The Last Duchess – Excerpt

The Last Duchess


“Jane, he simply won’t do. The man’s a stick. Surely becoming a duchess can’t be that important. You’ve never shown the slightest interest in marrying for consequence.”

Casting a look at her brother, Lady Jane Lennox pulled a face. “My interest in Blixford has nothing to do with rank. I happen to be madly in love with him.”

Robert barked a loud laugh, startling her horse and sending the mare into a skittish dance across the road. Handling the beast with ease, Jane brought her back into line and frowned at Robert. “Laugh if you like, but there it is.”

“When did you develop a tendre for the stick?”

“Do stop calling him a stick. It’s the height of disrespect.”

“There was a time you’d have agreed with me that he’s dry as toast and has all the humor of a graveyard. Please, Jane, rethink this and you’ll see how ill-suited you are to be his duchess.”

Staring ahead, vaguely angry, she scarcely noticed the beauty of the narrow country lane, dappled with early-morning sunlight. Ordinarily, she’d have been invigorated by the clear air, the cloudless sky, the moist, heady scent of dew-laden, freshly cut hayfields stretching out to the north. But this morning, her mind was in turmoil, solely focused on one goal, allowing little room for appreciation of the glorious morning. “Is this lecture the only reason you asked me to ride early with you?”

“Largely, but I also believe you could do with a bit of a respite from Lady Bonderant’s house party. I’ve watched you act the perfect lady for upwards of a week now, and it’s painful to witness.” His eyes were laughing at her. “You’re dying to run, aren’t you?”

Of course she was, but admitting it didn’t seem wise. Robert was certain to pounce upon it as a method of illustrating how dour the consequence of her marrying the Duke of Blixford. “I shouldn’t say dying, but yes, it would be lovely to let this mare have her head.”

“Very well, we will run, as soon as you explain how you came to fall wildly in love with the Duke of Dullford.”

Ignoring Robert’s further insult of Blixford, she said, “Do you recall two summers past, before my coming out, when I went to visit Annabel during her confinement?”

“I have recollection of a letter from Sherbourne mentioning your visit, as well as Annabel’s untimely death. I was still at Cambridge, so never learned particulars. Was it dreadful, Jane, being there when poor Annabel died?”

“It was. She was a sweet soul, the heart of kindness.”

“She was forever scolding us when we were children, do you remember?”

Jane smiled, despite the sad memory of Annabel’s death. “Yes, and all the while, she was neck-deep in the prank herself.” Jane glanced at her handsome brother. “I always believed she had a sweet spot for you.”

“And I for her, but it was doomed from the outset. I’m the youngest son of an earl with six sons, my title prospects dismal. Despite being well lined in the pocket, I was unsuitable for Annabel, whose mama set her sights quite high. She got her wish and Annabel became a duchess, but I wonder what cold comfort that must be to Lady Margaret now?”

Remembering, Jane said, “She was overset in the extreme when she arrived at Eastchase Hall and realized her daughter was dead. For all our years of resentment toward Lady Margaret’s high-handedness and presumptuous manner, I’ve never felt such depth of sympathy for anyone. The entire affair was horrid and sad. Annabel was frightened when her labor began too early, and I, of course, knowing nothing of these matters, was at a loss. I sent for the midwife, as well as Blixford, who was in London, and Lady Margaret, who was to come a week later, to finish out Annbabel’s confinement, but she died before her mother arrived. All alone but for me, the midwife, and the vicar’s daughter, Bella. Blixford didn’t arrive until the following day, just in time to witness his wife and infant son entombed in the family crypt.”

They rode in silence for a while before Jane finished her story. “He’s an outwardly cold man, not one to be demonstrative. I was put off by his manner during the service, astonished a man could bury his wife with such dispassion.” His face, she remembered, looked as though carved from granite. Even his dark eyes had held no warmth, no emotion. “At the conclusion of the service, he thanked me for my assistance, for my kindness in attending Annabel, and turned to leave, but before he walked out of the chapel, his gaze caught a spray of roses at the front. Roses were Annabel’s favorite, you know.” Turning, she looked earnestly at her brother. “Robert, I have never forgotten his expression. He was . . . bereft.”

He was clearly unimpressed. “Bereft, indeed. I’d gather from his look he was severely aggravated that the heir he covets didn’t live. What you witnessed was not a husband mourning his wife, but a duke’s annoyance at losing his heir. It’s paramount he beget an heir, Jane. As the last male of his line, his titles, holdings, and wealth will revert to the crown upon his death. Centuries of Blixford dukes will fairly spin in their graves should he allow such a catastrophe. It is, I believe, why he’s here, at his sister’s house party. Everyone knows Blixford detests social events, yet here he is, attending a veritable stable of young ladies, yourself included, from which he will choose his next brood mare.” Robert nudged his gelding close and reached out to touch her arm. “I would wish much better for you, Jane. He can never love you, and I have my doubts that you love him. It is only your sympathy and frankly, imagination, that have captivated you. Please trust me about this, and set your cap elsewhere besides Blixford.”

Jane listened to Robert, as she always did, and accepted his counsel for what it was; the concern of her closest brother, borne of love and respect for her. But she wouldn’t heed it. He didn’t understand, and she could never adequately express her reaction to that minuscule moment when the ducal mask fell away and she witnessed the man beneath. She’d never forgotten. Every suitor she acquired during her first Season was soundly rejected, solely due to her desire to marry Blixford as soon as he was ready to try again.

That time was now, and she would not be dissuaded from pursuing him. Her chances were excellent, she thought. He seemed to pay particular attention to her, although he did appear to be impressed with Lady Letitia’s ability at the pianoforte. Jane was dismal at the pianoforte. She was also not adept at stitching, or painting, or idle conversation. Lady Letitia was a model of decorum. Jane was not.

But she was of impeccable birth and great fortune, the only daughter of an earl. Her mother’s death and father’s refusal to take another wife meant she assumed the duties of a large household at a very early age. She was well qualified to step into the role of duchess, despite her failings in the drawing room. Blixford was bound to see this, and assuredly would offer for her within the fortnight, before the end of Lady Bonderant’s house party.

“I’m truly confounded by this infatuation of yours. He’s six years your senior, a great lummox of a man, not considered handsome in the least. If you marry him, your brats shall all sport rather large noses.”

Jane’s back went up. “I’m ashamed of you, Robert. How can you be so unkind? Yes, Blixford has a strong Roman nose, but it’s his best feature. Unique. Frankly, I find him quite attractive.” Much more than quite, but she could not say so to her brother. He’d keel over in a dead faint if she told him what her imagination had conjured during the previous week. Most definitely not ladylike. Low, common and terribly earthy. As for Blixford’s size, being on the tall side herself, she found his height and breadth intriguing.

“I suppose he does cut a fine figure, but he positively glowers. I suspect he’s foul tempered, and you would dislike living with anyone not jolly.” He gave her a solemn look. “You should know our father feels as I do. He won’t stop you marrying Blixford, if indeed the man asks, but he won’t like it.”

“Perhaps he won’t offer, and yours and Papa’s concern will be for naught.”

“One can only hope.” He caught her expression and hastened to add, “I’m not being cruel, Janie. I would see you happy in marriage, and I’m convinced Blixford is incapable of making you anything but miserable. He would hide you beneath a basket with his foot firmly atop, and you would smother.” He nodded ahead. “He wouldn’t allow you to run.”

“Ah, but he need never know. I’m here, now, about to beat you soundly to the end of the lane. Blixford is undoubtedly fast asleep and none the wiser.”

She watched her brother closely. As usual, he heard only the challenge. Robert slowed his gelding and met her gaze, a wide smile lighting his face, his sober expression vanishing. “Ready?”

“At your will.”

He laughed, as did she, and they took off, thundering down the lane, neck and neck, shouting insults at one another.

“Bloody sloppy, sir!”

“Damned incompetent!”

“Disgrace to horseflesh!”

“You ride like a girl!”

It was a splendid run, a welcome reprieve from the sedate riding she’d been forced to do all week. She would return to the house and dress for breakfast in a new morning gown. She would partake of her eggs and coffee, then change back into her habit and go for a ride with the others, prim and perfect. It would not feel so confining, because she had already had a run.

She shouted at Robert, “Any slower and you’ll be a blasted statue!”

“Poor loser!” He nudged ahead and she concentrated more fully on the race, laughing with exhilaration.


            From a bluff edging the southern end of the extensive formal gardens at Margrave Park, Michael Benedict Deveraux, twelfth Duke of Blixford, sat his horse and watched Lady Jane and her brother race down the lane edging a hayfield. She was a beauty; vibrant, filled with laughter and joie de vive. Hers was a nature of passion, everything in her life taken on with determination and single-minded purpose.

For reasons Michael couldn’t fathom, she’d taken him on. He was amused by her attempt to cloak herself in a mantle of decorous behavior, to vie for his attention amongst the other young ladies his sister, Lucy, had invited to her late summer house party. Lady Jane was earnest in her pursuit of him and he admired her dedication, even if he had no intention of acting upon it. She was unsuitable for his needs, and the sooner she realized it and moved on to other possibilities, the better off she would be.

“She’s in love with you.”

Without glancing at his sister, who sat her horse beside him, Michael nodded. “Yes, I’m aware.”

“She doesn’t care about the title.”

“I know.”

“Nevertheless, you won’t marry her.”

“Not on a bet, Lucy.” He glanced at her and admired her seat. She’d always been an excellent rider. Nothing in the league of Lady Jane, but quite competent. “I recall you mentioned her while you visited me in London this past Season. I believe I told you we wouldn’t suit.”

“How could you know, having barely met her? You refused to attend any functions, so you didn’t see her as I did.”

“I don’t live in a cave. I’m well aware she was the toast of the Season, but I’m also aware she’s Sherbourne’s only daughter, raised with six older brothers. She rides neck-or-nothing and discusses unladylike subjects. She shoots pistols.”

“Yes, I know,” Lucy said, a gleam in her dark eyes. “As I said, she’s perfect for you.”

“You invited her, no doubt certain I would be unable to resist her after two weeks of constant company.”

“How astute you are, and yet, how obtuse. Lady Jane would make a fine duchess, and make you extremely happy. I so wish to see you happy, Blix, to have something meaningful in your life that has nothing to do with sums and crops and shipping investments.”

He turned his attention back to the race. “I intend to offer for Lady Letitia at the end of the week.”

Lucy was quiet for a moment, watching Lady Jane and her brother as they raced to the finish. “Lady Letitia will make a fine duchess, but she’ll never make you happy.”

“It is not my aim to be happy. I need an heir, and an acceptable wife willing to provide one. My choice is adequate.”

“Your choice is a woman whom you’ll never love. You can’t bamboozle me, Blix. You chose Annabel for much the same reason. For an educated, intelligent man, you can be annoyingly short-sighted.”

“You married Bonderant because you loved him. Now you have lost him. Only last evening, you cried again. He’s been gone over a year, yet you continue to mourn him. Would you wish me the same misery?”

Lady Jane won the race. He could hear her voice, carried on the breeze, just as her earlier very unladylike shouts had reached him. “By God, Robert, I may ride like a girl, but I have bested you, yet again. I demand you bow before my superior horsemanship, at once.”

Robert was a good-natured sort, as were all of Sherbourne’s brood. He laughed and bowed in the saddle.

She returned his laugh as they turned back toward the house.

Lucy watched and murmured, “I don’t regret one moment I had with Matthew, and even had I known he would be taken from me far too soon, I’d marry him all over again. We had one glorious year of deep happiness and contentment. I have his son. I live in his house. His memory will never die. You see this as misery. I see it as honor and hope and something intrinsic I can’t name. Yes, I mourn my husband, but I’m far from miserable, Blix. Were you to marry Lady Jane, and if she were to die in childbed, as our mother did, as Annabel did, you would go on, and you wouldn’t be miserable. You’d be glad for the time you had.”

Michael refocused on the riders along the lane. “She’s very beautiful, and spoiled by Sherbourne. She would most likely demand attention and distract me from my work.”

“You should be distracted. You work too hard, Blix. Life is not meant to be lived riding the farms and toting up accounts.”

“It’s been my life since our father died, Lucy.” He glanced toward her and lifted a brow. “There was a time when you didn’t mind my working so hard. Your coming out was not inexpensive, and I spared nothing to see you had an excellent Season.”

She returned the favor and lifted her own brow. “You can’t guilt me into silence, brother. Yes, you’ve worked hard to regain all that Papa lost, but you’ve done so a hundred times over. How rich must you be? There’s only so much money one can spend in a lifetime, and what is it for if you’ve no one to share it with?”

“I will share with Lady Letitia. I intend to marry her, and there’s an end to it.”

His gaze returned to Lady Jane. She was more than simply lovely. There was a charisma about her, an undeniable draw. Even her competition couldn’t dislike her, though perhaps they didn’t see her as worthy competition. A frisky puppy would be more adept at the pianoforte than Lady Jane. When it came to painting, no doubt an infant could claim a more advanced artistic ability. The lady’s attempts were terrible enough to draw laughter from her friends. She took it in stride and laughed along with them, telling a story of her watercolors instructor, a woman so worn down by her hopeless student, she retired to the country to grow turnips and was never heard from again.

The art of polite conversation was also lost on Lady Jane. At times, she crinkled her forehead and became almost fierce in her discourse on matters not generally considered genteel, polite, or appropriate for the drawing room. Only last night, she debated the merits of crossbreeding sheep with young Lassiter and trumped him soundly. To his discredit, he didn’t appear offended in the slightest. On the contrary, he was besotted with her. They all were.

Except Michael.

She was to be disappointed, but would soon realize all was for the best. They wouldn’t suit. Not at all. Lady Jane required a younger man, one open to her lifestyle of riding neck-or-nothing, her mannish interest in farming, her tendency to shout unladylike curses in a hayfield.

He still couldn’t figure out how, when, or why she’d developed such an infatuation with him. He’d scarcely met her before the beginning of the house party. If memory served, he was introduced at his wedding to Annabel. She was there with Annabel when she died, and he spoke to her for a few moments after the burial service. How did a woman develop an infatuation in such a short matter of time? It was a puzzle. Not to mention, most young ladies just out of the schoolroom were afraid of him. He didn’t doubt Letitia was afraid of him. At the very least, she was intimidated.

Lady Jane was not afraid, or intimidated.

She gazed at him far too long and too many times, her wide blue eyes filled with yearning. It was damned near impossible not to respond, but he was careful not to give her any encouragement. In less than a week, Lady Jane would return to her father’s home and come spring, another Season, when she would find a man able to fully appreciate her passionate nature.

When she and her brother disappeared from sight, he turned to Lucy and realized she was staring at him. “Have I a smudge?”

“Yes, quite. It’s just there, in front of your eyes, clouding your vision.”

Unwilling to follow her lead, determined to kill any further conversation about Lady Jane, he nodded toward the north. “Shall we go?”

Lucy shook her head. “I’ve lost the ambition, Blix. You go on and I’ll ride along the lane there before I retire to the house and check on breakfast.”

He eyed her curiously. “Would you run, Luce?”

She cocked her head and said thoughtfully, “It has been rather a long time. I believe I will.” Nudging her mare, she turned and headed toward the slope of the hill that led down to the lane. She called over her shoulder, “Care to join me?”

For one mad moment, he thought he would. But he was to visit several of the Margrave Park tenants this morning and he didn’t think it advisable to procrastinate. He waved to her and turned the opposite direction. As he made his way down the edge of the back lawn toward the road, he heard the sound of hooves pounding the ground.

Before he could talk himself out of it, he bent forward and murmured a command, gratified by the feel of the magnificent stallion’s muscles bunching beneath him, springing forward with breathtaking speed. There was only one thing more pleasurable than running a horse, and as his prospects for that activity were exactly none, at least for the foreseeable future, he’d take a run and enjoy it.

Hell and damn. Five days left of this interminable house party. Five remaining days to avoid Lady Jane’s lovely blue eyes. Her yearning, lovely blue eyes. God save him from infatuated misses. Never mind that Lady Jane was the only miss ever infatuated with him. All the others saw only the title, and the money. Incredibly, Lady Jane appeared to have developed something of a tendre for him.

All the more reason to stay well clear of her.

Only five more days.


            From a dark corner of the vast front hall at Margrave Park, a stately clock chimed the hour of two. The house was asleep, including the servants. Confident she wouldn’t be discovered, Jane made her way down the stairs and crossed to the library, a candle lighting her way. She carefully opened one side of the double doors and slipped inside, closing the door behind her. The fire had long since died, leaving only the faint glow of embers to dimly illuminate the room. Holding her candle aloft, Jane glided across the floor on bare feet, straight to the third shelf of the east wall. She scanned the titles, searching for one book in particular. Mr. Paisley’s Discourse, In Three Parts, of Australian Aboriginal Tribes, With Accompanying Etchings. Ah, there it was. Turning, she set the candlestick on the small table to her left and just behind before reaching for the book.

It was shockingly naughty of her to look, but her curiosity managed to get the best of her. Not to mention, she was positively dying for some diversion –something, anything that could be considered exciting.

Lady Bonderant’s house party had become exceedingly tiresome. The past three days, Blixford had cooled considerably toward her, and she rather thought her chances of betrothal to him were narrowing to somewhere near nothing. She was at a loss how to go on. She tried harder, and the result was such a strain she thought she’d go mad. Just this morning, she’d gotten up before dawn, dressed in her habit, and went for a run, all by herself, hopeful that some new method of attracting Blixford’s attention would come to her.

It did not.

He was clearly set on Lady Letitia, and Jane was left out in the cold.

Her heart would surely break when an announcement was made. She would return home with Robert and Sherbourne and nurse her disappointment until the start of the Season. Then she supposed she would return to London and see if she could make a go of it with another suitor.

What else could she do? Living her life on the shelf was unthinkable. She would not be a doddering, maiden aunt to her brothers’ children, if and when any of them finally married and had any.

For now, she was certain she was bested, and had decided to have what bit of fun she could while suffering through the remainder of what had become a detestable house party. If she could pull it off without severe rudeness and ill-mannered consequence, she’d pack and leave, straightaway.

The book was terribly disappointing. Letitia had lied. Or perhaps Letitia’s expectations were less than Jane’s. She expected ‘horrid masculinity of the sort no lady should ever look upon.’ Jane was determined to look. Squinting in the dim light of the single candle, she peered at the etchings. How very curious. Her sole experience with a male member was limited to horses. She was intelligent enough to realize a man would not be so large as a horse, but the men in the etchings seemed hardly adequate. Proportionately, it was confounding. She continued turning the pages, but each etching was less impressive than the last. Nothing resembling horrid. Not even particularly masculine. The etchings might be of breastless women with appendages smaller than her fist between their legs.

She yawned. How tiresome. She’d stayed up late for this.

Then she noticed a slip of paper peeking out from the back spine of the book. With a tug, she withdrew it and her eyes widened considerably. This was well worth losing sleep over. She stared down at a charcoal sketch of a nude man, his member extraordinarily large. Oh my. It was a bit awkward, wasn’t it? How peculiar to have something like that between one’s legs.

What was between her legs made itself known and she shifted her weight from one bare foot to the other. Surely she would be torn apart by a man whose maleness was that spectacular. Was the duke thusly endowed? She blushed furiously, but didn’t replace the charcoal in the book. She laid it there, on the table, while she replaced Mr. Paisley’s dry discourse upon the bookshelf.

When she turned back toward the table, she let out a squeak of alarm.

The Duke of Blixford stood just to the other side. He was still in his evening clothes, looking devastatingly handsome. In his hand, he held the charcoal of the nude man with the imposing member.

Jane rather thought she’d like to die.

“Well,” he said. “Well.

He managed to give a sermon in two words. One word, actually. Spoken twice, undoubtedly for effect.

Choosing to ignore the obvious atrociousness of the situation, Jane reached for the candlestick with one hand and clutched the neck of her dressing gown with the other, straightening her spine until she grew another inch, composing her features into one of haughty formality. “My sympathies, Your Grace. You are similarly afflicted with insomnia. I shall bid you good night, then, and pray you sleep well.” Moving around the table, she struck out for the door, certain she would faint of embarrassment. Why had her curiosity got the best of her? Oh, how she wished she’d gone straight to bed after the evening’s entertainment was done, instead of reading until the hour grew late enough to slip down to the library.

“Will you not wait for my reply, Lady Jane? It’s customary to delay departing until you’ve heard an answering good night.”

With her hand upon the door-knob, she waited, counting each beat of her heart. She got to twenty before she realized he wasn’t going to say good night. He wouldn’t allow her to escape this humiliation. Seeing her hopes of marriage to her duke disappear altogether, she turned, slowly. “Was there something you wished to discuss, Your Grace?”

He moved toward her, the offending charcoal in his long fingered hand. His black breeches fit him like a second skin, highlighting the strength of his muscled thighs. Broad shoulders filled his elegant, superbly fitted evening coat. She was made further aware of her state of undress by the contrast of his clothing to hers. Her feet were bare. Curling her toes beneath the hem of her dressing gown, she truly wished the floor would open up and swallow her.

The picture was there, between them. She would not look at it again. She could not. Her gaze remained on his face, noting that his lips were perfection, not too full, not too thin. His eyes were dark, as was his hair. Winged brows rose above those eyes. The duke had an unnatural ability to move them about, making his wishes clear without making a sound. It was said that entire armies of servants and underlings jumped to the command of one single set of eyebrows.

The only feature he possessed that was not handsome was his nose. Slightly on the long side, it was a true Roman nose that otherwise marred the perfection of his face. Jane loved that part of him best of all.

At the moment, he stared down that length with a firm look that neither approved, nor disapproved. “You will, of course, explain to me how you knew this charcoal was hiding in Mr. Paisley’s boring discourse.”

“I should be only too happy to explain, if I had prior knowledge of it.”

“You did not?”

“I did not.”

“Then you will tell me when your interest was sparked by the societal study of Australian aboriginal tribes.”

She’d really rather not. If she lied and claimed a true interest, he might see her as a bluestocking. But to tell the truth, that she was desirous of seeing for herself what a male member looked like, would surely cause him to look upon her as a naughty woman. Or worse, an inquisitive child. Her mind cast about for possible explanations, but she realized, as he stood there staring at her, he already knew. Lying could only make the situation worse –if that were possible. Blushing so fiercely, she feared her face must surely catch fire, she murmured, “Mere curiosity brought me to the library, Your Grace. I can only plead your pardon and indulgence in not judging me too harshly.”

He stepped closer and held the charcoal so that the candlelight shone on the man. And his member. “It’s not a very good sketch, is it?”

Jane cleared her throat, never taking her eyes from his face. “Having no point of reference, Your Grace, I wouldn’t know.”

His gaze met hers. “You’re mortified, are you not?”

“Quite so.”

“It occurs to me that your embarrassment extends only to this badly rendered drawing of a naked man. That you are wandering about Lady Bonderant’s home, half dressed, in the middle of the night, appears not to bother you at all.”

“On the contrary. It’s only that the picture in your hand is of such breathtaking humiliation, my state of dishabille and the late hour pale in comparison.”

He stared at her again. After a time, he said in a low, modulated voice, “You wish to marry me.” It was baldly stated.

“Yes, Your Grace. Above all things.”

“And you believe this episode has ruined your chances.”

She dropped her gaze to the floor. “I am quickly coming to that conclusion, yes. You’re known for your insistence upon decorum, and this can hardly be considered decorous behavior on my part.”

“No, it cannot. It’s shocking, actually.”

Her heart sank. She was doomed. Letitia Rawlings would marry her duke and Jane would die of a broken heart.

“Though not at all surprising.”

Eyes wide, she jerked her gaze to his. “I beg your pardon?”

“I daresay curiosity concerning the opposite sex is a natural thing, perhaps more pointed in yourself because of your nature and your advancing years.”

“I am eighteen!”

Something glittered in his dark eyes. Not humor. The duke was not a man for humor. What then? She swallowed.

“You might have waited merely a few months, Lady Jane, and put your curiosity to rest in the same manner as all gently bred young ladies who become brides. As it is, you’ve put yourself into a compromising position.”

“I am not compromised. Beyond we two, no one need ever know I was here, in the library, in my dressing gown.”

“Looking at a naked man.”

His disapproval began to nudge aside her crushing disappointment of certainty that he would not, after all, ask for her hand. “He’s but a one-dimensional rendering, Your Grace. A few strokes of charcoal.”

Did he move closer still, or was it only her imagination?

“Ah, but the charcoal man is not the only one in the library, is he? There is me, Lady Jane, and I am far more than a few strokes of charcoal.”