A Duke by Any Other Name
Book 4 in the Rogues to Riches series
A difficult duke, a determined lady, and too many secrets.
Nathaniel Rothmere has bided for years in solitude at the Rothhaven ducal seat on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. He carefully cultivates a reputation for secrecy and ill-humor, such that most of his neighbors only catch a glimpse of him has he gallops his demon-black steed hellbent when darkness falls.
Lady Althea Wentworth has little patience for grumpy dukes (her brother is one), but she needs Nathaniel’s guidance as she seeks entree into Yorkshire society. Reclusive, difficult Rothmere has figured out the secret to commanding respect from one and all, while Althea has failed at that same quest during multiple London seasons. Nathaniel at first refuses to help Althea, but solitude on the moors has become a trial, and Althea commands Nathaniel’s respect, so what’s a lonely, brooding duke to do?
Enjoy An Excerpt
The usual polite means of gaining an introduction to Nathaniel, Duke of Rothmere, have failed Lady Althea Wentworth utterly. Being a resourceful woman, she’s turned to unusual measures to achieve her goal…
Althea heard her guest before she saw him. Rothhaven’s arrival was presaged by a rapid beat of hooves coming not up her drive, but rather, directly across the park that surrounded Lynley Vale manor.
A large horse created that kind of thunder, one disdaining the genteel canter for a hellbent gallop. From her parlor window Althea could see the beast approaching, and her first thought was that only a terrified animal traveled at such speed.
But no. Horse and rider cleared the wall beside the drive in perfect rhythm, swerved onto the verge, and continued right up—good God, they aimed straight for the fountain. Althea could not look away as the black horse drew closer and closer to unforgiving marble and splashing water.
“Mary, Mother of God.”
Another smooth leap—the fountain was five feet high if it was an inch—and a foot-perfect landing, followed by an immediate check of the horse’s speed. The gelding came down to a frisking, capering trot, clearly proud of himself and ready for even greater challenges.
The rider stroked the horse’s neck, and the beast calmed and hung his head, sides heaving. A treat was offered and another pat, before one of Althea’s grooms bestirred himself to take the horse. Rothhaven—for that could only be the dread duke himself—paused on the front steps long enough to remove his spurs, whip off his hat, and run a black-gloved hand through hair as dark as hell’s tarpit.
“The rumors are true,” Althea murmured. Rothhaven was built on the proportions of the Vikings of old, but their fair coloring and blue eyes had been denied him. He glanced up, as if he knew Althea would be spying, and she drew back.
His gaze was colder than a Yorkshire night in January, which fit exactly with what Althea had heard of him.
She moved from the window and took the wing chair by the hearth, opening a book chosen for this singular occasion. She had dressed carefully—elegantly but without too much fuss—and styled her hair with similar consideration. Rothhaven gave very few people the chance to make even a first impression on him, a feat Althea admired.
Voices drifted up from the foyer, followed by the tread of boots on the stair. Rothhaven moved lightly for such a grand specimen, and his voice rumbled like distant cannon. A soft tap on the door, then Strensall was announcing Nathaniel, His Grace of Rothhaven. The duke did not have to duck to come through the doorway, but it was a near thing.
Althea set aside her book, rose, and curtsied to a precisely deferential depth and not one inch lower.
“Welcome to Lynley Vale, Your Grace. A pleasure to meet you. Strensall, the tea, and don’t spare the trimmings.”
Strensall bolted for the door.
“I do not break bread with mine enemy.” Rothhaven stalked over to Althea and swept her with a glower. “No damned tea.”
His eyes were a startling green, set against swooping dark brows and features as angular as the crags and tors of Yorkshire’s moors. He brought with him the scents of heather and horse, a lovely combination. His cravat remained neatly pinned with a single bar of gleaming gold despite his mad dash across the countryside.
“I will attribute Your Grace’s lack of manners to the peckishness that can follow exertion. A tray, Strensall.”
The duke leaned nearer. “Shall I threaten to curse poor Strensall with nightmares, should he bring a tray?”
“That would be unsporting.” Althea sent her goggling butler a glance, and he scampered off. “You are reputed to have a temper, but then, if folk claimed that my mere passing caused milk to curdle and babies to colic, I’d be a tad testy myself. No one has ever accused you of dishonorable behavior.”
“Nor will they, while you, my lady, have stooped so low as to unleash the hogs of war upon my hapless estate.” He backed away not one inch, and this close Althea caught a more subtle fragrance. Lily of the valley or jasmine. Very faint, elegant, and unexpected, like the moss-green of his eyes.
“You cannot read, perhaps,” he went on, “else you’d grasp that ‘we will not be entertaining for the foreseeable future’ means neither you nor your livestock are welcome at Rothhaven Hall.”
“Hosting a short call from your nearest neighbor would hardly be entertaining,” Althea countered. “Shall we be seated?”
“I will not be seated,” he retorted. “Retrieve your damned pigs from my orchard, madam, or I will send them to slaughter before the week is out.”
“Is that where my naughty ladies got off to?” Althea took her wing chair. “They haven’t been on an outing in ages. I suppose the spring air inspired them to seeing the sights. Last autumn they took a notion to inspect the market, and in summer they decided to attend Sunday services. Most of our neighbors find my herd’s social inclinations amusing.”
“I might be amused, were your herd not at the moment rooting through my orchard uninvited. To allow stock of those dimensions to wander is irresponsible, and why a duke’s sister is raising hogs entirely defeats my powers of imagination.”
Because Rothhaven had never been poor and never would be. “Do have a seat, Your Grace. I’m told only the ill-mannered pace the parlor like a house tabby who needs to visit the garden.”
He turned his back to Althea—very rude of him—though he appeared to require a moment to marshal his composure. She counted that a small victory, for she had needed many such moments since acquiring a title, and her composure yet remained as unruly as her sows on a pretty spring day.
Though truth be told, the lady swine had had some encouragement regarding the direction of their latest outing.
Rothhaven turned to face Althea, the fire in his gaze banked to burning disdain. “Will you or will you not retrieve your wayward pigs from my land?”
“I refuse to discuss this with a man who cannot observe the simplest conversational courtesy.” She waved a hand at the opposite wing chair, and when that provoked a drawing up of the magnificent ducal height, she feared His Grace would stalk from the room.
Instead he took the chair, whipping out the tails of his riding jacket like Lucifer arranging his coronation robes.
“Thank you,” Althea said. “When you march about like that, you give a lady a crick in her neck. Your orchard is at least a mile from my home farm.”
“And downwind, more’s the pity. Perhaps you raise pigs to perfume the neighborhood with their scent?”
“No more than you keep horses, sheep, or cows for the same purpose, Your Grace. Or maybe your livestock hides the pervasive odor of brimstone hanging about Rothhaven Hall?”
A muscle twitched in the duke’s jaw.
The tea tray arrived before Althea could further provoke her guest, and in keeping with standing instructions, the kitchen had exerted its skills to the utmost. Strensall placed an enormous silver tray before Althea—the good silver, not the fancy silver—bowed, and withdrew.
“How do you take your tea, Your Grace?”
“Plain, except I won’t be staying for tea. Assure me that you’ll send your swineherd over to collect your sows in the next twenty-four hours and I will take my leave of you.”
Not so fast. Having coaxed Rothhaven into making a call, Althea wasn’t about to let him win free so easily.
“I cannot give you those assurances, Your Grace, much as I’d like to. I’m very fond of those ladies and they are quite valuable. They are also particular.”
Rothhaven straightened a crease in his breeches. They fit him exquisitely, though Althea had never before seen black riding attire.
“The whims of your livestock are no affair of mine, Lady Althea.” His tone said that Althea’s whims were a matter of equal indifference to him. “You either retrieve them or the entire shire will be redolent of smoking bacon.”
He was bluffing, albeit convincingly. Nobody butchered hogs in early spring, for any number of reasons. “Do you know what my sows are worth?”
He quoted a price per pound for pork on the hoof that was accurate to the penny.
“Wrong,” Althea said, pouring him a cup of tea and holding it out to him. “Those are my best breeders. I chose their grandmamas and mamas for hardiness and the ability to produce sizable, healthy litters. A pig in the garden can be the difference between a family surviving through a hard winter or starving, if that pig can also produce large, thriving litters. She can live on scraps, she needs very little care, and she will see a dozen piglets raised to weaning twice a year without putting any additional strain on the family budget.”
The duke looked at the steaming cup of tea, then at Althea, then back at the cup. This was the best China black she could offer, served on the good porcelain in her personal parlor. If he disdained her hospitality now, she might…cry?
He would not be swayed by tears, but he apparently could be tempted by a perfect cup of tea.
“You raise hogs as a charitable undertaking?” he asked.
“I raise them for all sorts of reasons, and I donate many to the poor of the parish.”
“Why not donate money?” He took a cautious sip of his tea. “One can spend coin on what’s most necessary, and many of the poor have no gardens.”
“If they lack a garden, they can send the children into the countryside to gather rocks and build drystone walls, can’t they? After a season or two, the pig will have rendered the soil of its enclosure very fertile indeed, and the enclosure can be moved. Coin, by contrast, can be stolen.”
Another sip. “From the poor box?”
“Of course from the poor box. Or that money can be wasted on Bibles while children go hungry.”
This was the wrong conversational direction, too close to Althea’s heart, too far from her dreams.
“My neighbor is a radical,” Rothhaven mused. “And she conquers poverty and ducal privacy alike with an army of sows. Nonetheless, those hogs are where they don’t belong, and possession is nine-tenths of the law. Move them or I will do as I see fit with them.”
“If you harm my pigs or disperse that herd for sale, I will sue you for conversion. You gained control of my property legally—pigs will wander—but if you waste those pigs or convert my herd for your own gain, I will take you to court.”
Althea put three sandwiches on a plate and offered it to him. She’d lose her suit for conversion, not because she was wrong on the law—she was correct—but because he was a duke, and not just any duke. He was the much-treasured dread duke of Rothhaven Hall, a local fixture of pride. The squires in the area were more protective of Rothhaven’s consequence than they were of their own.
Lawsuits were scandalous, however, especially between neighbors or family members. They were also messy, involving appearances in court and meetings with solicitors and barristers. A man who seldom left his property and refused to receive callers would avoid those tribulations at all costs.
Rothhaven set down the plate. “What must I do to inspire you to retrieve your valuable sows? I have my own swineherd, you know. A capable old fellow who has been wrangling hogs for more than half a century. He can move your livestock to the king’s highway.”
Althea hadn’t considered this possibility, but she dared not blow retreat. “My sows are partial to their own swineherd. They’ll follow him anywhere, though after rioting about the neighborhood on their own, they will require time to recover. They’ve been out dancing all night, so to speak, and must have a lie-in.”
Althea could not fathom why any sensible female would comport herself thus, but every spring she dragged herself south, and subjected herself to the same inanity for the duration of the London Season.
This year would be different.
“So send your swineherd to fetch them tomorrow,” Rothhaven said, taking a bite of a beef sandwich. “My swineherd will assist, and I need never darken your door again—nor you, mine.” He sent her a pointed look, one that scolded without saying a word.
Althea’s brother Quinn had learned to deliver such looks, and his duchess had honed the raised eyebrow to a delicate art.
While I am a laughingstock. A memory came to Althea, of turning down the room with a peer’s heir, a handsome, well-liked man tall enough to look past her shoulder. The entire time they’d been waltzing, he’d been rolling his eyes at his friends, affecting looks of long-suffering martyrdom, and holding Althea up as an object of ridicule, even as he’d hunted her fortune and made remarks intended to flatter.
She had not realized his game until her own sister, Constance, had reported it to her in the carriage on the way home. The hostess had not intervened, nor had any chaperone or gentleman called the young dandy to account. He had thanked Althea for the dance and escorted her to her next partner with all the courtesy in the world, and she’d been the butt of another joke.
“I cannot oblige you, Your Grace,” Althea said. “My swineherd is visiting his sister in York and won’t be back until week’s end. I do apologize for the delay, though if turning my pigs loose in your orchard has occasioned this introduction, then I’m glad for it. I value my privacy too, but I am at my wit’s end and must consult you on a matter of some delicacy.”
He gestured with half a sandwich. “All the way at your wit’s end? What has caused you to travel that long and arduous trail?”
Polite Society. Wealth. Standing. All the great boons Althea had once envied and had so little ability to manage.
“I want a baby,” she said, not at all how she’d planned to state her situation.
Rothhaven put down his plate slowly, as if a wild creature had come snorting and snapping into the parlor. “Are you utterly demented? One doesn’t announce such a thing, and I am in no position to…” He stood, his height once again creating an impression of towering disdain. “I will see myself out.”
Althea rose as well, and though Rothhaven could toss her behind the sofa one-handed, she made her words count.
“Do not flatter yourself, Your Grace. Only a fool would seek to procreate with a petulant, moody, withdrawn, arrogant specimen such as you. I want a family, exactly the goal every girl is raised to treasure. There’s nothing shameful or inappropriate about that. Until I learn to comport myself as the sister of a duke ought, I have no hope of making an acceptable match. You are a duke. If anybody understands the challenge I face, you do. You have five hundred years of breeding and family history to call upon, while I…”
Oh, this was not the eloquent explanation she’d rehearsed, and Rothhaven’s expression had become unreadable.
He gestured with a large hand. “While you…?”
Althea had tried inviting him to tea, then to dinner. She’d tried calling upon him. She’d ridden the bridle paths for hours in hopes of meeting him by chance, only to see him galloping over the moors, heedless of anything so tame as a bridle path.
She’d called on him twice, only to be turned away at the door and chided by letter twice for presuming even that much. Althea had only a single weapon left in her arsenal, a lone arrow in her quiver of strategies, the one least likely to yield the desired result.
She had the truth. “I need your help,” she said, subsiding into her chair. “I haven’t anywhere else to turn. If I’m not to spend the rest of my life as a laughingstock, if I’m to have a prayer of finding a suitable match, I very much need your help.”
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End of Excerpt
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April 28, 2020