The Duke’s Dove – Lauren Smith

“IT’S A DAMN COLD NİGHT, eh, Nathan?” Nathan Powell, the Duke of Hastings, glanced in irritation at his younger brother, Lewis, who was just visible in the light from the coach lantern. The flame rippled and sputtered as the lantern rocked slightly with the moving conveyance. It was a poor night to be out on the road and traveling. Nathan’s mood was often dark of late, but now it was bleaker than ever. When they’d set out from his estate, only a few miles away, the skies were already heavy with winter storm clouds. It would be his luck to be snowed in for Christmas at someone else’s home. Christmas was a holiday he very much despised. It was a season of love, of joy, of hope. The three things he no longer had. But that was to be expected when he’d had his heart broken eight years ago. “Nathan, you didn’t have to come tonight.” Lewis’s usually teasing tone softened. “I know how you feel about this time of year. Perhaps you could try to enjoy it, just this once?” Lewis was only twenty-five, three years younger than Nathan, and he still had the fresh hope that youth carried when it came to the holidays. Nathan knew his brother didn’t mean to sound pitying, yet he did, and it set his teeth on edge.

As a duke, it was not his place to be pitied by anyone. His father had taught him that very well indeed. A duke was a man of power, and his very title demanded respect, even from his own family. “I promised Sir Giles I would make an appearance,” Nathan grumbled. Giles Pemberton had been a dear friend of his mother and father, more so to his mother than the late duke—that man had had few true friends. His sour demeanor and rigid control had left much to be desired when it came to forming lasting relationships with anyone, including his own wife and children. “Yes, well, I’m sure Sir Giles will be glad you came. I certainly am. It wouldn’t do at all to show up without you to something so grand as this.” Lewis’s mood was already brightening again as he seemed to be thinking ahead to the grand party that awaited them.

It had taken quite a bit of convincing from Lewis to make the party seem worthwhile for Nathan. He kept to himself these days, focusing on the tenant farms and his time spent in London while he served in the House of Lords. All else had lost meaning to him in the last several years. Life itself had withered away, each moment lacking a purpose, a reason to continue. I’ve become an empty shell. Lewis started speaking again, the entire conversation nearly one-sided—not that Nathan minded. He wasn’t even paying attention to what his brother was saying. Lewis was an easygoing sort and always had something to say, but Nathan no longer had the heart to participate. As children, they had been close, almost inseparable. When Nathan’s dreams for the future had been cut to pieces, his relationship with his brother, his mother —his relationships with everyone—had withered like a vine in winter.

Nathan gazed out the coach window, lost in thoughts as his eyes roved over the miles of snow-covered land. Lewis is a lucky devil. He envied Lewis’s freedom. As the head of his family, Nathan had few choices he could make freely. Even after obeying all the rules, he’d lost so much. Far too much. He buried the bittersweet memories deep in his splintered heart, welcoming the ache in his chest. It was a pain he deserved because he had caused it. “How much farther?” he growled. “He speaks at last,” Lewis said with a laugh.

“Any minute now.” His brother peered through the small coach window. “I believe I see the lights from the house.” They emerged from a line of evergreens to the welcoming sight of Pemberton Hall, the home of Sir Giles and his family. The lights from the house illuminated the white snow, casting a gold glow. A few coaches ahead of them were lined up before the grand doorway into the Palladian-style manor house. The hall itself was an expanse of tan stone nestled among trees that were laced with fresh snow. The windows on the ground floor were illuminated with candles, and Nathan could see the dancing couples as his coach stopped before the doors. “We’re here,” Lewis announced with a grin. For a brief moment his eyes locked with Nathan’s, and Nathan didn’t miss the hint of pain in Lewis’s eyes.

“I hope we’re in time for the festivities.” The words sounded a little forced, as though he feared he wouldn’t enjoy the evening if Nathan did not. That bothered Nathan greatly. Lewis was entitled to live his own life, make his own fortune, and choose his own fate. He didn’t deserve to suffer alongside Nathan. “It’s a ball. You’ll have hours to seduce the young ladies.” Nathan’s lips formed a thin smile as he attempted to tease his brother. It had been so long that he’d almost forgotten how. “I’m sure there’s plenty of mistletoe to aid you in your nefarious mission.

” “Seduction is nefarious? Gracious, I am quite a devil then,” Lewis quipped. “What about you, brother? Finally going to settle upon a duchess now that . ” He didn’t finish, but Nathan knew what words he’d nearly said. Now that you’re free of Father’s control. “Heavens, no. I plan to die without an heir so that you might inherit all the trouble.” Nathan did actually smile more naturally this time as he saw Lewis’s mock look of horror. “Never say so, Nathan. You know I’d make a terrible duke. Sitting all day in the House of Lords, listening to men bicker and gripe.

And apparently more than a few of those lords snore . ” His little brother shuddered. “Yes, we must find a young lady for you tonight, and you shall beget an heir at once, if only to spare your beloved brother from becoming a duke.” “You may be the only man in England who’d refuse a dukedom.” “And rightly so. What a mess I’d make of things,” Lewis said quite honestly. “Now, let’s see. Sir Giles sent me a list of who was invited to the ball. Shall I run down the names for you?” Since Nathan had no intention of actually seeking out a lady to marry, he found no harm in letting his brother play the matchmaker while they waited for a footman to assist them. “Very well, who is on this list of yours?” “There is an Italian countess recently widowed—Rafaela Sabatini.

Rumored to be quite a beauty, but likely has a temper. You know how those Italians can be.” “I think the term you’re searching for is passionate, Lewis. Italians are passionate.” “Right, passionate.” Lewis’s blue eyes glowed with mischief. “And then there’s Emma Christie, the daughter of Viscount Fordham. I hear she’s quite adept at cards. Never play against her if you value your coin.” “Lewis,” Nathan said with a chuckle.

“I’m sensing that the ladies who caught your attention all seem to have a bit of a vice.” “Well, vice is more interesting, isn’t it? Would you really want to meet a lady who has nothing interesting about her? A girl who paints silly watercolors or gossips over tea? Christ, no. A man needs a woman who has the same desire for a colorful and interesting life as he does.” Lewis declared this with such an air of ancient wisdom about him that Nathan decided Lewis had to be teasing him. “Very well, what of the boring chits? Regale me with tales of them,” Nathan demanded and bit his lip to hide a smile. “Boring chits . ” Lewis tapped his chin. “There’s always one or two Poncenbys running about. Pepper, I believe, is still unwed.” “Let us pass by Pepper.

I cannot stand that dandy she calls a brother.” “Very well, no Poncenbys. Well, the Russells might be there.” “I thought you said you were telling me about boring chits. Lysandra Russell is rumored to be a rather interesting eccentric, and I have no interest in tangling with her wild brothers, no matter how fascinating the lady might be.” Only then did Nathan see a gleam of cleverness in Lewis’s eyes that told him he’d played right into his brother’s plans. “Well, there is one more family worth mentioning. John Swann is in attendance tonight, along with his family.” Lewis rubbed his palms over his thighs in eagerness. “A multitude of opportunities there.

” “The Swanns are coming? Why didn’t you mention this from the very start? You know very well I wouldn’t have come. I . ” Nathan’s words died upon his lips. For a second, he couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. Would she be here tonight? The woman he’d loved and lost nearly a decade ago? “So I’ve been told. All seven of Swann’s daughters were invited.” Lewis cast a curious glance at Nathan. “Didn’t you almost propose to one of them? Thea, wasn’t it?” “You know damned well I planned to marry her before Father prevented it!” Nathan nearly snarled. His fury had returned. “That’s right .

Well, I was a young lad when you did that. I was more focused on putting frogs in the cook’s apron pockets than I was listening to you about your romantic affairs. I certainly avoided Father whenever I could,” Lewis reminded him gently, but it didn’t erase the blinding pain that filled Nathan’s chest. Theodosia Swann. My Thea. Even after all these years, Nathan’s heart still claimed her as its own. He’d only ever loved one woman, only ever wanted one woman. And despite having a duty to produce an heir, he could not envision a life with anyone else, not after having loved and lost Thea. He must live in this hell of his own making because he deserved it—because he’d broken her heart along with his own. She would be six and twenty years old by now, likely married to some man.

She would have a handful of children—children Nathan would have given anything to have fathered. “Surely most of the Swann sisters are married by now,” Lewis mused. “There might still be one or two young enough to . ” But Nathan ignored whatever Lewis said next, letting his thoughts run away with him, far back into the past.


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