The Duke’s Privateer – Amy Jarecki

Eleanor Kent stepped nearer to the meticulous, hand-painted wallpaper, examining the green bamboo shoots festooned with exotic birds. The mural stood out against a blossom-pink background, stretching upward to the illusion of a pagoda roof trimmed with the authentic brass bells she’d smuggled into Brighton from India. This commission from the prince regent marked the pinnacle of a successful career. Eleanor had been contracted to supply Prinny with superb chinoiserie to immerse his guests in the mysterious world of the Orient here in his lavish pavilion. Once a meager dwelling, the regent’s Brighton retreat was swiftly being transformed into a palatial residence, one fitting of a future king. Moving along, Eleanor’s chest swelled as she stepped beside a life-sized statue of a Mandarin chancellor. Adorned in ornate robes, the figure was painted with such attention to detail, the cloth appeared to be satin. She’d brought it and the pagoda lanterns hanging above from Constantinople, having personally inspected the shipment before allowing it to be included in her ship’s cargo—though no one had a clue she owned the King’s Jewel. “The sculpture is so lifelike, I wouldn’t be shocked if the fellow winked,” said a deep voice from behind. Though the words filled her with pride, Eleanor kept her expression impassive as she turned. A gasp caught in her throat when she met the hawkish gaze of Sherborn Price, the Duke of Danby. Why the devil had Prinny invited him? Indubitably, the two men were on a par when it came to rakishness, but Danby was dangerous. Not only because he could destroy a woman with those hooded, terribly enchanting green eyes, or make any female swoon with a mere quirk of the corner of his mouth, but the man standing beside her could utterly ruin Eleanor’s empire with a stroke of his quill. Through her good fortune, she didn’t know the man well. Indeed, they had been introduced once or twice, which opened the door for him to initiate a conversation now.

Bowing her head, she gave a polite curtsey. “It is, Your Grace. In truth, I was just watching the Mandarin chancellor, daring him to make a mortal gesture.” He grasped her gloved hand and drew it to his lips as he bowed. “Miss Kent.” She gulped, disappointed that he’d recalled her name, regardless of the fluttering of her traitorous heart. She pulled her hand from his fingers and rubbed away the tingling sensation. No matter how much Eleanor desired to flee toward another guest with whom to engage in conversation, she stood immobile. In the scarlet-hooded light of the gallery, Danby’s allure was as tempting to her as honeysuckle to a hummingbird. Brushing an errant curl away from her cheek, she allowed herself a moment to admire his symmetrical face, smooth skin, lips full enough to suit high cheekbones crested by a straight, Nordic nose.

Though what truly made the duke striking was the intensity of his gaze, presently focused on her. “Has your escort stepped out?” he asked. “Above stairs,” she said as if that explained everything. Which it did not. Eleanor had traveled to Brighton with her lady’s maid, a footman, and a coachman, which she had done all along when overseeing George’s chinoiserie remodeling project. In truth, Eleanor had made an art of sidestepping societal norms required of unwed women of the ton. Besides, she wasn’t only seven and twenty, she was a self-proclaimed spinster, a bluestocking, and a woman of the world—not that it was any of Danby’s affair. A single eyebrow arched as he glanced toward the stairs. “Enamored with exotic sculpted art, are you, Miss Kent?” “I wouldn’t venture that far,” she fibbed—few knew she was an exceptional purveyor of many different art forms and more. “However, I’m never one to ignore a fine piece when I see it.

” “And this.” He motioned to the chancellor with an upturned palm, giving her a chance to inspect Danby’s velvet, double-breasted cutaway coat, the collar fashionably high, emphasizing an exquisitely tied, perfectly white neckcloth. “Is fine in your estimation?” “Only the best for the prince.” “Ah, yes. Prinny and this farmhouse.” Eleanor flicked open her fan and chuckled behind it. “I say, he’s done a great deal to ensure no one ever refers to his little palace thus again.” “I gather.” “Have you seen the latest addition?” “Are you referring to Nash’s monstrous iron framework flanking the two ends of this… ah…extravagance?” “I am.” With a flourish of one hand, she snapped her fan closed.

“Styled after the palaces of India, it will be a renowned tribute to the Orient and like no other royal residence in all of Christendom.” Those assessing eyes raked down and up her body. “You seem to be quite well apprised of the prince’s plans.” Eleanor glanced away. Perhaps she’d been a tad too exuberant. She’d best plead ignorance or risk further examination by His Grace. Danby was not only a rogue of the highest order, he was closely aligned with the prime minister, which was a flaming red flag as far as she was concerned. Anything more than an acquaintance with the duke could prove perilous to her business dealings, regardless if the prince favored her. The corners of her mouth tightened as she raised her chin. “Why, anyone in Prinny’s confidence knows of his plans for the pavilion.

Would you not agree?” “Hmm,” he mused without conviction just as the Prince of Wales, Prinny to his friends, George to many, stepped beside them. The host rocked back on his heels as he rubbed a hand around an embroidered silk waistcoat, buttoned snugly across his enormous stomach. “I’m happy to see two of my dearest friends are acquainted.” The duke turned a critical eye toward Eleanor. Surely he was thinking the worst. After all, the prince had a reputation for rakishness, and she was a spinster attending a royal dinner, whose escort was nowhere to be seen. “We were just admiring your Mandarin statue. He is quite realistic, is he not?” Biting the inside of her cheek, Eleanor remained a picture of placidness. Prinny knew better than to say she was, in a term, his privateer. Though Eleanor would never entertain a liaison with the prince.

She was in his confidence and he in hers. Of course, she had many other customers to whom she sold rare treasures, but the prince was a special case. Working for him helped to ensure her dealings, which took place behind the façade of a legitimate import business, were always hidden from the public eye and never under the scrutiny of any parliamentary investigations. “The Mandarin chancellor is one of the prized artifacts in this chamber.” Prinny bowed his head her way. “Thanks to the Honorable Eleanor Kent.” Eleanor could have melted where she stood. Had the prince regent just told the prime minister’s hound that she’d been involved with this outrageously expensive venture? The duke’s second eyebrow joined his first, almost popping off his broad forehead while his green eyes grew enormously round. Eleanor had thought them simply green, but as they stood staring at each other, she realized Danby’s eyes were a deep shade of moss—eyes that looked as if they harbored a hundred secrets. “Do tell me more,” he said, his voice deeper, lulling, and far too seductive.

A spike of heat spread across the back of Eleanor’s neck. Is he fishing? Prinny seemed to take no notice of her discomfort as he spread his arms, gesturing from wall to wall. “Miss Kent has been of tremendous assistance with the chinoiserie aspects of the pavilion.” Affecting a serene smile, Eleanor tapped the fan to her chin. “Merely in an advisory capacity.” “You are an expert?” asked the duke. The prince beckoned a footman and helped himself to a glass of champagne. “Indeed, she is.” Danby took two glasses, passing one to Eleanor. “I am duly impressed.

” “No need. I enjoy antiquity. I studied Oriental art at finishing school and have been fortunate enough to travel on occasion.” She sipped, then added for good measure, “When my father was well.” It wasn’t exactly the truth. Her father had never taken her outside of England, though once she’d given up on the marriage mart and seized her independence, she’d had no choice but to travel. Extensively. Danby raised his glass. “Ah yes, Viscount Lisle. How is he, may I ask?” Eleanor did not mirror the toast.

“You know of his infirmity?” “A casualty of war, I’m afraid,” Prinny interjected. “Still confined to his bed, is he not, Eleanor? A shame, a horrible shame.” Her heart squeezed as it always did whenever the subject of her father arose. “He is, as he has been for the past decade.” The last word strangled in her throat. Papa had been trapped within the confines of his own mind for so long, she hardly remembered what he’d been like before the war—the man he’d been before her mother passed. “Agreed, Bonaparte inflicted far too much pain and suffering, both on our men as well as the women who remained home.” Eleanor knew very well the agony of being left behind while her father went off to fight with the fifth coalition. Not only did she face her first Season alone, she discovered her father had left the estate in financial ruin. Fortunately, the Baroness of Derby had taken Eleanor under her wing.

However, as a penniless gentlewoman, she’d had no choice but to find a way to fill the family coffers or face ruination. Perhaps it was fate. Now she controlled a dynasty. Her father had the best physicians and orderlies money could buy, their estates were in good order and, when the viscounty passed to her second cousin once removed, she had enough tucked away to live out her days in supreme comfort. “Were you in the wars?” she asked, shifting the conversation away from the duke’s scrutiny. “The seventh coalition. Served under Wellington.” “Waterloo,” she whispered before all heads turned toward the tinkle of a delicate bell. “Dinner is served,” announced the steward. The prince offered his elbow.

“This eve I desire to escort Miss Kent and Lady Jersey to the table and, I daresay, the menu will be spectacular.” “It always is,” agreed the Countess of Jersey, taking Prinny’s opposite elbow. “You do know how to entertain, Your Highness.” Over her shoulder, Eleanor cast a glance at Danby. Lord only knew why she did, but the man was staring at her with a most contemplative expression. And it made her far too uneasy. He was as beautiful as nightshade and the jumping in the pit of her stomach was nothing but a warning. She swiftly averted her gaze. When in doubt, always go with your intuition. Regardless of his allure, keep that man at arm’s length.

SHER SET his champagne glass on the footman’s tray as he followed the prince into the banqueting hall. He’d never attended one of Prinny’s dinners when George hadn’t selected the two most beautiful women in attendance to sit beside him. Even the members of the ton referred to his blatant show of favoritism as the regent’s “promiscuous eating seating”. Good God, Prinny had to be the most gregarious man in Britain. He even sat in a padded throne at the center of the table rather than at the head where every other man of his house sat. Bless him for his entertaining spirit—though he’d already bankrupted the country twice. In that vein, the prime minister labored behind the scenes, doing everything in his power to pull the kingdom out of financial ruin. Moreover, the fellow had made a boisterous plea in the House of Lords and, after a great deal of posturing, Sher had been tasked with leading the charge to rid Britain’s shores of smugglers. In truth, he had his reservations in taking on such a daunting commission even though his role was purely to provide oversight and guidance. A row of footmen stood at attention in the doorway, the first gesturing toward the table.

“This way, Your Grace.” Danby followed like a well-trained minion. Of late, the only time he wasn’t at the top of the pecking order was when he was a guest of the prince regent. Unable to swallow his grin, he was pleased to be shown to the chair beside Miss Kent, where he stood until all the women had been seated. “I see the prince has spared no expense,” he said, sweeping his gaze over his place setting, including a silver table service flanked by a gold gilt wineglass cooler filled with crushed ice to chill the three glasses to his right. But this was nothing compared to the lavish display in the center of the table—the gold candelabrum, the crystal decanters between every two guests, numerous silver, glass-lined salt cellars, gilt fruit baskets, and the list went on. Miss Kent shifted toward him while a footman filled her wineglass. “A little bird told me to save room. After the four soups, there will be three removes of fish, followed by no fewer than twenty entrees.” “Twenty?” Sher groaned.

“We’ll be here all night.” “Quite. Surely you’ve dined with George before.” He had, and the last time it was well past midnight when the feast finally came to an end. “He never changes.” “No, though I fear the desserts the most.” “Are you not fond of sweets?” “Overly so. However, I prefer to enjoy one rather than fifteen.” Sher sat back as a bowl of consommé was placed in front of him. “Lord save us all.

” Miss Kent’s shoulders shook with a hint of a chuckle. “Bear up, Your Grace. This, too, shall pass.” As he selected the soup spoon and started into this marathon, Sher watched the lady out of the corner of his eye. It was interesting that she had been privy to the evening’s menu. When he’d first encountered Miss Kent alone, he’d also found it curious to see her unescorted. After all, she was the daughter of a viscount. Initially, he’d suspected she might be Prinny’s latest conquest. However, once Lady Jersey, the prince’s mistress, appeared in the gallery, Sher’s misgivings had been quashed. He didn’t know an awful lot about Viscount Lisle’s daughter, except that she attended the odd social engagement and always appeared to be dressed in the latest fashion just as she was this night, wearing a crystal-embellished lavender gown obviously tailored by London’s best.

Every time Danby saw her, he was reminded of Miss Kent’s radiance—blue eyes, thick auburn hair pinned up in a spray of curls, and skin like fresh cream. No doubt every man in the hall was stealing glimpses of pure, feminine beauty. Why had she never married? True, her father’s care must pose a heavy burden, but any man worth his salt would understand the viscount’s needs and marry the woman regardless, even if she had no dowry. Danby thoughtfully raised his spoon to his lips. Hadn’t Lisle fallen on hard times? Was that not why he’d taken the naval commission? But if he had, how could his daughter oft be clad as richly as a queen? Watching her beneath his lashes, he wondered if her consulting work provided enough income to keep her well-clad. If so, hopefully there was plenty to provide care for her father as well. The poor woman must be rife with worry, needing to keep herself in good standing while caring for the viscount. What a stalwart lady, indeed. Looking at her, no one would have a clue how much she must suffer in the privacy of her home. “My mother is quite fond of chinoiserie,” Sher blurted.

If Prinny employed Miss Kent to advise on the latest Oriental fashions, then his mother ought to benefit from reappointing one room or another. Perhaps Lisle’s daughter could advise on the redecoration of the entry at his town house in London, or the library, drawing room, whatever Mama might think up to help support the lovely and her father. It might even provide a bit of a diversion to see her about the town house from time to time. Not that Sher had any intention of courting her. He had made an art of avoiding courtship and planned to continue enjoying bachelor-hooded bliss. “Oh? I’m not surprised the dowager duchess is a connoisseur.” Miss Kent rested her spoon at the side of her bowl, leaving the soup half-eaten. “Does she have quite a collection?”

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