Authors: Stephanie Laurens
Â Â Â “The duchess is so very.Â .Â . very.Â .Â . well, really, most
Â Â Â “What in the devil's own name are you about, woman?”
Â Â Â She was stranded in a cottage with a dying man.Â .Â .
Â Â Â The only benefitt Honoria could discover in her position on Sulieman's back.Â .Â .
Â Â Â After an hour of subtle interrogation, Honoria escaped the Dowager.Â .Â .
Â Â Â It was an illusionâall an illusionâa typically arrogant sleight of hand.
Â Â Â Next morning, Honoria attended Sunday service in the church.Â .Â .
Â Â Â Two mornings later, Devil descended the main stairs, tugging on.Â .Â .
Â Â Â “Yes?” Devil looked up from a ledger as Webster entered the library.
Â Â Three days later, Devil stood at the library windows.Â .Â .
Â Â Investigating Tolly's murder proved more difficult than she'd thought.
Â Â “I don't believe it!” Seated before her escritoire, Honoria stared.Â .Â .
Â Â “I make it 334.” Honoriare stacked the lists in her lap.Â .Â .
Â Â As the evening wore on, the gaiety increased.
Â Â “Thank you, Emmy.” Standing, arms folded.Â .Â .
. Devil spared not a glance for the long-case clock.Â .Â .
Â Â Success bred success. Late the next night, as he let himself into his hall.Â .Â .
Â Â The ballroom at Somersham Place was filled to over-Ã¾owing.
Â Â When, years later, Honoria looked back on the first months of her marriage.Â .Â .
Â Â The next morning, as soon as he was free of his most urgent business.Â .Â .
Â Â Vane stared at Devil, unfeigned horror in his face.
Â Â Â By two, Honoria had started to pace. At four, she summoned Sligo.
Â Â The next morning, Honoria woke late, alone, Devil long gone.Â .Â .
Â Â Vane was waiting in the library when Honoria and Devil entered.
Â Â Devil knew something was desperately wrong the instant.Â .Â .
The Bar Cynster was in session. They were all there, lounging
he duchess is so very .Â .Â . very .Â .Â . well, really, most
. So .Â .Â . ” With very an angelic smile, Mr. Postlethwaite, the vicar of Somersham, gestured airily.
, if you take my meaning.”
Standing by the vicarage gate while she waited for the gig to be brought around, Honoria Wetherby only wished she could. Wringing information from the local vicar was always one of her first actions on taking up a new position; unfortunately, while her need for information was more acute than usual, Mr. Postlethwaite's comments were unhelpfully vague. She nodded encouraginglyâand pounced on the one point which might conceivably mean something. “Is the duchess foreign-born?”
Duchess.” Mr. Postlethwaite beamed. “She likes to be called that now. But foreign?” Head to one side, he considered the point. “I suppose some might call her soâshe
French-born and -bred. But she's been amongst us so long, she seems a part of our landscape. Indeed”âhis eyes brightenedâ“she's something of a
on our limited horizon.”
That much, Honoria had gleaned. It was one reason she needed to know more. “Does the Dowager join the congre-gration here? I didn't see any ducal arms about.” Glancing at the neat stone church beyond the vicarage, she recalled numerous commemorative inscriptions honoring the deceased from various lordly houses, including some scions of the Claypoles, the family whose household she joined last Sunday. But no ducal plaques, helpfully inscribed with name and title, had she discovered anywhere.
“On occasion,” Mr. Postlethwaite replied. “But there's a private church at the Place, quite
appointed. Mr. Merryweather is chaplain there. The duchess is always reliable in her devotions.” He shook his head sadly. “Not, I'm afraid, a general characteristic of that family.”
Honoria resisted a strong urge to grind her teeth.
She'd been chasing that information for the past three days. Given that her new employer, Lady Claypole, seemed convinced that her daughter Melissa, now Honoria's charge, was destined to be the next duchess, it seemed the course of wisdom to learn what she could of the duke and his family. The family name would help.
By choice, she had spent little time amongst the
but, thanks to her brother Michael's long letters, she was reliably informed of the current status of the families who made up that gilded circleâthe circle into which she'd been born. If she learned the name, or even the major title, she would know a great deal more.
However, despite spending an hour on Sunday explaining in excruciating detail just why Melissa was destined to be a duchess, Lady Claypole had not used the lucky duke's title. Assuming she would learn it easily enough, Honoria had not specifically questioned her ladyship. She'd only just met the woman; advertising her ignorance had seemed unnecessary. After taking stock of Melissa and her younger sister Annabel, she'd vetoed any idea of asking them; showing ignorance to such was inviting trouble. The same reason had kept her from inquiring of the Claypole Hall staff. Sure that she would learn all she wished while being welcomed to the local Ladies Auxiliary, she'd arranged for her afternoon off to coincide with that most useful of village gatherings.
She'd forgotten that, within the local area, the duke and Dowager Duchess would always be referred to in purely generic terms. Their neighbors all knew to whom they referredâshe still did not. Unfortunately, the patent scorn with which the other ladies viewed Lady Claypole's ducal aspirations had made asking a simple question altogether too awkward. Undaunted, Honoria had endured a lengthy meeting over raising sufficient funds to replace the church's ancient roof, then scoured the church, reading every plaque she could find. All to no avail.
Drawing a deep breath, she prepared to admit to ignorance. “To whichâ”
“There you are, Ralph!” Mrs. Postlethwaite came bustling down the path. “I'm so sorry to interrupt, my dear.” She smiled at Honoria, then looked at her spouse. “There's a boy come from old Mrs. Micklehamâshe's asking for you urgently.”
“Here you are, miss.”
Honoria whirledâand saw the vicar's gardener leading the bad-tempered grey the Claypole Hall groom had harnessed to the gig. Shutting her lips, she nodded graciously to Mrs. Postlethwaite, then sailed through the gate the vicar held wide. Taking the reins with a tight smile, she allowed the gardener to assist her to the seat.
Mr. Postlethwaite beamed. “I'll look to see you on Sun-day, Miss Wetherby.”
Honoria nodded regally. “Nothing, Mr. Postlethwaite, could keep me away.”
, she thought, as she set the grey in motion,
if I haven't found out by then who this blessed duke is, I won't let go of you until I have!
Brooding darkly, she drove through the village; only as the last of the cottages fell behind did she become aware of the heaviness in the air. Glancing up, she saw thunderclouds sweeping in from the west.
Tension gripped her, locking her breath in her chest. Abruptly looking forward, Honoria focused on the intersection immediately ahead. The road to Chatteris led straight on, then curved north, into the path of the storm; the long lane to Claypole Hall gave off it three miles on.
A gust of wind plucked at her, whistling mockingly. Honoria started; the grey jibbed. Forcing the horse to a halt, Honoria berated herself for remaining out so long. A ducal name was hardly of earth-shattering importance. The approaching storm was.
Her gaze fell on the lane joining the road at the signpost. It wended away through stubbled fields, then entered a dense wood covering a low rise. She'd been told the lane was a shortcut, ultimately joining the Claypole Hall lane mere yards from the Hall gates. It seemed her only chance of reaching the Hall before the storm broke.
One glance at the roiling clouds growing like a celestial tidal wave to her right made up her mind. Stiffening her spine, Honoria clicked the reins and directed the grey left. The beast stepped out eagerly, carrying her past the golden fields, darkening as the clouds thickened.
cut through the heavy stillness. Honoria looked ahead, scanning the trees swiftly drawing nearer. Poachers? Would they be out in such weather when the game was in deep cover, sheltering from a storm? She was still puzzling over the odd sound when the wood rose before her. The grey trotted on; the trees engulfed them.
Determined to ignore the storm, and the unease it raised within her, Honoria turned to contemplation of her latest employers, and the niggle of doubt she felt over their worth as recipients of her talents. Beggars couldn't be choosers, which was what any
governess would say. Fortunately, she wasn't just any governess. She was wealthy enough to live idly; it was by her own eccentric will that she eschewed a life of quiet ease for one which allowed her to use her skills. Which meant she
choose her employers, and usually did so most reliably. This time, however, fate had intervened and sent her to the Claypoles. The Claypoles had failed to impress.
The wind rose in a bansheelike screech, then died to a sobbing moan. Branches shifted and swayed; boughs rubbed and groaned.
Honoria wriggled her shoulders. And refocused her thoughts on the Claypolesâon Melissa, their eldest daughter, the prospective duchess. Honoria grimaced. Melissa was slight and somewhat underdeveloped, fair, not to say faded. In terms of animation, she had taken the “to be seen and not heard” maxim to heartâshe never had two words to say for herself. Two intelligent words, anyway. The only grace Honoria had yet discovered in her was her carriage, which was unconsciously elegantâon all the rest she'd have to work hard to bring Melissa up to scratch. To a duke's scratch at that.
Taking comfort from her irritationâit distracted her from the thought of what she could not see through the thick canopy overheadâHonoria set aside the vexing question of the duke's identity to reflect on the qualities Lady Claypole had ascribed to the phantom.