The last duke, p.1
The Last Duke, p.1Part #1 of Thornton series by Andrea Kane
The Last Duke
The Thornton-Bromleigh Family Series (Book One)
The Last Duke is dedicated to my extraordinary editor, Caroline Tolley, whose unrelenting faith in my writing and enthusiastic commitment to her craft command that she stand alone. Thanks, CT.
Preview: The Theft
A BIOGRAPHY OF ANDREA KANE
“PLEASE, PAPA, DON’T MAKE me go in there.”
The child hung back, tugging to free herself from her father’s iron-clad grasp. Terrified, she stared up at the dingy brick building, the rotted sign heralding The House of Perpetual Hope looming over her like some odious monster.
“This inexcusable behavior is precisely why you’re accompanying me.” Harwick Wyndham, the Marquis of Tragmore, scowled down at his eight-year-old daughter, determined that once their visit to the dilapidated workhouse was concluded all semblance of nonsensical tenderness would be forever erased from the delicate features now tilted imploringly up at him. “Come,” he ordered. “ ’Tis time you saw the unsalvageable waste that is allowed to drain the strength of our country and squander our tax money. Then perhaps you’ll save your pity for those more deserving.”
Purposefully, he dragged her along, ignoring her frightened protests, until they reached the heavy wooden door. There, he knocked.
“Wot ye want? Oh, it’s ye, sir.”
A vile stench accompanied the soot-covered man who admitted them, his sunken eyes dilating as he recognized the marquis. “Mr. Barrings wasn’t expectin’ ye, m’lord. I’ll tell ’im ye’re ’ere.”
“No need. The Duke of Markham and I aren’t scheduled to meet with Mr. Barrings until Thursday. I’ve come today merely to show my daughter about.”
The man gaped. “But, sir.”
“That’ll be all. You can return to your duties.”
Tragmore pivoted to face his daughter. “Daphne, I’ve decided to be kind and spare you the horrors of the dead and diseased rooms in the hopes that the debauchery you’ll witness right here will be enough to set your mind straight. However, if need be, we’ll visit every nook and cranny of this workhouse in order to harden that foolish heart of yours.”
Daphne’s little fists knotted in her gown. Assailed by an unimaginable dread, she dragged her shocked gaze from the peeling walls that encased her to the rotted floor beneath her feet. “Please, Papa, I…”
“Did you see the man who greeted us?”
“And what was your impression of him?”
“That he needed a bath, Papa. And a new set of clothes.”
“Is that all?”
“I wondered if we might find a way to give him those things.”
“We’re already giving him far too much,” Tragmore growled, “and it’s time you realized that.” Scanning the hallway, he gestured toward the far corner. “Look over there.”
Daphne looked, spying two ill-kempt women on their knees, alternately scrubbing the floor and wailing undistinguishable sorrows to each other.
“Filthy trollops,” the marquis muttered. “Foul vermin who breed disease and immorality. They’re given a place to live, food to eat, and yet look at them, Daphne. Look well. They do naught but deplete what we provide them and then demand more. To what end, I ask you?”
Silently, Daphne stared at the two women. “They’re in pain, Papa,” she said at last, her young face filled with anguish. “Perhaps they’re ill. See the smaller one? She can scarcely catch her breath. Why is she scrubbing? She should be abed.”
Tragmore’s jaw clenched so tightly he felt it might snap. “Any illness she possesses she herself caused and is now spreading to others.”
“Are you acquainted with her, Papa?” Twisting a strand of tawny hair about her finger, Daphne kept her voice even, devoid of sentiment. Her father despised emotional displays; were she to give in to one now she would doubtlessly feel the weight of his hand.
“Of course not!” Tragmore spat out. “Where would I come to meet such a person?”
“Then how do you know she caused her own illness?”
He gaped in stupefied silence.
“In any case,” Daphne continued, “she needs medicine. And rest. Then she’d be quite fit. With a bath and a mended gown, she’d actually be lovely.”
The marquis sucked in his breath, coughing violently as the foul air permeated his lungs. Daphne’s observation, her untenable feelings of compassion, were a disturbing echo of the past.
Rage pumped through his veins.
“Your mother once spoke as you do,” he ground out through gritted teeth. “Had I permitted it, she would have squandered my fortune aiding vermin such as these.” He glared down at Daphne, fire blazing in his eyes. “I revised her opinions in whatever manner I deemed necessary. Do I make myself clear, Daphne?”
“Yes, Papa.” Daphne’s lips trembled. Lowering her lashes, she fixed her frightened gaze on the toes of her slippers.
Tragmore stifled a curse. He’d brought the little chit here for a purpose, and he intended to make certain that purpose was realized.
Mentally, he counted to ten.
“Perhaps I’ve chosen poor examples, things beyond your comprehension,” he reasoned aloud, trying a new tactic. “After all, you are a child. Very well, then. A child is what you will see.”
So saying, he steered Daphne forward, down the hall and beyond, until he reached the rear door of the workhouse. Flinging it open, he gestured toward the garden. “Look.”
Five or more scruffy urchins milled about, a few tugging idly at the weeds, others cupping their hands beneath the spout of the water pump, peeking furtively about as they drank.
Daphne opened her mouth to comment on how bedraggled the children looked, how torn was their clothing, then thought better of it and snapped her mouth shut. She was in the process of devising what she hoped her father would consider an appropriate response when one of the children, a little girl of about the same age as she, glanced up from the weeds.
Her gaze locked with Daphne’s.
The bleak pain reflected in the child’s eyes caused a tight knot of sorrow to form in Daphne’s chest, driving home an ugliness until now vast but intangible.
Unable to bear it, Daphne looked away.
“Appalled, are you?” the marquis asked, satisfaction gleaming in his eyes. “You have reason to be. Rather than tend the garden and pump the water as they’ve been assigned, these unwanted bastards are frolicking about, taking in the sun. They should be beaten until fear impels them to work. And, should that prove unsuccessful, they should be thrown into the streets to starve, thus ridding England of their poisonous influence.” Staring at his daughter’s averted head, Tragmore demanded, “Now do you see, Daphne?”
“Yes, Papa. Now I see.”
“Good. In that case, we can thankfully take ou
Guiding her back through the hallway, the marquis tripped over an object in his path. Stifling an oath, he kicked it aside.
“It’s a doll, Papa!” Daphne exclaimed, stooping to retrieve the toy. Wiping soot from its cheek, she held it out in delight. “Why, she looks just like Juliet, the doll Mama gave me for Christmas!”
“Are you mad? Don’t touch that…thing!” Tragmore ordered. “Lord alone knows what disease it carries!” Lunging forward, he struck the doll and sent it crashing to the floor, where it lay in a tattered heap, its torn dress tangled about its disheveled mane of hair.
“No, Papa! Don’t!” Daphne begged. “She’s too beautiful to be diseased!”
“She mine!” a trembling voice rang out from the rear. In a flash, the little girl dashed through to the hallway, snatching her precious treasure from the floor. Terrified, she stared at the well-dressed strangers, quivering as she faced them. “She’s mine! Ye can’t ’ave ’er!”
“Nor do we want her, you odious, impudent creature!” Tragmore spat. He drew back his hand, glowering as he poised to strike the white-faced child. “Do you see, Daphne? This is what I’ve been trying to tell you. These people are animals; loathsome parasites. You must harden yourself to the truth and act accordingly.”
“I will. Oh, Papa, please don’t hit her,” Daphne whispered pleadingly. “What point is there? I’ve learned all you wanted me to. Please. Can’t we just go?”
Her words struck their mark.
With a shudder of revulsion, Tragmore turned on his heel. “Very well. Come.” Striding to the door, he prepared to depart.
Daphne started after him, then hesitated, her sober gaze returning to the little girl who cringed before her, clutching her doll to her chest.
It was the little girl they’d seen in the garden. Daphne recognized her immediately, from the moment she’d darted into the hallway.
She was as lovely as her plaything, despite unkempt hair and worn clothing. Beneath a thin layer of grime her coloring was fair, her eyes huge and thickly lashed.
Once again, those penetrating eyes met Daphne’s, wide and unblinking.
A chill encased Daphne’s heart as she stared into those eyes—dark, fathomless eyes—nearly black in their color and intensity. Their hollow depths were filled with fear and sadness and something far worse than either.
Acting on instinct, Daphne took a step toward her.
Tragmore’s thunderous summons cracked through the hall, striking Daphne with all the force of a whip.
“Coming, Papa.” Instantly, she complied, helplessly bolting from the dingy workhouse walls and the haunting gaze of the little girl.
But it wasn’t over, nor would it ever be. For the image of that child and her doll were forever engraved in Daphne’s mind, profoundly etched in her heart.
Why can’t Papa see? an inner voice cried out. They’d both be so very lovely.
All they need is a bath and a change of clothes.
THE LAST DUKE WAS dying.
Dragging shallow breaths into his lungs, the sixth and final Duke of Markham cursed the fates for snatching him so quickly and himself for not foreseeing how imminent was his end. His legacy lay in fragments, shards of immortality he could no longer ensure. Markham itself, the perpetuation of his title, both would be beyond his protection, lost to the hands of strangers.
He needed time.
He had none.
Moistening his lips, the duke reached for the bell pull beside his bed, summoning the valet he’d only just dismissed.
It was that blasted doctor who entered, and impatiently the duke waved him away. “Bedrick. Send Bedrick.” He dissolved into a weak fit of coughing.
“Of course, Your Grace.” The doctor gestured for the uniformed valet to enter.
“Get—out.” The duke gasped at his grim-faced physician. “Bedrick—alone.”
With a curt bow, the doctor complied.
“You sent for me, Your Grace?” Bedrick frowned at a loose button on his coat, his demeanor as calm as if he planned to assist the duke in shaving, rather than stand by his deathbed.
“Certainly.” Bedrick provided both.
With a shaking hand, the duke scrawled a name and a few words on the page, barely managing to fold the paper in two. Utterly spent, he fell back against the pillows. “To my solicitor,” he whispered. “I’ve made provisions. He’ll know what to do.”
“I understand, Your Grace.”
“Immediately. As soon as I’m gone.”
“At once, sir. Will there be anything else?”
“Pray, Bedrick. Pray it’s not too late.”
“As you wish, sir.” Dutifully, Bedrick slipped the note into his pocket and moved away.
The dying man stared after him, drifting into a world where the past flowed forward, melding into a soothing haze with the future.
Then the last duke closed his eyes.
“Give me back my wallet, you filthy urchin!”
Red faced and sputtering, the gentleman waved his cane at a cringing lad. “I said, hand it over!” Violently, he thrust his gloved hand forward.
None of the hundreds of people flocking into Newmarket’s Rowley Mile Course paid the slightest heed to the ongoing confrontation. Bound for October’s Champion Stakes, they had little time to witness a common pickpocket being apprehended.
“You heard me, you wretched bandit! Return my money. Instantly. Or else I shall haul you off to the local magistrate!”
“I…I…” The lad wiped a muddied sleeve across his forehead, his eyes wide and frightened.
“Excuse me, sir. I believe there’s been some mistake.”
The nobleman whipped around. “I beg your pardon?” Stiff with outrage, he glowered at the stranger who towered over him.
“I said, I believe you’re mistaken,” the newcomer returned, his tone as hard as his features. “This lad didn’t take your wallet.”
“He most certainly did. I witnessed the theft myself.”
The enigmatic stranger shook his head. “What you witnessed was an unfortunate coincidence. The wallet fell from your trousers. This boy merely had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He didn’t steal anything.”
“Why, how dare you. I’m positive—” The elder man stopped in mid-sentence as the stranger flourished the missing billfold in his face.
“I saw it fall to the ground and retrieved it,” the stranger explained. “I was about to return it when you wrongly accused this poor lad.” He patted the boy’s shoulder and extended his other hand. “Your wallet, sir.”
“Why I was sure—that is, I spied—at least I thought I spied—” The nobleman drew a disconcerted breath as he took the proffered billfold. “Thank you for restoring my property and alerting me to the facts,” he amended with stilted dignity.
“I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced. I’m Lionel Graband, the Earl of Caspingworth. And you are?” He paused expectantly.
“Lord Thornton.” The earl bowed politely.
The stranger didn’t. “Not Lord Thornton,” he corrected brusquely. “Thornton. Pierce Thornton.”
Caspingworth blinked. “My mistake. Thornton.” Smoothing his mustache, he assessed Thornton’s tall, powerful frame, the expensive cut of his clothing. “I’d like to offer you a token of my appreciation.”
“Don’t. Instead, offer an apology to the boy.”
A sharp gasp. “Apologize? To this riffraff?” Caspingworth glared disdainfully at the grimy-faced lad who was inching away. “I assure you, if I wasn’t his intended victim today, someone else was. He’s a common pickpocket. He should be tossed into prison where he belongs. Good day, Thornton.” With
Pierce stared after him, a muscle working in his jaw. Simultaneously, his hand clamped down on the retreating boy’s shoulder. “Wait.”
“Wot do ye want?” the boy asked, white faced.
A corner of Pierce’s mouth lifted as he regarded his quarry. “You look bewildered.”
The lad dropped his gaze, kicking the dirt with his toe.
“Your eye is good, but your touch is heavy,” Pierce instructed quietly. “You also made an inexcusable, often fatal, error. You allowed yourself no path by which to flee.”
“Wot?” The urchin’s chin shot up.
“You chose your target well, and positioned yourself perfectly. Then you ruined it with a clumsy execution and, no planned means of escape.”
“I…Ye…” The pickpocket swallowed. “Ye saw me take th’ wallet.”
“How did ye get it?”
Pierce’s grin widened. “My touch is light and my execution is perfect.”
“Ye pilfered it from me?”
“Under the circumstances, it seemed prudent.” Pierce extracted a few shillings from his pocket. “Here. Take these. Buy yourself something to eat. Then go home and practice what I’ve taught you. A light touch and a well-thought-out plan. The advice will serve you well.”
The lad looked from the coins to Pierce and back again. Then, with an awed expression, he bolted.
Keenly satisfied with the results of his handiwork, Pierce resumed his course. Slicing his way through the crowd of enthusiastic racegoers, he scanned the grounds, easing past beer-drinking men and fortune-telling Gypsies, past the tents where loud betting was taking place, toward the pavilion where the fashionable crowd readied themselves for the first race.
Just outside the stands he spotted his mark and bore down on him.
“Tragmore. What a surprise.”
The marquis turned, his face draining of color when he saw Pierce. “Thornton. What the hell are you doing here?”
“Why wouldn’t I be here? The Champion Stakes are exhilarating to behold. Besides, I’m feeling incredibly lucky today. How about you, Tragmore? Are you feeling lucky as well?”
The Last Duke by Andrea Kane / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes