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The Last Duchess (The Lennox Series)

By:Stephanie Feagan

Chapter 1

“Jane, he simply won’t do. The man’s a stick. Surely becoming a duchess can’t be that important. You’ve never shown the slightest interest in marrying for consequence.”

Casting a look at her brother, Lady Jane Lennox pulled a face. “My interest in Blixford has nothing to do with rank. I happen to be madly in love with him.”

Robert barked a loud laugh, startling her horse and sending the mare into a skittish dance across the road. Handling the beast with ease, Jane brought her back into line and frowned at Robert. “Laugh if you like, but there it is.”

“When did you develop a tendre for the stick?”

“Do stop calling him a stick. It’s the height of disrespect.”

“There was a time you’d have agreed with me that he’s dry as toast and has all the humor of a graveyard. Please, Jane, rethink this and you’ll see how ill-suited you are to be his duchess.”

Staring ahead, vaguely angry, she scarcely noticed the beauty of the narrow country lane, dappled with early-morning sunlight. Ordinarily, she’d have been invigorated by the clear air, the cloudless sky, the moist, heady scent of dew-laden, freshly cut hayfields stretching out to the north. But this morning, her mind was in turmoil, solely focused on one goal, allowing little room for appreciation of the glorious morning. “Is this lecture the only reason you asked me to ride early with you?”

“Largely, but I also believe you could do with a bit of a respite from Lady Bonderant’s house party. I’ve watched you act the perfect lady for upwards of a week now, and it’s painful to witness.” His eyes were laughing at her. “You’re dying to run, aren’t you?”

Of course she was, but admitting it didn’t seem wise. Robert was certain to pounce upon it as a method of illustrating how dour the consequence of her marrying the Duke of Blixford. “I shouldn’t say dying, but yes, it would be lovely to let this mare have her head.”

“Very well, we will run, as soon as you explain how you came to fall wildly in love with the Duke of Dullford.”

Ignoring Robert’s further insult of Blixford, she said, “Do you recall two summers past, before my coming out, when I went to visit Annabel during her confinement?”

“I have recollection of a letter from Sherbourne mentioning your visit, as well as Annabel’s untimely death. I was still at Cambridge, so never learned particulars. Was it dreadful, Jane, being there when poor Annabel died?”

“It was. She was a sweet soul, the heart of kindness.”

“She was forever scolding us when we were children, do you remember?”

Jane smiled, despite the sad memory of Annabel’s death. “Yes, and all the while, she was neck-deep in the prank herself.” Jane glanced at her handsome brother. “I always believed she had a sweet spot for you.”

“And I for her, but it was doomed from the outset. I’m the youngest son of an earl with six sons, my title prospects dismal. Despite being well lined in the pocket, I was unsuitable for Annabel, whose mama set her sights quite high. She got her wish and Annabel became a duchess, but I wonder what cold comfort that must be to Lady Margaret now?”

Remembering, Jane said, “She was overset in the extreme when she arrived at Eastchase Hall and realized her daughter was dead. For all our years of resentment toward Lady Margaret’s high-handedness and presumptuous manner, I’ve never felt such depth of sympathy for anyone. The entire affair was horrid and sad. Annabel was frightened when her labor began too early, and I, of course, knowing nothing of these matters, was at a loss. I sent for the midwife, as well as Blixford, who was in London, and Lady Margaret, who was to come a week later, to finish out Annbabel’s confinement, but she died before her mother arrived. All alone but for me, the midwife, and the vicar’s daughter, Bella. Blixford didn’t arrive until the following day, just in time to witness his wife and infant son entombed in the family crypt.”

They rode in silence for a while before Jane finished her story. “He’s an outwardly cold man, not one to be demonstrative. I was put off by his manner during the service, astonished a man could bury his wife with such dispassion.” His face, she remembered, looked as though carved from granite. Even his dark eyes had held no warmth, no emotion. “At the conclusion of the service, he thanked me for my assistance, for my kindness in attending Annabel, and turned to leave, but before he walked out of the chapel, his gaze caught a spray of roses at the front. Roses were Annabel’s favorite, you know.” Turning, she looked earnestly at her brother. “Robert, I have never forgotten his expression. He was . . . bereft.”