It wasn't supposed to have been like this.
Wrapped in his greatcoat, alone on the box seat of his excellently sprung curricle, Royce Henry Varisey, tenth Duke of Wolverstone, turned the latest in the succession of post-horses he'd raced up the highway from London onto the minor road leading to Sharperton and Harbottle. The gently rounded foothills of the Cheviot Hills gathered him in like a mother's arms; Wolverstone Castle, his childhood home and newly inherited principal estate, lay close by the village of Alwinton, beyond Harbottle.
One of the horses broke stride; Royce checked it, held the pair back until they were in step, then urged them on. They were flagging. His own high-bred blacks had carried him as far as St. Neots on Monday; thereafter he'd had a fresh pair put to every fifty or so miles.
It was now Wednesday morning, and he was a long way from London, once again-after sixteen long years-entering home territory. Ancestral territory. Rothbury and the dark glades of its forest lay behind him; ahead the rolling, largely treeless skirts of the Cheviots, dotted here and there with the inevitable sheep, spread around the even more barren hills themselves, their backbone the border with Scotland beyond.
The hills, and that border, had played a vital role in the evolution of the dukedom. Created after the Conquest as a marcher lordship to protect England from the depredations of maurading Scots, successive lords of Wolverstone, popularly known as the Wolves of the North, had for centuries enjoyed the privileges of royalty within their domains.
Many would argue they still did.
Certainly they'd remained a supremely powerful clan, their wealth augmented by their battlefield prowess, and protected by their success in convincing successive sovereigns that such wily, politically powerful ex-kingmakers were best left alone, left to hold the Middle March as they had since first setting their elegantly-shod Norman feet on English soil.
Royce eyed the terrain with an eye honed by absence. Reminded of his ancestry, he wondered anew if their traditional marcher independence-originally fought for and won, recognized by custom and granted by royal charter, then legally rescinded but never truly taken away, and even less truly given up-hadn't underpinned the rift between his father and him.
His father had belonged to the old school of lordship, one that had included the majority of his peers. According to their creed, loyalty to either country or sovereign was a commodity to be traded and bought, something both Crown and country had to place a suitable price upon before it was granted. More, to dukes and earls of his father's ilk, "country" had an ambiguous meaning; kings in their own domains, those domains were their primary concern while the realm possessed a more nebulous and distant existence, certainly a lesser claim on their honor.
While Royce would allow that swearing fealty to the present monarchy-mad King George and his dissolute son, the Prince Regent-wasn't an attractive proposition, he held no equivocation over swearing allegiance, and service, to his country-to England.
As the only son of a powerful ducal family and thus barred by long custom from serving in the field, when, at the tender age of twenty-two, he'd been approached to create a network of English spies on foreign soil, he'd leapt at the chance. Not only had it offered the prospect of contributing to Napoleon's defeat, but with his extensive personal and family contacts combined with his inherent ability to inspire and command, the position was tailor made; from the first it had fitted him like a glove.
But to his father the position had been a disgrace to the name and title, a blot on the family estucheon; his old-fashioned views had labelled spying as without question dishonorable, even if one were spying on active military enemies. It was a view shared by many senior peers at the time.
Bad enough, but when Royce had refused to decline the commission, his father had organized an ambush. A public one, in White's, at a time of the evening when the club was always crowded. With his cronies at his back, his father had passed public judgment on Royce in strident and escoriating terms.
As his peroration, his father had triumphantly declared that if Royce refused to bow to his edict and instead served in the capacity for which he'd been recruited, then it would be as if he, the ninth Duke, had no son.
Even in the white rage his father's attack had provoked, Royce had noted that "as if." He was his father's only legitimate son; no matter how furious, his father would not formally disinherit him. The interdict would, however, banish him from all family lands.
Facing his apoplectic sire over the crimson carpet of the exclusive club surrounded by an army of fascinated aristocracy, he'd waited, unresponsive, until his father had finished his well-rehearsed speech. He'd waited until the expectant silence surrounding them had grown thick, then he'd uttered three words: As you wish.
Then he'd turned and walked from the club, and from that day forth had ceased to be his father's son. From that day he'd been known as Dalziel, a name taken from an obscure branch of his mother's family tree, fitting enough given it was his maternal grandfather-by then dead-who had taught him the creed by which he'd chosen to live. While the Variseys were marcher lords, the Debraighs were no less powerful, but their lands lay in the heart of England and they'd served king and country-principally country-selflessly for centuries. Debraighs had stood as both warriors and statesmen at the right hand of countless monarchs; duty to their people was bred deeply in them.
While deploring the rift with his father, the Debraighs had approved Royce's stance, yet, sensitive even then to the dynamics of power, he'd discouraged their active support. His uncle, the Earl of Catersham, had written, asking if there was anything he could do. Royce had replied in the negative, as he had to his mother's similar query; his fight was with his father and should involve no one else.
That had been his decision, one he'd adhered to throughout the subsequent sixteen years; none of them had expected vanquishing Napoleon to take so long.
But it had.
Through those years he'd recruited the best of his generation of Guards, organized them into a network of secret operatives and successfully placed them throughout Napoleon's territories. Their success had become the stuff of legend; those who knew correctly credited his network with saving countless British lives, and contributing directly to Napoleon's downfall.
His success on that stage had been sweet. However, with Napoleon on his way to St. Helena, he'd disbanded his crew, releasing them to their civilian lives. And, as of Monday, he, too, had left his former life-Dalziel's life-behind.
He hadn't, however, expected to assume any title beyond the courtesy one of Marquess of Winchelsea. Hadn't expected to immediately assume control of the dukedom and all it comprised.
His on-going banishment--he'd never expected his father to back down any more than he himself had--had effectively estranged him from the dukedom's houses, lands and people, and most especially from the one place that meant most to him-Wolverstone itself. The castle was far more than just a home; the stone walls and battlements held something-some magic-that resonated in his blood, in his heart, in his soul. His father had known that; it had been the same for him.
Despite the passage of sixteen years, as the horses raced on Royce still felt the pull, the visceral tug that only grew stronger as he rattled through Sharperton, drawing ever closer to Wolverstone. He felt faintly surprised that it should be so, that despite the years, the rift, his own less than susceptible temperament, he could still sense…home.
That home still meant what it always had.
That it still moved him to his soul.
He hadn't expected that, any more than he'd expected to be returning like this-alone, in a tearing rush, without even his long-time groom, Henry, another Wolverstone outcast, for company through the empty miles.
On Monday, while tidying the last of Dalziel's files from his desk, he'd been planning his return to Wolverstone. He'd imagined driving up from London by easy stages, arriving at the castle fresh and rested-in suitable state to walk into his father's presence…and see what came next.
He'd imagined an apology from his father might, just might, have featured in that scene; he'd been curious to see, yet hadn't been holding his breath.
But now he'd never know.
His father had died on Sunday.
Leaving the rift between them-viscious and deep, naturally enough given they were both Variseys-unhealed. Unaddressed. Unlaid to rest.
He hadn't known whether to curse his father or fate for leaving him to cauterize the wound.
Regardless, dealing with his past was no longer the most urgent matter on his plate. Picking up the reins of a far-flung and extensive dukedom after a sixteen-year absence was going to demand all his attention, command all of his abilities to the exclusion of all else. He would succeed-there was neither question nor option in that regard-but how long it would take, and what it would cost him…how the devil he was to do it he didn't know.
It wasn't supposed to have been like this.
His father had been hale and healthy enough for a man in his sixties. He hadn't been ailing; Royce trusted that if he had, someone would have broken his father's prohibition and sent him word. Instead, he'd been blindsided.
In his version of his return, his father and he would have made their peace, their truce, whatever arrangement they would have made, then he would have started refreshing his knowledge of the estate, filling in the gap between when he'd been twenty-one, and last at Wolverstone, to his present thirty-seven.
Instead, his father was gone, leaving him to pick up the reins with a lag of sixteen years in knowledge hanging like a millstone around his neck.
While he had absolute confidence--Varisey confidence--that he would fill his father's shoes more than adequately, he wasn't looking forward to assuming emergency command over unfamiliar troops in terrain that would have shifted in unforeseen ways over the past sixteen years.
His temper, like that of all Variseys, especially the males, was formidable, an emotion that carried the same cutting edge as their broadswords of long ago. He'd learned to control it rather better than his father, to keep it reined, another weapon to be used to conquer and overcome; not even those who knew him well could detect the difference between mild irritation and a killing rage. Not unless he wished them to know. Control of his emotions had long become second nature.
Ever since he'd learned of his father's demise, his temper had been surging, restless, largely unreasoning, violently hungry for some release. Knowing the only release that would satisfy had, courtesy of fickle fate, been denied him forever.
Not having any enemy to lash out at, to exact vengeance from, left him walking a tightrope, his impulses and instincts tightly leashed.
Stony-faced, he swept through Harbottle. A woman walking along the street glanced curiously at him. While he was clearly heading for Wolverstone, there being no other destination along this road to which a gentleman of his ilk might be going, he had numerous male cousins, and they all shared more than a passing resemblance; even if the woman had heard of his father's death, it was unlikely she would realize it was he.
Since Sharperton the road had followed the banks of the Coquet; over the drumming of the horses' hooves, he'd heard the river burbling along its rocky bed. Now the road curved north; a stone bridge spanned the river. The curricle rattled across; he drew a tight breath as he crossed into Wolverstone lands.
Felt that indefinable connection grip and tighten.
Straightening on the seat, stretching the long muscles in his back, he eased the horses' pace, and looked around.
Drank in the familiar sights, each emblazoned in his memory. Most were as he'd expected-exactly as he recalled only sixteen years older.
A ford lay ahead, spanning the River Alwin; he slowed the horses and let them pick their way across. As the wheels drew free of the water, he flicked the reins and set the pair up the slight rise, the road curving again, this time to the west.
The curricle topped the rise, and he slowed the horses to a walk.
The slate roofs of Alwinton lay directly ahead. Closer, on his left, between the road and the Coquet, sat the grey stone church with its vicarage and three cottages. He barely spared a glance for the church, his gaze drawn past it, across the river to the massive grey stone edifice that rose in majestic splendor beyond.
The heavily-fortified square Norman keep, added to and rebuilt by successive generations, remained the central and dominant feature, its crenellated battlements rising above the lower roofs of the early Tudor wings, both uniquely dog-legged, one running west, then north, the other east, then south. The keep faced north, looking directly up a narrow valley through which Clennell Street, one of the border crossings, descended from the hills. Neither raiders, nor traders, could cross the border by that route without passing under Wolverstone's ever-watchful eyes.
From this distance, he could make out little beyond the main buildings. The castle stood on gently sloping land above the gorge the Coquet had carved west of Alwinton village. The castle's park spread to east, south and west, the land continuing to rise, eventually becoming hills that sheltered the castle on the south and west. The Cheviots themselves protected the castle from the north winds; only from the east, the direction from which the road approached, was the castle vulnerable to even the elements.
This had always been his first sight of home. Despite all, he felt the connection lock, felt the rising tide of affinity surge.
The reins tugged; he'd let the horses come to a halt. Flicking the ribbons, he set them trotting as he looked about even more keenly.
Fields, fences, crops and cottages appeared in reasonable order. He went through the village-not much more than a hamlet-at a steady clip.
The villagers would recognize him; some might even hail him, but he wasn't yet ready to trade greetings, to accept condolences on his father's death--not yet.
Another stone bridge spanned the deep, narrow gorge through which the river gushed and tumbled. The gorge was the reason no army had even attempted to take Wolverstone; the sole approach was via the stone bridge-easily defended. Because of the hills on all other sides, it was impossible to position mangonels or any type of seige engine anywhere that wasn't well within a decent archer's range from the battlements.
Royce swept over the bridge, the clatter of the horses' hooves drowned beneath the tumultous roar of the waters rushing, turbulent and wild, below. Just like his temper. The closer he drew to the castle, to what awaited him there, the more powerful the surge of his emotions grew.
The more unsettling and distracting.
The more hungry, vengeful and demanding.
The huge wrought iron gates lay ahead, set wide as they always were; the depiction of a snarling wolf's head in the center of each matched the bronze statues atop the stone columns from which the gates hung.
With a flick of the reins, he sent the horses racing through. As if sensing the end of their journey, they leaned into the harness; trees flashed past, massive ancient oaks bordering the lawns that rolled away on either side. He barely noticed, his attention-all his senses-locked on the building towering before him.
It was as massive and as anchored in the soil as the oaks. It had stood for so many centuries it had become part of the landscape.
He slowed the horses as they neared the forecourt, drinking in the grey stone, the heavy lintels, the deeply recessed windows, diamond paned and leaded, set into the thick walls. The front door lay within a high stone arch; it had originally been a portcullis, not a door, the front hall beyond, with its arched ceiling, originally a tunnel leading into the inner bailey. The front façade, three stories high, had been formed from the castle's inner bailey wall; the outer bailey wall had been dismantled long ago, while the keep itself lay deeper within the house.
Letting the horses walk along the façade, Royce gave himself the moment, let emotion reign for just that while. Yet the indescribable joy of being home again was deeply shadowed, caught up, tangled, in a web of darker feelings; being this close to his father-to where his father should have been, but no longer was-only whet the already razor-sharp edge of his restless, unforgiving anger.
Irrational anger--anger with no object. Yet he still felt it.
Dragging in a breath, filling his lungs with the cool crisp air, he set his jaw and sent the horses trotting on around the house.
As he rounded the north wing and the stables came into view, he reminded himself that he would find no convenient opponent at the castle with whom he could loose his temper, with whom he could release the deep, abiding anger.
Resigned himself to another night of a splitting head and no sleep.
His father was gone.
It wasn't supposed to have been like this.
* * *
Ten minutes later, he strode into the house via a side door, the one he'd always used. The few minutes in the stables hadn't helped his temper; the head stableman, Milbourne, hailed from long ago, and had offered his condolences and welcomed him back.
He'd acknowledged the well-meant words with a curt nod, left the post-horses to Milbourne's care, then remembered and paused to tell him that Henry-Milbourne's nephew-would be arriving shortly with Royce's own pair. He'd wanted to ask who else of the long-ago staff were still there, but hadn't; Milbourne had looked too understanding, leaving him feeling…exposed.
Not a feeling he liked.
His greatcoat swirling about his booted calves, he headed for the west stairs. Pulling off his driving gloves, he stuffed them into a pocket, then took the shallow steps three at a time.
He'd spent the last forty-eight hours alone, had just arrived-and now needed to be alone again, to absorb and in some way subdue the unexpectedly intense feelings returning like this had stirred. He needed to quiet his restless temper and leash it more firmly.
The first floor gallery lay ahead. He took the last stairs in a rush, stepped into the gallery, swung left toward the west tower--and collided with a woman.
He heard her gasp.
Sensed her stumbling and caught her-closed his hands about her shoulders and steadied her. Held her.
Even before he looked into her face, he didn't want to let her go.
His gaze locked on her eyes, wide and flaring, rich brown with gold flecks framed by lush brown lashes. Her long hair was lustrous wheat-gold silk, wound and anchored high on her head. Her skin was creamy perfection, her nose patrician straight, her face heart-shaped, her chin neatly rounded. Itemizing those features in a glance, his gaze fixed on her lips. Rose-petal pink, parted in shocked surprise, the lower lushly tempting, the urge to crush them beneath his was nearly overpowering.
She'd taken him unawares; he hadn't had the slightest inkling she'd been there, gliding along, the thick runner muffling her footsteps. He'd patently shocked her; her wide eyes and parted lips said she hadn't heard him on the stairs either-he'd probably been moving silently, as he habitually did.
She'd staggered back; an inch separated his hard body from her much softer one. He knew it was soft, had felt her ripe figure imprinted down the front of him, seared on his senses in that instant of fleeting contact.
On a rational level he wondered how a lady of her type came to be wandering these halls, while on a more primitive plane he battled the urge to sweep her up, carry her into his room, and ease the sudden, shockingly intense ache in his groin-and distract his temper in the only possible way, one he hadn't even dreamed would be available.
That more primitive side of him saw it as only right that this female-whoever she was-should be walking just there, at just that time, and was just the right female to render him that singular service.
Anger, even rage, could convert into lust; he was familiar with the transformation, yet never had it struck with such speed or strength. Never before had the result threatened his control.
The consuming lust he felt for her in that instant was so intense it shocked even him.
Enough to have him slapping the urge down, clenching his jaw, tightening his grip and bodily setting her aside.
He had to force his hands to release her.
"My apologies." His voice was close to a growl. With a curt nod in her direction, without again meeting her eyes, he strode on, swiftly putting distance between them.
Behind him he heard the hiss of an indrawn breath, heard the rustle of skirts as she swung and stared.
"Royce! Dalziel-whatever you call yourself these days-stop!"
He kept walking.
"Damn it, I am not going to--refuse to--scurry after you!"
He halted. Head rising, he considered the list of those who would dare address him in such words, in such a tone.
The list wasn't long.
Slowly, he half turned and looked back at the lady, who patently didn't know in what danger she stood. Scurry after him? She should be fleeing in the opposite direction. But….
Long ago recollection finally connected with present fact. Those rich autumn eyes were the key. He frowned. "Minerva?"
Those fabulous eyes were no longer wide, but narrowed in irritation; her lush lips had compressed to a grim line.
"Indeed." She hesitated, then, clasping her hands before her, lifted her chin. "I gather you aren't aware of it, but I'm chatelaine here."
Contrary to Minerva's expectation, the information did not produce any softening in the stony face regarding her. No easing of the rigid line of his lips, no gleam of recognition in his dark eyes-no suggestion that he'd realized she was someone he needed to help him, even though, at last, he'd placed her: Minerva Miranda Chesterton, his mother's childhood friend's orphaned daughter. Subsequently his mother's amanuensis, companion and confidante, more recently the same to his father, although that was something he most likely didn't know.
Of the pair of them, she knew precisely who she was, what she was, and what she had to do. He, in contrast, was probably uncertain of the first, even more uncertain of the second, and almost certainly had no clue as to the third.
That, however, she'd been prepared for. What she wasn't prepared for, what she hadn't foreseen, was the huge problem that now faced her. All six plus feet of it, larger and infinitely more powerful in life than even her fanciful imagination had painted him.
His stylish greatcoat hung from shoulders that were broader and heavier than she recalled, but she'd last seen him when he'd been twenty-two. He was a touch taller, too, and there was a hardness in him that hadn't been there before, investing the austere planes of his face, his chiseled features, the rock-hard body that had nearly sent her flying.
Had sent her flying, more than physically.
His face was as she remembered it, yet not; gone was any hint of civilized guise. Broad forehead above striking slashes of black brows that tilted faintly, diabolically, upward at the outer ends, a blade of a nose, thin mobile lips guaranteed to dangerously fascinate any female, and well set eyes of such a deep dark brown they were usually unreadable. The long black lashes that fringed those eyes had always made her envious.
His hair was still solidly sable, the thick locks fashionably cropped to fall in waves about his well-shaped head. His clothes, too, were fashionably elegant, restrained, understated and expensive. Even though he'd been traveling hard, all but racing for two days, his cravat was a subtle work of art, and beneath the dust, his Hessians gleamed.
Regardless, no amount of fashion could screen his innate masculinity, could dim the dangerous aura any female with eyes could detect. The passing years had honed and polished him, revealing rather than concealing the sleekly powerful, infinitely predatory male he was.
If anything, that reality seemed enhanced.
He continued to stand twenty feet away, frowning as he studied her, making no move to come closer, giving her witless, swooning, drooling senses even more time to slaver over him.
She'd thought she'd outgrown her infatuation with him. Sixteeen years of not setting eyes on him should surely have seen it dead.
Her mission, as she viewed it, had just become immeasurably more complicated. If he learned of her ridiculous susceptibility-perhaps excusable in a girl of thirteen, but hideously embarrassing in a mature lady of twenty-nine-he'd use the knowledge, ruthlessly, to stop her from pressuring him into doing anything he didn't wish to do. At that moment, the only positive aspect to the situation was that she'd been able to disguise her reaction to him as understandable surprise.
Henceforth she would need to continue to hide that reaction from him.
Simple…was one thing that wasn't going to be.
Variseys as a breed were difficult, but she'd been surrounded by them from the age of six, and had learned how to manage them. All except this Varisey…oh, this was not good. Unfortunately not one, but two deathbed promises bound her to her path.
She cleared her throat, tried hard to clear her head of the disconcerting distraction of her still jangling senses. "I didn't expect you so early, but I'm glad you made such good time." Head high, eyes locked on his face, she walked forward. "There's a huge number of decisions to be made-"
He shifted, turning away, then restlessly turned back to her. "I dare say, but at present, I need to wash off the dust." His eyes--dark, fathomless, his gaze impossibly sharp--scanned her face. "I take it you're in charge?"
He swung away, was off again, his long legs carrying him swiftly around the gallery. "I'll come and find you in an hour."
"Very well. But your room's not that way."
He halted. Once again stood facing away for the space of three heartbeats, then, slowly, he turned.
Again she felt the dark weight of his gaze, this time pinning her more definitely. This time, rather than converse over the yawning gap that once again separated them, a gap she now would have preferred to maintain, he walked, stalked, slowly back to her.
He kept walking until no more than a foot remained between them, which left him towering over her. Physical intimidation was second nature to male Variseys; they learned it from the cradle. She would have liked to say the ploy had no effect, and in truth it didn't have the effect he intended. The effect was something quite other, and more intense and powerful than she'd ever dreamed. Inside she quaked, trembled; outwardly she held his gaze and calmly waited.
He lowered his head slightly so he could look directly into her face. "The keep hasn't rotated in all the centuries since it was built." His voice had lowered, too, but his diction had lost nothing of its lethal edge. If anything that had sharpened. "Which means the west tower lies around the gallery."
She met his dark gaze, knew better than to nod. With Variseys one never conceded the slightest point; they were the sort that, if one surrendered an inch, took the whole county. "The west tower lies that way, but your room is no longer there."
Tension rippled through him; the muscle in the side of his jaw tightened. His voice, when he spoke, had lowered to a warning growl. "Where are my things?"
"In the ducal apartments." In the central part of the keep, facing south; she didn't bother telling him what he already knew.
She stepped back, just far enough to wave him to join her as, greatly daring, she turned her back on him and started strolling further into the keep. "You're the duke now, and those are your rooms. The staff have slaved to have everything in readiness there, and the west tower room has been converted into a guest chamber. And before you ask"--she heard him reluctantly follow her, his longer legs closing the distance in a few strides--"everything that was in the west tower room is now in the duke's rooms-including, I might add, all your armillary spheres. I had to move every single one myself-the maids and even the footmen refuse to touch them for fear they'll fall apart in their hands."
He'd amassed an exquisite collection of the astrological spheres within spheres; she hoped mention of them would encourage him to accept the necessary relocation.
After a moment of pacing silently beside her, he said, "My sisters?"
"Your father passed away on Sunday, a little before noon. I dispatched the messenger to you immediately, but I wasn't sure what you wished, so I held back from informing your sisters for twenty-four hours." She glanced at him. "You were the furthest away, but we needed you here first. I expect they'll arrive tomorrow."
He glanced at her, met her eyes. "Thank you. I appreciate the chance to find my feet before having to deal with them."
Which, of course, was why she'd done it. "I sent a letter with the messenger to you for Collier, Collier and Whitticombe."
"I sent it on with a covering letter from me, asking them to attend me here, with the will, at the earliest opportunity."
"Which means they'll arrive tomorrow, too. Late afternoon, most likely."
They turned a corner into a short hall just as a footman closed the massive oak door at the end. The footman saw them, bowed low, then retreated.
"Jeffers will have brought up your bags. If you need anything else-"
"I'll ring. Who's the butler here these days?"
She'd always wondered if he'd had anyone in the household feeding him information; obviously not. "Retford the younger-old Retford's nephew. He was the underbutler before."
He nodded. "I remember him."
The door to the duke's apartments neared. Clinging to her chatelaine's glamour, she halted beside it. "I'll join you in the study in an hour."
He looked at her. "Is the study in the same place?"
"It hasn't moved."
"That's something, I suppose."
She inclined her head, was about to turn away when she noticed that, although his hand had closed about the doorknob, he hadn't turned it.
He was standing staring at the door.
"If it makes any difference, it's been over a decade since your father used this room."
That got her a frowning look. "Which room did he use?"
"He moved to the east tower room. It's remained untouched since he died."
"When did he move there?" He looked at the door before him. "Out of here."
It wasn't her place to hide the truth. "Sixteen years ago." In case he failed to make the connection, she added, "When he returned from London after banishing you."
He frowned, as if the information made no sense.
Which made her wonder, but she held her tongue. She waited, but he asked no more.
Brusquely he nodded in dismissal, turned the knob and opened the door. "I'll see you in the study in an hour."
With a serene inclination of her head, she turned and walked away.
And felt his dark gaze on her back, felt it slide down from her shoulders to her hips, eventually to her legs. Managed to hold back her inner shiver until she was out of his acutely observant sight.
Then she picked up her pace, walking swiftly and determinedly toward her own domain-the duchess's morning room; she had an hour to find armor sufficiently thick to protect her against the unexpected impact of the tenth Duke of Wolverstone.
* * *
Royce halted just inside the duke's apartments; shutting the door, he looked around.
Decades had passed since he'd last seen the room, but little had changed. The upholstery was new, but the furniture was the same, all heavy polished oak, glowing with a rich, golden patina, the edges rounded by age. He circled the sitting room, running his fingers over the polished tops of sideboards and the curved backs of chairs, then went into the bedroom-large and spacious with a glorious view south over the gardens and lake to the distant hills.
He was standing before the wide window drinking in that view when a tap on the outer door had him turning. He raised his voice. "Come."
The footman he'd seen earlier appeared in the doorway from the sitting room carrying a huge china urn. "Hot water, Your Grace."
He nodded, then watched as the man crossed the room and went through the doorway into the dressing room and bathing chamber.
He'd turned back to the window when the footman reappeared. "Your pardon, Your Grace, but would you like me to unpack your things?"
"No." Royce looked at the man. He was average in everything-height, build, age, coloring. "There's not enough to bother with….Jeffers, is that right?"
"Indeed, Your Grace. I was the late duke's footman."
Royce wasn't sure he'd need a personal footman, but nodded. "My man, Trevor, will be arriving shortly-most likely tomorrow. He's a Londoner, but he's been with me for a long time. Although he has been here before, he'll need help to remember his way."
"I'll be happy to keep an eye out for him and assist in whatever way I can, Your Grace."
"Good." Royce turned back to the window. "You may go."
When he heard the outer door click shut, he quit the window and headed for the dressing room. He stripped, then washed; drying himself with the linen towel left ready on the washstand, he tried to think. He should be making mental lists of all he had to do, juggling the order in which to do them…but all he seemed able to do was feel.
His brain seemed obsessed with the inconsequential, with matters that were not of immediate importance. Such as why his father had moved out of the duke's apartments immediately after their confrontation.
The act smacked of abdication, yet…he couldn't see how such a proposition could mesh with reality; it didn't match his mental picture of his father.
His bag contained a complete set of fresh clothes-shirt, cravat, waistcoat, coat, trousers, stockings, shoes. He donned them, and immediately felt better able to deal with the challenges that waited beyond the door.
Before returning through the bedroom to the sitting room, he glanced around, assessing the amenities.
Minerva--his chatelaine--had been right. Not only were these rooms appropriate given he was now the duke, the atmosphere felt right-and he had a sneaking suspicion his old room wouldn't have suited him, fitted him, anymore. He certainly appreciated the greater space, and the views.
Walking into the bedroom, his gaze fell on the bed. He felt certain he would appreciate that, too. The massive oak four-poster supporting a decadently thick mattress and silk covers, piled high with thick pillows, dominated the large room. It faced the window; the view would always be restful, yet interesting.
At present, however, restful yet interesting couldn't sate his need; as his gaze returned to the crimson-and-gold silk-brocade bedspread, took in the crimson silk sheets, his mind supplied a vision of his chatelaine reclining there.
He considered the vision, deliberately indulged; his imagination was more than up to the task.
As unlooked-for developments went, his chatelaine took the prize. Little Minerva was no longer so little, yet….
Being his mother's protégée, and thus under his father's protection, too, would normally have placed her off limits to him, except that both his father and mother were now dead, and she was still there, in his household, an established spinster of his class, and she was…what? Twenty-nine?
Within their circles, by anyone's assessment she was now fair game, except…while he'd developed an immediate and intense lust for her, she'd shown no sign whatever that she returned his interest; she'd appeared coolly, calmly, unaffected throughout.
If she'd reacted to him as he had to her, she would have been in there now-more or less as he was imagining her, boneless and drowsy, a smile of satiation curving her lush lips as she lay sprawled, naked and utterly ravished, on his bed.
And he would be feeling a great deal better than he was. Sexual indulgence was the only distraction capable of taking the violent edge from his temper, capable of dulling it, dampening it, draining it.
Given his temper was so restlessly aroused, and desperately seeking an outlet, he wasn't surprised it had immediately fixed on the first attractive woman to cross his path, transmuting in a heartbeat to a driving lustful passion. What he was surprised by was the intensity, the incredible clarity with which his every sense, every fiber of his being, had locked on her.
Possessively and absolutely.
His arrogance knew few bounds, yet all the ladies who'd ever caught his eye…he'd always caught theirs first. That he wanted Minerva while she didn't want him had thrown him off-balance.
Unfortunately, her disinterest and his consequent unsettled state hadn't dampened his desire for her in the least.
He'd simply have to grin and bear it-continue to rein his temper in, denying it the release it sought, while putting as great a distance between him and her as possible. She might be his chatelaine, but once he learned who his steward, his agent, and the various others who were responsible for overseeing his interests were, he would be able to curtail his contact with her.
He glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. Forty minutes had passed. Time to go to the study and settle in before she arrived to speak with him. He would need a few minutes to grow accustomed to occupying the chair behind his father's desk.
Walking into the sitting room, he looked up--and saw his armilliary spheres lined up along the mantelpiece opposite, the mirror behind creating the perfect showcase. The sight drew him across the room. Scanning the collection, fingers idly stroking long forgotten friends, he halted before one, his fingers stilling on a gold-plated curve as memories of his father presenting it to him on his eighteenth birthday slid through his mind.
After a moment, he shook free of the recollection and continued on, studying each sphere with its interlocking, polished metal curves….
The maids and even the footmen refuse to touch them for fear they'll fall apart in their hands.
Halting, he looked closer, but he'd been right. Each sphere hadn't just been dusted; every single one had been lovingly polished.
He glanced back along the line of spheres, then he turned and walked to the door.