The Duke and the Siren – Jessie Clever

Duchesses did not open doors. Propriety dictated a servant do so. But when the knocking was as frantic as this was, and she was in such close proximity to the door on which the knocking occurred, it seemed only prudent that she answer it. Viv pulled open the front door of Ashbourne Manor and in tumbled a thoroughly sodden young man. The day was cold and sleeting as was expected at the seashore in December, but it was all the more unfriendly for what the day marked. It was Viv’s twenty-eighth birthday. She had been careful not to think of it. As her birthday was only three days after Christmas, she was still in residence with the rest of her family at Ashbourne Manor as it had become custom to gather in Glenhaven, the home of her brother-in-law’s country seat. She did not explicitly request to be alone on said birthday, but she need only make mention to her sister Eliza and the rest would be taken care of. Eliza was just the type of person to understand a suggestion like that. Because every time Viv looked at Eliza’s son, George, a pain so terrible she was afraid it would rob her of her breath erupted in her chest. She was eight and twenty, and she should have had a son of her own by now. But that’s not how things had transpired. Instead she was a wife without a husband, a wife without children, a woman stuck in limbo because of her husband’s adultery. So she’d spent the morning rambling through the halls of Ashbourne Manor wondering how she could possibly be the only married spinster in all of creation while the rest of the family had taken young George to see the dairy cow who herself was carrying a babe she would have come spring.

Even dairy cows were having babies instead of her. “Dear heavens, are you all right?” Viv said now to the puddle of young man on the vestibule carpet. “Quite all right, miss,” the young man stammered as he sloshed to his feet. The first she caught of his face, it was turning red as the man finally registered to whom he was speaking. “Your Grace!” he nearly shouted as he surged to his feet, his arms rigid at his sides as if he thought he were reporting to a military commander. “I do beg your pardon. I didn’t know it was you.” He eyed the door warily. “Did you just answer the door, ma’am?” Viv studied the young man. “Geoffrey?” The young man pulled his soaked cap from his head, droplets of icy rainwater springing from his red curls.

“Yes, Your Grace.” He gave a respectful bow. “I’m very sorry, ma’am. But there’s been an accident.” Geoffrey was the son of the stable manager at Margate Hall. Her husband’s country seat. While she registered his words, they made little sense. “An accident? Well, that’s terrible, but I’m sure it mustn’t be so bad as to—” “His Grace is dying, ma’am. You must come at once.” Geoffrey’s words flew from his lips so quickly, she stood mesmerized by his features.

The way his eyes went wide with pronouncement and yet instantly narrowed with concern. The way his chin wobbled with pain. Was it for Ryder or was it for her? Horribly, it made her want to laugh because in just that moment she experienced a flutter of relief at the possibility—well, to put it rather cruelly—that she might be freed from the prison of her marriage should her husband die. The young man’s lips wobbled as if reluctant to say more, but she already knew the rest. “The phaeton,” she said. Geoffrey’s face flushed, and her mind wandered, picturing Ryder the day he’d procured his beloved high-flyer. He’d acquired it from Weatherby’s, the most renowned phaeton manufacturer in London. The day had been crisp with the subtlest hint of warmth the first days of spring have to offer. She recalled the almost boyish enthusiasm evident in Ryder’s smile when Weatherby himself presented Ryder with his phaeton. Her husband had swung himself up into the vehicle without hesitation and snapped the reins for the horses to carry him off.

He’d left her standing on the pavement. A flash of anger surged through her. He’d loved that phaeton more than he loved her. Morbid thought that it was, she found it somehow fitting that it might now be the cause of her husband’s demise. “Your Grace, you must leave at once,” Geoffrey said, and she had a feeling it was not the first time he’d spoken the words, so lost had she been in her own memories. For the first time, she realized Geoffrey’s teeth chattered, and without further thought, she took his arm and pulled him into the drawing room off the vestibule to plant him squarely in front of the fire. The carpet beneath his feet was soaked within moments, and he gratefully tugged his gloves from his hands, holding his likely frozen fingers up to the flames. She witnessed this, and yet she didn’t. She was suddenly lost in her own mind, her thoughts sloshing back and forth between the cruelty of death and the tantalizing wisps of happiness that awaited her should she become a widow. It was as though her thoughts were tangible and her mind an empty cavern.

The thoughts tumbled and bounced and seemed to echo in the emptiness of her suspended existence. She could remarry. She could have children. She could have… This. Her eyes wandered the room, taking in the evidence of a happy family gathering. George’s wooden block tower, scattered across the floor from when he’d knocked it over in his first clumsy attempts at running. The ottoman Sebastian had used to prop up Louisa’s feet. She was due to have their first child in three months’ time and how her feet swelled. The red and green tapers burned down to nubs on the piano where they spent the evenings singing Christmas carols. She could have a Christmas of her own with her own babes and a loving husband.

She could be happy if only… If only Ryder Maxen, the Duke of Margate, would simply die. No, you wouldn’t. The thought skittered through her mind silencing all the rest of them, and she closed her eyes against it. She wouldn’t be free of Ryder when he died because she still loved him. “Your Grace, I must insist you come at once. You see…” Geoffrey’s voice stumbled, and she opened her eyes to watch him. He swallowed. “His Grace is in a bad way, ma’am. The doctor gave him laudanum straightaway, but—” Geoffrey licked his lips nervously. “Well, the duke is not making sense, you see.

But one thing we understood, ma’am.” “What is it?” Somehow she knew she didn’t want to know what it was. “Well, ma’am, he’s asking for you.” Later, when she had time to reflect, she would identify this as the moment her very person split in two. Half of her wanted nothing to do with the matter. Half of her wanted to wrap her arms around her hurt and hide until Ryder’s death was nothing but another event in the timeline of her sorry marriage. She craved that thought. The idea of just slipping away, disappearing until it was all no more, and she could start anew. But the pleasure she derived from such thoughts faded as quickly as it came. Because at heart, she was Lady Vivianna Darby.

And Lady Vivianna Darby never shirked her duty. She went to the corner of the room and tugged the bell pull. When Mrs. Donnelly, the housekeeper, arrived, Viv gave instructions to fetch food and drink for Geoffrey and to see if any of the footmen had suitable dry clothing for him. If they were to leave immediately, it would simply be torture for Geoffrey to continue in the same sodden clothes. She sent a footman to find her sisters as she made her way to her rooms. Her lady’s maid was already filling trunks when Viv finally arrived. “Pack everything, Samuels. We shan’t know what is to happen, and it would be best if we’re prepared for anything. We’ll sort it out when we get to Margate.

” “Very good, ma’am.” The woman gave a sharp nod as she disappeared into the dressing room. Viv called after her. “Do pack a single bag for me to carry on horseback. Just the things I’ll need for this evening.” “Yes, ma’am,” Samuels called from the other room without question. Viv shed her morning gown just as her door flung open, bouncing against the wall behind it. “Viv, what’s happened?” Eliza strode into the room first, Johanna helping poor Louisa to shuffle in behind. Her dear middle sister was clearly out of breath from the walk from the barns, and Viv pulled out the dressing table chair, pushing Louisa into it. “Did you make her run?” She asked the accusing question of Johanna, the youngest of the sisters and the most likely to goad her sister on.

“Make her run?” Johanna’s eyebrows went up. “I was holding her back. A woman in her condition shouldn’t be moving with such zest.” She spoke the last word as it were some kind of tropical disease. Louisa opened her mouth as if to retort, but sensible Eliza interrupted. “Viv, what’s happened, darling?” she said again, although more softly this time. Viv didn’t realize she was still holding the back of the dressing table chair until the wood bit into the softness of her palms. She released her grip and gathered her courage before meeting Eliza’s gaze. “It appears Margate has finally pushed his luck too far. He crashed his phaeton.

They say he’s dying, and I must come at once.” She didn’t know why she kept the fact that he’d asked for her to herself, but for some strange reason, she wanted to keep it her secret. An odd look came over Louisa’s face, and Viv thought she might have mistaken it for something else like curiosity, but then Louisa said, “Oh, Viv, I’m so sorry.” It sounded like she meant to say more, so Viv waited. Finally, Louisa licked her lips and said, “Well, I’m just surprised to find you’re going to him. After everything. But I suppose…well, it’s none of my concern.” Louisa was right. Why should Viv run to his bedside when his carelessness had finally caught up with him? Because you love him still. No.

She shoved the thought away as soon as it came. No, it wasn’t that. It was because she was a Darby at heart. And a Darby never let anyone down. As she stood there in her bedchamber, her three sisters before her, she knew with greater certainty that was the heart of the matter. Four years ago she’d returned home to ensure her sisters would never suffer the same fate she had, and now here they were. Eliza happily wed and a mother to precious George. Louisa newly wed and her first babe on the way. And Johanna. Viv’s heart squeezed whenever she saw Johanna.

For reasons only known to her, Johanna had been reluctant to enter the marriage mart, and so nearly four years later, she was still unwed. Viv could not forget that. She would do her duty by her husband, and she would return to London in time for the season. She would see Johanna wed in the coming year. She would be certain of it. “Oh, Viv, that’s terrible,” Eliza whispered, her brow creased with concern. “I’ll have the carriage fetched—” “No.” Viv hadn’t meant the word to be so sharp. It was just the urgency that gnawed at her now that the decision was made. But had she really made a decision? Of course, she would go to Ryder.

How pathetic to think it. But this wasn’t about unrequited love. This was simply a matter of duty. She softened her voice. “I must go on horseback. A carriage will take too long.” “You’re going to ride to Margate on horseback?” The note of incredulity in Johanna’s voice was alarming. Of all the sisters, it was most like Johanna to take on such a feat as a midwinter ride through the English countryside from one end of Sussex to the opposite end of Kent. For the first time, Viv felt a niggle of trepidation for what she was about to endure. But hadn’t Geoffrey just traversed the same course and in the middle of an ink-black night no less? She tugged on the trousers she would wear beneath her split skirts.

“I must go as quickly as possible. Horseback is the only option.” Samuels emerged from the dressing room then with the shirt and jacket that completed the outfit. Viv fingered the fine fabric with a sinking heart. She’d need her cloak with the fur trim and yards and yards of scarves. Perhaps Mrs. Donnelly would see to some warming stones for her pockets. “You can’t make that ride by yourself,” Eliza said, not with a note of criticism but rather with marked practicality. “You’ll need protection if you plan to ride on the open road. If only Andrew hadn’t left yesterday,” she said, referring to their brother, the Duke of Ravenwood.

Andrew had returned to London yesterday to attend to business matters, but she knew he really just wanted some quiet time to himself. With a house full of sisters, these few days before they returned after the holidays was the only chance he got for some peace. She did up the last of the buttons on the jacket as Samuels pulled at the pins in her hair, releasing the red-gold locks in a cascade down her back. “I’ll have Geoffrey, the stable master’s son. He’s the one who came with the news.” “That little boy we saw in the front drawing room?” Louisa’s voice nearly squeaked with concern. “You’d get more protection from Henry.” Henry was Eliza’s collie, and honestly, Louisa was not wrong in this regard. Samuels’s deft fingers finished plaiting her hair, and she tucked the long braid into the back of Viv’s jacket. It was bad enough she would be forced to wear split skirts.

She didn’t want to attract attention with her brilliant hair. “Be that as it may, it’s my only choice.” She answered Louisa, but her gaze was on Eliza. Her sister placed a hand at Johanna’s elbow. “Let’s let her finish getting ready. We’ll send your things along behind you in the carriage.” Viv could only nod her thanks as Samuels tightened the last of the jacket’s ties. The room seemed suddenly empty when her sisters had departed, but in her mind, there existed nothing but clear resolution. She would make the torturous ride to Margate. She would fulfill her duty.

There was nothing else to be done. It was only minutes later when she reached the vestibule, her riding boots ringing in the sudden quiet. The past few days had been filled with her family’s usual boisterousness, the laughter and the good cheer. It was gone now, and only the sound of a winter rain, weak and half-hearted, beat at the windows. Her sisters and their husbands were lined up at the front door. Mrs. Donnelly was the first to step forward, though, two towels held between her hands. “Warming stones, ma’am,” she said, and Viv couldn’t help a smile. Mrs. Donnelly would have known, of course.

Viv took them with a nod and slipped the warm towels into the pockets of her jacket beneath the heavy cloak she’d donned. She gave each of her sisters a hug and kiss, their goodbyes brief. It wasn’t as if she were never to see them again. They were all being terribly maudlin about the whole thing. She was only riding across the countryside. Just then a gust of sea wind blasted against the manor house, and the panes of glass shook in the windows flanking the door. The party in the vestibule stilled, their eyes traveling ominously to the manor’s exterior walls. Viv gave Eliza a quick hug before moving to the door. She must be brisk about this or she would change her mind. After all, what did she owe Ryder? But that was just it.

She owed him nothing. He, however, owed her everything. And she would start with an explanation. If he stayed alive long enough. Dax, Eliza’s husband, stopped her at the door. “I understand you know how to use one of these.” He handed her a black velvet pouch, the weight and shape of it leaving no question as to its contents. “Yes, I used to shoot with my father.” She took the pouch, slipping it into the pocket of her skirt. She was no fool.

She would welcome any means of safety including a pistol. “I wish I could ride with you.” His face was stern with gravity. “You know I would never allow you to leave Eliza and George.” “I would expect as much from you.” He pressed a kiss to her cheek, and not bothering with propriety, opened the door himself. It seemed everyone was capable of opening doors that day. The icy sea wind struck her full in the face, needling her tender skin until she could raise her scarf so only her eyes were bared to the onslaught. Geoffrey stood there with two fresh horses, harnessed and biting at the bit. She felt a pang of remorse that Geoffrey would be forced to endure yet another icy ride, but she had little choice.

She needed his protection as a male on this journey, and she would not ask another to fulfill such a role. Not for Ryder. He didn’t deserve it. They would need to swap horses several times over the journey, and she only hoped they would find such fine horseflesh along the route. Without another word, she strode forward and lifted herself into the saddle of the closest horse. With Ashbourne Manor at her back, she struck off onto the icy drive that would lead them to the road, ready to face her fate.

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