The Worst Duke in the World by Lisa Berne



Chapter 1



Somerset County, England

February 1817



His Grace the Duke of Radcliffe had reached the last of the wide marble steps that led from his house onto the graveled sweep and was just about to execute a gentle left turn when from above and behind him came a piercing voice which throbbed with annoyance and disapproval.

“Anthony.”

He turned and looked up.

On the broad covered portico stood his sister Margaret, clad in habitual black from the lacy cap on her head to the trailing draperies of her gown and incredibly flat slippers. Her back was ramrod straight, her brows were drawn together, and her lips compressed into a thin, tight line. She had, in fact, the darkly ominous air of an avenging angel. All she lacked was a fiery sword. He said:

“Hullo, Meg.”

Rather than responding to his civil greeting in kind, her frown only deepened. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“To the stables.”

“Why?”

“To get my horse.”

“For what purpose are you getting your horse?”

He squinted up at her. Really, sometimes Margaret asked the most obvious of questions. “To go riding.”

“Where?”

“To see Penhallow over at Surmont Hall. Apparently the enmity between our respective pigmen has been escalating.”

“Indeed,” said Margaret, although in a noticeably flat way.

“Yes, Johns says Cremwell has been threatening to sneak over from the Hall and put calomel in the Duchess’ slops. Can’t have that, you know. Very unsporting.” Anthony watched with mild interest as Margaret’s eyes began snapping with anger.

“Why you had to name that revolting pig ‘Duchess’ is beyond me.”

“I didn’t have to, Meg. And it was you who inspired me—don’t you remember? Saying that I cared more for the new piglet than I did Selina. Which, of course, was not entirely untrue.”

At this frank reference to his wife, dead these five years, and the unvarnished truth of his marriage—a dry, sepulchral, mutually loveless match of convenience—Margaret said, with more tartness than seemed strictly necessary:

“Your remarks, Anthony, are insupportable. Selina, may I remind you, was the daughter of an earl, and comported herself at all times with the dignity appropriate to her station in life. Moreover, if she had known you named a pig after her—”

“You’re off the mark there, old girl. I didn’t name the pig ‘Selina,’ after all.”

“Off the mark? Why, you—you’re—flippant—and feckless—and—and—” Margaret actually sputtered, briefly fell silent, then gathered herself again for her riposte, as might a duelist prepare for the killing blow. “Your juvenile absence of seriousness on the subject is an affront to anyone with a particle of sensibility.”

“I assure you, Meg, I’m very serious about my pigs.”

“And,” she went on, unheeding, “the manner in which you fraternize with your pigman is a complete betrayal of your rank.”

“Is that what you came out onto the portico to tell me? Far be it from me to throw your own words back into your face, but you’ve said that many times before. Also, you’ll get chilled standing there without a shawl.”

“I came out to inform you,” Margaret said, in the tone of one forced to call upon the last vestiges of extraordinary self-control in the face of unbearable provocation, “that instead of gallivanting off to Surmont Hall to chat about pigs with Gabriel Penhallow, you’re shortly expected at tea, in your own drawing-room, where you are to carry on—if at all humanly possible—a polite conversation with the Preston-Carnabys.”

“Who?”

“The Preston-Carnabys, whose daughter, as I have already explained to you twice today, you are to inspect with an eye toward matrimony.”

Anthony groaned. “Oh, for God’s sake, Meg, another one?”

“Yes, another one. It has evidently escaped your notice that you have but the one son, which leaves you in a very precarious position. You must marry again.”

“Five years with Selina was enough.”

“Your feelings in the matter, Anthony, are irrelevant. You have a duty to the family and to your ancient lineage. The Preston-Carnabys are our guests, and—”

“Your guests. I didn’t invite them.”

“They are our guests,” Margaret said with steel in her voice, “who have come all the way from Yorkshire. Incidentally, Nurse tells me that Wakefield has not been seen since breakfast, and I got a note from the vicar saying that Wakefield didn’t come for his lessons, and your tenant farmer Moore stopped by to complain that Wakefield was seen attempting to ride one of his bulls—all of which means, I daresay, that he could be anywhere by now.”