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Forbidden to Love the Duke(7)

By:Jillian Hunter

He had known her for years. But in the last few months she’d begun ambushing him at parties for unplanned trysts that he soon realized were part of a plot to tantalize him. These private affairs left him largely unfulfilled and, as Elora surely intended, prepared to outbid any competitor for the privilege of making her his mistress.

She was beautiful, amoral, and practiced in the carnal arts. He wasn’t sure whether their longtime friendship would benefit them in the bedroom. Yet they had nothing to lose by trying.

He stirred. The scar tissue around his upper right arm ached from the bullet he had taken at Albuera. His fruitless pursuit after that lithe woman today had aggravated his mood. At least he could laugh at himself now, remembering the other lady’s shocked voice at the door. I have a sword, you half-wit.


A sword? What manner of spinsters resembled young deities and resorted to swordplay to ward off unwelcome gentlemen? James might deserve their suspicion for his display of aggression—he really had no excuse. Still, he had to wonder if an apology, a small gift, would be returned by an invitation inside the manor.

“His Grace is home!” the porter at the gates shouted to the servants assembling. James frowned, staring out the window of his carriage.

Where were the servants? Had they misunderstood his letter? Were they hiding from him in fear that he had brought Elora home with him? Had something happened?

The estate looked peaceful. His footman opened the door, his face also puzzled. James stepped down. A lark’s melody drifted from the shadows.

He strode toward the house.

He had not been home since his father had died six months earlier. Their reunion   had not been pleasant. He hadn’t even known his father was ill.

At the time James had been drinking too much, infuriated that a single wound had ended his military career. His father had shown him no mercy. But then, James would have refused any suggestion of sympathy. What man wanted to be thought weak?

Their final conversation still stung when he thought back on it. “You are my heir. You will inherit Ellsworth Park and the tenants who depend on you. I know you hoped to rise in the army, but that is for your brother now. Are we agreed?”

“Do you honestly expect me to pretend I have the least desire to lord it over acres of apple orchards?”

“I don’t give a damn about your desires. Keep them to yourself. Hundreds of men and women depend on our orchards. The cider we produce is famous the world over. You had more pride in your birthright when you were a child than you do now. What happened?”

“The apples can wait. Battling in foreign fields can’t.”

James looked around again. Where was everyone? Had he forgotten a festival day? His tenants did work hard and brewed a heady cider that brought a good income to innumerable families. Apples mattered. They had mattered in Tudor times.

He thought of that alluring woman from the garden again, when he should be thinking of Elora and her reputation for bedsport. Soon enough he would accept his responsibilities and respect his father’s wishes.

“I shall make you stop moping, James,” she’d teased, using her body to promise a forgetfulness he realized would be fleeting at best. He could only chase pleasure for a time.

“An Englishman does not mope. He dodges life’s slings and arrows to battle on.”

“Well, you could smile once a week. Your face is always so forbidding. It gives me the shivers.”

But he had smiled this afternoon, and all because he’d pursued a woman who found him even more forbidding than did Elora.

“Your Grace! Your Grace!”

The illusion of peace dissolved. Although only two servants appeared to greet the duke, the greyhounds had been released from their kennels and bounded across the lawn in howling welcome. Mr. Carstairs, his estate steward, detached himself from one of the crouching stone lions that flanked the drive. The urgency of his pace suggested that, unlike the hounds, he would not be satisfied with a romp in the park and a juicy bone.

“Your Grace. Thank goodness you have arrived.” Carstairs bowed between gasps of breath. “I did not attempt to contact you about the trouble while you were traveling. I thought you would prefer to be told in person.”

A shriek drifted from one of the upstairs windows in the wing reserved for visitors. James lifted his head in alarm, aware of the questioning expression that must have shown on his face.

“It might be better if you come inside and have a taste of brandy while I explain, Your Grace.”

“That is not a child, is it, Carstairs? A paramour from my wilder days is not bringing a paternity suit because I have become a duke? I have never been a man-whore. My indiscretions were few and sincere.”