Blame It on the Duke(7)

By: Lenora Bell

“Oh!” Lady Tombs laid a hand to her high, lacy collar.

“What’s this?” Alice clutched the edge of the desk. “Fred is married?”

This was disaster; the end of all her dreams.

How could Fred have been so foolish? Now how would she go to India? And who would deliver the documents and her translations to the college in Calcutta? She couldn’t entrust the priceless and fragile palm leaf manuscript of the Kama Sutra to the post.

“Never should have sent that fool of a boy to the Continent,” her father grumbled. “He was an easy mark for fortune-hunting jezebels. I’m too old for all this traveling. I wanted Fred to assume the mantle. Instead he disgraced us.” He jabbed a finger at Alice. “Why couldn’t you have been born the heir, eh? You’d have made a damned fine boy, Alice. You’ve a sensible head on your shoulders.”

Why, indeed? Alice thought with familiar frustration. She was the one who loved learning languages and longed to travel to foreign lands. Fred wasn’t interested in studies or traveling. It truly wasn’t fair.

“Please, sir, I beg you,” pleaded Lady Tombs. “Please don’t dwell upon it so. There may still be time to have the marriage annulled.”

“Not likely,” the baronet said, his face flushed with anger. “That doxy will bear him a babe in seven months’ time.” He stabbed the air with his forefinger. “Mark my words.”

“Yet remember that today is also a happy day, my dear husband.” Her mother sidled closer. “Our Alice will be the means to restore us from disgrace.”

Oh no. No, no, no.

Now her mother would be even more desperate for Alice to find an aristocrat to wed.

“Tell her the news, dear husband,” said Mama. “Such news. Such wonderful news.”

Sir Alfred slapped a palm against the desk and Alice jumped. “After I read that idiot boy’s letter yesterday I went straight to a gaming house to clear my head.”

There was nothing new in that. Her father loved to gamble. And he always won.

He had a ruthless way of making his opponents commit errors.

She couldn’t let him do the same to her today.

She squared her shoulders. “Congratulations.” She managed a thin smile. “I’m sure you won a great sum of money.”

“No.” His graying whiskers curved as he smiled grimly. “I won you a marquess.”

Alice blinked. “A what?”

“Oh happy, happy day!” Mama clasped her hands together. “How good it was of you, sir. Only think what a household you shall have, dear Alice. I always knew such a handsome, clever girl would improve our prospects and make the most advantageous of matches.”

“I was rather proud of myself,” Papa said modestly. “Not every day one wins a marquess.”

Alice’s mind reeled with shock.

First Fred’s defection and now suddenly she had a fiancé?

She wanted to grab the brass paperweight shaped like a raven off the writing desk and heave it through one of the windows. Instead she unclenched her hands from the desk and smoothed her skirts.

She hadn’t used every tool in her workshop to unstick Lord White only to be forced to cleave to another conceited, idle aristocrat.

“How exactly does one win a marquess at cards?” she asked.

“Quite easily, as it turns out,” her father said. “Found the Duke of Barrington playing whist at the Crimson, won his crumbling old London mansion, and he suggested I take his heir instead. I accepted on your behalf.”

At Alice’s stricken expression, he frowned. “Well? Aren’t you going to thank me? You weren’t exactly producing any proposals, my girl. Becoming a bit long in the tooth, I’d say.”

Seething, Alice reminded herself that her father probably thought he’d been doing her a favor. “Surely you can’t mean the Marquess of Hatherly, Papa,” she said through gritted teeth.

“The very gentleman.”

Worse and worse.

Alice had met the notorious Lord Hatherly at the Duchess of Osborne’s art exhibition last year. He’d more than lived up to his wild reputation, making a splashy entrance with a bosomy woman on each arm, reeking of decadence and power.

He’d commanded the room, insufferably full of himself, certain that every lady in the room would swoon at his feet.

Even more annoyingly, they had.

Lady Melinda had fainted dead away when he spoke to her.

Dizzy-headed thing.

For her part, Alice had made certain to make an impression of a very different sort. She’d given him a lecture on putrid fevers that he wouldn’t soon forget.

There was some slight reassurance in the fact that, thanks to her prudence and forethought, she’d already laid the groundwork for ensuring he’d never contemplate marrying her.

“Lord Hatherly is not interested in marriage in the slightest. Everyone knows that,” said Alice.

“Then his father shouldn’t have bargained him away.”

“Isn’t the duke mad? Can he be held responsible for his actions?” asked Alice.

“Didn’t seem mad,” her father replied. “Quite lucid. Entertained me with tales of his orchid-hunting expeditions.”