Project Duchess – Sabrina Jeffries

One fine autumn afternoon, Fletcher Pryde, 5th Duke of Greycourt, strode up the steps of his Mayfair town house, caught up in thinking through his business affairs. Which was probably why he missed the speaking look on his butler’s face as he stalked through the doorway. “Your Grace, I feel it is my duty to make you aware that—” “Not now, Johnston. I’ve got a dinner at eight, and I hope to catch old Brierly at his club before then. He’s unloading property near my Devon estate that I must have if I’m to continue my improvements. And I have reports I have to peruse before I can even talk to him.” “More land, Grey?” said a decidedly young, female voice. “Sometimes I think you shop for properties as eagerly as women shop for gowns. Judging from your reputation for shrewd dealing, you probably pay less for them, too.” Grey whirled toward the sound. “Vanessa!” He scowled over at Johnston. “Why didn’t you tell me she was here?” His butler lifted his eyes a fraction, as close as the man ever came to rolling them. “I did try, sir.” “Ah. Right.

I suppose you did.” Grey smiled indulgently at Vanessa Pryde. At twenty-four, she was ten years his junior and more like a little sister than a first cousin. He removed his hat, driving gloves, and greatcoat before handing them to the footman. Grey didn’t recognize the servant, who was gawking at Vanessa like a pauper at a princess. The footman’s fascination was understandable, given her heart-shaped face, perfect proportions, and wealth of jetblack curls, but it was also most inappropriate. Grey cast the fellow one of the quelling glances at which he excelled. When the footman colored and hurried off, Johnston stepped up to murmur, “Sorry, Your Grace. He’s new. I will be sure to speak to him.

” “See that you do.” Then he turned his attention to Vanessa, who didn’t even seem to have noticed the exchange. “I wasn’t expecting you.” “You ought to have been, Cousin.” With an elaborate curtsey, Vanessa flashed him a mischievous smile. “Or should I say, ‘prospective fiancé’?” “Don’t even joke about that,” he grumbled. Every time he tried to think of himself married to Vanessa, he remembered her as a babe in swaddling, being held by her father, his uncle Eustace Pryde, and he knew he couldn’t do it. He’d seen her grow up—he couldn’t imagine her as his wife. Fortunately, she had no desire to marry him, either. Which was why whenever her ambitious mother sent her over here with instructions to get him into a compromising position so they could be forced into marriage, they spent most of the time drumming up a plausible reason for why Vanessa had “just missed him.

” “Don’t worry.” Vanessa gave a little laugh. “My maid is with me. As usual, she will swear to whatever excuse we concoct for Mama. So come join us for tea and cakes in the drawing room.” Leave it to Vanessa to take charge of his household. As they strolled down the hall, he said, “You look well.” Preening a bit, she danced ahead and whirled to face him, forcing him to halt as she swished her skirts about her legs. “So you like my new gown? I won’t tell Mama. She picked it out herself to tempt you.

I told her yellow was your favorite color.” “I hate yellow.” Her blue eyes twinkled at him. “Precisely.” A helpless laugh escaped him. “You, my dear, are a hoyden. If you would put a tenth of the energy you expend in provoking your mother into hunting down a husband, you’d have twenty men begging to marry you.” Her spirits seemed to droop. “I already have that. But you know how Mama is.

Until you are off the table, she won’t allow me to accept a lesser man’s suit.” She wagged her finger at him. “So will you please get married? To anyone other than me? Or I shall surely die an old maid.” “That will never happen to you, and we both know it.” He narrowed his gaze on her. “Wait a minute—is there someone in particular you have your eye on?” Her blush alarmed him. Vanessa had terrible taste in men. “Who is he?” he demanded. She tipped up her chin. “I’m not going to tell you.

” “Because you know I’d disapprove, which means he’s entirely wrong for you.” “He is not. He’s a poet.” Damn. Vanessa needed to marry a poet about like he needed to learn to cook. Then again . “A famous poet?” he asked hopefully. If the fellow had money, it could work. Anyone who married Vanessa would need pots of money, if only to keep up with her gown purchases. S h e turned and marched on to the drawing room.

“He will be. With my support and encouragement.” “God help us all.” He almost felt sorry for this poet, whoever he was. “I suppose your mother disapproves.” “As if I would ever tell her,” she scoffed as she entered the drawing room. Vanessa’s lady’s maid sat erect on the settee, her expression bland. No doubt she was used to being the foil to her volatile employer. “Then things have not progressed to a serious interest,” Grey said, relieved not to have to deal with that, too. He was still hoping to get to Brierly’s club before the man left.

“How could things progress at all?” Vanessa picked up a teacake and devoured it with her usual gusto. “Mama is so focused on my marrying you that I cannot get her to bring me to events my . friend might attend.” She shot him a dire look. “And thanks to the latest on-dit about you, she’s on a tear again. She actually believes all that rot about your running a secret cabal of licentious bachelors.” He snorted. “I’d never run anything so tiresome and predictable. I don’t have the time or inclination for it, and that level of discretion requires too much effort to maintain, people being who they are. I hope you told her I’d rather focus my energy on my estates.

” “I did. She didn’t believe me. She never does.” “Yet she sent you over here to engage the leader of this secret cabal of debauchery. She makes no sense.” “The gossip only made her more eager to marry me off to you. Hmm.” “She’s probably afraid I’ll spend all my wealth on ‘licentious’ living before you can grab me and my dukedom for our progeny.” “Or she thinks that a man with such ungoverned desires would be easy to manipulate. She ought to know you better than that.

I certainly do. There isn’t a single ungoverned thing about you.” Vanessa tapped her finger on her chin. “Then again, there’s another possibility—that Mama started the rumor about the cabal herself.” “To what end?” “By making you sound unappealing, she hopes to eliminate my competition.” “I hate to tell you, my dear, but rumors of a man’s wickedness rarely seem to eliminate the competition. If that was your mother’s plan, it’s a foolish one. And it proves my opinion about gossip: Rumors are nothing more than entertainment for the bored. If people in society would put a tenth of the energy they expend in—” “I know, I know—we’re all frivolous, with not a whit of usefulness between us,” she said archly. “You’re the only one with any sense.

” When her maid looked as if she might explode with holding in a laugh, he shot Vanessa a rueful glance. “Do you think me as pompous and arrogant as all that, pet?” “Worse.” Then she softened the accusation with a smile. “And on that note, I shall leave you.” Her maid cleared her throat, and Vanessa said, “Oh, I almost forgot! I have this for you.” She fished a sealed letter out of her reticule. “It came to us rather than you. Which is curious. Perhaps your mother heard you hadn’t been here in weeks. Though why she thought we would see you any more often is anyone’s guess.

” He ignored the sudden tightness in his chest. “You know perfectly well why.” With a sigh, Vanessa stepped nearer to speak in a low voice meant only for his ears. “Must you still punish your mother?” “Don’t be nonsensical,” he said lightly, to hide the guilt that swamped him. “I’m not punishing her. Besides, she has her other children to keep her company. She doesn’t need me fawning over her.” Vanessa sniffed. “As if you would ever fawn over anyone. And yes, you are punishing her, whether you admit it or not.

” The pity shining in Vanessa’s eyes made him regret having said anything about his mother. He reached for the letter, but Vanessa wouldn’t release it. “She does love you, you know.” “I do.” What else could he say? He loved her, too, in his own way. Grey started to shove the letter into his coat pocket, then paused. The missive seemed awfully thin for one of Mother’s. With a sense of dread, he opened it to find the briefest of messages: My dearest Grey, I regret to inform you that your stepfather has passed away. The funeral is at Armitage Hall on Tuesday. With much love, Mother P.

S. Please come. I can’t do this without you. Grey stared numbly at the words. Maurice, the only father he’d ever really known, was dead. Please come. I can’t do this without you. Holy hell, Mother must be devastated. Apparently, his distress showed in his face, for Vanessa snatched the letter and read it, then lifted a horrified gaze to him. “Oh, Grey, how awful.

I’m so very sorry.” “Thank you,” he muttered, though he felt like a fraud. He’d barely seen Maurice since the family’s return from Prussia a few months ago. He had let his bitterness keep him away, and now it was too late. She was now rereading the letter with a furrowed brow. “Maurice . that would be Sheridan’s father, right? I suppose he will now become duke.” The odd note in her voice arrested him. “Sheridan? Since when are you so chummy with my half brother? You only met him once.” “We’ve met thrice actually,” she murmured.

“We even danced together twice.” Uh-oh. Sheridan had best watch himself around Vanessa. When she fixed her affections on a man, she could really dig her teeth in. “Don’t tell me he’s the ‘poet’ you have your eye on.” His sharp tone made her glance up. “Don’t be ridiculous. Sheridan doesn’t have a poetic thought in his head.” She was right, but how had she known that? “You’ll have to call him Armitage now that he’s duke.” “All the more reason for me not to have an interest in him.

I will never take a duke for my husband, no matter what Mama wants. You’re all too . too . ” “Pompous and arrogant?” As if realizing she shouldn’t be insulting a man who’d just lost a close relation, she winced. “Something like that.” When he said nothing, she added, “You certainly have a number of dukes in your family.” “That’s what happens when one’s mother marries well three times.” “She’ll be leaving quite a dynasty behind her. Some would say that’s excellent planning.” “She didn’t plan on being widowed thrice, I assure you,” he said sharply.

Vanessa looked stricken. “Of course not. I’m sorry, Grey, that was most thoughtless of me.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “No, it’s . I’m just unsettled by the news.” “I’m sure. If there’s anything I can do . ” Grey didn’t answer, his mind having already seized on the reminder that Sheridan had become Duke of Armitage. Maurice had only been duke a few months, and now Sheridan was being forced to take up the mantle.

His head must be reeling. Grey needed to be at Armitage Hall, if only to help Sheridan and Mother with the arrangements for the funeral on Tuesday. Wait, today was Sunday. But which Sunday? Damn it, had he already missed his stepfather’s funeral? “When did this letter arrive?” he asked. It was the maid who answered. “I believe it was this past Friday, Your Grace.” “That’s right,” Vanessa said. “Friday.” Armitage Hall was near the town of Sanforth. If he caught the footmen before they unpacked his trunk, Grey could be changed into his mourning clothes and back on the road in an hour.

He’d easily reach Lincolnshire by tomorrow. “I must go,” he said, turning for the door. “I’ll go with you,” Vanessa said. “Don’t be absurd,” Grey snapped before her maid could protest. “You will go home as usual and tell your mother I wasn’t here. You have the perfect excuse for missing me this time. Just say I’d already been notified of my stepfather’s death and had left for Lincolnshire. Understood?” “But . but how could you have been notified if I hadn’t yet brought you the letter?” “Say that the servants told you I’d already received one here.” His common sense finally asserted itself.

“Indeed, I probably have, since I haven’t looked at my mail yet. Mother wouldn’t have left anything to chance. She would have sent multiple notices.” No matter how distracted by grief she might be. Vanessa laid her hand upon his arm. “Grey, you need someone with you. You’re clearly upset.” “I’ll be fine.” He would, damn it. “Now go on with you.

I have preparations to make before I can leave.” “Of course.” She nodded to her lady’s maid, who joined her. “I shall tell Mama of your loss. Perhaps that will keep her machinations to a minimum for a while.” “Somehow I doubt it.” He leaned close to whisper, “Take care with your poet, my dear. You deserve better.” She made a face. “I don’t suppose I’ll get a chance at him, anyway, now that you’re in mourning.

Mama will make me wait to see anyone until you’re available again.” “Good. I shouldn’t like to think of you marrying someone beneath you while I’m not around to prevent it.” Tossing back her head, she walked toward the door. “There’s something to be said for marrying for love, you know. I swear, sometimes you remind me of Mama in your opinions about marriage.” With that parting sally, she waltzed out, with her maid trailing behind her. How ridiculous. He was nothing like Aunt Cora, that grasping harpy. He was merely sensible.

Love didn’t enter his equations because it had no monetary value. When he married, it would be to some sensible woman who’d be content with having a wealthy dukedom at her disposal, who had no dreams of cloud castles and no hope for sentiment or love or any of that romantic nonsense from him. He had learned the hard way to guard his heart.

.

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