At the Duke's Pleasure

By: Tracy Anne Warren

Tracy Anne Warren





At the Duke’s Pleasure











Prologue





Marsden Manor

Nottinghamshire, England

June 1789



The crack of a cricket bat and ball split the humid afternoon air. A triumphant round of whoops and shouts followed, as a group of boys raced across the immaculately manicured lawn to see who could capture the most runs.

Above them, inside a second-floor drawing room, stood Edward Augustus Joseph Byron, Marquis of Hartsfield. He drew an encouraging fist at his side as he watched his younger brothers play, observing the game’s progress through one of many lead-paned, Tudor windows that lined the west side of the Earl of Edgewater’s grand manor house.

Stifling an envious sigh, he leaned closer to the open window, the scents of oak pollen and ripe summer breezes redolent in the air. How he wished he could be down there with them now.

Racing over the grass.

Feeling the grip of the smooth-handled willow bat in his hands, his arm muscles singing as they absorbed the impact of a fresh hit.

The score wouldn’t be so evenly matched, he knew, if he were among them. Not that Cade and Jack weren’t holding their own—and admirably too—considering the size and age of some of the other boys playing. Twelve- and thirteen-year-olds against the Byron brothers’ ten and eight.

Even four-year-old Drake was doing his utmost to insert himself into the action, ignoring the strictures of his nursemaid as he raced to collect the occasional out-of-bounds ball.

Were he anyone else, Edward knew he would have been free to join in like the other children of the guests assembled for today’s christening celebration. But even at the youthful age of eleven, he understood that the heir to the Duke of Clybourne had far more important duties to attend to than an afternoon spent playing cricket—no matter how tediously boring those duties might be.

On the grounds below, Cade stepped forward and shook out his lanky arms with great fanfare as he prepared to pitch the ball. Edward grinned and silently cheered him on.

Suddenly a large male hand wearing a gleaming emerald signet ring cut across his line of sight—a strong adult hand that reached out to draw the window closed with a soft snick of the latch.

Edward stepped back, the noise of the game grown dim beyond the sealed portal. Shoulders straight, he turned a respectful gaze on his father, eyes moving upward to the powerful man, who wore a mature version of his own features.

Everyone said one day Edward would look exactly like him. Sometimes when he gazed into a looking glass, he found himself wondering if their predictions would prove true.

“Those boys make a great deal too much noise,” the duke observed. “I could hear Jack shouting all the way across the room.”

Not sure how best to respond to such a remark, Edward stayed silent.

“Ought to send down word and tell them enough’s enough, but I suppose they are only boys and know no better.”

And so they are. So too am I.

Wisely, he kept his thoughts to himself.

“What’s the score, then?” his father asked.

Edward’s stance relaxed slightly at the casual inquiry. “Cade’s team is down by two, but I think they’ll make up the necessary runs during the next at-bat.”

“I trust they shall. Well then, come along, Edward,” his father said, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Important matters to discuss. You can watch the game later.”

“Yes, Papa.”

As he turned to follow the duke’s lead, he caught sight of his mother watching them from across the chamber where she sat among a group of other elegantly attired ladies. Faint lines creased the smooth plane of her beautiful forehead, her soft lips drawn together. His gaze met hers and the lines vanished as though they had never been, her mouth turning upward as she sent him a gentle, loving smile.

He smiled back, puzzling for a few seconds over her initial look. Then he forgot all about it, as he hurried to keep pace with the duke.

They drew to a halt in front of a trim gentleman of moderate height, his thick blond hair brushed in careful waves, a diamond pin winking from the folds of his precisely creased neck cloth.

“My lord,” the duke began. “Allow me to make you known to my son and heir, the Marquis of Hartsfield. Hartsfield,” he said, nodding toward Edward. “This gentleman is a great friend of mine. Make your bows to the Earl of Edgewater.”

Well versed in his manners, Edward bent at the waist. “How do you do, my lord? Thank you for inviting me to your home today, and on such a happy occasion as the christening of your new daughter.”

The earl bowed in return, smiling as he straightened. “You are most gracious, my lord, and most welcome, though I would expect no less based on everything Clybourne has been telling me about you. I must confess I am vastly impressed. Understand you took top marks at Eton this past year and are even now being considered for early admittance to both Cambridge and Oxford.”

“He’ll be at Oxford outside of two years, and make no mistake,” the duke stated in a firm tone, as if the matter were already settled. “My duchess thinks it’s too early for a boy his age to be considering university. But she’s merely being a cautious mother hen, who doesn’t want to see her chick fly from the nest too soon. Hartsfield is up to the challenge, though. Aren’t you, son?”

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