Home > Never Seduce a Duke

Never Seduce a Duke
Author: Vivienne Lorret

Chapter 1



A half-baked plan

Reclining on a bent elbow beneath the long-fringed shade of a willow tree, Margaret Stredwick eyed her travel companions with fond suspicion.

They were up to something. She was sure of it.

An outside observer would never suspect the two older women of any sort of mischief. The Parrish sisters were well-favored among the ton; Maeve for her refined, stately demeanor and Myrtle for her infectious, ebullient charm. And as the beloved aunts of Meg’s sister-in-law, the Marchioness of Hullworth, they had quickly burrowed into her own heart as well.

But they were also meddlesome matchmakers.

It didn’t escape her notice that this supposedly impromptu picnic had brought them to the picturesque grounds surrounding the reclusive Duke of Merleton’s residence. The bachelor Duke of Merleton.

Not only that, but in the five hours since they’d left Wiltshire on holiday, the pair had been uncharacteristically quiet on their favorite subject—1001 ways to procure a husband for Meg. They had to be close to bursting by now.

“How fortuitous that our driver should happen to take a wrong turn that led us here,” Meg said, pretending to be oblivious to their plot.

The aunts exchanged a decidedly guilty look.

Meg continued, absently twirling a blade of grass. “I was certain the groundskeeper would never permit us to picnic here. He spent twenty minutes complaining about the inconvenience of giving tours when there was genuine work to be done. But the two of you proved to be more determined.”

Maeve, the elder sister, was perched with prim decorum on the flat surface of a sarsen stone as she smoothed a hand against the iron-gray hair that would never dare stray from her ever-impeccable coiffure. “It wasn’t altogether difficult. Over the years, we’ve learned that there are three approaches to persuading a man: feed him, flatter him or flirt with him.”

“Or all three at once,” Myrtle said with a cheeky grin as she shined a green apple against the arm of her lavender day frock while a warm breeze stirred her silver-floss hair like dandelion fluff. “When the offer of sharing our picnic didn’t seem to do the trick, I had to think of something. I merely opted for the small pretense of stumbling so that he would catch me. And I saw no harm in telling him how strong he was.”

Meg laughed. “I believe you called him a virile specimen of manliness. You were positively brazen!”

“Indeed.” Maeve pursed her lips and flicked a crumb from her Esterhazy skirts. “My sister could benefit from a spoonful of subtlety, to be sure.”

“At our age? Pish tosh. Where would that have gotten us, hmm? Certainly, nowhere with such a promising vista.” Her pointed gaze turned from her sister toward the little spired stone chapel on the grounds.

Promising vista, hmm? Most likely, the only view they were hoping to see was of Meg walking down the aisle toward a duke waiting at the altar. She’d never even met the man. And if it was up to her, she never would.

There would be no chapel in her future, and no man waiting for her. Not any longer. Not since Daniel Prescott—her soul’s counterpart—married another.

The reminder sent a sharp twinge to the center of her chest. She sighed, but more out of irritation at herself for allowing her thoughts to return to him again. After all, a broken heart wasn’t something she cared to think about on holiday.

Standing, she shook out her striped skirts, then stepped over to the water’s edge with a crust of leftover bread in hand. She shredded it, tossing the crumbs to a pair of pink swans and watched as they bent their graceful necks toward the lily-pad-dappled surface. “We should be on our way if we wish to make the next coaching inn by nightfall.”

Their little detour had already cost them a half day, and Meg was eager for this summer of exploring the Continent to begin.

This trip would be her final foray as a debutante. One last hoorah before she put herself firmly on the shelf. Because when she returned to Wiltshire and her brother’s house, she planned to devote the rest of her life to becoming a loveable—and perhaps even meddlesome—aunt to Brandon and Ellie’s children.

“Oh! But we cannot leave,” Myrtle interjected fretfully, lowering her unfinished apple to her lap. “We have yet to see . . . everything.”

Everything or everyone? Meg wondered wryly as she brushed an errant raven curl from her forehead.

“I daresay the grounds here could rival even those on your brother’s estate,” Maeve supplied in her usual no-nonsense tone.

Well, that much was true. Meg had never seen gardens comparable to those at Crossmoor Abbey. In fact, she didn’t think it possible. When the aunts had been all atwitter over the prospect of visiting a keep, she’d pictured a sparse, utilitarian military ruins hidden behind the ramparts. Hardly anything to stir one’s excitement.

It wasn’t until they’d driven over the drawbridge—an actual working drawbridge, of all things—then through the crenellated gatehouse that Meg had found herself awestruck.

Caliburn Keep was no medieval fortress. It was a palace of such splendor that it stole the breath from her lungs.

There was something altogether fanciful in her surroundings. The sprawling castle with Gothic arches and mullioned windows polished to mirror glass was straight out of a storybook. Set amidst a backdrop of ferns and tall sedges, lazy fronds of weeping willows that bent and swayed over the water, and flowers and trees blossoming in a myriad of vibrant colors, it was like entering a painting.

“It is quite lovely here,” she reluctantly admitted, watching the swans float around the bend toward a low waterfall flanked by clusters of golden-tipped bulrushes.

“Then, it’s settled,” Myrtle said with relief. “After all, I’m sure it shouldn’t take too much longer.”

Meg turned her attention back to the aunts in time to see the older nudge the younger with her elbow. Her eyes narrowed. “What shouldn’t take—”

“I believe Myrtle meant that it shouldn’t take too long to apply to the housekeeper for a tour of the house.”

“And whyever would we do that, hmm? Unless . . . the two of you are plotting something.”

The elder sister sniffed. “I have no idea what you could mean by such an accusation.”

“No? Well, what about the time you both dropped your handkerchiefs for that baron and then quickly darted behind me? Or when you accidentally nudged me into the path of that viscount in the village square?”

“I still attest that I saw a bee alight on your back,” Maeve said, but she averted her gaze to the cuff of her tapered sleeve as she fidgeted with the silver button.

“Besides,” Myrtle chirruped, “it isn’t as though we’ve given any thought to a chance encounter with the duke. Or imagined that His Grace would take one look at you in your becoming blue frock and fall madly in love with you. Or that he would be so overcome with passion that he would take your hand, drop on bended knee and . . .”

Her words trailed off when Meg huffed and put her hands on her hips. She’d known it wasn’t the driver’s mistake that had brought them here. This only confirmed it.

“I hate to spoil your matchmaking plot, but the groundskeeper said that the duke wasn’t even here.”

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