I’m very excited to share an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released anthology Dukes in Disguise, which includes novellas from me, Grace Burrowes, and Susanna Ives. Herewith, a taste of The Duke of Lesser Puddlebury by Grace Burrowes
Over the clip-clop of the coach horses’ hooves and the incessant throbbing of his arse, Coinneach Callum Amadour Ives St. Bellan, ninth Duke of Mowne, endured that form of affection which—among grown men at least—traveled under the sobriquet of teasing.
More honest company would call it making sport of a fellow in a misguided attempt to cheer him up.
“Mowed down, they’ll say, like so much wheat,” Starlingham quipped. “One stray bullet and the great duke is hors de combat.”
Lucere was not to be outdone. “The moon sets, as it were.”
They went off into whoops, endlessly entertained, as always, by a play on the title Mowne, which was an old Scottish term for the lunar satellite… and thus a cognate for a reference to the human fundament.
“If the Sun and Stars had not tarried with a pair of tavern maids, we would have reached the dueling ground sooner,” Con groused. “This whole imbroglio is your fault, you two.”
There was simply no getting comfortable in a coach after being shot in the arse. No getting comfortable anywhere.
“I would be spared my present indignity,” Con went on, “but for the flirtatious excesses of my oldest and dearest friends. Bear in mind, if the wound festers, the pair of you will be consoling my mother on the loss of her darling baby boy, and Freddy will become the next Duke of Mowne.”
Mention of Mama sobered the Duke of Starlingham and the Duke of Lucere faster than a ballroom full of unbetrothed debutantes in the last week of the Season. Faced with such a prospect, the Sun, Moon, and Stars, as Con and his friends were collectively known, would have closed ranks. They’d often stood figuratively shoulder to shoulder, defending their bachelor freedoms against all perils, most especially the artillery fire of the matchmakers.
In the present situation, Con and his friends would have to split up.
“Where did you say we were going?” Lucere asked.
“Outer Perdition,” Starlingham muttered. “We’re in Yorkshire. Nothing civilized goes on in Yorkshire, where the winters are long and the sheep are notoriously friendly.”
“Starlingham, you will take up residence at your hunting box,” Con said, assuming that handy dwelling yet stood. “Lucere, you and your manservant, should you refuse to part with that worthy, will have to bide at a local inn or boarding house. Send word to either me or Starlingham regarding your choice of accommodations. I can stay with my third cousin, Jules St. Bellan.”
Dear old cousin Jules was one of Mama’s many faithful correspondents, though the relationship was so attenuated as to be more nominal than biological. Nominal and fiscal, for Con had been sending a stipend north to Lesser Puddlebury for years.
“Maybe we’re doing this all a bit too brown,” Lucere said. “Your Uncle Leo might never get word of the duel.”
“Maybe you’re still cup-shot,” Starlingham countered, grabbing for the strap dangling above his head as the coach lumbered through a curve. “If Leo learns we’re taking a week’s repairing lease in Greater Goosepuddle, he’ll suspect Freddy got into another scrape, and then Mowne won’t be allowed so much as a spare farthing.”
Freddy, next in line for the Mowne ducal title, was always getting into scrapes, as were Quinton and Hector, and—not to be outdone by her older brothers—Antigone.
Uncle Leo had decided that Freddy must be taken in hand—by Con—or Con would lose control of the family finances, of which Leo was trustee.
“Which of you will marry Antigone if Leo cuts off my funds?” Con asked, for somebody would have to marry her if she was to be kept in reasonable style. Leo’s views of a wardrobe allowance were parsimonious on a good day.
Only two paths circumnavigated Leo’s threatened penny-pinching when it came to the family finances. The first was for Con to turn five-and-thirty, which fate would not befall him for another six years—assuming he could avoid further incidents of bloodshed. The second means of prying Leo’s fingers off the St. Bellan money pots was to marry. If the Deity were merciful, that duty lay at least a decade in the future.
Con shifted on his pillow. The laudanum was wearing off, and the dilemma caused by Freddy’s dueling loomed ever larger.
“Hearing no volunteers for the honor of marrying my darling sister,” Con said, “we must deceive Uncle Leo in hopes he never learns of Freddy’s latest mis-step. In the alternative, I could take a vow of poverty, which would lead perforce to the cheering vistas of unmitigated chastity and limitless sobriety.”
“It might not be so bad,” Lucere said, an odd comment for a man whom rumor suggested was facing an engagement to a German princess.
“Poverty, chastity, and sobriety?” Starlingham asked.
“No, spending a week in Lower Dingleberry. How many times have these people seen three dukes in the neighborhood at once?”
“They must never see three dukes in the neighborhood at once,” Con retorted. “I shall be Mr. Connor Amadour and swear my cousin to eternal secrecy. He’s a mercenary old soul, and his silence can be bought. You two will not trade on your ducal consequence whatsoever. Be wealthy, be charming, be handsome, but keep your titles to yourselves. The greatest commodity traded up and down the Great North Road is gossip, and three dukes dropping coin and consequence all over some rural bog would reach Leo’s notice by the next full moon, as it were.”
Three young, healthy, single dukes could do nothing without observation and comment by all of society. Freddy enjoyed a little more privacy, but Leo somehow learned of the boy’s every stupid wager and bungled prank nonetheless.
“So… we’re not to be dukes,” Lucere said.
“We’re not to have even a country manor for our accommodations,” Starlingham added.
“But if we can pull this off,” Con said, “I’ll retain control over my portion of the family money, which means nobody need marry Antigone, and I won’t have to call either of you out for landing me in this contretemps. All we’re missing are cold Scottish mornings spent tramping about the grouse moors.”
And the gorgeous scenery, and the fresh air, and a chance to get the stink and noise of London out of a man’s soul.
“Two weeks, then, but we’re also missing good Scottish whisky,” Lucere noted.
“And the Scottish lasses,” Starlingham said, saluting with an imaginary glass.
Con would miss both of those comforts, but in truth, his allowance also paid for Mama’s occasional gambling debt, Antigone’s excesses at the milliner’s, Hector’s charities, Quinton’s experiments, and Freddy’s scrapes.
Con financed it all out of his own allotment, a delicately balanced enterprise that Uncle Leo could easily upset. Leo never interfered with Con’s decisions affecting the ducal finances, but with the personal finances, only Con’s funds stood between his immediate family and utter mortification.
Though what could be more mortifying than getting shot in the arse?
“When you do see the Scottish lasses again,” Lucere said, “you’ll have a fetching scar.”
“Would you like one of your own?” Con drawled. “All you need do is attempt to interrupt Freddy’s next duel, for he’s sure to have another. Stand well clear of the opponents, but position yourself such that Freddy’s bullet bounces just so off a rock and grazes your ducal assets. Along with your fetching scar, you’ll enjoy a significant mess and no little discomfort. I was wearing my favorite riding breeches, for which Freddy will pay.”
“Hurts, does it?” Starlingham asked quietly.
These were Con’s friends. He dared not answer honestly, or they’d pound Freddy to flinders when the poor lad had been trying to delope.
“I did fancy those breeches. Their destruction pains me.” The truth, when Bond Street tailors could beggar a man in a single season.
Lucere passed Con a silver flask. “We’ll drink a toast then, to two weeks of happy ruralizing in Upper Lesser Middle Bog-dingle-shire.”
Con took a swallow of mellow comfort and passed the flask to Starlingham, who did likewise.
“To being a plain mister, and not Your Perishing Grace every moment of the infernal day,” Starlingham said, raising the flask.
Lucere accepted the silver vessel back and studied the unicorn embossed amid the laurel leaves on the side.
“Good-bye to the Sun, Moon, and Stars, and for the next two weeks, here’s to the dukes in disguise.” He tipped up the flask, then tipped it higher, shaking the last drops into his open mouth.
Con’s arse hurt, but to have such friends, well, that made a man’s heart ache a little too. He raised his arm, as they’d been doing since one of them had suffered an adolescent infatuation with the paintings of Jacques-Louis David.
His friends did likewise—the most inane rituals never died—and bumping fists, as one they chanted, “To the dukes in disguise!”
“This is not a tumbledown cottage,” Con muttered as the groom and coachman wrestled his trunks from the boot. “I could swear Her Grace said Cousin Jules resides in a tumbledown cottage, barely more than a shack.”
The dwelling was pretty, in a rural sort of way. Three stories of soft gray fieldstone topped with standing seam tin, the whole flanked with stately oaks and fronted with a wide, covered terrace the width of the house. Red and white roses vined from trellises up onto the terrace roof.
The place gave off a disconcerting air of bucolic welcome, such as a duke in demand by every London hostess ought not to find appealing.
“Will that be all, sir?” John Coachman asked with an exaggerated wink.
“Thank you, yes. I’ll expect to see you again in two weeks, and until then, I expect utmost discretion from you and the grooms. Ut. Most.”
John wasn’t prone to drunkenness, but his groom was young and new to a duke’s service.
“Right, Your Worship. Mind that injury, or Her—your mama will have me out on me arse.”
More winking, and then the coach creaked down the drive, kicking up a plume of dust as Starlingham’s gloved hand fluttered a farewell from the window. Nobody came forth from the cottage to carry in bags, greet the visitor, or otherwise acknowledge company.
“I’m not a stupid man,” Con said, gaze on the bright red front door.
But what did one do without a footman about to knock on the door, pass over a card, and ensure the civilities were observed? How did luggage find its way above stairs before the next rain shower? The knocker was the sort that never came down, but hung permanently by its fittings, so how did one tell if the family was receiving?
Mysteries upon puzzles. How would… Mr. Connor Amadour go on?
Insight struck as thunder rumbled off to the south. This was Yorkshire, and thunder rumbled about a good deal, even when the sun shone brightly.
Also five minutes before a downpour turned the shire to mud.
Con marched—unevenly, given the increasing pain of his wound—up the steps and rapped on the door.
Nothing happened. Why hadn’t Con asked John Coachman and the grooms to pile the luggage under the terrace roof? The roses grew in such profusion as to make the porch cozy. A wide swing hung near one end, a worn rug beneath it, embroidered pillows in each corner of the swing.
Con had recently become an ardent if silent admirer of the comfy pillow.
He banged the knocker again, rather louder than gentility allowed. Perhaps the help was hard of hearing. Perhaps they were all down in the kitchen, scrambling to tuck in their livery because it was half day. Even the legendarily hardworking denizens of Yorkshire would observe the custom of half day.
More thunder, more rapping. Life as Mr. Amadour looked decidedly unappealing. A wind began to tease at the surrounding oaks, while Con’s trunks sat several yards from the foot of the steps, apparently incapable of levitating into the house.
Mr. Amadour was a resourceful fellow, Con decided, and fit, despite his injuries. He fenced, he boxed, he rode great distances in the normal course. He gave a good account of himself on any cricket pitch and was a reputable oarsman.
Apparently, he had latent skills as a porter too, for it took Con a mere fifteen minutes to wrestle three trunks up the steps and pile them beside the door. Even wearing gloves, though, he acquired a scraped knuckle, a set of bruised fingers, and a squashed toe.
And he’d started the wound on his backside to throbbing. He couldn’t very well check to see if it was bleeding again, though he suspected it was. The surgeon had told him to apply pressure directly to the injury to stop any renewed bleeding.
Applying pressure to a bullet wound amounted to self-torture.
Con reconnoitered. He was a duke, a single, wealthy-on-paper, not-bad-looking duke—not that single, wealthy dukes could be bad-looking in the eyes of most. He’d bested matchmakers, debutantes, card sharps, and Uncle Leo. He’d learned the knack of looking pious while napping through a Sunday sermon.
Cousin Jules would come home, for Cousin Jules never traveled to speak of. He was too busy writing to Mama in an endless correspondence of gossip, gratitude for the last bank draft, and importuning for the next one. Perhaps Jules was on a constitutional out among the lovely scenery.
Con determined that he would admire the scenery too, from the comfort of the pillowed swing at the end of the porch. All would remain cozy and dry on the porch despite the fickle weather, Cousin Jules would ramble home, and within the hour, Con would be tucked up before a fire, a glass of brandy in hand. He’d be a welcome, if unexpected, guest whose worst problem would be all the fussing and cooing from the help.
As it should be.