Bertrice Small

The Duchess

© 2001



“Damn me, there is no other way! I shall have to take a wife,' Quinton Hunter, the Duke of Sedgwick, announced to his assembled friends. He was a very tall man, standing over six feet in height, with a lean hard body, and a shock of black hair.

'We all do eventually,' his friend, Viscount Pickford replied with a cheerful grin.

'I don't notice you in any great hurry, Ocky,' the duke said.

Octavian Baird, Viscount Pickford, grinned again. 'I'll tell you what, Quint, we'll do it together. We'll go trolling for brides this coming season, eh?' His blue eyes danced mischievously.

'I think we should all do it,' Marcus Bainbridge, the Earl of Aston announced. 'My family would be delighted to have me bring a pretty heiress home.'

'By God, Bain, what a splendid idea!' Viscount Pickford laughed.

The three friends looked to their fourth companion, Lord Adrian Walworth.

'Well, Dree?' the duke said.

Lord Walworth shrugged. 'If I don't, and you do, I'll not have anyone left to play with,' he grumbled somewhat petulantly. 'Wives don't like their husbands having single gentlemen friends.' He was thoughtful for a brief moment, and then he continued. 'We'll not be able to play our little games in France any longer if we take wives. I suppose it is better that we don't. We were almost caught the last time. I don't relish having my head on some Frenchie's pike.' He grinned. 'If only all the fashionables in London knew that they had us to thank for their favorite dressmaker. We were at our zenith when we rescued Madame Paul and her people,' he waxed nostalgically, but then he agreed, 'Aye if you three plan to marry then I must out of necessity, or lose your company. It will certainly make my mama happy. All she talks about when I'm down at the hall is her lack of grandchildren.'

Viscount Pickford chuckled. 'When we appear this season all the mamas will go wild with delight. Frankly I don't know of four more eligible gentlemen in the ten thousand. I hear Lord Morgan's daughter is going to make her bow under the sponsorship of her aunt, the Dowager Marchioness of Rowley. Now there's the girl for you, Quint.'

'I shall have a harder time than any of you finding a wife,' the duke responded seriously. 'While my blood is the bluest in England, even bluer than the king's, my purse is virtually empty. My antecedents had the rather romantic notion of marrying for love, and by God, they did! Far worse, most of them had a passion for gambling. This estate of mine is intact by some miracle, but look around; Hunter's Lair is falling down about my ears. The lady I choose must be wealthy enough to put it all back together again, and bring me enough income so I may get on my feet. Unlike my father, and those before him, I have no desire to gamble, nor necessarily marry for love. I must wed for practical reasons. Then I will put my estate back in order and make it prosper. If I can find a lady noble enough, and rich enough to have me,' he concluded.

'Then it's Lord Morgan's daughter for you,' Viscount Pickford insisted. 'She's quite the heiress.'

'Her blood is barely blue,' the earl noted. 'Her father is only the second to hold his title. The family were London merchants, and he is still involved in business. Her mother, however, was the old Duke of Arley's youngest child. Ran off with some Italian count when the daughter was two, and her brother eight. It was quite a scandal at the time. Lord Morgan divorced her, of course, but has never remarried. Then the son was killed a few years ago. Lord M. has devoted himself to his remaining offspring ever since. She is indeed fearfully rich, Quint, but her pedigree ain't good enough for you.'

'Don't be such a snob, Bain,' the viscount said. 'With a father as rich as Croesus, and a duke for a grandfather, she will surely pass muster. The bluer-blooded gels ain't got dowries big enough to help Quint. This could be a perfect match.'

'I knew her brother slightly,' Lord Walworth said helpfully. 'A nice chap, exquisite manners and always paid his debts promptly.'

'Did you ever see her?' the duke asked.

Lord Walworth shook his head. 'She's a country mouse, I'm given to understand. Never been up to London although her sire has a big house on Berkley Square.'

'I wonder if she's pretty,' the duke mused.

'All little kitties purr the same in the dark, Quint,' the earl noted practically.

'True, but one must sit opposite them at the dinner table,' the duke quickly riposted, and his friend laughed.

'So we are agreed then, gentlemen,' the viscount said. 'We are to seek suitable brides next season, and marry at long last. Just think, Quint, when Hunter's Lair is in prime condition again, what parties you will give for us all!'

'What parties his wife will give,' Lord Walworth said gloomily, 'and our wives had best be in her favor, or we won't get invited.'

'You will always be welcome at Hunter's Lair, Dree; and Ocky and Bain, too. Remember, a man is master of his own house. You are my best friends, and have been since our days at Eton. That is not going to change because of a mere woman. Now,' he banged his goblet upon the scarred oak table and shouted, 'Crofts! Where is dinner?'

'I'll bring it right in, Your Grace,' the manservant said with a bow. 'Mrs. Crofts didn't want the venison to be overcooked.' He hurried out of the paneled old Great Hall where the dukes and earls of Sedgwick had dined for centuries.

Hunter's Lair was a large house, but it had never been modernized, not even in the Stuart era when almost every great house in England had been redone to include large public dining rooms with marble fireplaces. Quinton Hunter was the ninth Earl and the fourth Duke of Sedgwick. The first duke had been created in 1664, several years after Charles II’s restoration. The earldom had come to them in the time of King Henry VIII. Prior to that, fourteen Baron Hunters descended from the year 1143, and before that the heads of the family were baronets; Saxons who had wisely supported William of Normandy over Harold Godwinson only to find their thanedoms turned into baronetcyes, and fair Norman wives in their beds. It was a long and proud heritage.

The present house was built upon the ruins of the original Saxon hall, and a second house which had burned in the reign of Henry VII. The third house had stood in its present incarnation since the year 1500. It was built of red brick, although the stones were generally obscured by the shiny green ivy growing over it. The ancient leaded paned casement windows remained lovely, but had become, with time, very fragile. They were opened rarely, and then most carefully. It was, despite its antiquity, a very elegant house that had been home to many generations of Hunters, and the duke loved it.

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