Excerpt: It’s Hard Out Here For A Duke

Sparks have been flying between James, the Duke of Durham, and Meredith, the duchess’s companion, for three books now. This, finally, is their story…

 

The Queen’s Head tavern

Southampton, England 1824

Some men were born to be dukes, and some men were James Cavendish. Despite being an undistinguished American, he found himself in possession of an aristocratic title in a country he had never before visited.

Back home in Maryland he was James Cavendish, the horse breeder and trainer of some renown round those parts. He was known as Henry’s son, the one with a talent for horses, an easy and charming way with women and the one responsible for three sisters who were endless trouble.

But here in England, he was the Duke of Durham.

Whatever that was.

Whatever that meant.

Or he would be, once he and his sisters completed their journey and arrived in London. Oh, he knew the title had passed to him the moment his father took his last breath, shortly after his mother had passed away. Or rather, he learned it some time later, when the Duchess of Durham’s representatives had tracked him down and informed him of that fact.

He had known it while he and his sisters debated traveling to England, and he’d been achingly aware of it for every minute spent crossing the Atlantic. They had docked in Southampton this morning, would remain in this inn tonight and would continue on to London on the morrow. James had sworn to himself that he would not be Durham until he set foot in London.

In his head and heart he would not become the duke until his boots touched London ground. And until he crossed the threshold of Durham House, he would be James. Just James. Just an unremarkable, plain young man of no import or renown, just having a pint in a pub like anyone else.

His sisters—Claire, Bridget and Amelia, each one more trouble than the last—were settled in a room upstairs, happily having baths and stretching out on full beds after a long journey at sea.

James wasn’t ready to sleep. Couldn’t, really. More to the point, he wasn’t ready to be alone with his thoughts. Worries tangled with regrets. He doubted whether they should have even come so far and feared it was too late to turn back. He wasn’t sure he could do this ducal business.

Was it better to try and fail than to never try at all?

Not only did James not have the answers, he didn’t even want to consider the question. He had a sinking feeling it was too late anyway.

A tavern at night was an excellent place to be when one wanted to avoid deep thinking.

This particular tavern wasn’t very different than the ones back home, and he appreciated the familiarity provided by the same scuffed wood floors, rough-hewn tables and chairs, tallow candles. If he concentrated only on the hum and roar of voices, he could tune out the strange accents reminding him that he was on the other side of the ocean. He could pretend he was at Faunces Tavern back home, that his friend Marcus would stroll through the door any minute, ready to regale him with some of his latest exploits, usually involving whiskey, women, and a deplorable lack of judgment.

But Marcus wasn’t here, wasn’t going to be here, and James knew no one. There wasn’t anyone he particularly wanted to know, either.

Except—

James noticed a woman. She sat primly at a seat near the bar, mostly keeping to herself, though occasionally conversing with the barmaid. She sat with her spine straight, holding her head tall. Her hair shone like unrefined honey in the candlelight.

She seemed too proper for a place like this.

He watched her for a while, wondering. Where was her companion, what was the purpose of her travel, what was she thinking as she traced her fingers along scratches in the wooden tabletop? Where had she come from and where was she going? She must have a story and he wanted to know it.

He caught her eye. She just happened to glance his way, giving him a mere hint of doe eyes and full lips.

She looked away quickly.

Back to the table, back to the teacup she sipped elegantly, back to ignoring him.

She wasn’t looking at him. She wasn’t looking at him. She wasn’t looking at him.

He waited, wanting another glimpse of the soft curve of her cheek, and, hopefully, the slight upturn of her lips.

Finally, after one of those moments that felt like eternity, she glanced his way again. The corners of her lips teased up into a hint of a smile, but those lashes fluttered and her gaze darted away.

Careful, this one startles easily.

James leaned back against the wall, a nearly empty mug of ale dangling from his fingertips. He knew about creatures that startled easily, who would flee at the slightest provocation. He knew to stand still and wait patiently, projecting a sense of calm and security. He knew that waiting was more effective than chasing.

This was fine. James had all night to play this kind of game. Even if they did nothing more than exchange glances across the room until midnight, he’d be happy.

It distracted him from the things he wanted distraction from.

Their gazes connected again.

His heart thudded hard in his chest as he drank her in. Curious eyes. Full lips. Elegant movements.

She looked away.

She dared another glance.

James didn’t move from his place against the wall; he was still wanting and waiting for an invitation to speak to her—perhaps a smile, a little nod, or some indication that he was welcome.

Eventually, their eyes connected and she held his gaze. His heart beat hard and steady. He didn’t know all rules of being a duke, the kings and queens of England or a million other things, but he knew an invitation when it came his way. He knew it in her shy smile, the slight tilt of her head beckoning to the empty seat beside her.

Time seemed to slow as he crossed the room and made his way toward her. Once he was standing in front of her, his breath was knocked right out of his lungs. She was pretty, and she was smiling at him, just James. This might be the last time a woman looked at him like that, wanting him just for him, without thinking a duke! This was a moment he was going to revel in and hold on to.

~*~~*~~*~~*~

Hey girl…

Though Miss Meredith Green lacked birth, or wealth, or many other qualifications one would assume of a gently bred lady, she had been raised to be one. She could curtsy with the best of them, expertly arrange both flowers and seating arrangements for dinner parties, and could recite pages from Debrett’s Book of the Peerage. These were just a few of her accomplishments.

As such, she should not be here, in the public room of the Queen’s Head Tavern and Coaching Inn. Especially not alone and especially not at night, where any old ruffian might think he could take a liberty with her, to put it nicely.

Which is why she should not have allowed the barmaid to add a generous splash of whiskey to her tea.

Which is probably why she was encouraging the ocular advances of a handsome man with whom she was not acquainted.

Meredith had noticed him the moment he walked in, tall and lanky but strong, with unfashionably long brown hair that fell rakishly in his eyes. What color were they, she wondered? She didn’t need to know. There was nothing she could do with this information. There was absolutely no point to her knowing.

She badly wanted to know.

So she dared one glance, then another.

Do not look. Do not look. Do not look.

Her better judgment was roundly ignored. Before she knew it they were somehow flirting from opposite sides of the room without even saying a word.

It was the sort of thing that made a girl’s heart beat giddily and her toes start to tap under her skirts. Thanks to years of training, she kept her posture poised and her movements elegant, but under her skirts, her toes were tapping.

This, this was what she need tonight: a distraction. The past few months had been trying, and the next few promised to be challenging as well, albeit in a different way. She had only tonight to live for herself.

She darted another look in his direction.

He was watching her. This truth elicited a slight smile from her lips. But she shouldn’t take pleasure in this.

She ducked her head.

But her heart beat quickly and she wondered: Would he come over?

He shouldn’t. He really should not. She absolutely should not encourage him. But life was full of should-nots, and tonight Meredith wanted to say yes.

It had been a bit of a day—on top of quite a week, and one hell of a month. Or two or three. Her visit to her ailing mother in Hampshire revealed a dispiriting truth: the life choices of Miss Meredith Green were few, and less than thrilling. Nevertheless, she had made her choice to return to London and live the restrained and dignified life of a lady’s companion.

Emphasis on restrained. When one relied on one’s spotless reputation for her very existence, one comported herself accordingly. One did not give or receive heated glances across crowded rooms.

But Meredith embarked on a little whiskey-infused rationalization: until she stepped foot in London, she could afford to live a little loosely. For one night, she might indulge in the sort of wicked behavior—and passion—that she’d have to refuse forevermore.

That was just the splash of whiskey talking, she told herself. It was just the strain of recent events wreaking havoc with her common sense. It was her mother’s bad influence. She’d had the great luck to be raised to be A Lady. She oughtn’t forget that.

Do not look. Do not look. Do not look.

She looked. Oh, she looked.

His gaze sparkled. Like he knew what inner turmoil and rationalization his glances inspired. This time, she didn’t look away.

Oh, goodness, he was coming over. Her heart beat faster and faster as his long strides brought him closer and closer until he was standing beside her, leaning casually against the bar.

Gentlemen did not lean.

“What is a beautiful woman like you doing alone in a place like this?”

Lord, what a line! What a ridiculous thing to say. It took all her ladylike training not to let her eyes roll. As it was, Meredith’s heart sank, and her smile faltered with disappointment.

But then he gazed at her, eyes sparkling and lips curved into a smile, like he really saw her and liked what he saw. Men didn’t often look at her this way, if they looked at all. In Hampshire there was no one. In London, she was inconsequential.

But this man was looking at her like she was the sun, moon, and stars, too. Meredith decided he could stay, even with a ridiculous line like that.

“You must have a story,” he said. “Tell me your story.”

“I don’t have a story,” Meredith replied. But that was a lie. She had the kind of story that one didn’t tell. It was tragic—in that it was hopelessly boring. But this man’s smile was making her feverish, because it had her considering that tonight, perhaps, her life might become interesting. Just for one night.

“I have a story,” he told her. “It’s rather unbelievable.”

“Do you now?”

“Yes, I do.”

Because he was still gazing at her like she was a beauty and because he wasn’t so bad himself and because tonight was just tonight, an interlude between the recent dispiriting events and an uninspiring future, she replied with a hint of flirtation, “I suppose you’re going to tell me.”

“Since you asked . . .” He took a breath, like he was about to embark on a retelling of The Odyssey or some other epic tale. That was fine; she had all night and wasn’t too keen to think about her own life and problems. Then he changed course. “Forget my story. All you need to know is that I’m a man, passing through, just here for the night and I’ll be gone tomorrow. Well, I don’t want to think about tomorrow.”

“I know.”

“You know? How do you know?”

She wanted to sigh with knowing—the passing through, the here for one night, the tomorrow she didn’t want to think about, either. But she didn’t want to have to explain any of that to him. Instead, she said, “I know you’re traveling. Your accent gives you away. You can tell a lot about a person by his [MS5] accent.”

“Is that so?”

“People from different regions have different accents. People from different classes speak differently, as well. Of course, one can make many inferences about a person based on those things alone. Their birth, their status, their family, their acquaintances, their education. From that, one might guess at their prospects in life.”

If nothing else was right about her, Meredith at least had the right accent: a polished, upper class accent. Her prospects on the other hand . . . well, that was one of the things she didn’t care to think about tonight.

“So, what can you tell about me?”

“You’re American.” She’d met one or two travelers from America in London, but never in this part of the country. Then again, she spent most of her time in the capital. But for the past few months she’d been home, trying to care for her aged and ailing mother. “You’re American, and sound as if you’ve had some education. You are plainly dressed, which may be a consequence of your recent arrival from a long journey, but might also suggest that you do not move in refined circles. And, as a young man with apparently limited means, it suggests that you might not be wed.”

This conjecture upon his marital status was a stretch, but something she had to know before the conversation continued further. Meredith felt something sparking between them, and it had to be smothered if he were married. And if not . . .

“I suppose you have the right of it,” he replied. “I must stick out terribly with these old clothes and foreign accent. There’s no wife to make sure I fit in. I don’t belong here.”

“A man like you will always fit in just fine.”

“A man like me?” He lifted one brow.

“You are a man, for one thing; that will open nearly every door in the world. You do have the wrong accent and clothes, you need a shave and your hair is too long, but that is all fixable with training and a good valet. You are also not completely unfortunate in your appearance and manners. I daresay you’ll get along well enough.”

That drew a wry smile from him.

“And what about you?”

“I have my place in the world. As long as I stay there, I’ll be fine.”

“Where is your place in the world?”

“I’m not telling a man I hardly know.”

“I’m not a stranger. You know my story.”

She laughed. “I don’t think I do. In fact, why do I feel that I don’t know the half of it?”

“May I order you another cup of tea? We can continue not being forthcoming with each other.”

He stood there—leaned there—with those blue eyes sparkling at her, waiting for her answer. Meredith’s heart started to pound at the realization that this was one of those moments where the direction of her life hinged on the next word she uttered—the before to an after.

That is, if she said yes.

Oh, she knew the correct answer. Any girl with an ounce of sense knew to say, “You are too kind, sir. Thank you, but I must decline.” Another drink meant more conversation which meant more of a chance for that strangely sizzling something between them to strengthen and draw them closer, sparks flying, until the smolder turned into a flame turned into a fire.

Well, tonight she wanted to burn.

And if she was going to go up in flames, it might as well be with this handsome stranger, who she was unlikely to ever see again. Meredith was innocent in experience but not ignorant in the ways of the world. She knew that this stranger on this night was her one chance to experience passion.

This would be her one night of indiscretion, and it would be a secret she took to her grave. But until that day, she had this one night to feel fully alive. After the events of the past few months of a deathbed vigil, she needed to feel that. With the prospect of lonely nights ahead of her in London, she craved the intimacy this man promised.

And so, listening to her heart instead of her head, she said “Yes.”

Yes to another drink.

Yes to more conversation.

Yes to everything else that would follow.

Just as she had predicted, that one yes lead to another and another and another and to this . . .

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