Excerpt: The Duke of Dark Desires

London, 1802

Once she had been carefree, beloved of the gods and the world, marked by nature and birth for happiness and good fortune. Then everything was taken from her. Everything she possessed and everyone she loved. Everything except her life. She didn’t know how she had survived, but she knew why. She had a destiny to fulfill, and the key to success lay within the solid brick walls of this house on the east side of Hanover Square.

Despite the variety of cramped apartments and near hovels she’d occupied in the last nine years, she still summoned a measure of scorn for the unassuming residences of the British nobility when compared to the glorious mansions of Paris. Imposing by London standards, Fortescue House with its neat brick façade and stone architraves couldn’t hold a candle to the Hôtel Falleron.

Fortescue House.

The very name chilled her. She shivered in her gray cloak at the name and because London was cold and dirty and inhabited by the race of Fortescues. She did not know the exact identity of the Englishman she’d heard of only as Mr. Fortescue. To discover his full name she had come to this house, home of the chief of all Fortescues, the Duke of Denford.

In the days she’d lingered in the square, the house had been busy. A youthful, worried gentleman came and went frequently. Also a tall man dressed always in black. She’d have taken him for a lawyer or other man of business except for something uncommon in his posture, something she couldn’t define. She’d seen no one she could identify as a member of the ducal family.

How was she going to get into Fortescue House? An unknown woman of dubious antecedents was not readily given audience by a high-ranking nobleman.

But now a well-dressed lady descended from a carriage and mounted the steps to the front door. Was this the duchess come to town? Things were looking brighter. She could better inveigle her way into a house with a lady in residence.

When the house had taken her in and laid bare its secrets, she would find the Mr. Fortescue responsible for the death of her family.

And she would kill him.

***

Bad news always came in threes, while the miserly gods of good fortune meted out their gifts one at a time at long intervals. Though the first to admit that he didn’t deserve much in the way of luck, Julian Fortescue, Duke of Denford, would have liked a little more time to savor his victory. A week maybe. Would that have been too much to ask? A week to enjoy the fact that two years after becoming a duke, he was now also a rich one?

Not that the arrival of his mother from Ireland was necessarily a bad thing. But he wondered what favor—or three—she was going to claim. Doubtless something vastly inconvenient.

She sailed into the faded grandeur of the first floor saloon at Fortescue House, trailing gauze scarves and a cloud of eau de cologne. “My darling boy! As handsome as ever. You haven’t changed a bit.”

He could say the same of her. Mrs. Osbourne, formerly Mrs. Fortescue, born Julia Hope Gore, had defied the passage of time. Her black hair contained barely a thread of gray and her pale skin, though the youthful glow had long faded, was a fine setting for blue eyes undulled by age. At almost fifty she still possessed the beauty and gaiety that used to provoke the Dublin gallants to poetry. Julian, her cynical son, attributed this eternal youth to always getting her own way and never worrying about anything.

“Neither have you, Mother.” He took her hands and kissed her on both cheeks. “How are the girls?”

“They are well. But I’ve become an old lady in the years since you took the trouble to visit me,” she said, tilting her head coquettishly. One corner of his brain registered that her bonnet, new and adorned with ostrich plumes, had not come cheap.

“I beg your pardon. My affairs kept me from making the journey to Ireland, and now there is no need. As for the rest of your speech, it is too absurd to answer. You know you look ravishing. What are you doing in London?”

“Are you not going to offer your poor mother a seat and a little something to fortify her after her voyage all the way across the Irish Sea?”

“I beg your pardon, my dear. Your toilette is perfection itself so it didn’t occur to me that you were travel-soiled.”

“As it happens I arrived yesterday. I came only from the Pulteney Hotel this morning.”

“The arduous drive from Piccadilly must have worn you out.”

As he led her to the sofa and fetched a glass of madeira, her favorite wine, from the tray on the console table, he wondered at this additional sign of prosperity; the hotel was one of the best in London. No doubt she would, in her own good time, reveal why she hadn’t asked to stay with him at Fortescue House. Then again, given his home’s meager comforts and inadequate staff, perhaps, now that he was rich, he should move into the Pulteney himself.

He raised his glass. “To you, Mother.”

“To us,” she responded. “And the pursuit of happiness.” Julian felt a momentary pang at hearing the old toast again. His father had been impressed by the American Declaration of Independence, claiming to greatly admire a nation founded on such an admirable ambition. Osbourne, his mother’s second husband, hadn’t shared the sentiment.

Julia set aside her glass, arranged her modish green skirts about her, positioned her hands to display their fine-boned elegance, and looked about the room, the ends of her mouth upturned into a bewitching smile.

“It’s a very grand house you have come into, Julian,” she said with a satisfied air. “To be sure, it could use a fresh coat of paint and a skilled needlewoman.” She poked at a hole in the French carpet with a dainty silk-slippered toe. “Whoever would have thought you’d end up as Denford? Look at you,” she said, as he stood before the massive fireplace of Italian marble. “Monarch of all you survey. I always knew you were bound for greatness.”

“I’d be flattered if I wasn’t a clear case of a man who’s had greatness thrust upon him.”

It had taken the death of every male heir and a plague of female children to bring Julian, a distant cousin of the previous duke, into the title. Mothers, widows, aunts, and daughters of assorted deceased Fortescues had protested heartily at this manifest injustice, as had their non-Fortescue husbands and sons. There was nothing they could do about the laws of primogeniture when it came to the dukedom, but they could and did object to the despised and disreputable Julian making off with the family fortune. Lawyers had been engaged. Many, many lawyers.

“Do you have enough money to live here?”

“As of yesterday, I do. After interminable wrangling over one hundred years of trusts and entails, my quarrelsome cousins realized that there’s plenty for everyone if they discharged the bloodsuckers. We came to a grand settlement. As well as this house and Denford Castle, I am now owner of twenty thousand acres of land and a nice sum in the funds to boot.”

Julia arched her fine eyebrows and laughed. “Thank the Lord your father isn’t alive. He’d have hated to be duke.”

True. Fitzlyon Fortescue had possessed wit and charm in plenty but not an iota of greed and absolutely no sense of responsibility, the reason he had died leaving his young widow and son virtually penniless.

“Would you have enjoyed being a duchess?”

“Tush! What good would it do me to have the right to sit on a footstool in the presence of the King of France? The poor man is dead.”

“I could be wrong, knowing little about the habits of dukes and nothing at all about their wives, but I believe that’s only for French duchesses. Wouldn’t you like to have been Your Grace? You’re certainly dressed elegantly enough.”

“Why, thank you. I do my poor best.”

“It’s less than a year since Mr. Osbourne died but you aren’t in mourning.”

“I never wore black for your father either. My dear Lyon would never have expected it.”

“You also married Mr. Osbourne three months later.”

“You know I had to,” she said with a reproachful look that would have chastened anyone less hardened to shame than Julian. “I couldn’t let us starve.”

Things hadn’t been quite that bad. The Fortescues would have provided, grudgingly, for the widow of their black sheep, just as they later paid for Julian’s education. At the age of eleven Julia’s son had deeply resented her remarriage; the adult Julian could now concede that marriage to Frederick Osbourne had been a rational move for a young widow ill-suited to life without the support of a man. It wasn’t her fault Osbourne and Julian loathed each other on sight. The pious Protestant Irish lawyer and his wild stepson had been oil and water.

“My father wouldn’t have demanded mourning but I’m sure Osbourne expected it. I daresay he’s trying the angels’ patience complaining about that fine green gown.” He couldn’t disguise his lingering hostility toward a man who was, after all, quite dead and presumably in heaven. Julian thought heaven must be a devilish dull place, filled with disagreeable bores.

Unabashed, Julia nodded serenely and scanned her son from head to toe. “Why do you still wear nothing but black?”

“To frighten old ladies and small children.”

“Really? Is that what you do?” she asked with a short laugh.

“No man is a sinister brooding presence to his mother,” he said with the twisted smile that he was sure would terrify housemaids, if he had any. He’d test the theory as soon as he recruited some.

“I don’t care for the style but I’ll grant it suits you. You’re a fine black Irishman, just like my father. But are you happy? Something troubled you when last I saw you.”

Julian paced over to the tall windows overlooking the square. On the off chance his mother had actually noticed something, he’d prefer to avoid her scrutiny. During that last visit to Dublin, the French business had still been fresh in his mind. Time had dulled the impact of horrors he could never entirely forget.

“I worry about you, Julian. A mother can always tell when something is wrong. I wish you would confide in me.”

The pretense that she ever gave him more than a passing thought when he was out of sight annoyed him into a retort. “If I was unhappy during my last visit, you may look no further than the presence of your late husband. Since it is much, much wiser for us to avoid that topic, I have a convenient way to account for both my costume and my gloomy countenance. Let us say that I am in mourning for all your husbands.”

“Not all.” She spoke so softly he almost missed it.

“Don’t tell me you’ve married again?” But of course she had. Julia Gore without a husband was as incomplete as a Rembrandt canvas without a frame. She defined herself by the devotion of a man. Demurely lowered eyes couldn’t disguise their triumph. He was pleased for her—especially since it meant she wasn’t coming to live with him—and hoped her newest spouse was a better specimen than the last. “Let me raise my glass to the new Mrs. … Or have I underestimated you. Are you a duchess after all, Mother? Did you at least catch a lord?”

“I am now Mrs. Elijah Lowell and very happy to be so. Captain Lowell is a better man than any lord I’ve encountered.”

“With a name like that he must be a nonconformist.”

“An American.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

Her lips curved. “I can assure you the captain is no Methodist.”

“A naval man?”

“Let’s say more in the private line.”

“A lucrative profession, judging by the elegant bonnet and the Pulteney Hotel. Well done, Mother. May your pursuit of happiness be true and lasting. When do I meet this paragon?”

“He should be here in a few minutes. I wanted to speak with you first so I sent the hired carriage back to the hotel for him.”

His attention flickered back to the window and his view of the square, where a delivery cart lumbered by, leaving horse droppings in its wake. A youthful crossing sweeper offered his services to a young woman standing next to the central garden, but she shook her head. The arrival of a well-appointed vehicle obscured his view of the pair and a man descended, a tall, fine figure of a man. Even through a thick beard Julian judged him to be a good decade younger than Julia. Very well done, Mother.

Then a girl stepped out onto the pavement, and another, and another.

His mother hadn’t said that her children with the miserable Osbourne were in London. Her three children. He had a bad feeling about this.

“You didn’t mention that your daughters are with you.”

“I could hardly leave them alone in Ireland. May I remind you that my daughters are your sisters.”

“Half sisters.”

“It’s not like you to lack generosity, Julian. Mr. Osbourne is dead and you should set aside your differences. Whatever your feelings for him, my poor dear girls are not to blame.”

“I have no objection to entertaining them here, not that I can offer puppies or kittens or dolls, or whatever children need for amusement. I expect my kitchen can provide tea and cake since I suppose they are too young for madeira. Maria is what, twelve or thirteen now?”

“She’s fifteen and bidding to be quite the beauty. You need to pay attention, seeing as I want you to be the children’s guardian.”

Julian’s nose for danger never let him down. “Why not your new husband?”

“Because Captain Lowell and I sail for New York in a week and we can’t take the girls into waters infested by the French, even in an American ship.”

As usual she had thought only of herself. “I don’t suppose it occurred to you to postpone the wedding until it was safe for all to travel. Or to remain with your daughters in Ireland.”

“I couldn’t do that, Julian. A woman’s place is with her husband. So I’m leaving the girls with you. It shouldn’t be for more than a year or two.”

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