The Trouble with Dukes
Release date: December 20, 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 384
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The Trouble with Dukes
I don’t want any damned dukedom, Mr. Anderson,” Hamish MacHugh said softly.
Colin MacHugh took to studying the door to Neville Anderson’s office, for when Hamish spoke that quietly, his siblings knew to locate the exits.
The solicitor’s establishment boasted deep Turkey carpets, oak furniture, and red velvet curtains. The standish and ink bottles on Anderson’s desk were silver, the blotter a thick morocco leather. Portraits of well-fed, well-powdered Englishmen adorned the walls.
Hamish felt as if he’d walked into an ambush, as if these old lords and knights were smirking down at the fool who’d blundered into their midst. Beyond the office walls, harnesses jingled to the tune of London happily about its business, while Hamish’s heart beat with a silent tattoo of dread.
“I am at Your Grace’s service,” Anderson murmured from his side of the massive desk, “and eager to hear any explanations Your Grace cares to bestow.”
The solicitor, who’d been retained by Hamish’s late grandfather decades before Hamish’s birth, was like a midge. Swat at Anderson, curse him, wave him off, threaten flame and riot, and he still hovered nearby, relentlessly annoying.
The French infantry had had the same qualities.
“I am not a bloody Your Grace,” Hamish said, thanks be to the clemency of the Almighty.
“I do beg Your Grace’s—your pardon,” Anderson replied, soft white hands folded on his blotter. “Your great-great-aunt Minerva married the third son of the fifth Duke of Murdoch and Tingley, and while the English dukedom must, regrettably, fall prey to escheat, the Scottish portion of the title, due to the more, er, liberal patents and peregrinations common to Scottish nobility, devolves to yourself.”
Devolving was one of those English undertakings that prettied up a load of shite.
Hamish rose, and for reasons known only to the English, Anderson popped to his feet as well.
“Devolve the peregrinating title to some other poor sod,” Hamish said.
Colin’s staring match with the lintel of Anderson’s door had acquired the quality of a man trying to hold in a fart—or laughter.
“I am sorry, Your—sir,” Anderson said, looking about as sorry as Hamish’s sisters on the way to the milliner’s, “but titles land where they please, and there they stay. The only way out from under a title is death, and then your brother here would become duke in your place.”
Colin’s smirk winked out like a candle in a gale. “What if I die?”
“I believe there are several younger siblings,” Anderson said, “should death befall you both.”
“But this title is Hamish’s as long as he’s alive, right?” Colin was not quite as large as Hamish. What little Colin lacked in height, he made up for in brawn and speed.
“That is correct,” Anderson said, beaming like a headmaster when a dull scholar had finally grasped his first Latin conjugation. “In the normal course, a celebratory tot would be in order, gentlemen. The title does bring responsibilities, but your great-great-aunt and her late daughter were excellent businesswomen. I’m delighted to tell you that the Murdoch holdings prosper.”
Worse and worse. The gleeful wiggle of Anderson’s eyebrows meant prosper translated into “made a stinking lot of money, much of which would find its way into a solicitor’s greedy English paws.”
“If my damned lands prosper, my bachelorhood is doomed,” Hamish muttered. Directly behind Anderson’s desk hung a picture of some duke, and the fellow’s sour expression spoke eloquently to the disposition a title bestowed on its victim. “I’d sooner face old Boney’s guns again than be landed, titled, wealthy, and unwed at the beginning of the London season. Colin, we’re for home by week’s end.”
“Fine notion,” Colin said. “Except Edana will kill you and Rhona will bury what’s left of you. Then the title will hang about my neck, and I’ll have to dig you up and kill you all over again.”
Siblings were God’s joke on a peace-loving man. Anderson had retreated behind his desk, as if a mere half-ton of oak could protect a puny English solicitor from a pair of brawling MacHughs.
Clever solicitors might be, canny they were not.
“We simply tell no one about this title,” Hamish said. “We tend to Eddie and Ronnie’s dress shopping, and then we’re away home, nobody the wiser.”
Dress shopping, Edana had said, as if the only place in the world to procure fashionable clothing was London. She’d cried, she’d raged, she’d threatened to run off—until Colin had saddled her horse and stuffed the saddlebags with provisions.
Then she’d threatened to become an old maid, haunting her brothers’ households in turn, and Hamish, on pain of death from his younger brothers, had ordered the traveling coach into service.
“Eddie hasn’t found a man yet, and neither has Ronnie,” Colin observed. “They’ve been here less than two weeks. We can’t go home.”
“You can’t,” Hamish countered. “I’m the duke. I must see to my properties. I’ll be halfway to Yorkshire by tomorrow. I doubt Eddie and Ronnie will content themselves with Englishmen, but they’re welcome to torment a few in my absence. A bored woman is a dangerous creature.”
Colin slugged Hamish on the arm, hard. “You’d leave tomorrow?”
Anderson flinched, while Hamish picked up his walking stick and headed for the door.
“Your pugilism needs work, little brother. I’ve neglected your education.”
“You can’t leave me alone here with Eddie and Ronnie.” Colin had switched to the Gaelic, a fine language for keeping family business from nosy solicitors. “I’m only one man, and there’s two of them. They’ll be making ropes of the bedsheets, selling your good cigars to other young ladies again, and investigating the charms of the damned Englishmen mincing about in the park. Who knows what other titles their indiscriminate choice of husband might inflict on your grandchildren.”
Hamish had not objected to the cigar-selling scheme. He’d objected to his sisters stealing from him rather than sharing the proceeds with their own dear brother. He also objected to the notion of grandchildren when he’d yet to take a wife.
“I’ll blame you if we end up with English brothers-in-law, wee Colin.” Hamish smiled evilly.
A staring match ensued, with Colin trying to look fierce—he had the family red hair and blue eyes, after all—and mostly looking worried. Colin was softhearted where the ladies were concerned, and that fact was all that cheered Hamish on an otherwise daunting morning.
Hope rose, like the clarion call of the pipes through the smoke and noise of the battlefield: While Eddie and Ronnie inspected the English peacocks strutting about Mayfair, Hamish might find a peahen willing to take advantage of Colin’s affectionate nature.
Given Colin’s lusty inclinations, the union would be productive inside a year, and the whole sorry business of a ducal succession would be taken care of.
Hamish’s fist connected with his brother’s shoulder, sending Colin staggering back a few steps, muttering in Gaelic about goats and testicles.
“I’ll bide here in the muck pit of civilization,” Hamish said, in English, “until Eddie and Ronnie have their fripperies, but Anderson, I’m warning you. Nobody is to learn of this dukedom business. Not a soul, or I’ll know which English solicitor needs to make St. Peter’s acquaintance posthaste. Ye ken?”
Anderson nodded, his gaze fixed on Hamish’s right hand. “You will receive correspondence, sir.”
Hamish’s hand hurt and his head was starting to throb. “Try being honest, man. I was in the army. I know all about correspondence. By correspondence, you mean a bloody snowstorm of paper, official documents, and sealed instruments.”
Hamish knew about death too, and about sorrow. The part of him hoping to marry Colin off in the next month—and Eddie and Ronnie too—grappled with the vast sorrow of homesickness, and the unease of remaining for even another day among the scented dandies and false smiles of polite society.
“Very good, Your Grace. Of course you’re right. A snowstorm, some of which will be from the College of Arms, some from your peers, some of condolence, all of which my office would be happy—”
Hamish waved Anderson to silence, and as if Hamish were one of those Hindoo snake pipers, the solicitor’s gaze followed the motion of his hand.
“The official documents can’t be helped,” Hamish said, “but letters of condolence needn’t concern anybody. You’re not to say a word,” he reminded Anderson. “Not a peep, not a yes-Your-Grace, not a hint of an insinuation is to pass your lips.”
Anderson was still nodding vigorously when Hamish shoved Colin through the door.
Though, of course, the news was all over Town by morning.
* * *
“My dear, you do not appear glad to see me,” Fletcher Pilkington purred. Sir Fletcher, rather.
Megan Windham ran her finger along the page she’d been staring at, as if the maunderings of Mr. Coleridge required every iota of her attention.
Then she pushed her spectacles halfway down her nose, the better to blink stupidly at her tormentor.
“Why, Sir Fletcher, I did not notice you.” Megan had smelled him, though. Attar of roses was not a subtle fragrance when applied in the quantities Sir Fletcher favored. “Good day, and how are you?”
She smiled agreeably. Better for Sir Fletcher to underestimate her, and better for her not to provoke him.
“I forget how blind you are,” he said, plucking Megan’s eyeglasses from her nose. “Perhaps if you read less, your vision would improve, hmm?”
Old fear lanced through Megan, an artifact from childhood instances of having her spectacles taken, sometimes held out of her reach, and sometimes hidden. On one occasion they’d been purposely bent by a bully in the church yard.
The bully was now a prosperous vicar, while Megan’s eyesight was no better than it had been in her childhood.
“My vision is adequate, under most circumstances. Today, I’m looking for a gift.” In fact, Megan was hiding from the madhouse that home had become in anticipation of the annual Windham ball. Mama and Aunt Esther were nigh crazed with determination to make this year’s affair the talk of the season, while all Megan wanted was peace and quiet.
“A gift for me?” Sir Fletcher mused. “Poetry isn’t to my taste, my dear, unless you’re considering translations of Sappho and Catullus.”
Naughty poems, in other words. Very naughty poems.
Megan blinked at him uncertainly, as if anything classical was beyond her comprehension. A first year Latin scholar could grasp the fundamental thrust, as it were, of Catullus’s more vulgar offerings, and Megan’s skill with Latin went well beyond the basics.
“I doubt Uncle Percy would enjoy such verse.” Uncle Percy was a duke and he took family affairs seriously. Mentioning His Grace might remind Sir Fletcher that Megan had allies.
Though even Uncle Percy couldn’t get her out of the contretemps she’d muddled into with Sir Fletcher.
“I wonder how soon Uncle Percy is prepared to welcome me into the family,” Sir Fletcher said, holding Megan’s spectacles up to the nearby window.
Don’t drop them, don’t drop them. Please, please do not drop my eyeglasses. She had an inferior pair in her reticule, but the explanations, pitying looks, and worst of all, Papa’s concerned silence, would be torture.
Sir Fletcher peered through the spectacles, which were tinted a smoky blue. “Good God, how do you see? Our children will be cross-eyed and afflicted with a permanent squint.”
Megan dreaded the prospect of bearing Sir Fletcher’s offspring. “Might I have those back, Sir Fletcher? As you’ve noted, my eyes are weak, and I do benefit from having my spectacles.”
Sir Fletcher was a beautiful man—to appearances. When he’d claimed Megan’s waltz at a regimental ball several years ago, she’d been dazzled by his flattery, bold innuendo, and bolder advances. In other words, she’d been blinded. Golden hair, blue eyes, and a gleaming smile had hidden an avaricious, unscrupulous heart.
He held her glasses a few inches higher. To a casual observer, he was examining an interesting pair of spectacles, perhaps in anticipation of considerately polishing them with his handkerchief.
“You’ll benefit from having my ring on your finger,” he said, squinting through one lens. “When can I speak with your father, or should I go straight to Moreland, because he’s the head of your family?”
That Sir Fletcher would raise this topic at all was unnerving. That he’d bring it up at Hatchards, where duchesses crossed paths with milliners, was terrifying. Other patrons milled among the shelves, and the doorbell tinkled constantly, like a miniature death knell for Megan’s freedom.
“You mustn’t speak with Papa yet,” Megan said. “Charlotte hasn’t received an offer and the season is only getting started. I’ll not allow your haste to interfere with the respect I owe my sisters.” Elizabeth was on the road to spinsterhood—no help there—and Anwen, being the youngest, would normally be the last to wed.
Sir Fletcher switched lenses, peering through the other one, but shooting Megan a glance that revealed the bratty boy lurking inside the Bond Street tailoring.
“You have three unmarried sisters, the eldest of whom is an antidote and an artifact. Don’t think you’ll put me off until the last one is trotting up the aisle at St. George’s, madam. I have debts that your settlements will resolve handily.”
How Megan loathed him, and how she loathed herself for the ignorance and naivety that had put Sir Fletcher in a position to make these threats.
“My portion is intended to safeguard my future if anything should happen to my spouse,” Megan said, even as she ached to reach for her glasses. A tussle among the bookshelves would draw notice from the other patrons, but Megan felt naked without her glasses, naked and desperate.
Because her vision was impaired without the spectacles, she detected only a twitch of movement, and something blue falling from Sir Fletcher’s hand. He murmured a feigned regret as Megan’s best pair of glasses plummeted toward the floor.
A large hand shot out and closed firmly around the glasses in mid-fall.
Megan had been so fixed on Sir Fletcher that she hadn’t noticed a very substantial man who’d emerged from the bookshelves to stand immediately behind and to the left of Sir Fletcher. Tall boots polished to a high shine drew the eye to exquisite tailoring over thickly muscled thighs. Next came lean flanks, a narrow waist, a blue plaid waistcoat, a silver watch chain, and a black riding jacket fitted lovingly across broad shoulders. She couldn’t discern details, which only made the whole more formidable.
Solemn eyes the azure hue of a winter sky and dark auburn hair completed a picture both handsome and forbidding.
Megan had never seen this man before, but when he held out her glasses, she took them gratefully.
“My most sincere thanks,” she said. “Without these, I am nearly blind at most distances. Won’t you introduce yourself, sir?” She was being bold, but Sir Fletcher had gone quiet, suggesting this gentleman had impressed even Sir Fletcher.
Or better still, intimidated him.
“My dear lady,” Sir Fletcher said, “we’ve no need to ignore the dictates of decorum, for I can introduce you to a fellow officer from my Peninsular days. Miss Megan Windham, may I make known to you Colonel Hamish MacHugh, late of his royal majesty’s army. Colonel MacHugh, Miss Megan.”
MacHugh enveloped Megan’s hand in his own and bowed smartly. His grasp was warm and firm without being presuming, but gracious days, his hands were callused.
“Sir, a pleasure,” Megan said, aiming a smile at the colonel. She did not want this stranger to leave her alone with Sir Fletcher one instant sooner than necessary.
“The pleasure is mine, Miss Windham.”
Ah well, then. He was unequivocally Scottish. Hence the plaid waistcoat, the blue eyes. Mama always said the Scots had the loveliest eyes.
Megan’s grandpapa had been a duke, and social niceties flowed through her veins along with Windham aristocratic blood.
“Are you visiting from the north?” she asked.
“Aye. I mean, yes, with my sisters.”
Sir Fletcher watched this exchange as if he were a spectator at a tennis match and had money riding on the outcome.
“Are your sisters out yet?” Megan asked, lest the conversation lapse.
“Until all hours,” Colonel MacHugh said, his brow furrowing. “Balls, routs, musicales. Takes more stamina to endure a London season than to march across Spain.”
Megan had cousins who’d served in Spain and another cousin who’d died in Portugal. Veterans made light of the hardships they’d seen, though she wasn’t sure Colonel MacHugh had spoken in jest.
“MacHugh,” Sir Fletcher broke in, “Miss Windham is the granddaughter and niece of dukes.”
Colonel MacHugh was apparently as bewildered as Megan at this observation. He extracted Megan’s spectacles from her hand, unfolded the ear pieces, and positioned the glasses on her nose.
While she marveled at such familiarity from a stranger, Colonel MacHugh guided the frames around her ears so her glasses were once again perched where they belonged. His touch could not have been more gentle, and he’d ensured Sir Fletcher couldn’t snatch the glasses from Megan’s grasp.
“My thanks,” Megan said.
“Tell her,” MacHugh muttered, tucking his hands behind his back. “I’ll not have it said I dissembled before a lady, Pilkington.”
The bane of Megan’s existence was Sir Fletcher, but this Scot either did not know or did not care to use proper address.
Sir Fletcher wrinkled his nose. “Miss Megan, I misspoke earlier when I introduced this fellow as Colonel Hamish MacHugh, but you’ll forgive my mistake. The gentleman before you, if last week’s gossip is to be believed, is none other than the Duke of Murdoch.”
Colonel MacHugh—His Grace—stood very tall, as if he anticipated the cut direct or perhaps a firing squad. With her glasses on, Megan could see that his blue eyes held a bleakness, and his expression was not merely formidable, but forbidding.
He’d rescued Megan’s spectacles from certain ruin beneath Sir Fletcher’s boot heel, so Megan sank into a respectful curtsy.
Because it mattered to her not at all that polite society had dubbed this dear, serious man the Duke of Murder.
I’ve changed my mind,” Hamish said, touching his hat brim as some duchess sashayed past him on the walkway. “We’re leaving at the first of the week.”
“You can’t change your mind,” Colin retorted, “and you just greeted one of the most highly paid ladybirds in London.”
Colin was being diplomatic, for Hamish had committed his blunder in public—where all of his best blunders invariably occurred. Three days ago, Hamish had come upon Sir Fletcher Pilkington, but at least that unwelcome moment had transpired in a bookshop.
“The lady’s clothes were expensive,” Hamish said, “and not the attire of a debutante. She smiled at me, and she had a maid trotting at her heels. How was I to know she wasn’t decent?”
“Because of how she smiled at you, as if you’re the answer to her milliner’s prayers for the next year.”
Hamish tipped his hat to another well-dressed lady who also had a maid but lacked the smile.
“The damned debutantes look at me the same way. As if I were a hanging joint of venison, and they a pack of starving hounds.”
“You aren’t supposed to greet a woman unless she acknowledges you,” Colin said as they came to a crossing.
“That last one scowled at me as if I were something rank stuck to the sole of her dainty boot. That’s the sort of acknowledgment the Duke of Murder can expect.”
A beer wagon rattled past, barrels stacked and lashed to the bed. Hamish owned two breweries, and in his present mood, he could have imbibed the inventory of both establishments and started on the distillery Colin had inherited upon coming of age.
“You need a finishing governess,” Colin said. “Or a wife.”
Oh, right. “I’m guessing among polite society they’re much the same, which is why we’ll all be heading home by this time next week.”
Though Colin had a point. The young ladies ogling Hamish’s title all knew how to make their interest apparent without blundering. They waved their painted fans, they simpered, they smiled, but not like that. They cast lures across entire ballrooms and formal gardens, without once setting a slippered foot wrong.
The battlefield of the London season had rules. Hamish simply hadn’t grasped those rules yet.
He’d sooner grasp a handful of blooming nettles.
“If we go home now,” Colin said, “you will never hear the end of it. Ronnie and Eddie have been invited to several balls, and depriving them of those chances to husband-hunt will earn their enmity until the day you die.”
A Scotswoman was a formidable enemy, and two Scotswomen were the match of any mere mortal man.
“When is the next damned ball?” They were all damned balls, and damned musicales, and damned Venetian breakfasts, for where Ronnie and Eddie waltzed, either Hamish or Colin must follow.
“Next week. We take the street to the left.”
Hamish did not ask how his brother knew the address of one of the most expensive modistes in a very expensive city. Colin was a good-looking fellow, and he had independent means. He’d taken to the bonhomie and challenge of army life like a sheep to spring grass, and his occasional sorties to London were just so many more bivouacs to him.
“How can two otherwise intelligent women spend half the day choosing fabric?” Hamish avoided meeting the eye of an older blonde woman accompanied by a younger lady with the same color hair. “I swear Ronnie and Eddie left their brains back in Perthshire.”
“And there,” Colin murmured, “you just snubbed the Duchess of Moreland and her youngest daughter, who happens to be a marchioness.”
Hamish came to a halt. “We’re going home, ball or no ball. I’m behind enemy lines without a map, a canteen, or a sound horse, Colin. One of my blunders will soon see me married or dead in a ditch.”
Or worse, killing somebody. When Hamish had first mustered out, he’d been provoked into challenging one man to a duel, but fate had interceded to prevent serious harm to either combatant. Hamish and his former dueling partner—Baron St. Clair—were even cordial now when their paths crossed.
The Baroness St. Clair was a different and less forgiving article.
“That’s why I’m here,” Colin said, tipping his hat to a flower girl. “To make sure you stay alive. I owe you that, and the last thing I want is a dukedom complicating my life. As long as you don’t call anybody out—anybody else out—an apology ought to cover most of your missteps, and you’ll soon have the lay of the land.”
Hamish resumed walking, because standing still in the middle of the walkway was enough to draw the notice of passersby.
Perhaps wearing his kilt hadn’t been an inspired notion. He’d hoped if any ladies were attracted by his title, they might be repelled by the sight of his bare knees. London women were apparently a stout-hearted lot, because so far, Hamish’s experiment had been a failure.
His entire visit to London had been a failure, but for that single moment when quick reflexes had spared a lady’s spectacles from harm. Hamish hoped somebody would come along to spare that same young lady from Fletcher Pilkington’s company.
That somebody wouldn’t be Hamish, more’s the pity. Miss Windham either hadn’t known or didn’t care that Hamish was the least appropriate man to hold a lofty title. Pilkington had doubtless remedied that oversight posthaste.
“Do you get the sense that Ronnie and Eddie are enjoying all this waltzing and shopping?” Hamish asked.
He and Colin had alternated coming home on winter leave, and every two years, Hamish had returned to Scotland to find taller, prettier young women wearing his sisters’ smiles. By the time he’d sold his commission after Waterloo, he’d hardly known Rhona or Edana.
They doubtless preferred not to become too well reacquainted with their oldest brother now, though they seemed to like his new title just fine.
“Our sisters are delighted with London so far,” Colin said. “The shop is down this street. Tomorrow you’re due for another fitting at the tailor’s.”
“Bugger the tailor,” Hamish said. “He wants only to increase his bill. Aren’t there any Scottish tailors in this blighted city?”
“English tailors are the finest anywhere,” Colin replied, walking faster. “They’re the envy of every civilized man the world over. You’d bash about in your kilt and boots, swilling whisky, and embarrassing your siblings instead of taking advantage of the privileges of your station.”
Guilt assailed Hamish, the same guilt he’d felt as a captive in French hands. When he’d been led away from the scene of the ambush, bleeding in three places, his vision blurred, his head pounding, and his hearing mostly gone, he’d been in the clutches of . . .
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