he couldn’t put on a respectable house party with mere pin money. “Now I’m a guest,” Radnor said, bowing over Glenys’s proffered hand, “after having run tame in this castle since I was in dresses. I’m onto your tricks, my lady. You’re summoning half the unmarried women in England to fawn over your brother, when in fact, it’s my matrimonial prospects that will be imperiled. Not well done of you.

” Glenys snatched her hand back, pink staining her cheeks. “Haverford, please dispense with those fish. Elfryd, see to the sporting accoutrements.” The footman stationed by the buffet stepped forward to take the rods and the wicker basket holding the morning’s catch. Julian washed his hands in the basin provided, and Radnor did likewise. As Julian reached for a towel, Radnor flicked water at his face, a taunt they’d been exchanging since childhood. Julian passed Radnor the towel rather than retaliate. They weren’t boys, and would never be boys again. Over beef pastry and mashed potatoes, Glenys launched into a discourse on the best preparation of estate trout for a buffet. The topic left Julian bilious.

If Glenys had her way, he’d be hooked, landed, and filleted by the conclusion of her infernal party. He complimented her ideas, and mentally refined the list of bachelors he’d recruit to distract her ladyship from her matchmaking. He also created a sub-list of young ladies who might suit Radnor, who had depths beyond his charm. Lists, plans, budgets, and unwavering attention to detail were slowly but surely bringing the Haverford finances to rights, and they would see Julian through this farce of a house party as well. He would make sure of it. * * * “Shoot me,” Charlotte Windham moaned. “Please, if you have any love for me at all, take out the coach pistol and end my torment.” “I could read to you, Charl,” Elizabeth Windham replied from the coach’s backward-facing seat. “Everybody is taxed by long journeys.” Charlotte sprawled on the opposite seat, one foot braced on the floor, one hand on her middle.

“I am not taxed, I am dying. Why did nobody warn me that the roads in Wales are instruments of torture?” Elizabeth put her copy of Childe Harold aside. “It’s not the roads making you ill, it’s probably the ale you had at the last inn.” Charlotte was pale, dyspeptic, and had stopped to visit the bushes three times in the last five miles. Thank goodness, bushes were in generous supply in this part of Wales. Aunt Arabella had chosen to ride in the second coach with the ladies’ maids, so that “poor Charlotte” had room to stretch out on the bench. “I look a fright,” Charlotte said, “and I feel worse than I look. A lady isn’t supposed to perspire, much less cast up her accounts, much less—dear God, have we arrived?” The coach had turned up a long drive shaded on both sides by towering oaks. In deference to Charlotte’s condition, progress was stately. Haverford Castle was—unlike many buildings referred to as castles—splendidly regal.

Crenellated turrets stood at either end of a golden façade five stories tall, and the circular drive curved around a fountain that sprayed water twenty feet into the air. Potted salvia adorned a raised front terrace and circled the fountain, creating red, white, and green splashes of color against the stonework. “Haverford owns all this?” Charlotte asked, sitting up to peer out the window. “Moreland isn’t half so grand.” “Moreland is probably two centuries more modern. You’re at death’s door, so what do you care?” “I feel a miraculous revival coming on,” Charlotte said, straightening her skirts. “Or I might presently. Ye gods, I shall never drink another drop of ale.” The coach lurched forward, and Charlotte’s pallor became more marked. “Lie back down,” Elizabeth said.

“The bushes are disobligingly sparse along this drive.” Charlotte subsided to the bench. “I’m to be humiliated before all of society, dragged from the coach in a state of obvious ill health. Perhaps I will die in Mama’s homeland, and out of guilt, Papa will grant you the spinsterdom you long for.” “Spinsterdom is not a word. If you die, may I have your mare?” Perhaps teasing might hurry along Charlotte’s miraculous recovery. “Cousin Devlin has prior claim on my horse. You may have my jewels.” “You have the same pearls and pins I do.” Charlotte put her wrist to her brow.

“I yield my entire treasure to you. Please have the coach circle around to the back of the castle. I cannot appear before the most eligible bachelors in the realm looking like some cupshot chamber maid.” Vanity was a reassuring sign when a sister professed to be expiring. “I’ll get you up to a bedroom, and nobody will think you’re anything but travel weary.” “I must write to Mama of the foul brew served to the unsuspecting in her homeland. Rest assured the Welsh bachelors have lost ground in the race to offer for my hand. Such misery would never befall me in England.” As the coach lumbered along the drive, Elizabeth made out a sculpture of a rampant gryphon at the center of the fountain. Bright afternoon sunshine combined with the fountain’s mist to create a shimmering rainbow over the creature.

Maybe Mama was right when she claimed that Wales was enchanted. “We’re almost there, Charlotte.” Despite the magical fountain, Elizabeth felt nearly as dyspeptic as Charlotte appeared. House parties were the consolation rounds for debutantes who’d failed to secure a marriage proposal during the season. For Elizabeth, house parties were a special purgatory. A woman who remained unmarried despite a decade of seasons wasn’t quite a spinster, but she was so far from a debutante as to be a different species of female altogether. The coach swayed to a halt, and Charlotte pressed a wrinkled handkerchief to her lips. The vehicle rocked as footmen climbed down, then the door opened and the steps were unfolded. “I suppose I must move,” Charlotte muttered. “I can have the footmen carry you,” Elizabeth replied.

Charlotte was nearly gray about the mouth. “Oh, the ignominy. Dragged to the door like some hapless sparrow in the clutches of a tomcat—” “Our hostess approaches,” Elizabeth said, rising to accept a footman’s hand. “I’ll explain, and you’ll produce a ladylike swoon.” Technically, Lady Glenys was their host’s unmarried sister, though thank a benevolent providence, nobody had to explain Charlotte’s malady to Haverford himself. Dukes, in Elizabeth’s experience, did not deal well with life’s most unglamorous realities. A delicate bunch, dukes. Marquesses and earls weren’t much sturdier. “Miss Windham.” Lady Glenys bobbed a curtsy.

“I’ve been anticipating the pleasure of your company in particular. Are Lady Pembroke and Miss Charlotte with you?” “Charlotte is somewhat the worse for the journey,” Elizabeth said. “Her digestion has grown tentative over these last few miles. Our aunt is traveling in the second coach.” Charlotte peeked out, gripping both sides of the coach door. A hapless sparrow would have been more attractive than the pale, bedraggled creature blinking in the bright sunlight. “My heavenly stars,” Lady Glenys said. “You poor dear. I am so sorry you’re feeling not quite the thing. We’ll have you up to your rooms in no time.

” Charlotte tottered from the coach, a footman assisting on one side, Elizabeth on the other. “I’d curtsy, but I’ve no desire to end up face down on your cobbles.” “Hush, dear,” Elizabeth murmured, as Lady Glenys took a step back. “We’ll simply follow her ladyship into the castle, and find you a nice, soft, private place to settle yourself.” The footmen stepped away, hands behind their backs. Lady Glenys looked torn between distress and sympathy, and Charlotte hung heavily on Elizabeth’s arm. “Can you walk to the door?” Elizabeth asked. Charlotte glanced up at the crenellated façade, her expression grim. “If I must.” Why would nobody offer aid? Grooms held teams for two coaches and a landau behind the Windham coach, while Lady Glenys wrung her hands.

“Come along,” Elizabeth said, tucking an arm around Charlotte’s waist. “It’s not far, and you’re a Windham.” Bootsteps crunched to Elizabeth’s left, and then Charlotte’s weight was plucked away. “Allow me to aid the lady,” said a tall gentleman in riding attire. “I apologize for presuming, but I’m guessing a bad batch of Merlin Jones’s summer ale is to blame. Lady Glenys, which bedroom?” He smelled of horses and hayfields, his boots were dusty, and his dark hair was less than tidy. Charlotte’s rescuer had the steady gaze of a man who solved problems with common sense and hard work. He held her as if striding about with a full grown woman in his arms was part of his daily routine. “Take her to the east tower,” Lady Glenys replied. “Both Miss Windham and Miss Charlotte are in the Dovecote.

” Charlotte looked to be enjoying her first convincing ladylike swoon. “Miss Windham,” the man said. “If you’ll join us?” He had green eyes framed with dramatic dark brows, and his expression held no flirtation, no suggestion of humor at Charlotte’s expense. Sober and steady when sober and steady were desperately needed. “My thanks,” Elizabeth said, falling in step beside him. “Who is this Merlin Jones?” And who are you? “He’s the innkeeper at the nearest coaching inn, and known to occasionally mix up a bad batch of summer ale. Because he serves the suspect brew only to those traveling on, he’s not held accountable for his mistakes.” Charlotte’s rescuer spoke with the lilting diction of the educated Welshman, and even carrying Charlotte up a grand curved staircase, his strength was not taxed. Something about the angle of the gentleman’s jaw suggested Mr. Jones would be held accountable this time.

“The Dovecote is one of the tower suites,” he said. “The views are lovely, and you’re close to both the family wing and the guest wing. If the apartment is not to your liking, I’m sure Lady Glenys can see to other arrangements.” He was local, then, a neighbor, cousin, or close friend of the family. Was he a guest at the house party? “I’m sure the accommodations will be fine. Charlotte, how are you feeling?” “A little better,” she said, lashes fluttering. “What a lovely castle.” “Haverford Castle can be cold as the devil’s root cellar in winter,” the gentleman replied. “This is your suite.” He carried Charlotte straight into a circular chamber graced with three windows.

The walls were more than two feet thick, the plaster a mellow cream. A lone red rose stood in a crystal vase on the sideboard. The gentleman set Charlotte on a tufted sofa and regarded her, his hands on his hips. In his dusty boots and with a streak of dirt on one sleeve of his riding jacket, he might have been a steward assessing a heifer gone off her feed. “Fresh air, I think,” he said, wrestling two of the windows open. The latches screeched in protest, but the breeze was heavenly. He knelt before the sideboard and opened a cupboard. “At the risk of being indelicate, you might also need this.” He rose, holding a porcelain basin painted with daffodils. “At the risk of being pathetic,” Elizabeth replied, taking the basin, “we thank you.

You are very kind, sir.”

.

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