Home > The Duke Alone

The Duke Alone
Author: Christi Caldwell


Chapter 1

London, England

December 1813

Neighbors, servants, and passersby to Ten Yardley Court could—and had—long attested that the din emitted by the familial household of the Earl and Countess of Abington was enough to rival a raucous affair at Vauxhall and the most competitive, closest horse match held at Ascot, combined.

Then again, such was to be expected of a noble family consisting of three sons and three daughters born of Scottish origin, and the hapless mother and father desperately attempting to be heard over their unruly offspring.

It was why all had breathed a collective sigh of relief when that same family had announced plans to vacate their London townhouse and retire to the country until long overdue renovations to their home had been completed.

It was also why those sighs of relief had fast turned to groans of regret as the timeline of work had been shifted to the winter months, when all of London went quiet and the peers retired to their respective country seats.

The noise this particular evening was even more resounding than on most others. Which was saying a good deal indeed about the McQuoid household.

Or perhaps it was just that Lady Myrtle McQuoid, gone four years and returned only two days from Mrs. Belden’s Finishing School, had been removed from her family for so long that she’d forgotten how voices swelled as her kin competed to be heard, and how booming laughter or high-pitched whines of annoyance rose above the blur of the chatter.

At that moment, Myrtle stood on the landing above the foyer and assessed the bustling activity below.

Servants scurried about with trunks and valises atop their broad shoulders, making a march to the wide, double front doors that hung open. Her younger siblings—a nine-year-old sister, Fleur, and a ten-year-old brother, Quillon—rushed about, giggling, as they hid from Myrtle’s young cousins, also aged ten, who now visited for the Christmastide Season.

As they did every Christmastide Season.

They, along with the rest of their many siblings and parents, Mr. and Mrs. Francis Smith, Myrtle’s aunt and uncle.

And just as at every family gathering before it, Myrtle’s eldest sister, Cassia, broke off and paired herself with cousins Meghan and Linnie. Fleur and Quillon joined up with near-in-age twin cousins Andromena and Oleander. While Myrtle’s eldest brothers, Dallin, the future earl, and Arran, rode and played billiards or did—as they referred to them—all the gentlemanly things with their male cousins, Brone and Campbell. Or, at least, Arran took part when he was not traveling.

Through it all, Myrtle remained alone. Invisible.

Nor was her forgotten state a product of the fact she’d been gone these past years. Rather, she’d always been left out of the melee. As a young child, she’d chafed at being the forgotten one. She’d hated the fun her family members had enjoyed, only because she’d remained on the fringes, wishing to be part of it all. Determined to make herself be seen, Myrtle had gone out of her way to carry out every wicked prank on her kin, and to be as loud as she possibly could.

Which also, no doubt, accounted for one of the reasons she’d been sent off to finishing school and not kept around with a governess as her elder sister had.

And hating that miserable finishing school, Myrtle had done absolutely everything within her power to prove herself a lady so she might get out of there as quickly as possible.

She’d stayed out of mischief—or at least carried it out in a clandestine enough way to have evaded the miserable headmistress’s notice.

She’d attended to her lessons with a diligence and solemnity, laughing about the absurdity of it all only under the covers with the other girls, who’d hated that place as much as Myrtle had.

She’d dropped more flawless curtsies than she could count.

Had perfected her stitches and singing.

Well, perhaps not her singing. Mrs. Belden had cringed and banged her cane, accusing Myrtle of having the tones of a drowning cat trying to scratch her way out of a metal tub. And even as Myrtle had strenuously disagreed with that harsh assessment, she’d not challenged the miserable old biddy, but instead had focused on playing the pianoforte—at the appropriate tempo and volume.

She’d learned to perform steps of the quadrille La Boulangère and even the scandalous waltz—as best she was able to without a male partner leading.

Along with the rules of propriety and decorum, she’d been schooled on needlework and the practical study of household management. She’d learned and practiced her discourse with other students and instructors, in both English and French—always speaking on topics suitable for polite discussion when she made her Come Out this spring.

Through it all, Myrtle had conducted herself with grace and aplomb.

But this? This day and this moment were pushing Myrtle in every way, as through the roar of the household activity she threatened to erupt, undoing everything she’d done to get out of Mrs. Belden’s.

From her central vantage point, she searched the bustling crowd of servants below.

A young maid approached, and to make herself heard over the din, Myrtle called out to her loudly. “Do you know where my mother is?”

“No, miss,” the unfamiliar young woman responded, and then dropping a curtsy, she hastened around Myrtle.

Myrtle followed the maid’s descent to the marble foyer, where Hanes, the family butler, stood in wait, directing the maid amidst the commotion.

Another servant rushed past—this time a footman.

Myrtle stretched out a hand, almost wishing to catch him like a spotted trout in her family’s ponds and hold on so he’d have no choice but to look at her and answer. “Excuse me, I’m looking for my mother.” Her mother, who ruled the roost in this household and, according to Myrtle’s doting father, the world. “Can you point me toward her?”

He dropped his stare to the floor. “I cannot say, my lady.” A ruddy flush stained his cheeks, and he stepped quickly around her . . . and fled.

Myrtle rocked back on her heels.

He could not say?

He could not. Nor could any of the previous six young men and women to whom she’d posed her questions.

And though she prided herself on being quite clever and intelligent, it wouldn’t take much deduction from a person with even half her wit to gather that the staff had been instructed to avoid her.

Nay, more specifically, they’d been advised to hide their mistress.

Myrtle headed downstairs and attempted to wheedle an answer from four more servants before she caught sight of someone who could help.

No matter how inadvertently that may be.

“Aunt Leslie!” she called loudly, for her tiny, heavily rounded, bespectacled aunt and godmother was headed out one door and over to the adjacent chambers her eldest daughter was invariably assigned every holiday house party.

Bypassing a pair of servants with a trunk between them—with Myrtle’s trunk between them—Myrtle rushed to intercept her aunt. “Aunt Leslie. Have you seen my mother?” she asked without preamble when she reached the frizzy-haired woman.

“She is in your chambers, packing,” her aunt said and then let herself inside. “There you are,” she said to whichever one of her kin she’d been looking for. “I told you we must . . .” Aunt Leslie’s words faded as she shut the door behind her.

Knocked back on her heels once more, Myrtle stared at the panel. “Packing?” she repeated aloud.

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