To Capture a Duke's Heart

By: Jennifer McNare

Chapter 1

Scotland, 1856

“Good heavens, Penny, did you ever imagine that they would actually be as handsome as purported?” Eleanor Cunningham uttered in disbelief, her eyes round as saucers as she stared transfixed at the trio of gentlemen who’d just stepped from the elegant, black-lacquered traveling coach bearing the Ainsworth family crest and onto the Cunningham’s wide, graveled drive.

“Truly I did not think it possible,” Penny answered with a slight, negative shake of her head.

Watching from an upstairs window, eighteen-year-old Penelope Houghton stood similarly transfixed as she too looked down upon three of the most remarkably attractive gentlemen that she had ever laid eyes upon, the Ashcroft Angels. And while ‘twas true she’d heard many a tale of the infamous trio and their extraordinary good looks, she had always assumed that the accounts were at least somewhat exaggerated. Clearly, however, she had been mistaken. For seeing the illustrious lords with her very own eyes, it was readily apparent as to why many an awestruck female had declared the brothers, Gabriel, Rafael and Michael Ashcroft so aptly named, for all three were so divinely handsome that one could easily imagine that they had descended as angels from heaven, rather than delivered from the womb of a mere mortal. The only thing missing, she mused, gazing in wonder upon the trio standing below, backlit by the brilliant rays of the late-afternoon sun, was a golden halo perched atop each of their heads.

“That must be the duke,” Eleanor said, pointing to the tallest of the three gentlemen as he stepped forward to greet their hosts, Eleanor’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Gilchrist.

Penny nodded in agreement, aware that Gabriel Ashcroft, the sixth Duke of Ainsworth, was at twenty-six the eldest of the three Ashcroft siblings, two years older than his brothers, identical twins Rafael and Michael; and as the other two gentlemen were all but indistinguishable from one another it seemed a logical conclusion. She watched then as he stepped to the side, allowing each of his brothers to greet the earl and countess in turn.

Like her and her family, the duke and his brothers were in Scotland to attend the wedding of the Cunningham’s eldest daughter, twenty-year-old Eugenia to Philip Danbury, Viscount Hayford, heir to the Marquess of Farleigh, in two days’ time. And while their wedding could have easily been one of the premiere events of the upcoming Season, held in one of London’s grandest cathedrals and attended by hundreds of guests, the bride had simpler tastes. Thus, Eugenia had decided upon a relatively modest affair, choosing to marry her betrothed at the small village church near her childhood home with only a select group of close friends and family members invited to attend. It was due to her father’s longtime friendship with the Earl of Gilchrist that they had been included in that group, while the Ashcrofts had been invited due to the bosom friendship the duke and his brothers had long-shared with the groom.

Just then, as if he could somehow feel the weight of her eyes and thoughts upon him, the duke glanced upward, his gaze sweeping the front of the centuries-old castle before coming to rest upon the very window before which she and Eleanor presently stood.

Caught staring, Eleanor gasped in dismay and took an immediate step back. Penelope, however, seemed incapable of movement, her eyes riveted upon the striking beauty of the duke’s face, her breath catching in her chest as their gazes met and held. She stood rooted in place, utterly mesmerized as he tipped his head ever so slightly in her direction.

“Penny, whatever are you doing? Come away from the window,” Eleanor hissed as she reached out and grabbed Penelope’s wrist.

“Hmm?” Penny murmured, forcing her eyes from the duke’s striking visage as she reluctantly turned her gaze to Eleanor.

“Step back from the window!” Eleanor implored, her increasing anxiousness evident in her tone as she tugged upon Penny’s arm.

“Oh! Yes, yes, of course,” she replied as Eleanor gave another yank, hauling her away from the glass.

“Come, let’s go!”

Allowing Eleanor to pull her along whilst they traversed the narrow corridor in which numerous portraits of the Cunningham’s ancestors were displayed proudly upon the ancient stone walls, Penny struggled to regain her befuddled senses. Gracious, she mused, if the duke’s handsome features had such a dazzling effect upon her from a distance, she could only imagine what it would be like to behold such an extraordinarily attractive countenance up close. Would it be surreal, as if one was gazing upon the stunning perfection of a Michelangelo statue come to life, she wondered, or upon the beatific face of a Botticelli angel, perhaps? Or, in all likelihood, would the proximity serve to reveal some natural, human flaw?