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The Duchess Hunt Elizabeth Beacon Indulge your fantasies of delicious Regency Rakes, fierce Viking warriors and rugged Highlanders. Be swept away into a world of intense passion, lavish settings and romance that burns brightly through the centuriesHAD SHE BEEN RIGHT UNDER HIS NOSE ALL THESE YEARS?Jack Seaborne, Duke of Dettingham, needs a duchess, but falling in love is definitely not on the agenda. The logical thing would be to throw open the doors of his ducal country seat, host a house party for this Season’s most beautiful debutantes…and pick one of them.But then Miss Jessica Pendle arrives – his aunt’s plain-speaking goddaughter – and she’s the one who stands out from the crowd. But Jessica is looking for love – the one emotion Jack resists. Although he can’t deny there’s something about Jessica that’s very persuasive…! ‘You?’ she observed as she finally opened heavy eyelids, her gaze still half dazed with dreams of him. ‘Me,’ Jack replied, as if even he was surprised. ‘You should be with your guests, not hobnobbing with a nonentity like me,’ she said with a drowsy smile. A frown twitched his dark brows together and instead of going away, as she told herself she wanted him to, he sat himself beside her so she couldn’t get up without an undignified struggle. ‘I won’t have you categorise yourself a nonentity, since we never entertain any of those at Ashburton, my dear Miss Pendle.’ ‘Don’t mock me,’ she ordered him crossly. ‘Not you, but I do deplore your quest to constantly belittle yourself, Jess.’ Forcing her mind to sharpen, when it wanted so badly to soften, she met his eyes steadily. ‘And I shall never join the chase and allow others to belittle me instead, Your Grace.’ ‘What chase would that be?’ he asked silkily, and moved so close to her that her breath came short. ‘It’s the closed season for most country sports, Miss Pendle.’ ‘Other than spinster-baiting and duke-hunting, Your Grace?’ About the Author ELIZABETH BEACON lives in the beautiful English West Country, and is finally putting her insatiable curiosity about the past to good use. Over the years Elizabeth has worked in her family’s horticultural business, became a mature student, qualified as an English teacher, worked as a secretary and briefly tried to be a civil servant. She is now happily ensconced behind her computer, when not trying to exhaust her bouncy rescue dog with as many walks as the inexhaustible Lurcher can finagle. Elizabeth can’t bring herself to call researching the wonderfully diverse, scandalous Regency period and creating charismatic heroes and feisty heroines work, and she is waiting for someone to find out how much fun she is having and tell her to stop it. Previous novels by the same author: AN INNOCENT COURTESAN HOUSEMAID HEIRESS A LESS THAN PERFECT LADY THE RAKE OF HOLLOWHURST CASTLE REBELLIOUS RAKE, INNOCENT GOVERNESS ONE FINAL SEASON (part of Courtship & Candlelight) A MOST UNLADYLIKE ADVENTURE Did you know that some of these novels are also available as eBooks?Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk The Duchess Hunt Elizabeth Beacon www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Chapter One ‘And you’re quite sure the Duke of Dettingham kidnapped or killed that delicious Mr Seaborne we all swooned over when we came out, Eugenia dear?’ a young matron asked on a nervous titter at one of the last great balls of the London Season. ‘The gentlemen are taking bets on how he’s got away with it for so long, Lottie,’ her overexcited informant told her as if it was gospel truth. ‘Nothing was entered in the betting books, of course, since the Duke must challenge any man who declared him guilty of such a dreadful crime and he’s a crack shot. He certainly wouldn’t balk at putting a bullet in any gentleman brave enough to expose him when he’s disposed of his heir in such a villainous fashion.’ ‘Although the Duke is rather delicious as well,’ Lottie said wistfully. ‘That air he has of not caring a snap of his fingers what any of us think quite makes my heart flutter and when he actually looks at me … Ooh, even now meeting those compelling green eyes of his makes my knees knock together and then I can’t think of a single sensible word to say.’ ‘I don’t approve of conscienceless rakes,’ Eugenia told her friend stiffly. ‘Once upon a time you would have given your best pearl necklet if it persuaded him to even dance with you, and sold your soul for anything more.’ ‘Which means I know what a heartless care-for-nobody he truly is,’ Lottie’s disgruntled confidante informed her as if that settled the matter. ‘And how you wish he’d once played the rake with you,’ Lottie argued. ‘Only to find myself murdered in my bed once he grew bored with me? I rather think not,’ Eugenia said coldly and went to find more receptive ears to pour her poison into. Jessica Pendle had never found it more difficult to sit quietly and pretend she was deaf and daft as well as lame. ‘Jessica!’ She could almost feel her mother willing her not to stand up and publically denounce that malicious cat for circulating such silly, damaging stories about Jack Seaborne, Duke of Dettingham. Jack and his cousin Richard would not harm each other even if their very lives depended on it and anyone who knew them at all well would happily swear to the fact, but she knew a single lady, even one of her advanced years, could never defend an unrelated gentleman without making bad worse. ‘Mama?’ she murmured absently. ‘Pretend you didn’t hear them,’ Lady Pendle urged softly. ‘It doesn’t even make sense,’ Jessica muttered distractedly. ‘Jack’s already the duke, so why would he need to kill anyone to secure his position, let alone his cousin? Do they think Jack will now hunt down every male Seaborne in the country on some lunatic rampage to exterminate all competition?’ ‘You don’t suppose such inveterate gossips consider the implausibility of the stories they make up then spread as if they were truth, do you, my love? It all sounds like the plot of a very bad sensation novel thought up by some bored creature without anything to do and too much time to do it in, but how much good do you think it would do Jack if we both swept into battle on his behalf?’ ‘None at all,’ Jessica admitted. ‘But that woman made such ruthless efforts to trap Jack into marriage when we first came out that I wonder he didn’t go about in a suit of armour. If he was prepared to murder anyone, it would have been her.’ ‘A woman scorned can be very dangerous indeed, but we will discuss this at home when nobody else can hear but Papa, if he happens to be in one of his listening moods. For now we must pretend we have heard nothing untoward,’ her mother advised. ‘But Jack is an honourable man. Even when he’s looking down his lordly nose in a way I can’t help but find so infuriating that sometimes I long to smack him, I still know that much. I could never believe him capable of such villainy,’ Jess continued with a bewildered shake of her head. ‘You make yourself such an easy mark for his teasing by flaring up at him on the slightest provocation, my love,’ her mother said mildly and Jessica wondered why her family and his never seemed to find Jack’s regal-duke act infuriating. ‘There’s no need for him to play the autocrat whenever he isn’t being such a disgraceful rake nobody will even whisper in my hearing what he’s really been up to since he came down from Oxford even now,’ she muttered grumpily then caught an amused glint in her mama’s eyes and looked at her enquiringly. ‘Sometimes you sound just like Jack’s grandmother, my dear,’ her mother declared with a smile that would have made Jessica suspicious, if she wasn’t so busy being horrified. ‘I don’t, do I?’ she asked, wincing at the very idea of resembling that dreadful old aristocrat in any way. ‘I’ll never snap at him again,’ she added fervently and wondered exactly why her mama looked so pleased. Before she could consider the idea further there was a flurry of excited interest around the entrance to the ballroom created by some important arrival then a delighted susurration of whispering. She realised why when the Duke of Dettingham himself strolled into the ballroom as easily as if he was taking a stroll about his own garden, then bowed to his hostess with roguishly exaggerated grace and a wicked smile. That middle-aged matron acted the blushing damsel of twenty years ago rather than the formidable society hostess she was now and simpered girlishly when he kissed her hand like some old-time chevalier. Jessica frowned as she watched Jack insinuate himself into what had been a hostile environment with his usual careless aplomb. He ought to look as if he’d dressed by guess in the dark, considering his almost-fitting coat and carelessly elegant cravat, she decided critically. Instead he was dark and dangerous, and so careless of the fashion he carried off as if he’d heard of it and decided to try it in his own unique fashion that he was the model all the would-be dashing young men scrambled to emulate. In her opinion they would never succeed, but even she realised he had the casual elegance so many others strove for in vain. Meanwhile the Duke of Dettingham surveyed the assembled company as if he was mildly amused by the antics of a pack of well-dressed monkeys on the strut then spotted friends in the crowd and forged his way towards them. No risk of losing sight of him, even if he hadn’t been so tall that he was head and shoulders above most of his peers, Jessica decided with some exasperation. Wherever he went there was a flurry of greetings and he went about his ducal progress as if he had no idea most of the guests had only just stopped whispering tall stories about him and his missing heir. Of course he belonged to an aristocratic and powerful breed and had started out with a good many unfair advantages, but the current Duke of Dettingham was taller, long limbed and more leanly muscled and formidably intelligent than even the Seaborne clan expected of their titular head. He was probably a bit too much the leader of the pack for some of them, too, considering most Seabornes were as determined to go their own way as their piratical forebears had been, but she doubted a single one of them would put out a scurrilous story about Jack and Rich to clip his wings a little and keep him busy with his own affairs instead of theirs. Dismissing his current notoriety, since he was clearly as indifferent to it as a rock, Jessica concentrated on dealing firmly with her own senses and the feral beat of excitement his presence awoke deep inside her without any effort on his part. Her body had an infuriating habit of getting into a silly flutter at the very sight of Jack in his full arrogant glory and it would never do to let even a hint of that show. There were other good-looking and active gentlemen of Jack’s ilk with rank and power at their fingertips and she told herself he wasn’t that special, but a deeply buried and highly excitable Jess whispered they didn’t possess the air of such casual power that Jack had no need to flex to prove himself, or that infernal natural charisma he would still possess even if he’d become a boot boy at sixteen instead of a duke. She had been a sad tomboy and had wanted to join his and Richard’s wild rides and rough sports when he was sixteen, but they usually managed to evade her. Jessica recalled her twelve-year-old self doggedly searching up hill and down dale when they left with the dawn and came in at dusk to avoid her and might have blushed, if she wasn’t too old to flush when her cool composure was threatened by a careless aristocrat nowadays. ‘Richard was always terrified something would happen to Jack and he would be obliged to take on the dukedom,’ she muttered under her breath and heard her mother’s shocked gasp that she should even think about such things now. ‘Kindly remember where you are before you start discussing a very good friend’s premature demise, Jessica.’ ‘That wasn’t what I meant at all, and nobody is paying the slightest attention to me. They are all far too busy being intrigued or scandalised by Jack to listen to anything a plain nonentity like me has to say about him and his.’ ‘You always set yourself too low,’ her mother scolded and Jessica heard the note of concern in her mother’s voice and tried to pretend interest in the company while Jack sauntered about the room as if he owned it. She even managed to carry on a laboured conversation with a sober young gentleman of political ambition in search of a well-connected wife. Jessica knew she was well born and related to many of the ton in some degree or other, but wondered why this plodding young man thought she could be that wife. At three and twenty she was nearly on the shelf—the eighth child of parents who had provided livings and dowries for the other seven already and were therefore not rich, powerful or careful enough to make good in-laws—possessed of only moderate looks and a damaged left ankle. Still, she supposed she had the modest fortune left her by a great-aunt, in the belief Jessica would stay single and need it; her father was a viscount and her godmother was the Duke of Dettingham’s beloved aunt by marriage. Luckily Jessica didn’t like Mr Sledgeham enough to admire him for finding that a desirable connection, despite Jack’s current notoriety. ‘So what do you say, Miss Pendle?’ the wretched man asked all of a sudden and she tried not to look at him blankly. ‘Thank you, but, no,’ she managed civilly but firmly and it seemed a good enough answer as he only looked mildly disappointed. ‘Then can I fetch you some refreshment, Lady Pendle?’ Mr Sledgeham politely enquired of Lady Pendle and Jessica breathed a sigh of relief. ‘No, but thank you for the offer and your company, Mr Sledgeham,’ her mother said with such brisk kindness that he accepted it as his dismissal and took himself off. Jessica hardly had time to repress a shudder at the very idea of enduring a lifetime with such a prosy bore before Jack Seaborne loomed over her in person and she promptly forgot Mr Sledgeham altogether. Her heart thumped uncomfortably at Jack’s proximity and she ordered it to behave itself. Of course he would come and be civil to them if he was on his best behaviour tonight, she reassured herself. Lady Pendle was a long-time friend of his Aunt Melissa and Jessica was that lady’s goddaughter, so he could hardly stroll past them as if they were mere nodding acquaintances, even if that was all they really were nowadays. Jack presented her with a glass of lemonade without even asking if she wanted it, as if he’d armed himself with it in case she was overcome with artless enthusiasm at the very sight of him. Then he insinuated himself on to the chaise between herself and her mama with a faintly amused air of omnipotence. ‘Your Grace,’ she managed with a stiff nod and an indistinct murmur that might be a thank-you for the lemonade, if he had an obliging imagination. ‘Miss Pendle,’ he said blandly with an annoyingly elegant seated bow. ‘I trust you are enjoying robust health and spirits?’ he asked, as if was addressing some ageing spinster at least twenty years older than her three and twenty. ‘I am very well, thank you,’ she replied repressively. He had always delighted in provoking her, then sitting back to watch her struggle with her stormy emotions in public. It was annoying and ungentlemanly of him and she silently told him so with a furious glare disguised as a weakly smile. He grinned and stretched his long legs out in front of him as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Jessica reluctantly admired his élan even as she felt the flex and steel of sleek, masculine muscles next to her and wished him a great deal further off. With his black-as-midnight, slightly overlong, curling hair catching all sorts of devilish lights in the candles’ glow and the starkly male beauty of his sensual mouth added to that hint of a smile in his gold-rayed green eyes, he might look like the answer to a maiden’s prayer, but she couldn’t dream the dreams other well-born society ladies indulged in. Somehow she fooled herself he was a run- of-the-mill gentleman who had stopped for a polite conversation to stop herself colouring up like every other idiot he smiled at in that way. Jack Seaborne wouldn’t want her if she was presented to him naked on a platter with an apple in her mouth, like the wild boar’s head at Christmas. The very idea of him prostrating himself at her imperfect feet made her smile so wryly to herself that she met his enquiring gaze with a fading memory of it on her lips. ‘That’s good,’ he said blandly and she cast him an even more suspicious glance, ‘because I came to issue an informal invitation to a house party my darling aunt has got it into her head to organise at Ashburton this summer. We dearly hope Miss Pendle and her lovely mama, along with her rather-less-lovely sire, will join us in Herefordshire for a fortnight, as soon as this fiasco is finally over and done for another year,’ he said lightly, then looked almost serious as he met Jessica’s eyes with something that might have been a plea in his own, if she wasn’t who she was and he were not the most eligible duke in the land. ‘You’ll be as welcome as the flowers in spring; you always talk to me as a human being and not merely a duke. Won’t you agree to come and make the whole business a little more bearable for us all?’ he coaxed shamelessly. ‘If I’m sure of only one thing in life, your Grace,’ Jessica said as lightly as she could manage when the sincerity in his eyes made her want to grant him anything he wished, ‘it’s that you’re perfectly capable of looking after yourself.’ ‘Not this time, Princess. I suspect my dragon grandmother has put out an edict that I must be wed post haste, now I’m racing towards thirty and nigh in my dotage,’ he said, a touch of bitterness in his deep voice that made Jessica look a little more carefully at him than she’d dared to until now and note the lines of strain and tiredness about his firm mouth and the faint shadows under his eyes that spoke of a deeper weariness than anything merely physical. ‘Won’t you join us at Ashburton for a few weeks and add a little spice to a leaden occasion, Princess Jessica?’ he went on. ‘You will be such a relief from the sweet little débutantes my aunt is threatening to inflict on us. I’ll soon be choking on too much undiluted sugar,’ he appealed almost earnestly. Not sure whether to be flattered or insulted, she told herself he’d spoilt his plea by using the nickname he inflicted on her when his aunt gave her the ground-floor Queen’s Room at Ashburton after her accident to save her climbing the stairs. ‘I have asked you not to call me that so often I shall soon start saying it in my sleep,’ she told him acerbically. ‘Say you’ll come to Ashburton for a few weeks this summer and I’ll try very hard not to do it any more, Miss Pendle,’ he urged. ‘And you promise you won’t hold me up to ridicule?’ ‘I would never do anything so unfriendly,’ he said as if he found the idea impossible to even contemplate, despite all the teasing she’d endured in the old days. ‘You will be an honoured guest and anyone who dares consider you otherwise will soon discover their error and a pressing engagement elsewhere.’ His words should have warmed her, so why did she suddenly want to cry? Because it wasn’t every day a lady was asked to a house party as a sort of female jester, she supposed. ‘I doubt very much Papa will agree to leave Winberry Hall and the hay harvest once he is back in Northamptonshire again at long last,’ she managed to say coolly enough. ‘He would tear himself away if that were all that was keeping him home, my dear, but don’t forget his latest grandchild is about to come into the world and your father is a far more doting father and grandfather than he would have everyone believe,’ her mother put in ruefully. ‘Surely we cannot be from home at such a time either, Mama? This will be Rowena’s first child and she is sure to need us even more,’ Jessica protested. ‘Rowena has many weeks to go and is robust as ever, despite that air of fragility her husband is clearly taken in by even though he’s been married to her for more than a year now,’ her mother argued. ‘Both he and your father are worry warts, but I’ve no intention of sitting about clucking like a mother hen solely to make them feel better. A relaxing fortnight at Ashburton before I immerse myself in my grandmotherly duties once more sounds wonderful to me, so thank you for asking us to be your sadly pampered guests there once more, your Grace,’ Lady Pendle said with an air of finality. It seemed that Lord and Lady Pendle and their last unmarried daughter would be present in Herefordshire this summer to watch his Grace the Duke of Dettingham pick out his duchess, whether that daughter wanted to be there or not. ‘I’ll be very grateful for some leaven to add to so much dough, then,’ Jack said with a lopsided grin that could charm a gorgon. Jessica found herself unworthily hoping one of the young ladies invited to be looked over like fillies before a sale would turn him down flat when he asked them to marry him, but supposed that was too much to expect. Jack Seaborne was a temptation any sensible woman he wasn’t planning to marry ought to avoid like pure sin, but even Jessica couldn’t ignore a direct appeal for support. Yet why was he meekly going along with his grandmother’s scheme to marry him off like this? His air of disillusioned cynicism usually kept all but the most maniacally determined husband hunters at bay and he had carefully avoided unsophisticated young ladies, however lovely, until now. So why had he decided to marry, after all the effort he’d put in to avoiding that state? Sighing at the unfathomable nature of Jack Seaborne’s thoughts and motives, Jessica decided she’d find out quite soon enough. ‘Perhaps I could stay at home, just in case Rowena needs me,’ she said in a last-ditch attempt to escape. ‘Why would she when she has a devoted husband ready, willing and able to look after her far more closely than you ever could now she is wed? At least we need you, Princess, so if you insist on being useful to somebody it might as well be us Seabornes,’ he said and this time she could sense the steel under the velvet of his deep voice, as if he truly did need her to be there this summer while he picked out a bride for some peculiar reason all his own and was determined she would be close by. ‘You don’t need me and I would be out of place at such a gathering,’ she insisted, her internal warning bells clanging. ‘Not so,’ he insisted tersely and she felt apprehension shiver down her spine as she met the challenge in his green-gold eyes. ‘I’m not an uncritical little débutante,’ she warned. ‘Were you ever one of those, Princess?’ he asked with a smile that threatened to undermine her defences. ‘And I’m even less wide-eyed and naïve now than I was then.’ ‘I think we all know that.’ ‘Then you must also know I’m not the sort of person you want at Ashburton if you’re intent on persuading one of the guests to become your duchess,’ she said recklessly and knew the instant it was out of her mouth that it was a dare too far. His green-gold eyes darkened until they resembled obsidian and his mouth hardened into the look of arrogant superiority that had always raised her hackles. His unspoken contempt for her plain speaking was intimidating, as if she’d lost his good opinion so effectively it wasn’t even worth him explaining why. Her hand shook and her breath hitched as she bit back the apology threatening to tumble from her lips. ‘Perhaps you’re exactly the sort of female I need to goad me into finding your exact opposite, Miss Pendle,’ he said after a pause that somehow made it worse. He was offended and furious, but at least she’d hidden her instinctive horror at the idea of him taking a lovely and obliging female to wife. This was exactly the sort of scene she’d warned herself against at sixteen, but could it be she hadn’t buried the romantic idiot she’d been then deeply enough? If she was about to watch some innocent succumb to his quick wits, spectacular looks and powerful masculine aura, then grown-up Jessica Pendle had better steel herself until she was as far from her immature self as Herefordshire was from Hispaniola. ‘I’m already all that your duchess will not be,’ she stated flatly, ‘so why bother?’ ‘And I shudder to think how dangerous you could be, Princess, if you ever let yourself off the role of martyr for long enough to find out,’ he replied enigmatically. ‘True,’ Lady Pendle interrupted with a sage nod that made Jessica flash her mother a furious look instead of him. ‘At times like this, I should be able to rely on my mother for support,’ she told her with as much dignity as she could manage. ‘You will always have that, my love,’ Lady Pendle replied, ‘but it’s high time you tried out your own wings.’ ‘Even if they’re broken?’ she was shocked into protesting a little too revealingly. ‘Nonsense, you always did refine too much on that damaged ankle of yours,’ Jack told her impatiently. ‘And you have rarely been more wrong, your Grace,’ she informed him sourly. ‘Not as wrong as you are if you let a few featherheaded fools make you see yourself as less than you are. You’re as idiotic as they are if you have,’ he said bluntly. ‘Am I indeed?’ she asked regally. After enduring years of hot rooms, laboured conversation and pitying looks, with the occasional glimpse of his Grace the Duke of Dettingham in flight from a pack of eager young ladies to enliven her evenings, she was very familiar with her limitations. She refused to accept his opinion of her status from a man who only had to hint he wanted to marry to be chased by every eligible female in the British Isles. ‘Yes,’ he said, as if in no doubt about his omnipotence and her stupidity. ‘At least I don’t think it’s my prerogative to dictate the lives of others.’ ‘Such heat, Miss Pendle—could it be that my faults are more important to you than you’re prepared to admit?’ he asked slyly. ‘No, and you’ve got so many it would take me a lifetime to list them all,’ she informed him, fixing a bland smile to her lips to disguise her ire from spectators. ‘And how well you would get on with my grandmother, if only she was able to attend this little affair Aunt Melissa is organising so diligently on my behalf,’ he said. Recalling how much she disliked the dictatorial and often downright rude Dowager Duchess of Dettingham, Jessica would have laughed at the thought of them agreeing upon any topic under the sun, if his words didn’t echo her mother’s earlier ones and make her feel like crying instead. ‘Then there’s someone else in this world who refuses to take you at face value,’ she defended herself haughtily. ‘And such a handsome face it is as well, my boy,’ Lady Pendle intervened with a repressive look for her daughter that spoke of what she might say when they were alone. ‘Tell your Aunt Melissa that of course we shall come and, if I can drag Pendle away from his acres and our dear Rowena, he will lend you his support as well.’ ‘Thank you, my lady, I am truly grateful,’ he said and Jessica felt an unladylike urge to kick him on his nearest perfect and lordly ankle, just to watch him limp away for once, instead of feeling so ungraceful in her own departure, which her mother signalled at last by rising to her feet and accepting Jack’s arm when he declared it his opportunity to escape as well. ‘I shall look forward to welcoming you to Ashburton once again then, Princess,’ he murmured by way of farewell as he handed them into their town carriage with the effortless ease that somehow made Jessica even more furious. ‘You won’t notice I exist among so many beautiful and accomplished young ladies,’ she replied ungraciously. ‘Oh, I always notice you, Princess,’ he said as if he should be congratulated. Then he stood back with an insufferably superior smile on his handsome face as the footman slammed the door. Waving a careless farewell, Jack sauntered off into the night without so much as a walking cane to protect himself with, probably whistling carelessly as if to actually invite any waiting footpad to make the attempt to rob him as he went, Jessica decided crossly. ‘If you always kept your word as diligently as you did just now, your father and I would soon be forced to disown you,’ her mother told her acidly. ‘What do you mean? I always live up to my promises,’ Jessica protested, stung by the genuine anger in her mother’s voice. ‘You swore you would be civil to Jack not half an hour ago and you have just treated him to a display of childish temper I can only categorise as shrill and disagreeable.’ ‘I wonder why I feel this compulsion to go to bed without supper?’ Jessica asked as lightly as she could. Part of her knew her mother was right; she had let the odd feeling that Jack marrying might rock her own world to its foundations overtake good manners. ‘I will try to keep a curb on my tongue from now on,’ she promised and hoped she could hold to it for the two weeks of Jack’s house party. Jack Seaborne was probably too much of a gentleman to hold her ill temper against her and she didn’t matter enough for him to bother holding a grudge. He wasn’t the sort of man who nursed a slight anyway and after this visit they would not meet other than by chance or at the odd dutiful occasion. She had seven brothers and sisters and he had five first cousins—four if you excluded Rich—and a legion of more distant connections, so there would be christenings and engagement balls in common with the Duke and Duchess of Dettingham, but Miss Pendle, the maiden aunt, could fade into the background until the great left the good to their celebrations. Of course she pitied whichever deluded girl let herself be blinded by the allure of the handsome Duke of Dettingham to the true Jack Seaborne underneath. He had a tyrannical will and an unbending determination to run the lives of those around him for their own good. No doubt he would make the poor child a very uncomfortable husband, but watching him court his bride would not be an ordeal, more another duty to get through before she could retire to the country and breed pigs, or maybe finance canals and steam engines and make a name for herself as an eccentric lady of means. ‘What more could a mother ask than your promise to try to be civil for a whole two weeks?’ Lady Pendle mused ironically and Jessica shifted uncomfortably on the well-upholstered cushions as she reviewed her behaviour over the last hour or so. ‘And you are not to play the old maid at Ashburton when the family will expect you to enjoy yourself as usual. I know the place is lovely at any time of year, but I have always found it especially so during high summer,’ her mother offered, as if the natural and contrived beauty of the setting ought to console Jessica for renouncing the right to be rude to her host whenever the fancy took her. ‘I always enjoy visiting Aunt Melissa and the children,’ Jessica said. ‘Indeed, it will be almost like old times,’ Lady Pendle went on happily. ‘Almost,’ Jessica murmured, recalling those days when she had adored Jack so devotedly she had wanted to follow him about like a yipping puppy. Then she had never doubted they would be friends for ever and maybe even more and had put him in place of the hero when she’d dreamt of fairytale marriages and happy ever afters, before she’d raced off into the chaos of a summer storm one day on her father’s favourite hunter and lamed them both for ever. Best not to recall past follies, she told herself and concluded she and Jack would have been the worst-matched pair in the turbulent history of the Seabornes. A summer visit to Ashburton would make a pleasant interlude before she found her true purpose in life, but it would prove no more significant than tonight’s ball or any other social occasion she had attended and then forgotten of late. Chapter Two When she saw Jack strolling in the Park the next day, Jessica suddenly realised why she felt so uneasy about this projected house party of his. She caught sight of him long before he spotted the Pendle barouche and idly wondered at her ability to pick the Duke of Dettingham out from the crowd. He looked so alone, despite the chattering crowds and cheerful hails of his cronies. She marvelled at how many eager, beckoning looks the society beauties sent him in the hope of catching his notoriously discerning eye, despite the scurrilous stories they went on whispering about him behind their fans and their débutante sisters simply sat and simpered in the prescribed fashion. It occurred to her that he looked solitary, although he could hardly be more at ease with himself, because she expected Richard to be nearby whenever she encountered Jack even now. The cousins had been inseparable as boys and so often together as young men she had come to think of them as brothers in arms. Jess suddenly realised why Jack intended to marry and gave a shocked gasp that she had to turn into a sneeze to disguise. He hoped his scapegrace heir would come home once he realised Jack was wed and there was little risk of him inheriting the family strawberry leaves. A worse reason for marriage evaded her and she wanted to scream denial over the chatter of the assembled throng. ‘Idiot,’ she muttered under her breath, as her gaze dwelt broodingly on the manly form ambling towards them as if her dark thoughts had drawn him to them as inevitably as north drew a compass needle. ‘Dettingham,’ her father greeted him genially. ‘Your Grace,’ her mother said as she held out a hand in public greeting to the latest butt of scandal to confound the tabbies. ‘Jack,’ Jessica managed flatly and in calling him by his given name overstepped the mark once again in her attempt not to bluntly ask him what on earth he thought he was doing by thinking up such a cold-blooded method of flushing out his errant cousin. ‘Really, Jessica, I know I asked you to be civil to him, but that’s going much too far in public,’ Lady Pendle scolded distractedly while she discreetly aimed an admonishing kick at her husband’s ankle to remind him not to grin at the pair of them as if he could imagine nothing better than his daughter and the Duke of Dettingham being overfamiliar with each other. ‘And did you promise to obey your mama in such a testing quest, Princess?’ Jack asked with that almost-open smile that always threatened to do strange things to her insides if she let it. ‘If I did, then I’m fated to make a liar of myself almost as quickly as you have, your Grace,’ she told him with a reproachful look for the determined use of that hated nickname once again. He bowed with such mocking elegance she had to bite back a chuckle. The last thing she wanted at the moment was a truce between them, considering she had a very large bone to pick with him the moment they were alone. ‘I apologise for my lapse, Miss Pendle, but your best regal look always has a weakening effect on my already ragged manners,’ he told her a little too meekly. ‘If I went about making that sort of excuse for my follies, I would be banned from every drawing room in Mayfair,’ she informed him sternly. ‘Then I must try it whenever possible from now on, since I can imagine no fate more perfect than being forbidden the sticklers’ company, preferably for ever.’ Jessica’s father laughed out loud and drew the interested attention of all those straining to hear every word that fell from Jack’s lips. ‘Might put that one into effect myself, my boy,’ Lord Pendle confided, seeming oblivious of all the sharp looks and eager speculation around him on the subject of their conversation. ‘You won’t if you wish to share any of the rooms in your London home with your wife during the next year or so,’ she heard her mother murmur for what she thought was her husband’s ears only. From Jack’s carefully blank expression he had caught that muttered threat as well and Jessica marvelled at the cat-like sharpness of his senses even as she reminded herself to keep a still tongue between her teeth in his company. ‘Should you like to take a drive with me, Pr—Miss Pendle?’ he asked with such an air of bland innocence that Jessica gave him a sharp look. ‘Well, you can’t say I’m not trying,’ he told her with a cheerful shrug and a smile that had her rising to her feet in response before she’d even thought how he used that look to charm the birds out of the trees when she wasn’t around to waste it on. ‘In what, pray?’ she asked as she plumped back down again against the comfortable squabs of the family barouche. ‘My imaginary curricle?’ he said with raised eyebrows and a boyish grin she truly did find irresistible this time. ‘Oh, well, that’s all right then,’ she said and looked down at him with laughter in her eyes and a smile tugging at her lips. ‘Is it, Princess?’ he asked with an oddly twisted smile and a look in his eyes as if he’d just witnessed something so unexpected it had almost robbed him of words. ‘I thought we had dealt with that misname,’ she managed to scold, even as she fought an urge to languish at him like all the other susceptible misses. ‘Sorry,’ he said as if shrugging off something irrelevant and getting back to the task in hand, ‘it just slipped out; I obviously need more practice preventing myself from saying it. So will you come for a drive and allow me to put some in before we’re immured at Ashburton together for two whole weeks, Miss Pendle? I truly have the means to take you for one over yonder and am not yet suffering delusions,’ he said, waving a hand at the gleaming curricle halted under the trees. The whole rig was attracting a great deal of gentlemanly envy for the spirit and quality of the perfectly matched team the tiger and his groom were fussing over. Jessica wondered who had attracted Jack’s notice so successfully that he’d stepped down from such a splendid equipage in the first place, but managed not to dwell on a mental picture of the magnificent sloe-eyed siren rumour had it was his very secret lover as well a grand lady of the ton. His amorous adventures were clearly no business of hers, but his ridiculous scheme to flush Richard out of hiding felt so acutely wrong that she shivered despite the building heat of a sultry June afternoon and wished she was a special enough person in his life to stand even a chance of persuading him not to go through with it. Jack snapped his fingers imperiously and the curricle appeared at his side as if the milling crowd did not exist. She speculated crossly on the nature of power and the powerful and found herself sitting beside Jack on the narrow bench seat without ever agreeing to drive with him in the first place so far as she could recall. ‘Thank you, Brandt,’ she said once she had almost shaken off the nerve-tingling effect of sitting by his master long enough to remember the name of Jack’s head groom. ‘It’s always a pleasure to help a true lady into one of our carriages, Miss Pendle,’ the middle-aged man said, as if he didn’t think much of the females who usually graced the ducal curricle, and Jess bit back a chuckle at hearing his grace the Duke of Dettingham being scolded about the company he kept by his groom. ‘Indeed it is,’ Jack muttered blandly, then informed Brandt he could walk home as a reward for his impudence. ‘Aye, your Grace,’ the man said equably and took off at a brisk pace as if he relished the task. They set off and Jessica tried not to look surprised and a little bit scandalised when Jack left the Park in order to set down his tiger not far from his house in Grosvenor Square, although she couldn’t help but be amused at the swagger in the diminutive tiger’s step as he doffed his cap to her with elaborate courtesy and cocked Jack a knowing glance before strolling off towards the Dettingham House mews. ‘Where on earth did you find him?’ Jess asked as she waited for the greys to admit Jack was indeed their master and fully in control before he gave them the office to move off. ‘The stews, but he’s going to be the best jockey I ever had if only he’ll learn to listen to those who know more about the art than he thinks he does.’ ‘So you punished his intransigence by making him your tiger? Your servants must tremble in their boots when you lose your temper with one of them, your Grace,’ she teased, but secretly thought his leniency admirable, especially in contrast to the appalling way some powerful householders treated their servants. ‘I don’t have to lose my temper, Miss Pendle; all it takes is one of my ducal frowns and they all run about doing my bidding as if I were a king in his palace.’ ‘How things must have changed at Ashburton,’ she said with a mock sigh. ‘I shall look forward to witnessing it.’ ‘You’ll do so in vain,’ he said with a rueful smile that made her recall how likeable she might find him if she dared let herself. ‘They’re all convinced they know how to run the place far better than I do.’ ‘They’re probably right,’ Jessica pointed out helpfully. ‘I doubt you had lessons on how to order a china cupboard or keep a linen cupboard supplied inflicted on you as a boy.’ ‘Something for which I am truly thankful,’ he said and turned his team out into the traffic. ‘Where are we going?’ Jess asked, clutching her best bonnet, then tying the ribbons a little tighter as he set the restless team to as fast a pace as was safe in the London traffic. ‘Somewhere they can have a half-decent run and we can breathe in clean air for once,’ he told her rather distractedly as he skirted a wagon and restrained his high-spirited team as they took offence at a lady’s parasol in a virulent shade of green that would have made Jess do the same if she had to stare at it for long. ‘Won’t there be gossip?’ she protested half-heartedly. ‘Isn’t there always gossip?’ he said cynically. ‘About you, yes,’ she agreed, but not very often about lame and respectable Miss Pendle. A rebel voice within whispered it was about time she gave them a little fodder for their ever-more-ridiculous tales, so she might as well sit back and enjoy it. ‘I doubt even the tabbies will believe Lord and Lady Pendle allowed me to abduct their ewe lamb in front of their eyes, so you can relax, Princess. I promise to get you home in one piece with your name relatively unsullied before anyone even notices you’re gone.’ ‘Since this is my last foray into society, I suppose it doesn’t matter what they say about me any more,’ Jess replied half to herself. ‘What do you mean by that?’ ‘I should have thought it perfectly plain.’ ‘Not to me.’ ‘I am on the shelf, your Grace—not that I was ever truly off it—and I have no intention of taking part in any more social Seasons as I don’t particularly like London at this time of year. It always seems absurd to me that we all up sticks and move to town, when the countryside is at its most lovely and busy with new life, so we may spend that precious time of year being overheated and bored in a city that can’t help but be malodorous in the wrong weather—which seems to be most varieties of an English spring and summer so far as I can tell.’ ‘Maybe,’ he said, ‘but you’re far too young to be at your last prayers. Not that you ever made the slightest push at being a successful débutante when you were younger and I can’t help but wonder why.’ ‘Isn’t that perfectly obvious as well?’ she asked exasperatedly. ‘Again, not to me, which means that either I’m being particularly stupid, or you’re wrong. How to walk the fine line between arguing with a lady when she says black is white and I know it to be otherwise, I wonder?’ he mused as if his interpretation of events must be right, just because it always was, presumably. ‘You could try silence.’ ‘Is that how you do it, Jessica? Use that quiet, sceptical manner of yours to frighten off all the sprigs of nobility who don’t comply with your high standards?’ So now he thought her a snob, incapable of finding any man fit to be her ideal pattern-card of a husband? ‘What a very high opinion of me you do have,’ she tried to joke. ‘It can’t be any lower than the one you appear to have of yourself,’ he said impatiently and finally gave his team more rein as the traffic thinned at last. ‘I am a realist,’ she stated bluntly. ‘If that were the case, you would be Lady Something or the Countess of Somewhere by now,’ he scolded as if her single status actually mattered to him. ‘And Lord Something or the Earl of Somewhere would simply overlook the fact they’d saddled themselves with a lame wife, I suppose?’ she asked caustically. ‘Yes, the only person who refuses to do just that is you, Jessica Pendle, and I’m weary of the whole tableau of the brave beauty, meekly accepting that her role in life is to make others feel pleased they are more fortunate than she is. It’s almost an insult to those of us who value you as you are, rather than as you think you should be.’ ‘I’m lame, that’s how I know myself to be,’ she sparked back and tears she told herself were of temper threatened to undo her under his sceptical gaze. ‘You limp a little, that’s all,’ he argued. ‘It could have been so much worse, considering you spent a day and a night out in the pouring rain lying injured. You could have died, or been seriously crippled for life,’ he said, the passion in his voice making his now-calm team jib again. ‘I have never denied it was my own fault,’ she offered a little too meekly for her own taste. ‘Yes, it was, in so far as you took a horse you were forbidden to ride and dashed off on him into weather you should have known would terrify the poor beast. You had a quick temper and a wayward heart in those days, but none of us thought you set out to do yourself and that unfortunate animal injury. We would have been fools if we had, considering how well we all knew your fiery temper and tomboyish ways. No doubt you thought such an impulsive and ill-considered exploit would prove to the world you were every bit as good as any of your brothers at the time. Us Seabornes and your own doting family were only relieved you were alive, so why can’t you accept it as a minor miracle you survived relatively unscathed as we all did at the time?’ ‘I had no idea you even knew I had gone,’ she said faintly. ‘I always notice your absences, Princess,’ he said with exaggerated patience, as if preventing himself from physically taking hold of her and shaking her until some sense had been driven in by force. ‘In those days it was mainly because I was on pins to know what mischief you were in whenever you were gone, but that time we searched all night, then half the next day for you. I’ll never forget how it felt to look in vain for a child lost in the darkness. Rich and I tramped the hills round Winberry Hall so fanatically I could probably guide a party round them, day or night, without pausing to get my bearings even now.’ ‘I didn’t know any of that. When I recovered from the fever I got from being so wet and cold you and your cousins were all long gone, so I thought you must have already left Winberry Hall by the time I was found to be missing.’ ‘Not us, and just as well since your father was in such despair when you were not to be found that night and your brothers not much better, that if my Uncle Henry hadn’t organised a systematic search of the area, we might not have found you until it was too late to help you.’ ‘Then why wasn’t I told?’ she asked faintly. ‘The doctor said you were not to be reminded of your ordeal and would need all the peace and quiet you could get to recover when the fever broke and you were out of danger at last. So we took ourselves off, certain you would soon be your usual irrepressible self after giving us such an almighty scare, but you never really recovered your old spark, did you, Princess?’ For once she didn’t argue with that nickname, too busy re-aligning events in her head to bother about small details. ‘No,’ she admitted at last. ‘Why not?’ he asked as if he was truly interested in her answer. ‘You were the most intrepid female Rich and I ever came across and then you became a paper saint.’ How to explain that it was plain to her by then that none of her dawning hopes for the future could ever be, now she was imperfect and he was not? Impossible when he would think her still in love with him or some such nonsensical notion, she decided, and cast about for an excuse for losing interest in the things she’d once loved so much, like riding for hours about the Northamptonshire countryside, running like the wind and climbing every tree on her father’s estate, then most of his neighbours’ as well. ‘As a way of preserving my dignity, I suppose,’ she said finally with a shrug. ‘It was a retreat—no, worse than that, a refusal to give battle in the first place,’ he condemned sternly. ‘How can you sit there and lecture me on cowardice when you have no idea what you’re talking about?’ she accused. ‘You never suffered a moment of doubt that your limbs would hold you up for as long as you asked them to. How could you understand what it feels like to face a crowded ballroom, knowing you will have to limp across the dance floor to reach the chaperon’s benches, where everyone knows you will stay all evening because you cannot dance? You never had to face the giggles and whispers of diamonds of the first water as they discuss you as if you’re either not there or must be deaf since you’re not perfect like they are. Some gentlemen even asked my mother if I would like tea or lemonade as if I couldn’t decide for myself.’ ‘You seem to me to get on perfectly well with most of them. Rich and I could never get near you for a circle of assorted young ladies and spotty youths with fiercely protective expressions in their eyes when you made your come-out.’ ‘So I can’t be quite as martyred and self-pitying as you say, can I?’ ‘I never said you haven’t got a great many friends, just that you are very careful never to acquire lovers.’ ‘Something my true well-wishers must be thankful for,’ Jessica said primly. ‘You know perfectly well what I mean. There wasn’t a single would-be lover or husband among those very young gentlemen. Not even one grown-up male with a mind and desire all his own, my dear Princess. You know, real, mature and rampant gentlemen who might take friendship for something more if you ever let them, so you’ve kept them sternly at a distance, haven’t you?’ ‘No sensible female encourages the rakes,’ she said scornfully, although she knew he was quite right. ‘One fully aware of her own beauty and wit and who is prepared to take them and life on and win would, Princess, although a spoilt young woman who is too arrogant to play the game at all if she isn’t guaranteed to win would probably not dare do so.’ ‘What an original take on my life you do have, your Grace,’ she said icily. ‘And how very much you would like to box my ears,’ he said with a whimsical grin, as if he’d prefer her to revert to the wild Jess of old and do just that. ‘Tempting, but not even you make me angry enough to risk being overturned, then having cause to limp on both feet ever after,’ she teased, because it was that or rage, then probably weep all over him since no words came close to being able to express her fury at being held up for his lofty scrutiny and found wanting. ‘Oh, Princess, what are we going to do with you?’ he asked with a weary shake of his handsome head. ‘Take me home and stop calling me that,’ she said just as wearily. It seemed for a long time as if they’d reached deadlock. Jack had taken a wide sweep round the road at a handy village green to turn his light carriage back towards London without feeling the need for any spectacular feats of driving to prove his skill. Jessica already knew he could do most things he set his mind to superbly and hoped she wasn’t going to be his latest project, something mildly challenging to divert him from the more serious business of finding a wife. ‘What an obedient duke I am,’ he ventured after a few miles of wary silence. ‘No, you’re a devious, deceptive and dangerous one and I’m not in the least bit fooled by you, so don’t try your tricks on me,’ she told him grumpily. ‘At least I’m open to life and haven’t had my emotions preserved in aspic,’ he argued scornfully. ‘You’re certainly open to making the biggest mistake of your life this summer,’ she muttered under her breath at the arrogance of the man, thinking he could accuse her of being emotionless when he was contemplating taking a wife mainly to reassure his cousin he could finally come home, since the succession was about to be secured on to more direct heirs. ‘How lovely for you,’ she said insincerely out loud, but began to wonder anew about that cat-like hearing of his as he sent her a very peculiar look indeed. ‘Promise me that you will at least try, Princess,’ he admonished with a sigh after several more minutes of faintly hostile silence on both sides. ‘Try to do what?’ ‘Join us erring and striving human beings for a change and come down out of your ivory tower for the summer. You might be surprised at what you find if you decided to embrace life instead of running away from it.’ ‘And you might get your ears boxed after all,’ she snapped bitterly, for wasn’t this pot calling kettle black with a vengeance? ‘Promise?’ he said relentlessly and she made the mistake of briefly meeting his eyes and seeing genuine concern in the gold-rayed green depths of them before he turned his attention back to the road once again. ‘Only if you finally stop calling me Princess,’ she conceded and might have kicked herself for conceding that much if it would have done any good. ‘You would miss it if I did,’ he said with a wry smile as if he had suddenly realised how absurd they must look as they quarrelled most of the way round the almost countryside, then back into London again. ‘Like I’d miss chickenpox,’ she said darkly. ‘I take it all back, Jess, don’t ever change,’ he said with an easy grin and a laugh and she cursed herself for a fool when it felt more exhilarating than half an hour of flirtation with one of his rival rakes. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t. So far as I can see there’s very little hope you ever will either.’ ‘And why should I change?’ ‘Because marriage ought to do that to a man,’ she horrified herself by coming right out and saying. ‘Did I mention marriage?’ he asked, his voice so silkily dangerous she couldn’t fight off a visible shiver. ‘Never to me and don’t worry, I have no delusions in that direction,’ she snapped defensively. ‘I never thought you had, my dear,’ he said so remotely that it felt as if they were only a pair of strangers who didn’t particularly like each other. ‘Which is just as well, considering you would have hated it if I had designs on your ducal coronet,’ she recklessly added. ‘Who knows?’ he said vaguely, as if Jessica Pendle and her wayward ideas were a million miles from the focus of his thoughts, whatever that might be. ‘I do,’ she persisted disastrously, mainly because she couldn’t let silence fall again now the words were actually out. ‘You’re right,’ he admitted after a tense silence during which she had to actually bite her tongue not to make things worse by defending herself even more strongly and denying once more she had the least desire to attract him on any level. ‘In a weak moment I gave in to my grandmother’s edict and seriously considered marriage. It was obviously a moment too long, since I am now host to a gaggle of eligible young ladies and their assorted relatives and friends and will have a house party full of guests to consider when I return home.’ ‘Hence your invitation to the Pendles, so we can water down the obviousness of a pack of eager young ladies invited by your aunt before you had time to express your second thoughts?’ she made herself say lightly, as if being considered an antidote to other more marriageable females didn’t hurt her in the least. ‘No, hence my invitation to the place I probably love most in the world to a family I consider part of my own. You are every bit as lovely as any of the ladies invited by my aunt and ought to know it by now, without having to be reassured at every turn that I will never see you as second-best to any of them,’ he said drily. ‘I am not lovely,’ she objected as indignantly as if he’d accused her of being plain as rice pudding. ‘Like it or not, you are so, my dear,’ he said with such a knowing smile she felt the edge had been quite taken off the compliment. ‘Just because you declare it, therefore it must be so, your Grace?’ ‘If that’s what it takes to convince you I’m right. Now kindly take that about-to-be-martyred look off your face and behave like the proper young lady society knows you to be, Princess. It might be best if you pretend we just enjoyed a sedate tour round the leafier parts of Mayfair rather than a dashing tour of the outer villages perhaps.’ ‘Yes, much better—and you’re still wrong,’ she sniped as the dusty streets became familiar and she felt him slip back into cynical Duke of Dettingham persona and out of her reach once again. ‘I’m not, you know,’ he murmured as he passed over her reticule and fan when the Pendles’ head footman had finished helping her down from the relatively high carriage seat. ‘Not what?’ she replied distractedly, for trying to descend gracefully from even a normal carriage was always a challenge and today she had wanted to land in a heap at his horses’ feet even less than usual. ‘Wrong, of course.’ He reminded her of his assertion she was lovely with a look of such molten heat in his gaze that she almost believed him for a moment, until she reminded herself he was an accomplished flirt and very good at making susceptible females believe they were uniquely special to him. ‘Hah! Try telling that to your other female guests when next we meet. They would have you declared insane or throw me in the moat.’ ‘I don’t have a moat,’ he argued as she stood back on the pavement and waited to bid him an acceptably polite farewell. ‘They would dig one especially for me.’ ‘Should I consider that a challenge, I wonder?’ he said with a teasing smile that threatened to leave her in a collapsed heap of compliance in the street. ‘No!’ she said a little too shrilly and stepped back as if just looking at him might burn her. ‘Pity,’ he said with a taunting grin she recalled seeing all too often when she was a child and he and Rich were about to escape her yet again. ‘I always liked a challenge and so few other females grant me the delight of proving them wrong as often as you do, Princess.’ ‘Then count me in as just another female,’ she advised with as much of a flounce as she could manage and turned to quit the scene if he refused to play the gentleman and leave her in peace. ‘You could never be one of the crowd to me, Princess,’ he assured her outrageously as he finally obliged her and drove off with a careless salute of his driving whip and a flurry of dust from his chariot wheels. ‘Infuriating, arrogant, idiot,’ she gritted between her teeth as she stood on the pavement, watching slavishly until he was completely out of sight. ‘I beg your pardon, Miss Jessica?’ the butler said blandly, clearly having heard every word, but preserving the fiction that good servants were made of wood and set going every morning by a clock winder. ‘Tea, I think, Wellow,’ she said brightly. ‘I stand in need of it after that.’ ‘What lady would not,’ Wellow allowed himself to answer as he followed her into the hall. Two weeks later Jessica decided that not even tea would cure this disastrous situation. Her father and mother had cried off at the last minute and she was about to reach Ashburton New Place to face the ducal summons alone. The carriage slowed to take the entrance to Jack’s mansion and she fought a cowardly impulse to order her father’s coachman to return to Winberry Hall instead. Despite their oddly unforgettable encounters back in London, Jack would treat her with his usual absent-minded courtesy, then forget her, she reassured herself uneasily. All she had to do was limp about his glorious stately pile looking serene and untroubled for the next two weeks while he took his pick of the finest belles of the ton, then she could go home and get on with her life. Resigning herself to a fortnight of pretence, Jessica leant forwards for her first glimpse of Ashburton’s famous deer park as the coach finally swung through the imposing gates and there could be no turning back. ‘Her ladyship said I was to remind you to be polite to the duke,’ her mother’s ancient and formidable dresser informed her sternly as the coach slowed again. ‘I’m not such a fool as to show his Grace up in a bad light while he’s entertaining guests, Martha.’ ‘Your mother wouldn’t want you hurt, Miss Jessica,’ Martha said earnestly. Then why had Lady Pendle been so insistent Jessica accept this invitation without her support? She must know the beauties invited for this fortnight would have their claws honed ready for the scramble to grab Jack’s strawberry leaves. ‘You can depend upon it, all is well, my love, despite all this panic from Rowena’s husband,’ her mama had told Jessica when a note was delivered by an exhausted groom as she and Jessica were finally packed and ready to leave. ‘Rowena is as healthy as a horse, despite Sir Linstock fussing over her as if she might break, but she never would attend to her sums and has very likely got the date of her last courses wrong. I said she looked large for just over seven months last time we visited, did I not? Linstock and your papa will be quite useless until we’re certain your sister is out of danger, so I must go and help the poor girl endure her confinement without having to worry about them as well as herself and the babe.’ Lady Pendle paused and considered the general idiocy of gentlemen when confronted with childbirth, gave a heavy sigh and shook her head. ‘You must take Martha with you and Lady Henry will chaperon you at Ashburton, my love. Your godmother will be sorely in need of your help with so many giddy young misses in the house,’ her mother said. Lady Pendle clearly thought Lady Henry Seaborne faced an unenviable task keeping so many deadly rivals from scratching each other’s eyes out in their scramble to become Jack’s duchess. So how could Jess refuse to come here in Martha’s sternly respectable company when her godmother had always given her loving support to her goddaughter whenever she needed it? ‘His Grace and I are little more than nodding acquaintances nowadays, Martha, and I am only here to assist my godmother,’ Jessica said now. ‘Clearly I shall be far too busy to lounge about on sofas looking elegant, so you will not be required to dress me up like some aged ingénue. I suggest you regard this visit as something of a holiday and enjoy the comforts of Ashburton while you are here.’ ‘That I shall not, Miss Jessica. Lady Henry and your mama would never allow you to be less elegantly dressed than the rest of the company, even if the rest of us was prepared to let you make a spectacle of yourself,’ Martha told her as if the very idea was preposterous. ‘I am three and twenty and quite on the shelf, not some hopeful little miss of seventeen or eighteen,’ Jessica countered lightly, but hoped there was enough steel in her voice to make it clear she considered that to be that. She recalled what it was like to be that young and artless and shuddered. At seventeen she had still dreamt young girls’ dreams, even if she had put an embargo on any fancies about Jack. She had been cured of them quickly enough after overhearing a handsome and impecunious lieutenant who had sworn to her only the night before that she was the light and purpose of his life confide in his brother, the village curate, how her small fortune from her great-aunt would buy him preference and a commission. She could still hear every one of his cruel words now … ‘Without her money, I should never look at such a dull little cripple, I can assure you, brother mine. If not for my need being so much greater than yours, she would make you a neat wife, Hubert. At least Miss Hop-Along will never be chased by the local squires or ogled by the sons of the gentry. Not that she wouldn’t be easily caught if they chose to chase her, for she ain’t able to run away, is she?’ Julius Swaybon had said with a braying laugh that she had failed to notice was loud and unamused until that very moment. Reverend Swaybon had been a much nicer gentleman than his brother and protested such a dismissive attitude to a girl the man was seeking to marry. ‘Don’t be more stupid than you can help,’ his more worldly-wise brother told him scornfully. ‘She wouldn’t be looking my way if she had any prospect of a better catch. The wench must know she’s flawed; she’ll accept me and be thankful, or remain a drain on her family for the rest of her life.’ ‘I thought you said she had her own money,’ Reverend Swaybon defended her stalwartly and if she’d had it in her to fall in love out of gratitude, she knew which brother she would have chosen, she reflected now. She hadn’t loved Julius Swaybon either, but she had been flattered by his extravagant praise and outrageous flirtation. Then she’d heard him speak of her as if she was a well-bred horse with a flaw that would bring her within his purchasing power and seen him for the straw man he truly was. It only confirmed her instinctive reaction to Jack when she was sixteen and eager for love, life and passion, but caution warned it would be a disaster for a girl like her to love him. He was seven years more cynical, experienced and dangerous now and an inner voice whispered he was also more fascinating, but she ignored it. ‘Lady Henry has her ways of getting things done,’ Martha said as they left the shade of the venerable oak trees and Ashburton Place came into clear view at last. At least the magnificent mansion distracted her from wondering exactly what her godmother wanted to achieve this time and Jessica tried to dismiss that cryptic comment as if she hadn’t even heard it. Even the Seabornes, who loved every stick and stone of the place, acknowledged Ashburton was a beautiful rabbit warren. The towers and domes of the mighty roof were punctuated with banqueting houses and fanciful pinnacles so fashionable in Tudor England, but at least the main house was brightened by arrays of bay windows in the highest fashion of the times. With subsequent additions in the same brick or sandstone, Ashburton was a vast yet welcoming ducal seat. Chapter Three Imagining how fast the hearts of the young ladies arriving here must beat at the mere thought of becoming mistress of all this, Jessica could no longer forget why this gathering had been organised. If there was a girl of wit and character among the assembled beauties she supposed she would have to be glad, but most of the beauties of the ton would sell their souls for a catch like Jack, so she doubted such a girl would fight her way to the front of the eager crowd even if she wanted to. She shuddered at the very thought of the next few weeks and once more fervently wished herself back at Winberry Hall. ‘Wretched man,’ she muttered darkly. ‘What’s that?’ Martha barked gruffly, as she always did when she hadn’t quite caught what someone said and was pretending to herself and everyone else she wasn’t growing a little deaf. ‘None of your business,’ Jessica replied pertly and waited for the steps to be let down with rather less relief than she should feel after being cooped up for so long with a woman who’d known her for her entire twenty-three years of life. ‘Rag manners will get you nowhere in life, my girl,’ Martha snapped caustically as only an old and valued family servant could and the footman who was peering cautiously in at them promptly backed away, before steeling himself to his duty and placing his stalwart hand for Jessica to steady herself with. ‘You should know,’ Jessica told her mother’s old nurse as she stepped on to Seaborne soil and waited for it to steady under her disobliging feet. ‘I don’t know what you mean, Miss Pendle,’ Martha replied with stately dignity. ‘Of course you don’t,’ Jessica replied with a half-affectionate, half-exasperated smile and shook out her rumpled skirts as best she could as she went through the exercises her father’s head groom had made up for her when she was first injured in order to soothe the protesting muscles in her damaged foot. Even if she had to stand here until everyone else had forgotten her, she would not stumble up the short flight of steps looming in front of her and lose her hard-won dignity. The very thought of Jack Seaborne’s face when he heard she had taken to tumbling about like a drunkard made her already-tense muscles tighten into knots, so she forced herself to forget him and relaxed until she felt the probability of collapsing at the wretched man’s elegantly top-booted feet recede at long last. ‘Oh, here you are at last, my love,’ Lady Henry Seaborne exclaimed as she rushed down the steps to greet her. ‘I’m so pleased you came, Jessica my love, even if we must do without your darling mama, but with this wonderful news of your latest nephew’s precipitate arrival, even I can’t begrudge Master Tremayne his doting grandmama’s attention. Oh, did you not know your sister had been safely brought to bed of a healthy boy?’ Lady Henry asked. ‘No, Mama had to hurry off to Dassington Manor as we were getting ready to set out. Papa insisted I kept the carriage and came on alone and was getting ready to drive to Dassington in his curricle. How happy Rowena and Sir Linstock must be, and how very clever of darling Row not to give herself time to be nervous about it all,’ Jessica said, vastly relieved her sister was safe. ‘Your father and mother were so anxious for you to get the news that Sir Linstock’s groom must have taken a shortcut in his haste and missed you along the way. I was so afraid neither of you would come that I have been on tenterhooks, dreading every letter would say you could not join us either.’ ‘I could not let you down at such a time and Rowena would have been the first person to say I must come. I expect she is glad I have since most of our tribe of relatives have probably joined Sir Linstock at Dassington to fuss over her.’ ‘I am quite sure your sister would choose you over all of them if she could, for you two are marvellously close,’ Lady Henry remarked. ‘True, but Sir Linstock will make sure she is not overwhelmed by well-wishers in my absence,’ Jessica said lightly; indeed, she was glad her sister enjoyed such a loving and passionate marriage, even if sometimes she felt more like an old maid than ever in their company. ‘I know how hard it must have been for you to continue your journey, so come here and be hugged and confound dignity and form,’ Lady Henry ordered then engulfed Jessica in a warm, scented and loving embrace. ‘Of course I came, Godmama dear. You’re my favourite almost-relative and I don’t see you half often enough.’ ‘For that you may have to be hugged again, Princess Jessica.’ ‘How I wish Jack had not decided to call me that after my accident, when you insisted I had the Queen’s Room! I didn’t realise until long after that you did so in order that I need not face the stairs after the interminable resetting and manipulation of my foot.’ ‘I’m surprised my darling daughter didn’t tell you at the time, considering how jealous she was of you being allowed to sleep in a room I wouldn’t even let her set foot in for fear of the damage she might do.’ ‘You must be such a dragon that she didn’t dare disobey you,’ Jessica teased. ‘More likely she wanted the pony Jack promised her for her birthday so badly that she didn’t dare go against his orders that you were to have that room and no argument. She knew he wouldn’t hand over so much as a horseshoe if she didn’t keep a still tongue in her head.’ Jessica had been sure Jack disliked her back then and wasn’t altogether certain what to make of that information right now. Impatient of herself for thinking about him far too much, she was about to ask after Lady Henry’s children when the prickle of unease she always felt in his presence of late warned her Jack had come out to meet her. At the top of that suddenly endless flight of steps he stood at ease, superbly muscled under the loose, to-hell-with-fashion clothing he insisted on wearing in the country. He looked so much more mature than he’d been last time she visited him in his lair and in the bare two weeks since she had seen him last he seemed to have become even more potent and formidable, so much so that a craven part of her wanted to scramble back in the carriage and order it to race for home. It didn’t matter what she thought, she reminded herself. He was hosting this party to find himself a wife and most females seemed to like overlong sable hair and loosely tailored coats, at least on him, and the débutantes pursued him in packs whenever he set foot in town. At least he followed the fashion set by Mr Brummell in maintaining scrupulous cleanliness at all times, she conceded reluctantly, her critical gaze centred on his frowning countenance as she shivered with foreboding. A new sense of unease ran through her in fierce competition with the old now that she knew how it felt to have his acute gold-and-green eyes flare with interest on hers. Warmth ran over her in a mortifying flush at the memory of heat shuddering through her the day he took her for a drive and she made herself avoid thinking of it so he couldn’t read her wayward thoughts now. Confound the man, but why did he affect her so potently without trying? Even if she wasn’t a plain spinster, he had every beauty for miles around sighing over his manly charms and legendary vigour and casting shameless lures in his direction. ‘Oh, there you are, dearest,’ her godmother remarked as she felt her goddaughter stiffen and turned round to look for a cause. ‘Hughes said you had gone to inspect the bullpens at Home Farm with Givage,’ she said with a warm smile for her nephew Jessica would never dare replicate even if she wanted to. ‘We saw a travelling carriage pull through the South Gate. How could I not be present to greet Miss Pendle when she is our honoured guest, Aunt Mel? Surely you brought me up better than that?’ he teased. ‘I take it Lord and Lady Pendle rushed off to meet their latest grandson and left you to honour the family obligations, Miss Pendle?’ ‘Indeed, and it seems to me as if everyone knew how my sister and her babe fared long before I did, your Grace,’ Jessica informed him stiffly and wished she could be as natural with him as she was with gentlemen who didn’t make her heart beat at the speed of a runaway horse and her knees wobble anew. ‘The messenger arrived this morning,’ he told her as if soothing one of those runaway horses. ‘We hoped your mama might be able to follow you here, but she says she must stay at Dassington lest poor Rowena be driven half-mad by her doting husband and assorted well-wishers,’ he added, descending the steps with such fluid ease Jessica frowned, then lifted a hand to rub it away before it betrayed her. ‘Good day to you … Martha, is it not?’ he greeted with a respectful nod that made her maid blush with delight and look at least ten years younger. ‘Had we known you were looking after Miss Pendle’s well-being, my aunt would have fretted a lot less.’ ‘Thank you, your Grace, you are very kind and we all knew Miss Jessica would be safe as houses once we were under your roof,’ Martha replied with a curtsy fit for a king. ‘And here’s Miss Jessica all present and correct,’ he added redundantly as he stepped down to her level at last. ‘Welcome, Cousin.’ ‘We bear no relationship to each other whatsoever, your Grace,’ she objected, getting a sharp look from Martha and a disappointed sigh from Melissa, but no discernible reaction from the man himself. ‘How unforgivably forward I was in danger of being, Miss Pendle,’ he countered. ‘And think how flattering that would have been for me, your Grace,’ she said, ironically feeling that blush threaten again as his gaze became sardonic. ‘I dare say the flattery would have been all mine,’ he said so smoothly that an observer might think he was being charming. ‘It certainly would,’ she defended herself. His gaze seemed to grow sharper and she did her best to breathe defiance at the idea she was an easy target for his charm. Reminding herself the Pendles had been robber barons when the Seabornes were still little more than pirates, she tried her best to fight off her own wicked, deep-down notion that there was little point hanging on to those defences when she was marked for a life of spinsterly solitude. She did her best to ignore the very notion of letting herself ever be so undefended in his presence and instead imagined his wild rover ancestors squaring up to the ruthless overlord who had been her grandparent at many removes. From what she knew of them, it would have been such a hard-fought contest their retainers would have had to pitch their tents and settle in for the night before their leaders conceded neither could win and shook hands on their mutual villainy. Suddenly the thought of swordsmen and spearmen on one side and trident and cutlass-wielding sailors on the other, falling asleep propped against their weapons and their rascally fellows, as their principals snarled defiance at each other, seemed so irresistibly funny she giggled, then did her best to pretend she hadn’t. ‘Spring fever,’ she explained as he raised a questioning eyebrow. ‘It’s come on a little late this year then, has it not?’ ‘Maybe the sign of a golden summer,’ she offered a battered olive branch. ‘And how very welcome that would be,’ he said politely, but somehow she felt as if she had disappointed him. ‘Speaking of welcomes, this is a very poor one indeed,’ her godmother exclaimed. ‘We are keeping you out here in all this wind, my dear, and it looks to me as if the heavens might open at any moment, whatever nonsense you two are talking about it being summer. Come now, Hughes …’ she turned to order the resident butler, who was hovering at the top of the steps ‘… have Miss Jessica’s luggage brought inside then conduct her maid to the Queen’s Room so she may supervise the unpacking. We shall take tea in the Blue Parlour as soon as Miss Pendle has put off her travelling cloak and bonnet.’ ‘My aunt is undoubtedly right,’ the Duke told Jess as if making up his mind about something more important than the weather. Jessica had only a second to wonder before he swept her up in his arms and ran up the steps as if she weighed little more than a feather. For a moment she was breathless with shock and a novel excitement that threatened to leave her blushing and overwhelmed in his arms. All his warmth, strength and certainty suddenly seemed hers to command and … and nothing was less likely. ‘Put me down,’ she demanded. ‘You’ll fall over if I do,’ he informed her coolly. ‘Then I’ll fall over,’ she said flatly. ‘Not on my steps you won’t,’ he said as if that ought to settle the matter. ‘I concede that would be mightily inconvenient, but we are at the top now, so will you set me down?’ ‘Please?’ ‘Why, what do you want?’ she replied childishly and felt the high ground of ladylike disdain fall away. ‘For us to be polite to each other for once, Hedgehog,’ he retorted, reverting to another youthful taunt for his aunt’s awkward godchild. ‘And you think this is a good place to start?’ she said, cross with herself for letting a note of hurt invade her words. ‘No,’ he conceded, shifting her in his arms as he seemed to decide his duties as host bade him finish what he’d started. Jessica suddenly felt she would pay too dear for the fleeting pleasure of being in his mighty arms like this. ‘Please will you set me down now?’ she almost pleaded as they finally arrived in the Blue Parlour the family always used and he looked for the best place to deposit the awkward female he had literally swept off her feet. ‘Your wish is my command, Miss Pendle,’ he lied, as he deposited her on a sofa, then bowed with an overdone flourish that was obviously intended to defuse the tension that had drawn tight between them. ‘Hah! That’s a likely story,’ she said and saw relief in his eyes as the world shifted back on to its proper axis. ‘True, although anything reasonable you happen to want just now is probably within the limits of my patience,’ he said with a wry grin she did her best to resist. He turned to greet his aunt. ‘Forgive me for leaving you behind, love, but I thought you’d feel better if your favourite godchild was safe in your parlour where you can fuss over her in peace while she recovers from her journey.’ ‘I am prepared to wait for Jessica to put off her bonnet and spencer before I do that,’ his aunt almost scolded him as she swept forwards to deal with the former while Jessica wriggled out of her spencer. If she didn’t demonstrate some independence right away Jack might hustle her out of it himself and ruin the effect all the lovely distance she’d put between them was having on her jumping nerves. ‘Jack, take these into the hall for Jessica’s maid to deal with when she has settled in,’ Lady Henry commanded and Jessica almost laughed at the sight of his Grace the Duke of Dettingham meekly acting the lady’s maid. The thought of him doing so in truth, helping her strip off her creased and travel-worn gown and all that lay beneath, struck her like a bolt from the louring clouds outside and all desire to laugh vanished abruptly. Jack paused in the grand hallway of his ancestors and wondered if the sky was due to fall on him in the near future. Confound it, but he needed to pay a visit to his mistress if the mere feel of cross-grained, touchy little Jessica Pendle in his arms threatened to set him afire like some lecherous old satyr. He caught himself savouring the faint scent lingering on her spencer jacket that was so uniquely hers. Was it the hint of rosewater or something more sophisticated that seemed to warn his sixth sense she was by? If it was, then at least he might have enough warning to avoid her in future, he told himself, for a pricklier, more distracting guest to be inflicted with just at the moment he found it hard to imagine. The reason he’d been so glad to see her was yet another mystery he didn’t care to examine. He laid her plain jacket and austere bonnet on a gloriously carved Carolinian chair as if they might sting him and fought to still his senses before he returned to the Blue Parlour to play the genial host. As if things weren’t already tangled enough without him suddenly wanting Jessica in every way a gentleman should never want a lady like her, he reminded himself disgustedly. Luckily he turned back towards the Blue Parlour in time to escape being caught musing over Jessica’s outer garments like a besotted lover by his butler and half the footmen in the household, streaming across the marble hall with enough tea and pastries to feed an invading army. ‘Ah, there you all are,’ he greeted his younger cousins with no surprise at all and some relief as he heard them thunder downstairs at the merest hint of treats. ‘Would that we were,’ the eldest of them said theatrically and he eyed Miss Persephone Seaborne sternly. ‘You will not mention Richard’s absence, or distress your mother in any way you can avoid, during this confounded house party of hers, now will you, Percy dear?’ he asked, meeting her willow-green gaze with a very direct look. ‘Of course not,’ she said as if he was some sort of monster to even think she might. ‘Promise?’ he asked, inured to the imitation of a wronged angel she could turn on and off at will. Persephone sighed loudly, looked long-suffering, then nodded. ‘Out loud promise?’ he heard himself wheedle, because he knew her far too well to leave her the slightest room for manoeuvre. ‘I promise not to jeopardise the noble task of getting you off our hands and into those of some deluded female who might be persuaded to wed you, despite your many and varied faults,’ she told him pertly. ‘With you and Miss Pendle in the house, I stand little chance of being swollen-headed, however much the ambitious mamas fawn on me and their daughters fall over themselves to become my duchess,’ he told her wryly and noted the speculative glint in her eyes with an internal groan. Let the little devil get even a hint of the odd feeling he’d had just now that Jess belonged in his arms and he’d never take an easy step during this house party for fear of her matchmaking schemes. Since they’d argued heatedly from the moment they had met, he couldn’t imagine anyone less like the comfortable wife he’d pictured when he finally agreed to this totty-headed scheme of his grandmother’s to marry him off and silence the scandal-mongers than Jessica Pendle. ‘Don’t forget how much depends on me finding a duchess, Percy,’ he cautioned her seriously. ‘Do you think it will work, though?’ she asked anxiously. At least he didn’t have to pretend with her that this scheme was anything more than a desperate attempt to persuade Rich to come home, even if he was beginning to have very large doubts about the whole mad idea of marrying to please everyone but himself. He suspected his grandmother would be very glad to see him wed for the sake of the duchy, but he had seen the list of candidates for the post and was rapidly losing any enthusiasm for the business himself. ‘Rich is sure to come back once he knows there’s little risk of him ever inheriting my titles or obligations,’ he told her uneasily, cursing his cousin for putting them through so much by absenting himself so determinedly that it was nigh three years since anyone admitted to having seen him. ‘What if he isn’t doing this of his own accord though, Jack?’ ‘Then we’ll know one way or the other,’ he said grimly. ‘And you will have put your head on the block for my heedless brother for nothing. Those silly gossips are plain evil, Jack, and you should not regard a word they say. Sometimes I wish I could challenge one or two to a duel since they hide behind their sex to spread rumours about you and Rich and suffer no consequences for their spite. If you offered for one of their repellent daughters, I dare say they would bite your hand off as soon as let you withdraw it, even if they truly thought you capable of the horrible crimes they only dare hint at.’ ‘Such is the way of the world and I truly do have to wed sooner or later, love. I’m seven and twenty and will be left on the shelf before long if I’m not very careful,’ he joked with an inward sigh, knowing a single, solvent duke would be a magnificent prize on the marriage mart even if he was ancient, blind, senile and truly a murderer. ‘As much chance of that as the moon truly turning blue,’ Persephone said, looking unconvinced. Luckily she gave up trying to challenge his sudden desire for a wife and turned towards the chatter and gaiety in the parlour so they could both forget they didn’t know where Richard Seaborne was or had been for three years. ‘I hope you scrubby brats left us some cake?’ Persephone demanded of her younger siblings as she entered the room. Hard not to contrast the welcome she received with Jessica’s stony reception of himself, Jack concluded as he followed his lively cousin in. Jessica smiled a wide and rather enchanting smile and Persephone rushed towards her long-time friend and ally so they could embrace and coo over each other as if they hadn’t seen each other for years rather than a few weeks. He felt an odd gnaw of discontent; how strange to feel excluded by a pair of headstrong, awkward females he should be only too delighted to leave to their own company while he went wife hunting. Cook’s bounty provided a welcome distraction to his uncomfortable thoughts, but it was soon disposed of and the children dragged back to the schoolroom by their long-suffering governess. ‘So when are the rest of your guests due, your Grace?’ Jessica asked brightly. ‘Tomorrow,’ Jack replied gloomily. ‘Well, the weather seems set fair, despite Godmama’s dire predictions, so at least it won’t cause any delay in their journeys,’ she said as if that was a good thing. Damn Rich! When the rogue finally came home and Aunt Melissa lost that haunted look, as if her worst nightmare was about to come true, he’d beat the living daylights out of him, after he’d reassured himself the care-for-nobody wretch was hale and whole and rackety as ever. ‘Excellent,’ he said hollowly. ‘Entertaining them will be much easier without the wind and rain we have endured so far this summer,’ he added pompously, as if he was Squire Countryman, obsessed by his crops and the weather to make or mar them and barely able to spare time to pick himself out a wife between haymaking and harvest. ‘How are you planning to keep them all amused?’ Jessica asked and his aunt rattled off a list that should keep an army of eligible young ladies busy for the rest of the summer, let alone a fortnight. Jack left them discussing final arrangements for the guests’ comfort and escaped his duties one last time before the hoard of ton beauties and their various chaperons descended on them. Half an hour later he was galloping his latest acquisition over the hills above Ashburton, trying to pretend to himself everything was well with his world and Jessica Pendle’s arrival meant no more to him than all the other young ladies due to intrude on it tomorrow would do. ‘Trust Jack to slide out of his obligations the minute he could,’ Persephone said disgustedly when his escape was commented on indulgently by her mother, who seemed determined to take the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude to his sins. ‘There’s no need for him to stand on ceremony with me and he knows it,’ Jessica said as if she agreed. ‘You defend him, yet you two were at daggers’ drawn within half a minute of setting eyes on each other as usual, were you not?’ Persephone asked. ‘We always bring out the worst in each other,’ Jessica admitted. ‘Since his Grace must be on his best behaviour for the next two weeks if he’s going to find himself an amenable bride, I probably should not have come.’ ‘Much better if he found one who wasn’t going to agree with his every word, if you ask me. He’s not the sort of man who will be content within a marriage of convenience for long,’ Persephone replied with a look Jessica didn’t trust one bit. She shuddered at the idea of Persephone contriving devious ways to throw her at Jack’s head and even had qualms about him being forced to be brutally honest with her. Jack Seaborne was a fair and honourable man, under his arrogant, infuriating confidence that he was lord of all he surveyed even when he was away from his wide domain. Having to make it clear to a lady he’d known for so long that he wouldn’t be making her an offer would pain him nearly as much as it would her. ‘You would have thought his parents’ marriage would have given the deluded idiot a hint there is more to married life than finding a wife in much the same way he’d go about mating his racehorses,’ her friend went on in a voice too low to reach Lady Henry’s ears now she was consulting Hughes about when to serve dinner and the possibility of his Grace being home in time to eat it at a reasonable hour. Even sunny-tempered Lady Henry Seaborne would have indulged in the vapours or a storm of shocked maternal outrage if she’d heard such unsuitable remarks on the lips of her eldest unwed daughter. ‘I don’t recall them very well from staying with you at Seaborne House when we were young, but I do recall gossip that the late duke and duchess fought like cat and dog. Perhaps Jack’s intent on finding a more peaceable wife,’ Jessica said, hoping her air of lightly amused indifference would convince Persephone he was welcome to such a milk-and-water creature as far as she was concerned. ‘Which only proves my point, don’t you think?’ ‘I might, if I only knew what it was.’ ‘That arranged marriages are insipid at best and Jack is the last man who should consider making one. He has such a passionate, headlong temperament under that haughty indifference he shows the world and would be bored with such an empty-headed automaton of a wife before the marriage feast was over, let alone their bride visits.’ ‘His Grace is also a wealthy and tolerably handsome nobleman, who would be hard pressed to find a lady who saw past that to the man himself. If they were still alive, no doubt his parents would have found a rich and lovely noblewoman who would understand his life, then contrived to throw them together long ago,’ Jessica argued. ‘Not they,’ Persephone denied with an emphatic shake of her head. ‘They would pick rival candidates and make Jack’s life a misery until he ran off with a farmer’s pretty daughter to prove he wasn’t going to be dictated to.’ ‘Then since he can please himself who to marry, no doubt he’ll choose himself a conformable and agreeable wife he can be comfortable with.’ ‘Such a pallid creature would never suit him,’ her friend said stubbornly and Jessica couldn’t help picturing Jack living with a female who forever agreed with every word he said and shuddered at the very idea. Considering the vitality and impatience Jack Seaborne had struggled to contain ever since she first laid eyes on him, Jessica thought her friend was right. After such a stormy childhood, maybe it should be no surprise if he chose serenity over ungovernable passion in his own marriage, but it sounded so very dull. ‘Whatever we think, his Grace will go his own way—he always does,’ she said with a shrug and tried not to think of how she would feel if the Duke found himself a wife of character as well as beauty. Glad, she told herself stoically and did her best to look serenely content with her own lot in life. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/elizabeth-beacon/the-duchess-hunt/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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