The Dreadful Duke
Book 1 in the Bad Heir Day Tales series
He’d rather carry hod in hell…
Finn Cathcart, an increasingly successful sculptor, is having a perfectly fine time on the Continent cavorting with alabaster nymphs and marble goddesses (so to speak), when he’s informed that a ducal title awaits him back in England. The same family who disowned Finn’s father now needs an heir to prevent all their wealth from falling into Crown’s greedy hands.
…She’d rather he did too.
Wilhelmina Cathcart is the widow of the previous ducal heir, and she has no patience with fledgling peers who come grumbling to their honors. Mina has a daughter to raise, meddling family to manage, and no time to explain Mayfair society to a stubborn, backward, contrary duke… even if he is charming and a good listener. Mina and Finn are on the point of admitting a powerful attraction when an enemy close at hand threatens to ruin their hope of a happily ever after. They will have to work together, and put aside both well earned pride and treasured prejudices, if their shared dream is to bloom into a shared future.
Enjoy An Excerpt
“I am not your duke. Must I resort to profanity?” Finlay Cathcart withdrew his hand from the blessed comfort of the hot towel and took up a dry flannel from a stack on the mantel. The left hand was the worst, though the right was also growing temperamental. His shoulders and elbows had been taking up the chorus this winter as well.
“Swear all you like,” Leopold St. Didier replied. “As the Duke of Huntleigh you can start a new fashion in vulgar expostulations, but all the cursing in the world will not relieve you of your title.”
Finn had consulted his solicitors on that topic. To get free of the ducal encumbrance, he’d have to die or commit a hanging felony. Both would be bad for business, especially the dying option.
Bad for morale too, and Finn guarded his morale jealously. “I will be the least aristocratic duke ever to not prance around in his coronation robes.” Finn tossed the damp flannel into the wicker basket by the door and took up the iron poker from the hearth stand.
St. Didier, a prudent soul, found it expedient to study the street below from the safety of the window across the study. “What is the gravamen of your objection to your inherited honors? Do you despise all dukes equally or only the ones in your own family?”
Gravamen. Fancy term for basis, essence, foundation. Finn had never heard the word pronounced before, but now that he had, he could add it to his stash of toplofty blather. He always picked up one or two good new words from St. Didier, and the man was nothing if not elegant.
Sketchable, though one didn’t render a duchess’s professional snoop in marble.
Finn poked air into the fire, tossed on another square of peat, and held his hands out to the flames. “I have no use for the aristocracy, the monarchy, the penny press, or the preachers. Parasites the lot of them, exceeded by only Parliament for uselessness. Give me a block of high quality Carrara and I’m a happy man. A crumbling stone wall has more of my respect than your rubbishing dukes. That wall held up through ages of hard winters and broiling summers, and fights every season for its dignity. You’ve said your little piece St. Didier—again—and now you’d best be on your way before it begins to snow.”
That’s what the throbbing joints of the left hand were announcing: Heavy weather on the way. Good sculpting weather, when a fellow could stay in his studio for days, unbothered by solicitors, callers, or importunate old friends.
“I don’t mind a little snow,” St. Didier said. “You should at least meet your family.”
Finn fisted his right hand and got a shooting pain up his arm for that stupidity. “Those people make a mockery of the term.”
“So you’ve said, but you’ve yet to tell me why. If there’s some issue to resolve, an apology in order, a sizeable sum donated to a charity of your choosing…?” St. Didier let those possibilities drift about the study. He was a quiet man, tallish and muscular but not the sort of brute to be mistaken for a stone mason turned sculptor. Hair not quite as dark as Finn’s own sable locks, dark eyes—probably brown in sunlight—and not given to smiling.
Finn respected St. Didier’s tenacity and his self-possession every bit as much as he despised the man’s employer.
“Go away,” Finn said, facing his guest. “I will not oblige your request and it would take a larger and meaner man than you, St. Didier, to force me to do anything.” Ever again.
“Excessive force is seldom an optimal strategy,” St. Didier replied. “Has a way of haunting those who rely on it. What do you want, Your Grace? What would persuade you to at least meet with the duchess and your late cousin’s mother and widow?”
There was force—taking a sledgehammer to a block of stone—and there was force—using a sharp chisel to tap strategically at the same stone, until all manner of possibilities emerged where plain rock had been.
St. Didier was a tapper with infinite patience, but then, so was Finn, usually.
“What I want,” Finn said, “is for you to leave and never come back. Now be a good magic fairy and grant my wish, hmm?”
St. Didier approached the fire though he stopped a good two yards from where Finn stood. “If the thought of tea with the duchess is too intimidating, then meet with your cousin’s widow.”
“No.” The widow would be worse than the old duchess, all weedy and weepy.
“Then let’s have tea with the duchess. She’s looking forward to it, in fact.”
Finn’s temper, which had once been formidable, threatened to lumber forth from the cave where it hibernated.
“All the more reason to refuse. If that woman were begging from the depths of hell for a glass of water I’d drink it in front of her and congratulate Lucifer on running a fine establishment.” Had considered sculpting that very scene and titling the piece Restitution.
“You hate Her Grace?”
Finn considered the question because St. Didier seemed genuinely curious. “Hatred creates a connection, between the loathed object and person doing the loathing. I hated the man to whom I was originally apprenticed and he well deserved the sentiment. I refuse to taint my soul in such a manner where the Duchess of Huntleigh is concerned. She is a matter of complete, stultifying indifference to me.”
Stultifying was a recent addition to the word hoard. Finn had picked that one up from a novel and tried it out on Pritchard, who could be relied on to ruthlessly correct faulty pronunciation.
St. Didier didn’t half begin to start to see, but perhaps he’d get the hell out anyway. Consult his tea leaves and club gossips, and take up harassing some other reluctant recruit to the ranks of the peerage. That was apparently what St. Didier did—found long lost heirs or credible facsimiles thereof.
“Do you know what will happen if you allow the Huntleigh fortune to languish, Your Grace?”
Tap, tap, tap. “I’ll sleep more soundly, you will cease pestering me, and the angels of justice will hold me in fondest regard. Care for a drink?” Finn would have preferred tea, but that would mean summoning Pritchard. Pritchard had a way of lingering and lurking that would not do, given present company.
“Brandy would be appreciated.” St. Didier wasn’t smiling exactly, but those dark eyes had acquired a hint of humor. Yes, offering the man a drink immediately after telling him to leave wasn’t exactly consistent behavior, but for Finn to pour himself a tot and offer none to his guest would have been rude.
Then too, Finn should have offered the duchess’s tame wolf a drink first thing, and a tray with sandwiches and fussy cakes, which would necessitate fifteen minutes of inane chat before anything substantive was said.
Truly, polite society was a tribulation to any person of sense.
“I have Armagnac,” Finn said. He kept a larger selection in the studio proper, which was through the door behind the desk. St. Didier had never seen the studio, nor would he.
“Armagnac will do nicely. Did you do these sketches?”
He was frankly gawking at the pages on the desk, and managed to make his nosiness look like casual curiosity. The brute can sketch! Who knew?
“I did.” Finn poured two generous portions and remembered to nose his drink—that was the term Pritchard has used—and to wait for his guest to take the first sip.
“Excellent vintage,” St. Didier said. “May I ask where you came by it?”
“You know perfectly well that this is form Fournier’s shop, just as you knew I’d be in today, and you know I have commissions to see to. Wasting my time—again—is badly done, St. Didier.”
“So it is. Very well, then, I will tell you what will happen if you continue to ignore good fortune most men would leap at.”
“Most men are fools.”
“No argument there, but our topic is the fate of the Cathcart family should you neglect the duties of that have befallen you. First, the talk will start.”
“The talk never stops in Mayfair. You’ll have to do better than that.” Finn sipped his drink, trying for the elegant nonchalance St. Didier exuded so effortlessly.
And failing, of course. A sculptor’s hands were callused, powerful, and often aching. The opposite of elegant.
“This talk will be vicious, and aimed at innocents. Your cousin’s aging mama, who never did you any harm, will lose her status as a respected hostess. Your cousin’s widow, while financially secure enough, will fade from society entirely, and what does a widow have but her place in society?”
She had freedom. Finn had been assured of that fact by the many Mayfair widows eager to take a brute to bed. They would of course never invite him to dinner, and barely acknowledged him on the bridle paths, so he’d categorically declined their other invitations.
Which had only made them more fixed on their goal, as if he’d become some fashionably bonnet they simply had to try on.
“My cousin’s widow,” Finn said, “married the ducal heir with every expectation that she’d become the next Duchess of Huntleigh. Instead she has financial security in life and a courtesy title of which she is doubtless inordinately proud. I will manage a contented existence without ever making her acquaintance, thank you.”
St. Didier was dawdling with his drink, of course. That’s likely what the near-smile had been about. Finn’s attempt at hospitality had been a tactical error.
“Fine,” St. Didier said. “You have no sympathy for Wilhelmina Cathcart. You haven’t met her, and for her part, she has had enough of sympathy, but what of the girl?”
Despite the roaring fire in the hearth, despite the Armagnac warming Finn’s belly, cold prickled over his arms and nape.
St. Didier moved behind the desk again, and pointedly examined the sketch on the blotter.
Another tactical error: Finn had not offered his guest a seat. For the duration of this interview, St. Didier had been wandering about the study, pretending to take in the view, to admire the art on the walls, though the whole time, he’d been looking for weapons.
And he’d found one.
“Your cousin William left behind a daughter. She’s five or six. Her name is Emily. Pretty little thing, but she’s become withdrawn. She and the old duke were surprisingly close, and her papa doted on her. Now she’s doubly bereft.”
Finn said one of the stupidest, most blockheaded, ignorant things ever to come out of his mouth. “Children are resilient.”
St. Didier sent him an unreadable look. “As you had to be resilient?”
Pain burned up Finn’s right arm again, and he realized he was clenching his fingers around his glass. He set the drink on the sideboard.
“I’ll show you out. Now.”
St. Didier put his libation on the sideboard as well. He was polite, for a wolf, but his manners were simply more weapons. Did the man but know it, he and his manners were at risk for a precipitous trip through the window overlooking the street.
“Who is she?” St. Didier said. “The girl in the sketch?”
“She’s dead. You are not welcome here again, St. Didier. And please bear in mind that if I’m convicted of a felony—say cold-blooded murder by strangulation of a pestilential representative of the Duchess of Haughtiness—the title and the entailed wealth will disappear from consideration altogether.”
St. Didier’s brows rose, and to see him react at all was a consolation. He’d clearly not expected Finn to research the legalities, but that had been Finn’s first step in dealing with this whole Cathcart-induced megrim.
Well, the second step, after opening a bottle of smuggled Scottish whisky.
“Emily Cathcart is a small child,” St. Didier said, pulling a pair of gloves from a pocket and tugging them on. “Small, innocent, without blame. She will be an outcast, an object of talk, her whole life blighted by your stubbornness. William’s solicitors will rob her blind, and her mother can do little about it when you refuse to acknowledge a connection. If only you would—”
Finn sliced his hand through the air and once again wrestled his temper back into its cave. “I will see you out, St. Didier, and I will not receive you again. Tell the old besom you’ve failed, that your best efforts resulted in defeat. Another attempt on your part to disturb my hard won peace will result in my moving my studio to Edinburgh, where I’ve longed to be for years. Away from England, in the company of my sainted mother’s people, far from London. America intrigues me too, in fact. I’m told Canada is lovely and they have no meddling duchesses there.”
He held the door and St. Didier strolled from the room. Finn accompanied him past boring old Greek and Roman imitation busts—clients expected a sculptor’s home to have busts, apparently—and thriving ferns, plush carpets, vaulted ceilings, and a spacious foyer.
Bloody lot of wasted space when children slept in church doorways. One didn’t say that. According to Pritchard one didn’t even admit the word bloody existed.
“You are a Cathcart,” St. Didier said as Finn all but tossed his hat at him. “They are Cathcarts. Those women are as stubborn and proud as you are, and that small child has never done you any discourtesy. Emily has known much grief, and you are happy—eager—to add to her suffering. I understand anger, Your Grace, better than you might think, but I do not understand intentional cruelty to a child.”
Neither did I. Finn shoved St. Didier’s walking stick at him. “Out. Now.” He wrestled with his conscience for a moment, then concluded he could afford one more display of manners. “Please.”
St. Didier bowed and took his leave, and for all his appearance gave away, his call might have involved nothing more than a pleasant cup of tea and discussion of another commission for some viscounts’ conservatory fountain.
Finn closed the door and locked it. On a previous occasion, St. Didier had used the old, “I forgot my gloves trick,” to return when he’d spotted Finn strolling up the garden walkway.
Devious and persistent, damn the man. “Pritchard!”
The butler cum valet cum finishing governess cum universal authority was never far from Finn’s ambit. Pritchard was, like Finn, about thirty, dark-haired, and blue eyed, but the resemblance ended there. Pritchard was slender, stood a mere six feet, and conveyed the sense that he’d never hoisted anything heavier than a wine bottle.
He was damned quick with his fists, though, and quicker with a scold.
“Sir?” Pritchard emerged from below stairs. Finn had no idea what went on down there, but meals were hot, sheets were clean, and hearths kept free of ashes. That, Pritchard, insisted, was proof the household was running well and happily.
“St. Didier was here on his usual doomed mission, but if he returns, I am not home. I am never home. I do not exist.”
Pritchard’s gaze slid to the mirror over the sideboard, which would have given him a view of Finn’s wide shoulders and muscular back. And yes, Finn’s hair had been needing a trim for the past couple of years or so.
“Very good, sir. Will there be anything else?”
This was Pritchard’s public-rooms act. When a chamber maid could come bustling up the steps, Pritchard was all politesse and dignity. Behind a closed door, he became the avenging tutor from purgatory, sent to bedevil Finn into learning about forks, fashionable French phrases, and how to drink tea without betraying a barbarian upbringing.
“A bottle of whisky and a few meat pies, please. I’ll be in the study.”
Pritchard’s features composed themselves into a mask of deference that nonetheless conveyed disapproval.
“Whisky, in the studio. Of course, sir.”
“And meat pies. I don’t care if Cook warms them up. I’m hungry.”
“Again, sir? One marvels at the regularity of your appetite. Will that be all?”
Five years ago, Finn would have made a rude gesture at Pritchard’s insubordination. “Please alert the whole staff that St. Didier has worn out his welcome.”
“Of course, sir, and should I have four bottles of whisky sent along to spare the footmen the extra trips?”
That was nasty, but then, Pritchard had pointed opinions about fools who ignored ducal titles.
“Make it five.” Finn hadn’t allowed himself the comfort and folly of inebriation since he’d been an apprentice, but Pritchard deserved twitting. “And one other thing. Find out all you can about my late cousin’s daughter. The child’s name is Emily, she’s about five, and apparently not… not thriving.”
Pritchard bowed. “Of course, sir. I’ll have more information for you tomorrow.”
Finn returned to the studio, rolled up the sketch on the blotter, and ate a few meat pies, but he left the whisky untouched and served himself another tot of Armagnac. He sat staring at the fire for a good long while, whittling, and occasionally cursing in his mother’s native Gaelic.
End of Excerpt
This book will begin shipping in April 2024
The Dreadful Duke is available in the following formats:
Grace Burrowes Publishing
April 26, 2024
Print order links coming soon!