I realized this morning that I’ve never posted an excerpt from Alexander and Daphne’s story for you! So, here it is, a taste of A Duke by Any Other Name, coming in its own edition on March 27. This is book #2 of the Brides of North Barrows—since we met Daphne in Something Wicked This Way Comes, I’d like you to meet Alexander.
Airdfinnan Castle, Scotland—December 1811
Alexander Magnus Armstrong, Duke of Inverfyre, read his aunt’s letter again and frowned. It was after dinner and he was alone in his library, the darkness of the night pressing against the windows and a robust fire blazing on the grate. He had been looking forward to an entire winter of savoring the pleasures of home.
The letter meant his desire was not to be.
He poured himself a port in consolation, took his favorite seat by the fire and sipped as he read the letter again. The last thing Alexander wanted to do was to abandon his sanctuary and ride for Cornwall, but it appeared that he had little choice.
He had baited a trap and his prey was poised to seize the cheese. It would be irresponsible to surrender the chase now.
Even if his sister Anthea would be disappointed.
Alexander frowned. His aunt, a baroness who had worked her way into every ballroom in London, was also his primary source of information. Penelope sent him chatty letters at regular intervals, cleverly managing to include all of the intelligence he needed amidst the drivel of who had cut whom and who had pawned their silver, substituting sterling for plate. No other soul could have read this missive and noticed the one gem of valuable information amidst the gossip.
In the employ of the crown, Alexander hunted criminals who preyed upon high society. He had been in pursuit of a jewel thief for a year. He had guessed long ago that the villain was the same man who had seen Anthea blamed for his crimes during her first season, but soon Alexander might be able to prove it. He had to catch the scoundrel in the act. A gentleman and gem collector who had experienced losses due to this very thief was aiding in the hunt. Mr. Timothy Cushing had shown the Eye of India to many in London and was dispatching it to the perfect recipient.
Alexander’s aunt shared the news that her good friend, Mr. Cushing, would be giving the fabulous brooch as a surprise to Lady Tamsyn Hambly, who was being married at Castle Keyvnor in Cornwall at Christmas. Aunt Penelope speculated on the bride’s delight at this surprise, for truly, who would not be thrilled?
Clearly, Alexander would also be spending Christmas in Cornwall, although not at Castle Keyvnor. The local village and its tavern would have to do.
He considered the calendar. Since it was only the beginning of December, he could arrive in time by carriage if he set out immediately.
He grimaced, for he was not yet ready to don his foppish disguise again.
Findlay entered with a tray and inhaled sharply, probably because his master had already poured his own port and was simultaneously making a face. “I apologize for the delay, Your Grace,” he said quickly. “Or is it the quality of the port that causes disfavor?”
“Neither, Findlay. You were neither late nor remiss. I was bored with my aunt’s tattle and too impatient to wait. Any blame is entirely mine.”
The older man stole a glance at Alexander as he wiped the decanter and ensured that all was as it should be. “Is there any detail that I can repair, Your Grace?”
“No, Findlay. You will never change my aunt.” Alexander smiled, then folded the letter and tucked it into his pocket. He surveyed the cozy library and sighed. “I will be departing at first light with the coach and six. I’ll want the black team again, though Rodney will not be pleased to have them run again so soon.”
“If he knows now, Your Grace, he will ensure that they are pampered tonight.”
“Yes. The big coach, please. It gives me more room to stretch my legs.”
“Oh, Alexander!” Anthea said from the doorway. “You can’t be leaving. You’ve only just returned home.” She looked to be on the verge of tears and Alexander hastily finished his port. At a telling glance, Findlay filled his glass again.
It was well established at Airdfinnan that the Duke of Inverfyre could not bear the sight of his sister’s tears.
“I fear I must, Anthea, but will return as quickly as possible.” Alexander nodded to Findlay. “Perhaps you could see to the details.”
“Of course, Your Grace.”
Alexander could see that Findlay was itching to know where he was going and why, but the older man didn’t ask. “Could you send Haskell to me to discuss the packing of my portmanteau, as well, please?”
“Your portmanteau, sir?”
“Yes, I will be gone for at least a month, probably longer.”
“Alexander!” Anthea protested. “What about Christmas?”
“You will enjoy the festivities without me.” When she might have protested, he lifted a hand. “I am somewhat irked to be leaving again so quickly, but there is nothing to be done about it. Dr. MacEwan insists that I take the sea air in Cornwall in December.”
To Alexander’s dismay, a tear not only slid down Anthea’s cheek but she came into the library to sit opposite him and make her appeal. “Dr. MacEwan,” she muttered under her breath and dashed at her tears with her fingertips. “Is the air in January truly so different in Cornwall?”
“So he insists.”
“I think him a fool. You are more hale than any seven men I know.”
Findlay bowed and departed, so obviously wanting to linger and eavesdrop that Alexander smiled.
The change in his expression evidently encouraged his sister to speak her mind. “Of course, you would not have to worry so much about your health if you had an heir,” she reminded him yet again. “High time it is, Alexander, for you to take a bride.”
“It is fearsome quiet at Airdfinnan, Alexander, especially at Christmas. It would be much merrier with little ones underfoot.” She smiled. “I wouldn’t miss you so much if there were half a dozen children here.”
“Then you should accept a suitor and have children of your own,” Alexander suggested gently.
His sister blushed and dropped her gaze, her expression like a dagger to his heart. “Not I,” she said softly, then forced a smile. “And it is you who must have a son to ensure the succession, after all. Is there a woman behind this speedy departure, or a damsel in distress?”
As much as he liked the bright gleam of curiosity in her eyes, Alexander could not lie to Anthea. “There is no damsel, in distress or otherwise.”
Anthea made a face, then stole his glass, taking a tiny sip of the port. “I do not believe your health is compromised. I suspect you simply want away from here.”
Alexander laughed. “Away from Airdfinnan is the last thing I desire.” He could not keep himself from casting a longing glance over the library and its comforts.
“Then you should wed. You’d have every excuse to remain home then and it could only improve your health.”
“Perhaps I will wed after you do,” he teased.
“Perhaps I should wed after you,” Anthea countered. “In fact, I will make you a wager, Alexander.”
“Ladies do not wager, Anthea. Surely Mama taught you that.”
“Surely she did, but I would like to, all the same.” Anthea had her stubborn look, which was all too rare these days. It seemed she seldom cared sufficiently about any matter to be stubborn, and just the sight was enough to make Alexander take her wager, whatever it might be. “You always wish for me to return to London and society, at least for a season. I will go with you and your bride, once you choose to wed.”
Anthea sat back, looking pleased with herself. “So, the sooner you wed, brother, the sooner I will follow go to London and find a husband.”
“You mean to make a wager you will not be required to fulfill,” he jested. “For each of us are as set against marriage as the other.”
To his surprise, Anthea shook her head. “No, that is not true, Alexander. I would love to marry and to have children.” Her tone was so wistful that he was prepared to find her a spouse this very night. “But it must be the right man, for I would have the same kind of love as Mama and Papa shared.”
“Theirs was a rare bond.”
“So, I must dream of what is mundane, instead of what is rare and precious?” she replied, her tone light. “Alexander, are you the brother I believe I know so well?”
He laughed. “A man has more time to linger over such a choice than a woman.”
“Indeed, and I am already twenty-five, Alexander. You had best hurry to find your lady wife.”
“It is not so simple as that…”
“No, it is not,” Anthea agreed, interrupting him. She leaned forward, her skirts rustling as she removed something from her pocket. “Mama warned me of that. She told me to find a partner who was honest, and one with no secrets, one whose nature I could admire and whose appearance gave me pleasure. She told me the rest would follow.”
“And for you, I would add that your bride should be young, so she will have had less time to have cultivated secrets. You will be the one to teach her of many worldly matters, and she will adore you for it.”
Alexander was amused. “Is that how a good marriage is contrived?”
“It will be so for you, I am certain of it. Here, I have a token for you.”
Alexander extended his hand. Anthea dropped something small and round into it. It was black and about the size of a pea. He held the small dark sphere to the light, suspecting that he knew what it was. “A seed?”
Anthea laughed. “Not a seed, Alexander, the seed. The seed from the vine of Airdfinnan, from the last time it grew and flowered.”
“That is a fairy tale!” Alexander had heard the fanciful stories about the thorned vine that covered the walls of his castle and home, that it was from a seed brought back from the crusades by a knight, that after its arrival at Airdfinnan it grew only when the laird of Airdfinnan met his bride-to-be. He certainly did not believe that its perfume abetted the laird’s courtship and conquest.
But Anthea clearly did. “It is not! Mama told me that it grew when Papa courted her, and that she had never seen the like of it. She told me that its perfume was like an enchantment. Papa’s mother advised her upon your birth to save the seeds for your courtship.”
“Mama gave me several herself, before she died. They never grew, Anthea, which is proof that the tale is nonsense.”
“It is proof only that you had not met the lady who could claim your heart. Certainly, Miranda Delaney, no matter how fine her lineage and how lovely her countenance, would never have held your affections for long. What a viper!” Anthea’s disdain was clear, though the very mention of Miranda’s name reminded Alexander what a fool he had been. “Her memory should not be of sufficient merit to keep you from happiness. That is why the seed did not grow.”
Alexander tossed the seed into the air and caught it. “And what would you have me do? Plant a seed each time I meet a pretty woman?”
“I would have you seek a suitable woman, one who is honest and true, and pretty enough to tempt you, just as Mama advised.”
“And young,” Anthea agreed. “And if she is amenable to your attentions, I would have you plant the seed, so that the vine might aid your suit.”
Alexander drained his glass and set it aside, rising to his feet with purpose. “I suppose this errand cannot wait?”
Anthea laughed. “I should not delay in your place, Alexander, not if I wished my only sister off the shelf next season.”
“You are relying upon my taking this wager.”
Anthea took a deep breath. “I am seeking inspiration, Alexander. I know I should wed. I know I should leave Airdfinnan.” He watched her pleat her dress with nervous fingers. She swallowed and he ached at the sight of her unhappiness. “I know I should return to London and put all the rumors to rest.” Her gaze met his. “But I am afraid, Alexander.”
He dropped to his knee before her. “You know I would go with you, and defend you…”
She silenced him with a touch. “I know, but it would be so much easier to go with you and your wife, if she is your beloved. Your happiness would give me strength, and she would be able to accompany me where you cannot go.”
She was so lovely in her appeal that Alexander felt her will becoming his own. He had always been damnably susceptible to feminine beauty, and the malady had become more acute while he hunted the thief. The fire caught the red-gold of Anthea’s curls as if to toy with it, and her blue eyes were wide. She looked fragile and vulnerable and he wanted nothing more than to see her hand placed in that of a deserving and honorable man. Even her conviction in the truth of the tale of the vine was compelling to him on this night.
He bent and touched his lips to her fingers. “I will try, Anthea.”
She smiled. “That is all a person of sense can expect, Alexander.”
Alexander had no sooner put the seed into the pocket of his waistcoat than his valet tapped once upon the door, then entered the library.
Rupert Haskell was of an age with Alexander, the youngest son of a baron who had lost his father’s favor. He had chosen to earn his way and Alexander had been glad to give the other man a position. Haskell had a keen affection for travel and a similar loyalty to the crown. He had dark hair and a ready smile, but his wits were quick and his blade was quicker. He was a good man to have at one’s back, particularly in Alexander’s chosen profession. He was completely in Alexander’s confidence and when alone, they spoke as friends, not as master and servant, for they had been such at school.
Haskell spared a quick glance at Anthea, as if surprised to find her there, and color rose on the back of his neck.
“I will leave you to your arrangements, Alexander,” Anthea said, rising to her feet. “Godspeed to you, for I’m certain you’ll be gone before I rise in the morning.” She kissed Alexander’s cheeks then left, barely sparing Rupert a glance.
Rupert looked after her with an unmistakable yearning in his gaze, at least until Alexander cleared his throat. The other man then closed the door. “Where?” he asked, mouthing the word more than saying it aloud.
“Cornwall,” Alexander said, replying in kind.
Rupert crossed the room and noted the letter on Alexander’s desk. He smiled. “Your aunt?”
“Just as planned.”
“The full rig?” Rupert asked, referring to Alexander’s disguise.
Alexander sighed and nodded, then sat at his desk to respond to his aunt.
“Thank goodness those salmon and lemon striped trousers were delivered before we left London,” Rupert said more loudly. “You’ll be quite the sight, Your Grace.”
Alexander gave Rupert a poisonous glance, knowing that his valet enjoyed his flamboyant clothing a little too much. “There will be stealthy work to be done, as well,” he said in an undertone. “Bring the black, and my favorite boots, too.”
“You could just stay home, or leave it to another.”
Alexander impaled him with a look for the very suggestion. “My chase. My kill.”
“I know.” Rupert smiled then bowed. He raised his voice. “I shall see the portmanteau packed immediately, Your Grace, and be prepared to leave at dawn.”
The other man left the library, admitting a cool draft that made Alexander think of cold carriages, draughty taverns and stone castles in Cornwall cold enough to freeze a man’s marrow. If he had a wife, he’d have warmth in his bed, to be sure.
But if he had a wife, he’d have a wealth of other problems.
Like having a wife. It was one thing to be less than completely honest with Anthea, but he doubted he could hide the truth of his profession from a wife.
And that meant he would have to completely trust the woman he married. Given his experience with feminine deception, Alexander thought that unlikely to occur soon.
Still, Anthea’s proposed wager was her first sign of interest in marriage in years. He removed the seed and rolled it between his finger and thumb, considering.
It could not hurt to try again. He didn’t imagine for a moment that the old stories were true, but Anthea would expect him to make a report upon his return. Perhaps if he tried, even if the seed failed, that would be sufficient to coax her back to London for the season.
It was more than worth a try.
That prospect put a smile on his lips. He lifted his quill and dipped it into the ink, thinking of how best to use their established code.
My dear Aunt Penelope—
What a delight to arrive home and find your letter already awaiting me here. It appears the post does not dally as I do! And such news! You make me yearn again for London. I regret that I will not be back in Town soon, for my doctor, the excellent Dr. MacEwan, has insisted that I take the sea air in Cornwall this month. He recommends ten thousand deep breaths a day—ten thousand!—and I heartily doubt that will leave me sufficient time to pen you a single line…