London, August 1891
PROSPER HUTCHINSON, THE barrister of choice for Londons wealthy, rose from his chair to greet the tall, handsome aristocrat walking through his door. At last, Your Grace. Hed sent the duke a message five days ago.
I was in the country. The Duke of Groveland stripped off his tan riding gloves as he crossed the sumptuous Axminster carpet custom-made for the imposing corner office overlooking Piccadilly Square.
Yes, I know. The duke was entertaining his newest paramour while her husband was shooting in Scotland. Everyone knew.
An easy smile graced the dukes fine features. Dont glower so, Hutchinson. I eventually arrived, and admit ityour messages
smack of crisis.
crisis could cost you a fortune.
How much of a fortune? George Montagu Fitz-Robbins Monckton calmly asked, tossing his gloves on Hutchinsons large, ornate desk and taking a seat across from his barrister.
Ninety thousand. The portly barrister dropped into his chair with a grimace.
The duke arrested his slide into a lounging pose, his dark brows rising faintly. That much.
Perhaps more should your plans for Monckton Row come to naught because Mrs. St. Vincent wont sell.
Mrs. St. Vincent? A theatrical name ora smile quirked his lipsa female of a certain profession? Apparently over his initial surprise at the sum quoted by his barrister, the duke unbuttoned his fawn-colored silk tweed jacket, stretched out his jodhpur-clad legs, and rested his head against the tufted green leather some decorator had chosen for Hutchinsons office chairs.
She is rather a lady of a certain
, Your Grace, Prosper Hutchinson grumbled, rapping his fingertips on his desktop to emphasize his displeasure. All the other properties east of Berkeley Square have been purchased, but with Mrs. St. Vincent standing in your way, your ninety thousand is at risk. The very mulish lady has asserted that she has no intention of
selling. She told me your grace may go to Hades for all she cares.
She did, did she? You spoke to her? As a rule, Hutchinson didnt take part in purchase negotiations. He employed twenty barristers to take care of such matters.
I had to. Hutchinson leaned forward over his paunch to underscore his vexation. The troublesome female had flatly refused five of our offers. And Id sent my very best men. The barrister picked up a gold filigreed letter opener, held it between his fingertips, and gazed at it for a moment, pursed lipped. Then he looked up, met the dukes languid gaze, and said ruefully, You might as well hear it from me first, Your Grace. Apparently Mrs. St. Vincent disapproves ofI believe her words were Odious, prodigal scoundrels who think their titles and wealth give them carte blanche in the world.
The duke looked amused. It seems the lady is of a socialist bent.
I rather think her remark was of a more personal nature. Grovelands reputation for prodigality and dissipation was well known.
She isnt the first woman to disapprove of me, the duke casually returned, his indifference to censure a marked trait. But a female whos not susceptible to your bank draftsa note of drollery colored his wordsnow thats a first, isnt it, Hutchinson?
Yes, Your Grace. Grovelands female entanglements occasionally required the barristers intercession to amiably end an affair. And to date, bank drafts had always proved effective.
So what now? A soft, unruffled query. In the dukes experience, the world generally bent to his will. It wasnt hubris, just a recognition of reality. He was illustriously titled, the bearer of an enormous fortune, and for what it was worthin matters of seduction more than anythingblessed with the Montagu dark good looks.
We are at an impasse unless you wish to increase your offer substantially. I didnt feel I had the authority to do so without speaking to you and explaining the unfortunate situation.
The twenty-third Duke of Groveland pursed his lips. Substantially you say.
Im afraid so, Your Grace. The woman is obstinate to a fare-thee-well and in my estimation outrageously so for someone in her circumstances.
Grovelands grey gaze turned razor sharp. What circumstances?
Her husband left her all but destitute when he died. From all appearances she is eking out a living. She resides above the bookstore, which is a saving, of course, but really, she should be exceedingly grateful for your generous offer rather than refusing it out of hand. Leaning back in his chair, Hutchinson softly sighed. Women, Your Grace. Quite irrational creatures.
Now the duke knew women better than most. In fact he had outstripped all previous records apropos the number of females who had fallen prey to his charms. And gentlemens clubs were partial to keeping such scores. Seduction was a major amusement for Grovelandsome said . . . his avocation. It was only natural he would say, Why dont you leave her to me, Hutchinson. I have had some luck with convincing women to, ah . . . accommodate me.
Forgetting his consequence for a moment, Hutchinson exhaled loudly and blurted out, I was hoping you might take a hand. The lady is beyond my capabilities, and Ill admit, I havent felt such frustration in a decade or more. I never lose, siryou know that. Its intensely disconcerting to acknowledge defeat.
Nonsense, Hutchinson. You have no reason to feel defeated. Havent you masterfully acquired every piece of property Ive ever wanted? Of course you have. This woman may be irrational or addled in some wayparticularly, he added with a faint smile, if shes a socialist. Her personal biases are certainly not your fault. Let me talk to her, and then well see where we stand.
Since her shop is on the corner, its a pivotal piece in the architects plan, the barrister pointed out, his shaggy brows knotting in a scowl.
Perhaps Mrs. St. Vincent knows as much. She may have spoken to some of the other property owners who sold to us. She may feel she now holds the winning hand.
Another grim scowl. If so, I wish you well, Your Grace.
Come, enough long faces. The duke nodded at the liquor trolley behind Hutchinsons desk; a Scotsman was never far from his drink. Pour me a whiskey and tell me what you know about the properties youve already acquired.
Since hed cajoled Clarissa into leaving Green Grove and seen her comfortably settled at Frances Knollys country house party, the duke was currently free of encumbrances. And frankly, after a fortnight with Clarissa, no matter how heated and exotic the sex, hed been ready to transfer her into someone elses care. His capacity for boredom was slight, a defect no doubt of a life free of restraints. Hed been indulged from the cradle save for by his father, and when the former duke had had the good grace to drink himself to death before George could kill him, the title had devolved to the young heir. Despite his youth, the twenty-third Duke of Groveland had found the larger world equally amenable to his wishes.
Although no one but his mother dared call him George. Since he loved her unconditionally and she him, he even allowed her to call him Georgie on occasion. To the world, however, he was Groveland or Your Grace; to his friends he was Fitz or The Monk, while his lovers generally called him
with great enthusiasm and affection.
Surely he could charm one woman into accepting his offerparticularly a destitute female. Accepting his glass from Hutchinson, he listened while the barrister explained in some detail the entire litany of recent property purchased for what would soon become Monckton RowGod willing and Grovelands cultivated charm gainfully applied.
When Hutchinsons recitation came to an end, the duke held out his glass for a refill. Now, tell me what to expect from this curious woman. If shes a widow, she must not be in her first blush. And I gather she isnt a lady of the night or an actress. Would she be predisposed to some small giftflowers, candy, a bit of jewelry perhaps? Youre certain, too, she knows who I am.
I assume so, Your Grace, Hutchinson replied, pouring a goodly bumper of whiskey into the outstretched glass. She cited you by name as she consigned you to Hades. As to her age, shes not young, but shes not old; she has reddish hair and is above-average height, I believe, the barrister explained like a man without an ounce of the Lothario in his soula man incapable of describing his wife or daughters without a photograph in hand. In terms of a gift, I confess, sir, you might know about that better than I. Groveland was not called The Monk without express and explicit irony.
Is there anything about her deceased husband or her background that might be useful for me to know? The bookshop is a relatively recent addition to the neighborhood if Im not mistaken. He often walked by it en route to Bond Street.
Its been there almost seven years, Your Grace. Edward St. Vincent was a poet of some small fame thanks to the Queens interest in his work, but apparently he was a gamester as well and not a very good one. There were rumors about his deaththat he may have taken a hand in ending his life, but its impossible to know, of course. Not that losses at cards arent often a precursor to self-destruction. We all know such instances.
As for the widow herself, she is of respectable birth. She enjoys the title, the Honorable Rosalind Pitt-Riverston, but her family is without fortune. Her father, Baron Pitt-Riverston, dabbles in the natural sciences Ive been told. In some remote area of Yorkshire, I believe.
So she is not a working-class female.
No. On the contrary. She exudes an air of hauteur.
Grovelands eyes narrowed slightly. You dont say. He lifted the glass to his mouth and drank down the whiskey as if it might better clarify his thoughts.
Indeed, I do, Hutchinson retorted with a decided sniff. I was sent on my way with the most high-handed arrogance.
Hutchinson grunted. A vast understatement, Your Grace.
The duke held out his empty glass. One more of your fine whiskeys and then I will take myself off to reconnoiter the formidable opposition.
But as it turned out, when the duke exited Hutchinsons faux-Renaissance office block, he ran into Viscount Islay.
Hi-ho, Fitz! the viscount cried. I hear youre rid of Clarissa. What say you to a game at Brookss?
Christ, gossip travels fast. Hed just left Clarissa three hours ago.
Margot Beaton stopped by to see my sister as I was leaving home. She was just down from Knollys country house party. She despises Clarissa by the way.
Most women do, the duke replied drily.
And most men dont.
Groveland raised his dark brows in sportive rejoinder. But then Clarissa exerts herself to please men.
How much did she exert herself for you? the viscount quipped.
She wore me out, hence my rustication in the city. And Id be more than happy to take some of your money at Brookss, the duke said with a smile, uninterested in discussing Clarissa after a fortnight in her company.
Freddie Mackenzie grinned. You can try, you mean.
But not very hard as I recall?
Freddie was sober, however, so he paid attention to his cards and taking his money required a degree more concentration than normal for Fitz. But the duke was as lucky at cards as he was with women and ultimately he prospered for having met the viscount.
In the course of their play, the men met several other of their friends, one thing led to another, and it was well after midnight when Fitz stood under Brookss portico, inhaling the tepid night air and debating his options. There were numerous ladies more than willing to welcome him to their beds despite the hour, but after only recently escaping Clarissa he wasnt particularly in the mood to play amorous games. Clarissa could suck the life out of a twenty-year-old stud, not to mention her propensity for banal conversation took away ones tasteat least temporarilyfor vapid female company.
Her acrobatic abilities aside, he should have sent her home a week ago.
Had he been less polite perhaps he wouldnt now be beset by ennui and indecision.
He abruptly shrugged, having long ago decided that regret was a useless commodity. Bidding a friendly goodnight to Crawford, the seemingly immortal doorman, he took the stairs in a leap and strolled away toward Berkeley Square and home.
Tomorrow he would meet with the intractable Mrs. St. Vincent.
He much preferred tomorrows to yesterdays in any eventhis life predicated on the maxim
Never look back
. A reaction perhaps to a complicated, chaotic childhood.
And truth be told, he was looking forward to the confrontationdiscussion, negotiation . . . whatever his encounter with Mrs. St. Vincent entailed.
He was rather of the mind that he would win the day, though.
Didnt he always?