Laventhorpe Castle glimmered in the unusually bright sunshine. The gardeners had abandoned their coats, evidently deeming it unlikely that any young ladies or visitors of importance might wander in their direction. Geraniums and peonies flowered, their scarlet and pink colors made more striking by the gray stones of the castle. Old-fashioned battlements rose into the sky, placed there by the first Duke of Framingham in the seventeenth century to frighten all the villagers. Rupert Andrews, cousin of the ninth Duke of Framingham, shivered. He half-expected to see an arrow dart from one of the conveniently placed arrow holes. He inhaled, strode up the steps to the castle, then knocked on the heavy wooden door. Rupert’s cousin’s perpetually dour-faced butler soon appeared. Mr. Barnes cast a withering glance at Rupert, lingering on his imperfectly starched collar and the flawed stitching of his tailcoat. Mr. Barnes had risen from the rank of valet to butler. Perhaps Barnes was calculating the price of the tweed fabric. “Mr. Andrews.
” Barnes’s face remained solemn, as if determined not to waste a single flicker of movement. “His Grace is expecting you. He’s in the library.” “Thank you, Barnes.” Barnes’s expression emanated frostiness with such force that Rupert almost considered that the butler might be responsible for the chilly winter climate for which the area was renowned. Snow was not a frequent addition to England’s wildflower dotted meadows, but it snowed in this region of Staffordshire with regularity. Rupert entered the library, treading on the familiar black-and-red patterned Persian carpet. He marched past the red leather armchairs scattered about the room as if to create the impression he was in one of the worst gaming hells in London, and not in a country manor house, surrounded by fluffy sheep and meek cows. Certainly, the scent of cigar smoke and brandy indicated this desire, and the paucity of books hardly negated this impression. The view, though, was decidedly un-Londonlike.
The large picture windows revealed the dark green meadow, trimmed by the aforementioned sheep, and though Rupert had visited hundreds of times before, his heart still squeezed. It was beautiful. Staffordshire was beautiful. This estate was beautiful. Rupert knew. He’d grown up in the unimposing cottage next door, reluctantly built several decades ago to store a younger brother who’d failed to secure a marriage with a woman equipped with an appropriate dowry. Rupert was now the poor relation, though, unlike his father, he was a duke’s cousin and not a duke’s brother. “Ah, Andrews!” His cousin Dudley stumbled up from a large oak desk, grasping hold of his brandy as amber liquid sloshed onto the green leather top. He beamed, unperturbed, at Rupert. “How nice to see you.
” “Er—yes.” Rupert gave the duke a tentative smile. Normally, the duke was more inclined to glower at him than glow. “Your letter instructed me to visit at once.” “Ah.” The duke nodded. “That was a wise move on my part. I have a job for you.” “A job?” Rupert’s eyebrows darted up despite himself. S “Indeed.
” The duke gestured merrily to a seat opposite his desk. Rupert sat down gingerly on the chair. The thin spindles squeaked at Rupert’s average weight. He’d expected Dudley to talk about money. Rupert’s father might have passed down a baron’s title to him, but it had come with a depreciating cottage in need of repairs. Even though Rupert had told Dudley that the repairs could wait until Rupert returned to live there with a bride, his cousin had scoffed and informed him that he wouldn’t permit Rupert to live in anything besides ideal circumstances. Unfortunately, he’d also sent Rupert the bill for the work, even though Rupert doubted that the odd passersby would notice that the place required a change to its chimneys. The duke stretched his arms out as if he were basking in sunbeams directed solely at him. “You’re going to like the job.” Rupert tilted his head.
“Are you by any chance making me your estate manager?” Rupert loved this estate. No place in England was as verdant. The duke’s wide smile disappeared, and his beady eyes, which normally appeared inconsequential, given the relative smallness of their size, glared. “Nonsense. I would never do that.” “Er—of course.” Rupert shifted his legs awkwardly, finally forcing them underneath the chair. The duke’s glower intensified. “You’re rather fidgety. It’s not good to be fidgety.
” “O-of course not,” Rupert said, attempting to be agreeable. He didn’t like arguments. “What if you were in enemy territory? And your fidgeting led the enemy to you?” The duke leaned forward, evidently getting into the spirit of his condemnation. “And all your team were slaughtered because of your incompetence?” “That would be horrible,” Rupert said. The duke narrowed his eyes, and Rupert wondered whether the duke thought he should address him as “Your Grace.” Well, Rupert didn’t want to. He cleared his throat and struggled to rectify the situation. Situations always had a habit of becoming fraught in his cousin’s presence. “It was only a guess.” “Er—right.
” The duke drew back, evidently appeased. “I suppose you never were that bright.” “I graduated top in my class at Eton.” “That says only bad things about the assessment process at Eton.” The duke sneered, clearly satisfied to insult both Rupert and the alma mater of most of the country’s elite. “What would you like me to do?” Rupert asked uncertainly. “I want you to write some letters for me.” “Letters?” The duke nodded and waved his hands expansively. “Use those big words you know about. Give them some flair.
” Rupert scrutinized him. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten big words,” the duke said. Rupert’s shoulders eased, and he smirked. “Of course not.” “I knew you were perfect for this.” Rupert tilted his head. “Who exactly do you want me to write letters to?” The duke placed his legs nonchalantly on his desk, and his eyes twinkled. “My future wife.” Rupert’s mouth dropped open. “You plan to marry again?” The duke’s wife had died years ago, before the duke’s son had even gone on his multiyear continental tour.
Since then, the duke had been alone, only visiting London on occasion. The duke grinned. “And just who is the future Duchess of Framingham?” Rupert asked. The duke’s smile broadened. “She’s a princess.” “Oh.” “Her uncle is the King of Sweden, and her mother was an Indian princess.” He leaned forward. “Very wealthy woman. Excellent jewels.
Rubies, sapphires, diamonds…” The duke’s face adopted a pleasant flush. Heavens. Rupert’s cousin truly was in love. Rupert had never seen him look so pleased. “I’m happy for you.” “I’m happy for myself.” The duke rubbed his hands together. “It will be wonderful when she agrees to become my wife.” Rupert drew his eyebrows together. “She hasn’t agreed yet?” “No.
” The duke jerked his thumb at Rupert. “That’s where you come in. I need to woo her. Well, you need to woo her.” Rupert was silent for a moment, then said, “I’m afraid I don’t do that.” “Nonsense,” the duke said. “Just grab a quill, dip it into some ink, and write some embarrassing statements to her. Women always like ridiculous statements. Effuse about the softness of her skin, the silkiness of her hair, and her—er—figure.” “How is her figure?” Rupert asked.
“Spectacular.” The duke’s eyelashes may have fluttered. “Then you have met her.” “Oh, of course. I had to see if she would be a suitable Duchess of Framingham. And she is.” The tension in Rupert’s shoulders eased, and he smiled. This woman wasn’t some stranger his cousin wanted to pursue. “So you’re truly in love.” For a moment, the duke’s gaze appeared calculated, but he soon heaved a heavy sigh and cast a glance into the middle distance.
“Quite.” Rupert smiled. It was nice to see his cousin look so smitten. The man seemed far less intimidating than normal. “Where did you meet her?” “At a ball in Bath,” the duke explained. “She and her father were accompanying her aunt to take the waters.” “How very kind.” The duke nodded, then turned to Rupert. “I need to make certain this goes well.” Rupert leaned back in his chair.
The duke already had an heir. He didn’t need another one. If the duke wanted to marry this woman, she must truly be spectacular. “I understand.” Rupert frowned slightly. “Though if she’s as fond of you as you are of her, she won’t care about the language of your letters.” The duke gave Rupert a sharp look. “She deserves the very best.” “Still, I think the words would be better coming from you.” The duke furrowed his brow.
“Perhaps you consider yourself romantic. Do you think she would be disappointed when she meets me again?” “O-of course not.” “Do you think she’ll be clamoring for the true author of the letters?” the duke sneered. “She wouldn’t know. I am titled. She’s met me, she likes me, and soon we will be wed.” Rupert gave a reluctant nod. “And,” the duke smiled, “I’ll pay you. You need the money. Unless you don’t mind that you still have not repaid all your mother’s debts?” “Of course I mind,” Rupert said.
The duke grinned. “Besides, my hands are strained. Arthritis is a terrible affliction. You know, your parents suffered from that, too. Or did you only pretend to care about them?” Rupert shook his head rapidly. Rupert knew all about the pains of arthritis. “Forgive me. I didn’t know you suffered from that affliction.” “It is something I do not like to dwell upon,” the duke said stiffly. Rupert nodded.
That certainly seemed characteristic. The duke was a proud man. It had been half a year since Rupert had last seen him. Then he’d met the duke at a ball, when even the very threads of his tailcoat—gold, naturally, had seemed to conspire to give him extra flourish. Now though, the duke’s hair had thinned, and more gray than was necessary to lend him a sophisticated air was speckled throughout. The duke wouldn’t like admitting his vulnerability to the passing of time. Still… The duke had found love again after his wife had passed. Perhaps the duke’s son rarely visited, favoring the continent, but the duke would no longer be alone. What better thing was there than that? “Naturally, I’ll help,” Rupert said.