The Heir

Duke's Obsession - 1


Grace Burrowes

Dedicated to

The late Norman H. Lampman, the first person Who honestly helped me with my writing, And to loving families everywhere, of any description, Most especially to the family who loves me.


GAYLE WINDHAM, EARL OF WESTHAVEN, WAS ENJOYING a leisurely measure of those things that pleased him most: solitude, peace, and quiet.

The best plans were the simplest, he reflected as he poured himself a single finger of brandy, and his brother’s suggestion that Westhaven hide in plain sight had proven brilliant. The unmarried heir to a dukedom had a nigh impossible task if he wanted to elude the predatory mamas and determined debutantes of polite society. He was in demand everywhere, and for form’s sake, he had to be seen everywhere.

But not this summer. He smiled with relish. This summer, this stinking, infernally hot summer, he was going to remain right where he was, in the blessedly empty confines of London itself. Not for him the endless round of house parties and boating parties and social gatherings in the country.

His father had too free a hand in those environs, and Westhaven knew better than to give the duke any unnecessary advantage.

The Duke of Moreland was a devious, determined, unscrupulous old rogue. His goal in life was to see to it his heir married and produced sons, and Westhaven had made it a matter of pride to outwit the old man. There had already been one forced engagement, which the lady’s family had thwarted at the last minute. One was more than enough. Westhaven was a dutiful son, conscientious in his responsibilities, a brother who could be relied upon, an heir more than willing to tend to the properties and investments as his father’s power of attorney. He would not, however, be forced to marry some simpering little puppet to breed sons on her like a rutting hound.

And already, the pleasure of days and nights uncluttered by meaningless entertainments was bringing a certain cheer to Westhaven’s normally reserved demeanor. He found himself noticing things, like the way his townhouse bore the fragrance of roses and honeysuckle, or how an empty grate was graced with a bouquet of flowers just for the pleasure of his eye. His solitary meals tasted more appealing; he slept better on his lavender- scented sheets. He heard his neighbor playing the piano late at night, and he caught the sound of laughter drifting up from his kitchen early in the morning.

I would have made an exemplary monk, he thought as he regarded the bowl of roses on the cold andirons. But then, monks had little solitude, and no recreational access to the fairer sex.

A modest exponent thereof silently entered the library, bobbed her little curtsy, and went about refilling the water in the several vases of flowers gracing the room. He watched her as she moved around without a sound, and wondered when she’d joined his household. She was a pretty little thing, with graceful ways and a sense of competence about her.

The chambermaid paused to water the flowers in the hearth, reaching over the fireplace screen to carefully top up the wide bowl of roses sitting on the empty grate. Who would think to put flowers in a cold fireplace? Westhaven wondered idly, but then he realized the chambermaid was taking rather too long to complete her task.

“Is something amiss?” he asked, not meaning to sound irritated but concluding he must have, for the girl flinched and cowered. She didn’t, however, straighten up, make another curtsy, and leave him to his brandy.

“Is something amiss?” He spoke more slowly, knowing menials were not always of great understanding. The girl whimpered, an odd sound, not speech but an indication of distress. And she remained right where she was, bent over the hearth screen, her pitcher of water in her hand.

Westhaven set down his brandy and rose from his wing chair, the better to investigate the problem. The girl was making that odd sound continuously, which pleased him not at all. It wasn’t as if he’d ever trifled with the help, for God’s sake.

When he came near the hearth, the chambermaid positively cringed away from him, another irritant, but her movement allowed Westhaven to see the difficulty: The buttons on the front of her bodice were caught in the mesh of the hearth screen. She wasn’t tall enough to set down her pitcher, leaving her only one hand with which to free herself. That hand, however, she needed for balance.

“Hush,” Westhaven said more gently. He did have five sisters, after all, and a mother; he understood females were prone to dramatics. “I’ll have you free in no time, if you’ll just hold still and turn loose of this pitcher.”

He had to pry the girl’s fingers from the handle of the pitcher, so overset was she, but still she said nothing, just warbled her distress like a trapped animal.

“No need to take on so,” he soothed as he reached around her so he could slide his fingers along the screen. “We’ll have you free in a moment, and next time you’ll know to move the screen before you try to water the flowers.” It took an infernally long time, but he had one button forced back through the screen and was working on the other when the girl’s whimpering escalated to a moan.

“Hush,” he murmured again. “I won’t hurt you, and I almost have your buttons free. Just hold still—”

The first blow landed across his shoulders, a searing flash of pain that left his fine linen shirt and his skin torn. The second followed rapidly, as he tightened his arms protectively around the maid, and at the third, which landed smartly on the back of his head, everything went black.

Westhaven moaned, causing both women to startle then stare at him.

“St. Peter in a whorehouse,” Westhaven muttered, bracing himself on his forearms and shaking his head. Slowly, he levered up to all fours then sat back on his heels, giving his head another shake.

He raised a ferocious scowl to survey the room, caught sight of the chambermaid, and then the other woman. His mind stumbled around for the proper associations. She worked for him but was entirely too young for her post. Mrs.… Every housekeeper was a Mrs.…

Sidwell? He glared at her in concentration. Sommers… no. Seaton.

“Come here,” he rasped at her. She was a sturdy thing, on the tall side, and always moving through the house at forced march. Cautiously, she approached him.

“Mrs. Seaton.” He scowled at her thunderously. “I require your assistance.”

She nodded, for once not looking quite so much like a general on campaign, and knelt beside him. He slid an arm around her shoulders, paused to let the pain of that simple movement ricochet around in his body, and slowly rose.

“My chambers,” he growled, leaning on her heavily while his head cleared. She made no attempts at conversation, thank the gods, but paused to open the door to his room, and then again to carefully lower him to the settee flanking the hearth in his sitting room.

She turned to the chambermaid, who had followed them up the stairs. “Morgan, fetch the medical supplies, some hot water, and clean linens, and hurry.”

Morgan nodded and disappeared, leaving the door slightly ajar.

“Silly twit,” the earl muttered. “Does she think I’m in any condition to cause you mischief?”

“She does not, but there is no need to forego the proprieties.”

“My privacy necessitates it,” the earl bit out. “Moreover…” He paused, closed his eyes, and let out a slow breath. “As you tried to kill me, I don’t think you’re in a position to make demands, madam.”

“I did not try to kill you,” his housekeeper corrected him. “I attempted to protect your employee from what I thought were improper advances on the part of a guest.”

He shot her a sardonic, incredulous look, but she was standing firm, arms crossed over her chest, eyes

Вы читаете The Heir
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату