Home > The Return of the Duke (Once Upon a Dukedom #3)

The Return of the Duke (Once Upon a Dukedom #3)
Author: Lorraine Heath

 

Chapter 1

 

 

September 1874

 

Once upon a time, Marcus Stanwick had been heir apparent to the prestigious, exalted, and powerful Dukedom of Wolfford, born into a family that had been a favorite among royalty since the days of William the Conqueror.

Once upon a time, he’d had friends aplenty with whom he’d enjoyed carousing, imbibing the finest liquors, and wagering on the fastest horses. He was respected among his peers as well as his father’s and considered to be quite the catch by the ladies of the ton who vied for his attention. Adored, admired, and expected to live an easy and rewarding existence.

Once upon a time, he’d wanted for nothing and taken every aspect of his good fortune for granted, as his due.

But that was all before betrayal had shattered his life. Before the Crown unmercifully stripped his family of everything they possessed—including their good name—and condemned them to fight for their survival on the streets with nothing but their wits, courage, and determination. Before the father he’d once sought to impress was hanged for treason during the summer of 1873 and the genteel mother he’d loved had died shortly thereafter—a result of the unbearable shame and heartbreak of her husband being found guilty of plotting to assassinate Queen Victoria.

Before Marcus had become someone he hardly recognized, someone swallowed by fury, hatred, and a need for revenge, someone with a guiding purpose much darker than the frivolousness it had once been. Someone burning with a need for retribution.

It was that terrifying purpose that kept him awake at night and presently had him standing at the mullioned window in the sophisticatedly furnished parlor of the elegant terrace house. He fought not to catalog the plush carpets that it appeared few had walked upon, the rosewood credenza that sported not a single scratch, the exquisite and tasteful artwork that adorned the walls. He struggled not to wonder how much of it had been purchased by his dishonorable father for his notorious mistress—with an abundance of coins from the family coffers, back when the coffers had overflowed. Before they were barren of silver and gold. Before their contents and everything of importance were seized by the Crown.

For a little longer than a year, Marcus had avoided coming here, of confronting her. But desperation had finally driven him to knock upon her door. A well-appointed and stately butler—with a crooked and slightly off-kilter nose that hinted at a fight he’d possibly not won—had opened it and proclaimed the hour too late for visitors. Marcus had merely scoffed. The whore who lived within these walls would be accustomed to gentlemen arriving whenever the itch struck, no matter the hour’s proximity to midnight. Therefore, he’d simply given the servant a scathing glare and the words, “Fetch the mistress of this household,” his tone one that didn’t invite argument, one befitting a man who would one day be a duke. The tone he’d once used when his future was secure, and he’d known well the path upon which he trod and where it would lead. While none of those situations applied any longer, old habits were difficult to break.

Without further ado, he’d barreled past the startled gent to take up his vigil by the window. He would see his father’s former mistress. He wouldn’t leave until he garnered every iota of information she could provide that would assist him.

He’d only ever seen her once, and then from a distance, while his father was handing her up into a carriage. Sitting astride a black steed he no longer possessed, Marcus had followed the vehicle through the bustling London streets. He’d observed her entering this residence and when later he’d confronted his father, the scapegrace had admitted her leading role in his enjoyment of the night. Marcus had come to despise the woman for her part in deepening the cool disdain that had often marked his parents’ relationship, because after his heir had challenged him, the Duke of Wolfford had made no secret of his infidelity. The whole of London had soon learned he was cavorting with a woman young enough to be his daughter. As far as Marcus was aware, his father had never strayed from honoring his marriage vows until this brazen harlot had worked her wiles on him.

At that precise moment, the object of Marcus’s scorn swept gracefully into the room, immediately taking ownership of it. With her fiery red hair piled artfully on top of her head and held in place with pearl combs, a few strands dangling to tease her long swan-like neck, she was striking—and taller than he’d realized, only a few inches shy of his six feet and two. Highlighting the voluptuousness of her body, her crimson gown daringly revealed a good bit of her cleavage, clung to her ribs, cinched at her narrow waist, and flowed out over wide hips in a smoothly draping manner that hinted perhaps no petticoats resided beneath. A man could ride this woman hard, fast, rough, and she’d enthusiastically welcome his fervent attentions and return the favor.

It irritated the devil out of him because he understood why she would appeal to his father, to any man with blood coursing through his veins, blood she could cause to boil. Christ, she had his cock reacting with such swiftness that for all of a heartbeat he was light-headed. He wanted to plow a fist into the wall at his own body’s unexpected betrayal. But it was only animalistic lust, not desire, not want, not attraction. Since his tumble from grace, he’d possessed neither the time nor the temperament for fornication. Besides, the sort of women who would deign to lower themselves to be taken by the son of a traitor held no appeal to him. Unfortunately, this harlot did appeal. She was a female who understood her worth and flaunted it, a woman who wasn’t shy about giving the impression she knew her way well around a man’s body.

Her gaze traveled over him slowly and thoroughly, assessing his merits—causing him to straighten his spine, hating the notion that she might find him lacking in any manner—before she began striding toward a delicate rosewood sideboard that housed several crystal decanters and an assortment of glasses. “Marcus Stanwick. I believe your preference is scotch.”

Devil take her for knowing who he was as well as that little truth about him. But it boded well that if his sire had shared those intimate particulars of his heir then perhaps he’d also confided the pertinent specifics regarding his nefarious plans.

She poured the amber liquid into two tumblers, glided over as though she walked upon clouds, and extended one toward him. “I expected you sooner.”

Such conviction in her tone, such confidence. She was not a woman to cower before him and tell him everything he required and demanded to know. He was going to have to alter the strategy he’d considered employing when he’d thought she’d be impressed by—and perhaps a bit fearful of—who he’d once been. And he’d imagined she’d be more wary that his eyes revealed who he now was: a man who took what he wanted without shame or remorse. When he strode down the street, people avoided him as though he wore a sign about his neck: Approach at your own risk. But if she was aware of any of that, she appeared determined to ignore it.

She was more mature, older than he’d realized, somewhere north of thirty, he’d wager. As for himself, he’d only just reached his thirtieth year. With a measure of disgust at her for being so beautiful and himself for finding her so, he took her offering but let none of his emotions gush forth into his voice, keeping his tone flat and uncaring. “You have me at a disadvantage as I don’t know your name.”

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