In her first Season, Hope Baxendale attracts the interest of a powerful English duke, the husband all debutantes wish for and some will fight dirty to get. If only the handsome Frenchman Daniel Brienne, Duc du Ténèbres wasn’t distracting her from her course. Daniel shows little interest in marrying again, and surely, it is only the sadness in his deep brown eyes that pulls her to him:
Daniel yearns for solitude. When his very existence is threatened, he wakes to the possibilities of a life passionately lived. He knows just whom he wants in his future, but the weary hawk, the Duke of Winslow, circles. And is it fair to ask Hope to leave her family and her country for him?
Christmas, Highland Manor, Tunbridge Wells, 1822
Hope stood back to admire her efforts. Greenery festooned every available place in the parlor, and the scent of pine blended with coal smoke drifting from the hearth. With a heavy sigh, she took another ribbon from the box on the floor. Since touring the Continent with Aunt Amelia, she was more aware of the slow pace of life in the country. Especially now that the snowy weather kept everyone indoors. Consumed with impatience, she couldn’t wait for her life to begin, but the thought of her come-out made her stomach tighten. She banished her nerves with a brisk shake of her head and attached a gilt orange to the woven green arch of holly and pine standing on its wicker base.
When the cat eyed the new addition, Hope reached down and stroked Sable’s soft grey fur. “You won’t touch any of my decorations, will you, pet?”
Sable purred and rolled over, displaying her swollen belly. “We really must try and stop the stable cat, from visiting Sable. Two litters of kittens this year is quite enough,” she said to her sister Charity, who sat reading on the sofa.
“It’s not entirely Old Tom’s fault. Sable is frightfully abandoned.” Charity studied a picture in her book. “I’m thinking of taking up sculpture.”
“Oh?” Arranging a silver paper streamer that their younger sister had created brought her to mind. “Where is Mercy?” Hope asked.
“At the home farm.”
Hope frowned. “She’s always there these days.”
“It’s where she makes her concoctions. Cook has banned her from the kitchen. Mercy has set up what she calls a laboratory.”
“A laboratory. For scientific endeavors.”
“Good heavens! Isn’t she only making creams to treat skin ailments?”
“No, she has gone onto more ambitious projects. Miss Foley gave Mercy a book about a Frenchman called de Lavoisier. He was, I think, involved in chemistry during the French Revolution.”
Hope threaded red ribbon amongst the bright holly berries. She stepped back to study the effect. “I don’t like the sound of that. She may be accused of being a traitor and arrested like Guy Fawkes.”
“I doubt she can achieve much with the little she has. But even the fact that de Lavoisier was guillotined hasn’t deterred her.”
Sable fixed her smoky gaze on the trailing ribbon within reach and sprang. The cat batted at the trimming. The arch tottered on its stand, scattering decorations over the carpet. Hope rushed to steady it. “Naughty cat.”
Their footman entered the room and added coal to the fire.
“I hate the cold.” Hope rubbed her arms. “The French climate is warmer.”
“So it seems are the men,” Charity said. “At least according to Miss Edgeworth’s Leonora.”
“Well one or two, certainly,” Hope said with a slow smile. “They are so much more….”
“I’m not sure exactly, but whatever it is, they have more of it than English men.”
Charity put down her book and rose to help replace the fallen ornaments. “I can’t imagine what that might be. Edward and Vaughn are both handsome and amusing. All the Brandreth men are.”
“Indeed,” Hope murmured.
“And Honor and Faith have no complaints.”
“Most certainly not. But….”
Charity turned to scrutinize Hope’s face with sisterly glee. “I thought so. You met a Frenchman when you traveled the Continent with Aunt Amelia.”
“There was one. Aunt Amelia and I met him at a soirée when we were in Paris.”
“What was he like?”
Hope nibbled her bottom lip. She had enjoyed traveling around the Continent, staying at grand hotels in foreign places such as Venice and Rome, but by the time they’d reached Paris, homesickness had set in. The elegant French salon took shape in her mind. The guests were mainly English with some young lords making the grand tour to study antiquities with their tutor. The French stood out in their beautiful clothes. When the duke was introduced, Hope’s composure deserted her. For a long moment, his dark eyes gazed into hers and heated her from head to foot. She’d trembled, lest he speak to her in French. Her skill in the language had improved, but she still made embarrassing mistakes.
He gave a graceful bow. “J’espère que vous apprécierez votre séjour à Paris, mademoiselle. Notre ville a beaucoup à offrir au visiteur, bien que Londres offre beaucoup à une expérience, aussi, n’est-ce pas?”
His voice was rich and low, as if an invitation lay beneath the words. She was stunned, and by the time she’d gotten the gist of his question and gathered her wits to make an appropriate reply beyond a nod, the duke had moved on to greet the next person. She’d never met anyone like him, so tall, elegant, and remote. He’d left her feeling terribly young and countrified, and a little annoyed with herself. First impressions were so important.
When he was out of earshot, her aunt had turned to her. “I missed that. What did the duke say?”
“He said he hopes we enjoy our stay in Paris because his city has a lot to offer.”
Her focus returned to the parlor and Charity’s questioning eyes. Hope sighed. “As I said, unlike an Englishman. He doesn’t have green eyes like the Brandreth men. His were a very dark brown, and he’s refined, more…poetical perhaps.”
“Poetical?” Charity looked thunderstruck. “Is he athletic? Does he ride and shoot?”
“I’m sure he must.” Hope recalled his tall, lean physique. “Regularly one would think.”
“The Duc du Ténèbres.” The flash of exasperation returned to plague her. Why hadn’t he addressed her in English? “Aunt told me he was raised in England after his family escaped from France during the Revolution.”
“You might meet him again.”
“Unlikely. He lives in France now.” She shrugged. She wasn’t sure she wanted to. There was an air of isolation about his tall figure and a restless energy, his olive skin pulled taut over elegant cheekbones. “He seemed rather mysterious, and a little sad.”
“I imagine he would be. The émigrés suffered greatly. Perhaps he stirred your compassion.”
“Perhaps.” Hope doubted he would have had he not been so handsome.
Charity grinned. “You will have to settle for an Englishman,” she said, ever practical. “I doubt you’ll meet many like your Frenchman, even amongst King George’s set.”
“I fully intend to marry an Englishman,” Hope said.
Mama bustled into the room. “Oh my dears, you’ve done a splendid job. We have been invited to Brandreth Park to drink hot punch, listen to the carol singers, and attend the evening services.” She glanced out of the window. “Surely it can’t be going to snow? Where’s Mercy?”
“She’s at the farm, Mama,” Charity said.
“Again? What happens on a farm in the middle of winter to absorb her? I must send the footman to fetch her. I’ve had a letter from Faith. She will arrive with Vaughn tomorrow. That means with Honor and Edward, the whole family will be here for Christmas dinner. Cook has made the mince pies and gingerbread. There’s beef and venison, but I’m glad we have a large goose. I must tell Mary to iron Mercy’s warmest gown for this evening.” With that, their mother rushed out again.
Charity added spirals of paper she’d inscribed with uplifting messages to their creation. Joy to the World took pride of place at the top. Hope admired their handiwork. “Father has decided to lease a house in London in January. While he attends to business, it will give Mama and I time to prepare my new wardrobe before the ton arrives in force.” She moistened her dry lips. “I must make an impact when the Season starts.”
“I’ll bring my paint box and visit the art galleries,” Charity said. “Although Mama intends for me to have more dance lessons. Come-outs are such a fuss. I’m not entirely sure I’ll have one.”
Hope laughed. “Father will insist on it. Just you wait. You’ll look divine in the latest gowns with your hair up.”
Charity gazed away from one of her paintings that hung on the wall. “Mm?”
“You’re the tallest, and you have the most regal figure. As soon as I’m married, it will be your turn. You cannot avoid a Season for long.”
Charity shook her head. “Seasons are only important if one wishes to marry.”
“Yes, I suppose so. I intend to be the belle of the ball this Season.” Hope went to the pianoforte and began to play a spirited piece, the third movement of a Schubert sonata in galloping rhythm, her fingers flying over the keys. “I’ve given it a lot of thought. There will be heaps of pretty girls in London, with generous dowries.” She rose from the pianoforte. “One must find a way to stand out.”
“Shall you dampen your dresses and go without your corset?”
Hope giggled. “Don’t be daft. To have exceptional grace is important but so is one’s manner. I’ll always have something interesting to say. A political comment, perhaps. Men tend to be firm in their views, so I must be careful.”
“You are firm in your views,” Charity said. “I can’t see you agreeing just for the sake of it.”
Hope frowned. “You’re right. I’ll try to avoid politics. I could employ an amusing anecdote. A lady must be vivacious.”
“That’s wise. Not all men like clever women,” Charity said. “Papa always disappears into his study when Lady Forest comes to call. He says she’s too opinionated.”
“Perhaps she lacks vivacity.”
“She reminds me of a pigeon, the way she cocks her head and peers at one,” Charity said. “She all but coos at Father.”
Hope stopped mid-step in performing a minuet. She tucked away a lock of hair that had fallen into her eyes. “Well, I don’t intend to flutter my eyelashes and act as if I don’t have a thought in my head. Father likes Countess Lieven, and she is no fool.”
“You’re sure to make an excellent match.” Charity gave a nod of approval.
Hope smiled at her sister’s heartfelt statement as she tidied her hair. “Father believes I will. I’ve set my sights on a duke.”
Charity appeared in the mirror behind her, her brows drawn together. “There aren’t that many dukes in England, and few unmarried ones.”
“I’ve found two in Father’s copy of The New Peerage, but one of them is old and might even have passed away. Father’s copy isn’t current.”
“Wishes can come true,” Charity said. “Be careful. You might find yourself tied for life to a man you have no regard for, even if he’s a duke.”
Hope shook her head. Charity was too young to understand. Her father had explained how precipitous life could be if a lady fell in love with the wrong man. It was much more important to use one’s head than one’s heart. She’d been in total agreement. So far, the only duke she’d met was a tall, dark-haired Frenchman, but he was entirely unsuitable. The Duke of Darkness, as she now thought of him, had dismissed her with a glance, and at the time, it had bothered her, but that was purely vanity, a weakness she must add to her list of self-improvements.
The Loire Valley, France
Daniel Brienne, Duc du Ténèbres, galloped his hunter down the road bordered by thick forest, his enjoyable afternoon of cards with Monsieur Allard ruined after Madame Geneviève Bonnaire had called. The seductress made no secret that she wished to become Daniel’s duchess. The widow’s husband had been a wealthy man who’d held high office during the Revolution, and her lands ran with his on his eastern boundary. She’d practically stripped the clothes off him with her acquisitive gaze. He’d swallowed his annoyance, made his apologies and taken his leave.
The tower and the elaborate chimneys of Château du Ténèbres appeared above the trees. From this distance, the ruined tower looked undamaged, the timber supports and the rebuilding hidden from view. Daniel had bought back the château two years ago. Confiscated during the Revolution, the shell of a house he’d found was being restored.
Daniel had turned his back on England. After losing Elizabeth and his baby son, Tobias, there was a hole where his heart was, and the days ahead of him stretched out, empty and vast.
Still, he was determined to remain in the country of his birth, even though he felt little kinship here, and bad memories stalked the corridors. His mother, Alexandrie, had died here before his father had fled with him to England.
His father had refused to accept the end of the ancien régime. The old duke had insisted Daniel do his duty and marry a French aristocrat. When Daniel had failed to do his bidding, his father refused to acknowledge Daniel’s marriage to Elizabeth. The bitterness that lay between them had never been resolved.
The peace Daniel sought here seemed impossible to attain, as images flooded his mind everywhere he turned. The way his son’s fingers had curled trustingly around his, and Elizabeth, who’d jumped at every shadow, and while she stirred his sense of protectiveness, she never stirred his passion. Guilt piled upon guilt, and the nightmares continued, more vivid than ever. He’d dreamed last night of thrashing blindly through water and woke strangled by his sheets.
As Daniel rode across the grass, his horse stumbled into a rabbit hole. Tonnerre regained his balance but favored a leg.
Daniel jumped down. “Now, what’s amiss? You’re always so surefooted.” He ran his hand down the horse’s foreleg. The animal shuddered.
“Mon dieu!” It looked bad. With a soft curse, Daniel led the limping horse toward the stables. “Fetch Anton, tout suite!”
The stable boy, who rushed out at his approach, ran for the head groom while Daniel led the horse into a stall. He took a brush and began to groom the animal to calm it. Tonnerre whickered, and his nostrils flared. Concern tightened Daniel’s gut, and he talked softly to the distressed horse.
Moments later, Anton rose from his crouch and patted the gelding’s nose. “I think it best to put him down, Your Grace.”
Daniel scowled. “Is there a chance you can save him?”
Anton shrugged. “I doubt you’ll ride him again. Not with that leg.”
“Tonnerre will not be in pain?”
“No, Your Grace, but he may be lame.”
“If there’s any chance, do your best for him. At worst, he can enjoy the rest of his life roaming a paddock,” Daniel said tersely. “The leg isn’t broken, and he has a right to live the same as we.” Daniel left him. He could not countenance losing Tonnerre. He had no energy left to deal with it.
At the house, his servant, Alphonse, hovered, dwarfed by the massive front door. “You have a visitor, Duc.”
“It’s Monsieur Cosgrove.”
“Bon!” Daniel’s footsteps echoed across the massive hall with its soaring ceiling. What brought the English politician here? As he entered the oak-paneled library, his favorite room in the house, a solidly built man turned from the long windows, which gave a view over lawns to the rim of dense forest.
He bowed. “Monsieur le Duc.”
“Miles! It is good to see you.” Daniel crossed the parquet floor to shake his friend’s hand, his pleasure marred by the fear that his solitary life was about to be disrupted.
“And I you.” There was a hint of sympathy in his smile. “How are you faring these days?”
“I am well,” Daniel said carefully.
“You are much missed in England.” Miles frowned. “But you may not be so pleased once I’ve relayed my news.”
Daniel drew breath. “The king?”
“No, His Majesty is busily reviving the tartan in Scotland wearing full Highland dress.”
“Oh?” Daniel fought not to smile at the image in his mind.
“Yes, wearing Royal tartan and gold chains and pink pantaloons.”
“Pink pantaloons?” Daniel repeated in a faint voice.
“And assorted weaponry,” Miles continued in a mock-grave tone, not trying to spare him. “Cost the public purse close on fourteen hundred pounds.”
Daniel gave in and chuckled.
“But the government grows nervous about a matter looming between England and France,” Miles continued in a graver tone. “Canning wishes your help on a matter of diplomacy.”
That meant returning to England, something Daniel had no desire to do. He gestured to the leather sofas facing the fireplace. Then he approached the sideboard and held up a crystal decanter. “Cognac?”
“The king’s standing within the Congress of the Great Powers is not strong and Wellington has been unable to deter the allies who have pledged their support to French intervention in Spain.” Miles accepted the snifter of Cognac with a nod of thanks. “As a Frenchman brought up in England, you are in a unique position. Your friendships with both the French Prime Minister and the French Ambassador are of great value to us. With a foot in both countries, your voice will be influential. Can I persuade you to come to England?”
Daniel had known such a request was forthcoming, but his whole body stiffened with resistance. He took a mouthful of the dark-honey-colored Cognac, allowing the hint of vanilla and spice to linger on his tongue, but the liquor failed to smooth his apprehension.
“You can be of service to both England and France should you wish to become involved. England holds a great deal of sadness for you, I know,” Miles continued. “You may tell us all to go to the devil, but I hope you will not.”
Daniel nodded and forced a smile. “Très bien, mon ami.” To see his country at war again was inconceivable. The two countries had far more in common than they did differences. He could not refuse. It was his duty to help if he could.
“Of course I shall come, Miles.”
Miles finished his Cognac in several swallows and put down his glass. “Excellent. When can you leave?”
Some Englishmen treated Cognac like ale with a decided lack of appreciation. “Tomorrow. I’ll have a valise packed. My trunk can be sent on.”
“You are welcome to stay at my townhouse. Anne will be delighted. She has many friends keen to meet you.”
Daniel resisted clenching his teeth. The prospect of being thrust into a noisy, demanding household made his nerves jangle. “Merci, mon ami. But unnecessary. I shall be quite comfortable at a hotel until my house is made ready.” He summoned Alphonse. “And tonight, I shall have my chef cook you a superb meal.”
Miles’ eyes twinkled. “I was counting on it.”
At least Madame Bonnaire’s ardor would cool in his absence. Daniel did not intend to marry madame or, indeed, anyone. He would find himself a mistress, a woman who wanted little from him, and lose himself in soft flesh for a while.