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Authors: Jennifer Haymore

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance

The Duchess Hunt

BOOK: The Duchess Hunt
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Praise
for Jennifer Haymore:

‘Jennifer
Haymore’s books are sophisticated, deeply sensual and emotionally complex’
Elizabeth Hoyt,
New York Times
bestselling author

‘Sweep-you-off-your-feet
historical romance! Jennifer Haymore sparkles!’

Liz
Carlyle,
New York Times
bestselling author

‘[Haymore]
perfectly blends a strong plot that twists like a serpent and has unforgettable
characters to create a book readers will remember and reread’

RT
Book Reviews

 

 

COPYRIGHT

Published by Hachette Digital

978-1-4055-2913-6

All
characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the
public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or
dead, is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Haymore

The moral right of the author has been
asserted.

Excerpt
from
The Rogue’s Proposal
copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Haymore

The publisher is not responsible for
websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

H
ACHETTE
D
IGITAL

Little,
Brown Book Group

100
Victoria Embankment

London, EC4Y 0DY

www.littlebrown.co.uk

www.hachette.co.uk

 

 

Acknowledgments

To Selina McLemore, my editor, and Barbara
Poelle, my agent: thank you for believing in me and in my work. To all the
people who helped me with this story, especially Kate McKinley, Tessa Dare, and
Cindy Benser: thanks for your support and for taking the time out of your busy
schedules to help me create a better book. And to all my readers: thank you so
much for your support. Without all of you, I wouldn’t be able to do what I
love. You have my heartfelt thanks.

 

Prologue

Sarah Osborne had only lived at Ironwood
Park for a few days, but she already loved it. Birds serenaded her every
morning, their trilling songs greeting her through the little window in the
cottage she shared with her father. Each afternoon, the sun shone brightly over
the Park, spreading gentle warmth to her shoulders through the muslin of her
dress as she ran across the grounds. And in the evenings, lanterns spilled
golden light over the façade of the great house, which sat on a low,
gentle-sloped hill and reigned like a king over the vast lands of the Duke of
Trent.

If Sarah looked out the diamond-paned
window of the cottage she shared with her father, she could see the house in
the distance, framed by the graceful, curving white branches of two birch trees
outside the cottage. She gazed at the house often throughout the day, always
giving it an extra glance at night before Papa tucked her in. It stared back at
her, a somber, massive sentry, and she felt safe with it watching over her.
Someday, she dreamed, she might be able to draw close to it. To weave through
those tall, elegant columns that lined its front. Someday, she might even be
able to go inside.

But Sarah wasn’t thinking of Ironwood Park
right now – she was thinking about a butterfly. She dashed down the path in
pursuit of the beautiful black-and-white speckled creature flitting from leaf
to leaf of the box hedge that marked the outer boundary of the garden. She
hiked up her skirt and chased it through the wrought-iron gate that divided the
garden from the outer grounds.

Finally, the butterfly landed, seemingly spent,
on a spindly branch. Sarah slowed and approached it cautiously, reaching her
hand out. She let out a long breath as her finger brushed over one of the
wings. The butterfly stared at her. So delicate and gentle. It seemed to nod at
her, then in a soft flutter of wings, it flew away again, leaving Sarah gazing
at the bush.

“Oooh,” she murmured in delight. It wasn’t
just any bush – it was a blackberry bush. Last summer, when Mama had been so
ill, Sarah had picked blackberries nearly every day. Blackberry root tea had
soothed Mama’s cough-weary stomach, but Sarah loved the berries’ bumpy texture
and burst of sweetness when she bit into one.

It was early in the season for
blackberries, but among the ripening berries that loaded the bush, Sarah found
a small handful that were ripe enough to eat. She gazed at her surroundings as
she ate them one at a time, savoring the sweet taste edged with the slightest
tinge of sour.

Not only one blackberry bush grew here –
there were many. They sprawled from the ground in no orderly fashion along the
bank of a trickling stream.

Sarah turned to glance in the direction
she’d come from to make sure she wasn’t lost. The domes of the roof of the
great house peeked through the elms, a reassuring beacon.

Her handful finished, she went back to
searching for ripe berries, picking through the thorn-covered branches. She
searched and picked and ate until her belly was full, light scratches from the
thorns crisscrossed her arms, and the dark juice stained her hands. Looking
dolefully down at her skirt, she realized blackberry juice had stained her
dress as well. Papa would be displeased if he saw, but she’d scrub out the
stains before he came home.

Her braid was being unruly again – strands
had fallen out of it, and her dark hair wisped across her cheeks. She blew
upward, trying to get them out of the way, but that didn’t work, so she pushed
them away and tucked them behind her ears with her dirty hands.

And then she saw the butterfly again.

At least, it looked like the same
butterfly. Beautiful and enormous, its wings speckled like a sparrow’s egg, it
had settled on a twig deep and high inside one of the blackberry bushes.

Sarah stepped onto a fallen branch. On her
tiptoes, she leaned forward, peering at it. “Don’t fly away,” she murmured.
“Don’t be afraid.”

She reached out – this time not to touch
it, but to catch it. She wanted to hold it, feel its delicate, spindly legs on
her palm.

Just a little farther…
Crack
! The branch snapped under her feet, and
she lurched forward, her hands wheeling against the air as she tried to regain
her balance. But it was no use. With a crash, she tumbled headfirst into the
blackberry bush, gasping as thorns grabbed at her dress and tore at her skin.

She came to a stop on her knees inside the
bush, her hands clutching the thorny undergrowth.

Panting against the smart of pain, she
squeezed her eyes shut as she freed one hand and used her fingers to pick the
thorns from the other. Blood welled on her arms, a hot stream of it sliding
down around her forearm. Each breath she released came out in a little moan of
pain. Her knees hurt horribly, but she couldn’t regain her balance without
something to hold onto, and there was nothing to grab except painfully thorny
branches.

“Can I help you, miss?”

She tried to look over her shoulder toward
the voice, but a thorn scraped over her cheek, and she sucked in a breath.

It was a man’s voice, she thought. A kind
voice. “Yes, please, sir.”

“All right. Stay still.”

It seemed to take forever, but slowly,
using a small dagger, he cut away the thorny branches that twisted around her.
Holding her by the waist, he gently extracted her, pausing to cut away any
branch that might scrape her on the way out.

Finally, he settled her onto her feet on
solid, thorn-free earth. Taking a deep breath, she turned around and looked up
at him.

He was a boy. A big boy – far older than
she was. Freckles splashed across his nose, and dark blond hair touched his
shoulders. He gazed at her, concern denting his forehead between his
crystal-green eyes.

“Are you all right?”

Sarah wasn’t accustomed to talking to
boys. Especially handsome boys wearing breeches and fine dark wool coats. And
boys whose voices were deepening with the imminent arrival of manhood.

Speechless and wide-eyed, she nodded up at
him. His expression softened.

“Here.” He crouched down and withdrew a
handkerchief from his coat pocket. Ever so gently, he swiped the cloth over her
cheek, dabbing up the blood that had welled when she’d tried to turn to him.
Then he folded it and tried to clean her hands. Then he looked at her knees.
Following his frowning gaze, she looked down, too.

“Oh no,” she whispered.

Her skirt was rent from her knees to her
feet, and her stockings, also ruined, showed through. Worse, caked blood stuck
her dress to her torn stockings.

Papa would be furious.

She must have made a sound, because the
boy’s brow furrowed. “Does it hurt terribly?” he asked, his voice grave.

Sarah swallowed hard. “N-n-no.”

The edges of his lips tilted up in a
smile. “You’re very brave, aren’t you?”

At those words, her fear melted away. She
squared her shoulders, and, standing tall, she looked directly into his green
eyes. “Yes, I am.”

“Where do you live?” he asked.

She pointed toward the grand domes of the
roof of Ironwood Park. “There.”

“Well, isn’t that something? I live there,
too. Can you walk?”

“Of course I can.”

Side by side, they walked down the path
that led toward the house. Sarah’s knees hurt, and she couldn’t help it – she
hobbled just a little. Without a word, the boy put a firm arm around her waist,
steadying her.

They passed the gardener’s cottage where
Sarah lived with her father and headed toward the back side of the great house
itself. Sarah didn’t speak, and neither did the boy. She bit her lower lip and
glanced at him from the corner of her eye, watching him walk. He was tall and
strong, and she liked the way the sun glinted on his hair.

But as they drew closer to the house, and
it looked more and more like he actually intended to enter it, her body grew
stiff. She didn’t know where Papa was, but he’d be very angry if he discovered
she’d ventured too close to the house. Above all, he’d stressed the importance
of her staying out of the family’s way. If she bothered anyone, he might lose
his position.

The boy slowed as they walked beneath the
shadow of the enormous house, and then he looked down at her. “Are you all
right?”

“Mm hm.” Her voice wasn’t much more than a
squeak.

He stopped altogether and pulled away from
her, watching her carefully to make sure she was steady.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Sarah.”

“I’m Simon.” He glanced at the back of the
house, which now loomed over them, so massive and heavy she could hardly
breathe, and then back to her. “Come inside and I’ll make sure you’re taken
care of.”

She licked her lips, unsure. Then she
whispered, “My papa said I mustn’t disturb the family.”

“You won’t be disturbing the family.” He
said it like a promise.

She gazed up at him. She didn’t know why,
but she trusted him completely. He could have told her he took daily walks on
the surface of the moon, and she would have believed him.

He continued, “I’ve been a rather poor
doctor, so I’d like Mrs. Hope to take a look at those cuts. She has a salve
that cures scratches like those in a trice.”

Sarah had no idea who Mrs. Hope was, but the
scratches still hurt – they stung and ached and itched. A salve that could cure
them fast worked as sure as a lure into the forbidden.

She gave a little nod.

He took her least-affected hand, gentle
with her scratches. “Come, then.”

He led her up the stairs and into a vast
room that made her hesitant steps grind to a halt. It was the largest room
she’d ever seen. Open and cold and vast, lacking furniture except for a few
benches and tables lining the walls. But those were too ornate to even be
called benches. Metal legs shaped into vines held enormous slabs of marble. The
tables held beautiful vases and busts of important-looking men. The room was
almost overwhelmingly pale – the giant stones that made the walls were of an
off-white color, and the plasterwork that adorned the walls and ceiling pure
white. The only color was provided by the black checks on the tiled floor, the
metalwork of the benches, and the enormous gilded chandelier that hung down in
the center of the room.

Sarah tilted her head up, looking past the
chandelier and gallery rails at the elaborately carved ceiling – it seemed as
high as heaven itself.

Simon stood beside her, and he looked up
as well. She stole a glance at him, watched the considering look passing over
his face – as if he were seeing the room for the first time, too.

She gripped his hand tighter. “Are you
sure it’s all right?” Her whisper seemed to echo in the cavernous space.

Simon shook off whatever he’d been
thinking and smiled down at her. “Of course. This is the Stone Room. We don’t
spend much time in here. Come.”

Holding her hand, he tugged her along. It
seemed to take forever just to cross the vast area and reach one of the two
doors that flanked a magnificent metal sculpture of a bearded, naked man and
two naked boys. An enormous snake twined around their bodies. From the
expressions of agony on their faces, she was sure the snake was crushing them.

He paused just in front of the door, no
doubt seeing that her jaw had dropped as she stared at the statues. “Do you
know the story of the Laocoön?”

She shook her head, unable to speak. She’d
never heard of “Laocoön.” She’d never seen a naked man or naked boys
before. She’d never seen anything quite so
vicious
, either.

“Have you heard of the Trojan War?” He
hesitated while she shook her head again. “Well, there was a war between Troy
and the Greeks. Laocoön was the son of the Trojan King. When the Greeks
tried to trick the Trojans by bringing them a gift of a giant wooden horse,
Laocoön didn’t trust them at all. He warned them to ‘beware of Greeks
bearing gifts.’ But the gods were on the side of the Greeks, and Laocoön’s
warning made them angry. Poseidon, the god of the sea —”

BOOK: The Duchess Hunt
9.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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