Loving the Lost Duke(8)

By: Louise Allen

The crowd gave a sentimental collective sigh and they disentangled themselves. Ralph leaned in and shook his hand. ‘It is damned good to have you back, Cal, although I would hardly recognise you. When you left you were…’

‘Sickly, skinny and shy?’

Ralph’s mouth thinned at his mocking tone. ‘You were barely convalescent from that last bout of fever. But you have flourished in seven years, that much is evident.’

‘We cannot speak here – besides anything else, I must make my apologies to Lady Radlett for gate-crashing her ball. I saw the red carpet was down as I drove past and could not resist changing and coming right out again. I will call on you both tomorrow morning.’

Cal found a smile as he turned and left them to make his way towards the faintly-remembered matron who was advancing on him, plumes nodding, Roman nose twitching with well-bred curiosity. ‘Lady Radlett, will you forgive me? I have barely arrived in Town and could not think of a better reintroduction to London Society than your famed May Ball.’

‘My dear Duke! Enchanted and honoured.’ She beamed as he lifted her hand to his lips. He had no qualms about imposing on her hospitality – the return of the Lost Duke would make her ball the talk of the Season and she would revel in every moment of the attention.

‘We are all agog to hear about your travels. Dear Lord Peter and Mr Thorne have kept us all abreast of your journeyings from your wonderful letters, but that is no substitute to hearing it from your own lips. America! The Arctic wastes! New Zealand – or was it Australia? Or are those the same thing? Such a long way away… The South Seas! India! And to be gone for seven years – but it was obviously such a wise decision, for it seems to have worked wonders for your health.’ Her gaze slid over his chest, his shoulders, in frank appraisal.

Cal responded automatically while he digested that piece of information. His uncle had been so very open about his wanderings, had he? Probably wise to prevent nasty rumours, the sort of gossip that might follow when a young duke leaves the country immediately after attaining his majority and release from his uncle’s guardianship and control. Even more so when the duke in question had been sickly and accident-prone throughout childhood and adolescence and the uncle in question was his heir to title, power and vast estates.

‘Indeed, England never seemed very healthy for me,’ he agreed as guests began to crowd round to welcome him back. ‘But I have been away too long and it is good to be back home again and to see my uncle and cousin in particular. I am looking forward to getting to know my family once again.’

While I work out which of them was trying to kill me.

Chapter Two - Where Sophie Damages the Duke

‘I do not know whether to shake your hand or throw the fire irons at you.’ His uncle paced across the rug in the centre of his drawing room, stopped and glared at Cal from under eyebrows that had grown even bushier than he remembered. ‘Why the devil did you take off like that? Why have you been away so long?’

‘I left you a very full letter.’ Cal dropped uninvited into the nearest armchair and crossed one leg over the other. He really must get some new boots.

‘Indeed you did. An elegantly composed missive of thanks for my care for your affairs, an outline of your plans and the helpful suggestion that departing like that would prevent “wearisome brangling.”’

‘Well, it did. If I had mentioned the my plans first we would still be discussing them now,’ Cal said mildly. ‘I needed to stand on my own two feet. I needed to see something beyond the four walls of Calderbrook. I needed some sunshine.’

‘In the Arctic?’ Ralph demanded from the other side of the room.

‘That was later. Besides, the sun shines all day and night in the summer there.’ His uncle was still frowning. ‘You had looked after me diligently, for so long, both as my uncle and my guardian. On my twenty first birthday you were free of the burden and I… I had never been able to rely on myself alone. I felt I was stifling under all that concern. It was invigorating to be free.’

‘A fine way to thank my father for his care of you, I must say.’ Ralph grumbled.