Tempting the Ruined Duke – Olivia Bennet

The funeral chapel his mother had chosen was agreeable. That was no surprise – even as far as Munboro was from London, they still attracted a wellspring of competent labor. His father had worked hard to make sure the town was prospering. He was to be buried in the large burial ground behind the chapel rather than the family crypt per his last wishes. It was perhaps a little further away from his family seat than one would expect, but then Joseph Harper, late Duke of Munboro, had always gone his own way. It was one thing he and Jeremy had in common. The spot wasn’t bad, either. It was right beneath a big old oak. The flower arrangements were purple and white. The ceremony was beautiful. His mother always had good taste. There were many people inside the back room. All mourning the loss of their beloved Duke. Nobody noticed him slipping in, he was just another face in the crowd. Nobody recognized him.

Nobody pretended to, either. It had been five years since he’d ran away to the sea – fed up with the confines imposed on him as Marquess Steelboro and only son of the Duke. He had wanted to be free. He knew that as far as these people – the Haute Ton – were concerned, he was dead to them. Dead for five years now. He might have been dead the minute he stepped out of the safe walls of Munboro and onto a sailing vessel to explore the wide seas. He had been everywhere from the Far East to India, and had explored the dark continent from tip to tail. He had run into pirates, been injured in battle – had the scars to prove it – and still, he had not come home. He watched from the back as they lowered the coffin into the ground; he didn’t want to disturb the polite farewell rituals. Not on his behalf.

His father had never truly loved him, so he wouldn’t have much to say and it wouldn’t matter to the late Duke if he was there or not. As long as his legacy continued, his father was not one to care for much else than his horses and his dogs. Even his wife – much as she doted upon her husband – came second to those. He snorted quietly, shaking his head. They had all been bit players in the great production that was Joseph Harper’s life but his mother had never seen it that way. She continued to be disappointed that Jeremy did not worship at the altar of his father’s greatness – as she did. She could not understand his antipathy. Jeremy supposed he could not blame her. For all intents and purposes, the late Duke had been a great man. After he was interred, the company filed back to Munboro Hall for refreshments, but Jeremy took the opportunity to bid his father a private goodbye.

He squatted staring down at the coffin before collecting a handful of dirt and letting it slide between his fingers onto the coffin. “I wish we had a chance to meet once again, Father. Rest in peace.” He got to his feet, staring at the tip of the Hall just visible through the trees. He wondered if he should go there or simply return to his friend Daniel’s house where he was currently staying. It was not as if he would be missed. He was not sure why he deigned to return to the Hall afterward. It was filled with charlatans and dissemblers, members of the Haute Ton who had spoken ill of his father behind his back but fawned on him to his face. His mother looked grief-stricken and inattentive to all, various important townspeople, probably come to remind the Dowager that she owed them goodwill or something. Jeremy took a step toward her, wondering if his approach would help or harm.

She was smiling; but not in a way that Jeremy remembered her smiling. The corners of her eyes didn’t crinkle. When she noticed him, her stare passed right by him, without stopping. And then her smile faded, and her body tensed. On second thought, there was no way that she did not notice him. Although she did not glance back at him, her rigid neck, her very stiffness gave her away. She was probably afraid that Jeremy would still be there if her eyes returned to the spot. Or perhaps she was afraid that he would not. Well, he would definitely still be there. Because he was not a ghost.

Not yet. And if he was, he was back now to haunt them all with his repugnant scars and abrupt manner. He was the new Duke and much as no one would be glad of it, there was nothing for it but to wear the mantle with as much dignity as he could muster. His mother touched the ring on her finger – then hid it. She was surrounded by mourners intent on having at least a word with her. His mother smiled again, the fake curt smile, then nodded and ducked into the other room. Jeremy followed her. It was quiet here. It was a small room adjoining the conservatory that had belonged to his mother for as long as he remembered. The door creaked behind him as it closed.

His mother was standing in front of a painting of the late Duke, her breathing erratic. “Did you really forget my face?” His mother covered her eyes. “You cannot be here, it is impossible.” She chanted it a few more times, each time getting a bit quieter, until it turned into a whisper, and then nothing more. She just stood there, frozen, waiting for something to happen. She turned around to face him and froze as if she didn’t know how to react, eyes wide, not daring to breathe. “Your Grace, where did you—” the voice stopped short on seeing them facing off against each other. Jeremy exhaled and put a smile on his face as he turned toward a familiar-looking man who had simply barged into the room. “You must be Mr. Gilbert Notley – the steward if memory serves?” He said.

“And who are you?” Gilbert moved quickly past him, ignoring his extended hand, and stopped in front of his mother. At least he was protective of her. “You must have heard of me,” he answered, “but we never properly met. I’m Lord Steelboro, or I should probably say I’m Munboro now.” “The Duke’s son? The one who is said to have died at sea—?” Gilbert glanced at the Dowager, but it seemed like the matter was confirmed if only by her expression. “Still very much alive.” Jeremy murmured. Louisa startled awake, opening her eyes and looking around for the threat. She realized but a moment later that she had been dreaming and everything was fine. She sat up in bed and sighed.

The sun was nothing but a hint of pinks and oranges on the horizon. She stared through her open curtains left that way for just this purpose; wondering whether she had time to commit the scene to paper, before the Great Artist in the sky replaced the blue blackness tinged with peach and apricot, with blue skies and cheerful white clouds. She leaned forward toward the tiny desk beside her bed, picking up a piece of charcoal and a paper and making a quick outline. She slid out of bed and ran to her armoire which was littered with brushes and paints. Quickly setting up beside the window, she did her best to have at least the broad strokes of the scene before her – Munboro waking to a new day – laid out on the canvas. The rest she would fill in from memory. It was a common pastime of hers; trying to capture the majesty of a truly spectacular sunrise. She had not yet completed a painting that she was satisfied with, but every day brought a new opportunity to try again. A knock at the door distracted her and she realized she was still in her night gown. “A moment please!” she called, knowing full well that it was her father behind the door, summoning her for breakfast.

They lived a fairly simple life. Americus Notley made a living as a portrait painter and his work was quite revered among the nobility. It kept him busy and earned him a fair living. Enough to employ a maid of all work so that Louisa did not have to be concerned with household chores and could dedicate her time to perfecting her craft. She despaired of ever being anywhere near as competent as her father but he always said she was a better painter than he was. Louisa was quite sure he was cutting shams to make her feel better about her work – she appreciated it anyway. Another knock on the door had her tripping toward it. Her father liked for them to break their fast together and say a prayer before they began their day. If Americus had a commission, they would go and fulfill it. If not, they would work on their own personal projects.

Today, they were starting a new project. The old Duke of Munboro had sadly passed away and his son had taken over the title. The Dowager Duchess had commissioned her father to do his commemorative portrait. It had caused quite a stir because as far as the townspeople knew, the former Marquess of Steelboro had been lost at sea. To have him suddenly back among them was eliciting quite a lot of excitement. Louisa knew for a fact that the local dressmaker was seeing an increase in business as mothers with eligible daughters scrambled to deck them out as attractively as possible. It was amusing to Louisa and she was glad that she was not one of those poor ladies. She had no interest in being a wife when she could be a painter. She tripped down the stairs, a ready smile on her face as she came face to face with her father who was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs. He smiled back, just as pleased to see her.

“Good morning my dear, and how did you sleep?” he offered her his arm and she took it with a nod. “Good morning, Father. I slept quite well. How about you?” “My slumber was sound and peaceful,” he smiled wide at her as he said it, leading her to the kitchen where they would have their repast in company with Theodosia, their maid of all work. Her father seated her before nodding to the maid. “Good morning all, about time you came down. The eggs are cooling.” Theodosia chided. Louisa smiled happily and tucked in, listening with amusement as her father explained to Theodosia that no, the new Duke had not come back to life but had in actuality, not been dead in the first place. She was looking forward to meeting him – for sure he would have some tales to tell.

Normally she would not presume that a duke would spare time for the likes of her, but according to local legend, this particular duke had run away to sea in order to avoid the trappings of his position. That gave Louisa hope that he would not feel that she was too much beneath his touch to speak to. Of course, she knew that her main occupation was going to be to assist her father with his task of getting the Duke on canvas. But she had learned that many people were uncomfortable with posing for hours and sometimes, making conversation helped. She truly hoped that the new Duke was one of those for she was eager to hear tales of far off places she would never visit. Jeremy walked into the dining room and came to a stop when he saw his mother by the window, staring out at something he could not see. “Mother?” She jumped, before turning to stare at him with wide eyes. “Are you quite all right?” “I-I’m fine.” Jeremy had noticed how skittish she was – he didn’t know if it was his father’s death that did it or if she had been like that for a while. There was really no one he could ask because he was not about to gossip with the help about his mother, and they had no nearby relatives who might know.

Jeremy moved to the table and sat down, his mother imitating him after a momentary hesitation. Miles, the butler, entered the room on cue and poured him a cup of tea. He picked up a plate filling it with eggs, kippers, and fresh bread before placing it in front of Jeremy. “Just some porridge for me, Miles,” his mother said quietly. “Very good Your Grace,” the butler said before disappearing through the side door. He was back before long with his mother’s porridge. Jeremy watched as she spooned it into her mouth, his brow furrowed. Something was wrong with his mother – he could see that – but he did not know what to do about it. She ate her porridge quietly, not saying a word and Jeremy took his cue from her, drizzling honey onto his bread and biting thoughtfully into it, as he tried to think what to do about her. Suddenly she looked up at him.

“The painter’s coming today,” she said. “I beg your pardon?” “The painter is coming today,” she repeated as if he had not heard what she said. “Whatever for?” She gave a small laugh. “Why to paint your portrait of course,” she said. “My portrait? Since when was I–” “It’s tradition. You are the new Duke. Your picture will be added to the gallery.” Jeremy was bereft of words. If it was left to him, he would be happy to go through life without another glance at his features in a looking glass. He was altogether too aware of the meandering scar that ran from his temple to his jaw, barely missing his eye.

The softened, misshapen skin of his arm, whiter than the rest of his flesh where the black tar had splashed on him. The ship’s bosun had been intending to injure him badly enough to render him incapacitated having made a deal with a group of pirates to take over his ship. It was fate or luck that his cabin boy had pushed him out of the way…and had therefore taken the brunt of the attack to his back. Jeremy still had nightmares of his screaming. He also had a stab wound to his side from the subsequent fight in which he had to kill the bosun. Every time he thought of it, he felt like a failure. He did not think that a portrait of him was something he was interested in. “Mother, can we please put it off for a few days? I still have many affairs to become acquainted with–” he tried. “ T h e p ain t e r is c o min g t o d a y, ” t h e D o w a g e r D u c h e s s s aid fir mly, cle a rly u n p r e p a r e d t o b r o o k a n y r e sis t a n c e.

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