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Forbidden to Love the Duke(3)

By:Jillian Hunter

Chapter 1



The Duke of Ellsworth met his match on a Tuesday afternoon while plotting ways to pleasure the woman he had left only hours before in London. He anticipated months of uninterrupted bliss in a bedchamber where rather than producing an heir with a suitable wife he would concentrate on seducing a new mistress. He had gone to war, survived an injury that should have killed him, and returned to a dukedom that any man in England would envy. His tenants needed reassurance that he would carry on tradition. He was supposed to provide them with security through the hard times predicted for his country in the years ahead.

He planned to give a feast and toast his farmers with the potent apple cider that their orchards produced. Duty fulfilled, James then intended to submerge himself in months of uninterrupted sexual impropriety to purge his mind of the war he had fought and would still be fighting if a well-placed bullet hadn’t stopped him.

In less than a week he would be a satisfied man, one whose body was soothed by a woman’s attentions, not battered by every bump in the country road he’d insisted his coachman take. Why had he demanded this detour? he wondered as the carriage approached a small stone bridge.

He turned his head, remembering the reason with a jolt of surprise. To his right stood what centuries ago had been a majestic Tudor house. His father had admired the manor since James was a boy, and James had inherited the late duke’s appreciation of traditional English architecture.

Was it abandoned?

Could he purchase it for his mistress? She wouldn’t care for it, he decided. The house needed extensive repairs and would be too isolated for a lady accustomed to the bustle and excitement of London. Elora loved her parties. She thrived on the gossip of infidelities and jewel thefts and bankruptcies that brewed in the beau monde. She had attended more balls and routs than any woman he had ever known. She sought constant entertainment. He needed sex. Still, the steeply pitched roof and dormer windows intrigued him. Perhaps it would suit one of his aunts.

He noticed a hawk perched on the branch of one of the ancient oaks that ringed the manor. A bird of prey, the hawk kept its sight on an object in the garden below. What it was James couldn’t see. But he saw something else.

Was that a woman standing at the bottom of the garden? He banged hard on the carriage roof and opened the door before a footman could attend the task. He set his boots to the dirt road as the wheels stopped rolling.

The hawk remained motionless. He could not help but wonder again what innocent creature it had in its sights. He walked down a sloping path buried in leaves and passed a once-grand gatehouse.

“Your Grace?” said his coachman, a musket under his arm. “Shall I accompany you? I’ve heard stories about this house.”

“Tell me one.”

The coachman squinted up at the roof. “Dangerous women abide within. Women who bend men to their will.”

James grinned. “What is it they make their victims do?”

“Wicked things, from what I gather.”

“They sound like women I might like. Now I am compelled to continue.”

“And as for me?”

“Let me sacrifice myself first.”

He wandered into what remained of the original Tudor garden, a riotous shambles that threatened to consume the house. James predicted that in another year only the chimneys would rise above the thicket of thistle and rose, weed and bramble. From what he could see, it was only a matter of time before the roof collapsed into heaven only knew what lay beneath.

He’d never seen a caretaker or an occupant in the few times he’d driven by. But then who could find a human being in this overgrown mess? Hard to believe that the grounds had once been designed in geometric knots and patterns as precise as a chessboard.

He felt a sudden whimsy to ask his land agent about purchasing the place. Despite his coachman’s warning, the only rumor James could recall about the manor was that four spinsters lived within. Perhaps they would be amenable to an offer.

He blinked. The beguiling figure in white was half-hidden beneath an unsightly trailing arbor of honeysuckle vines. She stood completely still as if caught in a misdeed. Or was it a statue of a Greek goddess? He would have noticed such an anomaly on the Tudor estate before.

He cleared his throat, pushing an intrusive thorn out of his face. “Good afternoon,” he called out in a gruff but pleasant voice. “Allow me to introduce myself.”

The goddess came to life. Before he managed another word, she bent, scooped up a wriggling ball of fur, and fled up the path. James couldn’t decide whether she was a maidservant or a gentlewoman. She moved too spryly for a spinster. How irritating that she ran at his polite inquiry.