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“You know,” Edwina laughed. “You never did describe the man to me.”

“I might not write about him, your grace.” Mercedes dared with a sudden burst of candor to admit.

“Pity,” murmured the duchess. “If I were you- I would.”

 

When Lady Mercedes Burton lifted the curtain on a farce being played out by Lionel Hastings she did not know she was to be drawn in a world of spymasters, subterfuge, and deception.

It is tradition for the illustrious scions of Hastings and Cunningham dukedoms to feud vie and denigrate. Fates have mixed that golden child of fortune Lionel Hastings and the dark, saturnine Vane Cunningham like a Montague with Capulet.

Now spanning the length of the British Empire from colonial India to the ballrooms and dockyards of London they duel in a game of one-upmanship.

Who can answer the siren’s lure of a love to die for with lovers never quite what they seem?

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Only a man can determine his own self-worth. A man asking another to name his price is seeking hope and kind words.

Lady Mercedes Burton

Lord Rupert came wide awake at the sound of the door blasting open and stared wide-eyed at the man striding in.
“T-Trace!” He gargled sitting up, his first thought for his naked wife who had dived into his arms and was cowering under the sheets.
Lord Trace Cunningham who never lost his temper was of course not a man who cared much for the proprieties when visiting newlyweds.
“Rupert can you join me in the study for a private conference or would you rather we talk it out in your bedroom?”
“Out,” roared the lion of the manor, aware of the fact that his nubile wife had recognized Trace’s voice and was already peering at him curiously. The sheet that had been previously over her head now dipped to below her neck, her bare neck.
“Pity,” Trace murmured and bowing to Marie with a polite, “madam, your servant,” he quit the room.
Marie giggled. “Foolish man.”
Rupert hurried down the stairs to his study after his mercurial cousin.
Experience with women had taught him that when they laughed at an insane man and called him merely foolish for barging into their bedroom in the dead of night, they thought that man charming.
Go figure. That was feminine logic for you.

“We are married,” Lord Rupert took a stand as soon as he entered the room, “there is nothing Vane or you can do about it. Or Grandmamma,” he added as an afterthought.
Trace raised his hands in mock surrender, “Congratulations! I promise I will not be an obstacle in the course of true love.”
Rupert sighed equally sarcastic, “quite. Obviously this is a social call.”
“Pretty girl Marie,” Trace observed, “a refreshing change from the ex-fiancée, eh?”
Rupert ignored the jibe, “Charlotte and I decided a long time ago that we did not suit.”
“Ah mutual understanding,” Trace nodded his head, “why did neither of you bring it to your family’s notice?”
“Grandmamma would never have approved of Marie. She would have employed some underhanded means and got rid of her and do not insult my intelligence by pretending this is not true. I suggested elopement only after we exhausted every other avenue…”
Lord Rupert was itching for a fight and he had prepared quite a speech but Trace cut him short by raising a hand.
“Help me understand this Rupert- Lady Charlotte knew you planned to elope with Marie. She could have easily saved us all from scandal by breaking off your engagement.”
“Thus invoking the combined wrath of her father and Vane over her head,” Rupert rolled his eyes, “yes that would have been a brilliant move on Charlotte’s part.”
“This is a brilliant move too Rupert, for since you did not come up to scratch now the chit has bagged herself a duke.”
“Vane!” Rupert groaned as understanding dawned, “oh no! Poor Charlotte.”

“You think that was not father and daughter’s original plan?”
Rupert reflected then determined, “Lord Hamilton might think thus but not Charlotte. She once told me she would marry only for love. She would wait all her life if need be for the man who appreciated her as a person, respected her opinion and sought her company. A man who loved her with a- what was the word- ah yes consuming passion.
Who thought her the most beautiful woman in the world- as lady Francesca is to Lord Paul.
That man she said would be her king and she would pledge him her allegiance with her body, heart and soul.”

Trace wondered when the world had last been so innocent.
He met Rupert’s gaze and saw the same understanding reflected there, “when she told me that by Jove, she frankly scared the hell out of me!”
“I thought you loved Marie,” Trace reminded Rupert astringent.
“Yes. I mean she is a jolly old girl who understands I like my life to plod calmly along. She is funny and she is kind. We suit. All this talk of consuming passion makes me break out in hives. Maybe Vane is the man for her. He would not be out of his depth when she starts quoting Shakespeare to him.”
“Or Maudlin,” Trace interjected.
Rupert looked levelly at Trace.
“Shakespeare,” he reiterated, “Maudlin is Charlotte’s friend.”
Trace felt the knowledge like a punch in his gut. Maybe that is why someone had coined the term gut-instinct.
Pretending nonchalance he did not feel he asked. “Who is Maudlin?”

 

Charlotte looked at Mercedes with trepidation after the latter had recounted the conversation she overheard, “Ah Lord Trace knows.”

“Not exactly for the person he asked did not know either,” Mercedes wondered how Trace and Harry did the cloak and dagger thing so well. It was hard to disclose the facts to Charlotte without getting all muddled up. “All I want to tell you is Lord Trace is suspicious and this other person-”

The man who must not be named,” Charlotte supplied interrupting.

“Exactly! Well this man who must not be named has directed all suspicion to you.”

“So I must now beware of Lord Trace breathing down my neck.” Charlotte concluded.

Image: © Mark Nedzbala | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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