Lucian St Claire, having entered the coaching inn only seconds earlier, and feeling much relieved to at last be out of the relentless rain he had suffered for the last two hours, felt that relief replaced by a sinking dread as he easily recognised the boomingly jovial voice of the Duke of Carlyne.
'It is you!' The Duke strode forcefully down the hallway of the inn to where Lucian stood, removing his extremely wet greatcoat, a smile of pleasure lighting the older man's features as he thrust a hand out in greeting. 'Well met, m'boy!'
'Your Grace,' Lucian murmured softly, giving an abrupt inclination of his head even as he shook the proffered hand, his gaze dark and unreadable.
Deliberately so. He and the Duke had not met for almost two years, but Lucian knew that very shortly the Duke would remember the circumstances of that meeting, and the pleasure would fade from the older man's face. It was a face that had aged considerably in the intervening years, making the Duke appear much older than the late fifties Lucian knew him to be.
Ah, there it was, Lucian recognised heavily. The frown. The flicker of pained remembrance in the eyes. Quickly followed by a forced return of the other man's earlier pleasure in this chance meeting.
Lucian had suffered many such encounters since he had resigned his commission from the army almost two years ago. Too many. And neither time nor frequency had dulled the feeling of guilt he suffered at each such meeting.
For Lucian had survived five years in the army, only resigning his commission after that last bloody battle at Waterloo. A battle that had ensued after many Englishmen and women had thought Napoleon finished, routed, and incarcerated on the Isle of Elba. Only to have him escape that island to rouse his soldiers anew, renewing hostilities in a battle that had robbed Lucian of far too many brothers-in-arms. Most especially three fellow officers, his closest friends.
Including Simon Wynter, Marquess of Richfield, the Duke of Carlyne's beloved only son and heir…
Lucian forced down the memories of his unhappy journey almost two years ago to the Duke's estate in Worcestershire, where he had felt compelled to go in order to offer the Duke and Duchess his condolences on Simon's death.
He had made similar journeys to several of the families of his slain friends, each of them harder than the last as, once his condolences had been expressed a certain look of resentment appeared on the faces of those families at their realisation that he, Major Lord Lucian St Claire, the second of the three sons of the deceased Ninth Duke of Stourbridge, had somehow survived whilst their beloved husband, son or brother had perished.
Lucian had felt no animosity towards those people for the emotion; how could he when he had so often been plagued with nightmares that made him, too, wish that he had not survived!
He decided it was time to take pity on the Duke of Carlyne's confused expression. 'You are visiting friends in the area, sir?'
'Just come from spending a few days at m'brother Darius's new estate in Malvern.' The older man's expression brightened as he thankfully grasped this innocuous subject.
'I trust he is well, sir?' It had been far less than two years since Lucian had last seen his friend Darius—only seven months or so. But a lot had happened to the other man in that time…
The Duke's face took on a suitable look of melancholy. 'Bearing up, don't you know.' A glint of rueful humour entered his eyes. 'Some would say perhaps too well!'
There was an answering glint in Lucian's gaze as it knowingly met the older man's.
Lord Darius Wynter, Lucian knew, had taken himself a wife seven months ago. A Miss Sophie Belling, from the north of England. Her father owned several mills in the area, and so had been easily able to provide a more than generous dowry for his only child. It had not been a love-match, on either side: Miss Belling had wanted a husband with a title, and Darius had required a wife with a fortune. Conveniently—for Darius, that was— Lady Sophie had been killed in a hunting accident only a month after the wedding, leaving Darius in possession of the fortune but not the wife.
Darius had always been a rogue and a gambler. His profligate lifestyle meant that he had quickly gone through the fortune left to him by his father when he reached his majority, thus necessitating a need in Darius to marry for money. He had even, Lucian recalled with some amusement, offered for Lucian's young sister Arabella at the end of last Season. An offer Hawk, their haughty older brother and the the Duke of Stourbridge, had felt absolutely no hesitation in refusing!
A brief diversion, for we're on our way to London,' the Duke of Carlyne continued lightly. 'For the Season. Or at least we were.' He frowned. 'Damned coach has developed a rickety wheel. But I mustn't keep you standing about here when you are obviously wet and uncomfortable.' He frowned as Lucian's greatcoat chose that moment to drip water on to the wooden floor. 'You surely aren't travelling on horseback, St Claire?'
Lucian grimaced. 'It was very fine when I set out from London two days ago.' After days, often weeks, spent in the saddle during his years in the war against Napoleon, the rain of an English spring did not seem like such a hardship to Lucian.
'That's the English weather for you, hmm?' The older man smiled ruefully. 'On your way to visit your brother and the family in Gloucestershire, are you?'
'I am, sir.' Lucian gave an inclination of his darkhead.
'Inferior inn, I'm afraid, St Claire,' the Duke confided dismissively. 'But 'm reliably informed that the food makes up for the lack of other comforts. Join us for dinner once you have procured a room and changed out of those wet clothes.'
'I do not have the necessary clothes with me for dining in company—'
'Nonsense,' the Duke dismissed warmly. 'Do say you will join us, St Claire. I have no doubt the ladies will be relieved to have more diverting company than a crusty old man and his boorish brother.'
Ladies? Plural? Which obviously meant there would be another lady other than the Duchess present. And the Duke's 'boorish brother' had to be Lord Francis Wynter, the youngest of the three Wynter brothers—a young man Lucian had known for many years, and found pompous and opinionated in the extreme.
But good manners dictated that Lucian could not continue to refuse the Duke of Carlyne's gracious invitation. 'In that case I would be honoured, Your Grace,' he accepted stiffly. 'If you will allow me but half an hour in which to make good my appearance…?'
'Certainly, m'boy.' The Duke now looked pleased by this turn of events. 'I am sure m'wife will want to hear all about your brother and his pretty new Duchess.'
Lucian was equally sure, as he strolled upstairs to his bedchamber several minutes later, having procured a room and demanded hot water for a bath, that his brother Hawk would not appreciate having his beloved Jane discussed in a public coaching inn or anywhere else!
'I am sure you will find St Claire extremely diverting, m'dear,' Grace's uncle, the Duke of Carlyne, continued to assure her with a merry twinkle in his eye. 'Most of the single ladies of the ton seem to find his broodingly dark good-looks extremely appealing. Several of the married ones, too—eh, m'dear?' He gave his Duchess a knowing smile.
'I am sure I do not know what you mean, Carlyne.'
Grace's aunt, a plump matronly woman still deeply in love with her equally smitten husband, dismissed him frowningly. 'Neither is it a fitting subject on which to converse in front of a young lady of Grace's sensibilities.'
'Certainly not,' Lord Francis Wynter agreed haughtily. 'In fact, George, I am not sure that it was a wise decision on your part to invite St Claire to join us for dinner at all, with two ladies present.'
'Don't be such a pompous ass, Francis. Oh! I am sorry, m'dears.' The Duke at once apologised to his wife and Grace for his outspokenness. 'But St Claire's entitled to sow a few wild oats,' he added defensively. 'What you should remember, Francis, is that Major Lord Lucian St Claire is a hero of the Peninsula War— and most especially that last bloody battle at Waterloo.'
Grace saw the flush of resentment on Francis's cheeks at this reminder that, despite being a youngest son, he had chosen not to enter into that particular war. A war, moreover, in which his only nephew, Grace's cousin, had lost his young life.
Grace was not sure either, after her aunt's whispered comments about Lord Lucian St Claire, and her uncle's more risqué ones, that the man was a fitting dinner companion. But she would not for the world have said so. She was deeply resentful of the almost proprietorial air that Francis Wynter had lately started to adopt towards her and her welfare. Especially as she had given him no encouragement, by word or deed, to behave in such a familiar manner.
Besides, Lucian St Claire sounded exciting, at least, and after weeks of Francis's tedious attentions Grace welcomed even the thought of that diversion.
'He sounds very—interesting, Uncle George,' she assured him softly.
'The man may well be a war hero.' Francis persisted. 'But rumour has it that since his return to Society he has become something of a rake and a—'
'That is enough, Francis,' his brother cut in warn-ingly. 'I will not have any of our heroic soldiers denigrated in this way.'
Grace watched as another tide of resentment flashed across Francis Wynter's youthfully handsome features.
There was no doubting he was very handsome—his hair a rich burnished gold, his eyes a pale blue, his shoulders wide, waist tapered, legs muscled, in black evening clothes and snowy white linen. If only his nature were as pleasant as those looks. But his lengthy visit to his brother and sister-in-law's estate in Worcestershire, following on from a much shorter one to his brother Darius's new home at Malvern—the two younger brothers did not get on—had allowed Grace to learn that, besides being extremely opinionated, Francis was also completely lacking in a sense of humour.
He was not her Uncle George's full brother, of course, which could explain at least some of the reasons Francis was so different from his good-humoured eldest brother. George Wynter, aged eight and fifty, had been born to the first wife of the previous Duke of Carlyne; Darius Wynter, aged one and thirty, had been born to the second wife, and Francis Wynter, aged five and twenty, to the third and final one.
Grace could only assume, having now met and become better acquainted with all three brothers, that they must all favour their individual mothers—because they certainly bore little resemblance to each other.
George was the warm, amiable-natured one, Darius the consummate rake—and Francis, she was sorry to say, was a complete bore.
Although it was distinctly ungrateful of Grace to think so, when the Wynter family had all been so warm and welcoming to her. Having lived quietly in the country with her parents for the first nineteen years of her life, Grace had suddenly found herself orphaned, her parents having both been killed in a boating accident a year ago. Her mother's sister and brother-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of Carlyne, were now her guardians, the Duke also being trustee of her considerable estate and fortune until she married.
In fact, now that Grace's year of mourning was over, it had been her aunt's insistence that Grace really must have a Season that had necessitated them undertaking this uncomfortable journey to London in the first place—slightly earlier than was necessary, as her aunt intended to acquire a completely new wardrobe for Grace before any of the entertainments began. She had declared Grace's scant wardrobe of three day dresses and two evening gowns completely inadequate for a London Season, where she would be introduced to all the ton as the ward of the Duke and Duchess of Carlyne.
Grace was grateful for all the loving attention her aunt and uncle had bestowed upon her in the last year. She simply wished that Lord Francis Wynter were a little less proprietorial of her.
'Lucian was such a dear boy when he was younger,' her Aunt Margaret mused wistfully. 'Do you remember what great friends he and Simon always were, Carlyne? How the two of them were at Eton and then Cambridge together, before taking up a commission in the army on the same day?'
The Duke reached out and patted his wife's hand consolingly. 'There, there, m'dear. What cannot be changed must be endured.'
Grace's heart ached at how stoically her aunt and uncle bore the tragic blow of their only son's death. She had not known Cousin Simon very well, his being ten years her senior, but the little she did remember of him was as a man as good-natured and charmingly amiable as his father.
How strange, then, that he should be particular friends with a man her uncle described as possessing 'broodingly dark good-looks', and Francis claimed was 'a rake and a—' And a what? Grace wondered curiously. Whatever it was, as far as her uncle was concerned it was not a fit description for the ears of an innocent like herself.
Contrarily, Francis's disapproval of Lord Lucian St Claire only made him all the more appealing to Grace!
Lucian drew in a weary breath as he stood outside the parlour where the Wynter family were awaiting his appearance so that they might dine. The thirty minutes or so since Lucian had parted from the Duke had not improved his disposition. The accommodation at the inn had proved as inferior as Carlyne had claimed it to be, and the furnishings in Lucian's room were sparse, to say the least, with not even a lock on the door to keep his belongings safe while he was downstairs dining.
Which was perhaps the point…
Not that Lucian was carrying anything of particular value to a thief—chance or otherwise. Having arranged for his valet to depart for Mulberry Hall—the principal St Claire seat in Gloucestershire, and Lucian's home for the first eighteen years of his life—a day ahead of Lucian travelling on horseback, Lucian was carrying only the barest necessities with him. As he had already explained to the Duke, he did not even have with him appropriate evening clothes for dining in female company.
Excerpted from The Rake's Wicked Proposal by Carole Mortimer Copyright © 2009 by Carole Mortimer. Excerpted by permission.
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