Unmasking a Duke, page 1
Unmasking a Duke
A Regency Romance
Ellie St. Clair
Prairie Lily Press
Copyright © 2017 by Ellie St. Clair
All rights reserved.
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“I am not sure I agree with this,” William Stephens, the Duke of Elenford murmured, frowning. “The whole idea seems quite ridiculous.”
Lord Andrew Stephens, brother to the Duke, sighed loudly, rolling his eyes as he attempted to convince his brother to do as he was bidden. It had always been something of an impossible task, given that they were both as stubborn as mules. “Elenford, be reasonable. If there truly is someone attempting to harm you – perhaps even kill you,” he exclaimed, “Then it is best you go into hiding for a time. We need to ascertain exactly where the threats are coming from.” And perhaps if you are gone for a time, they will stop entirely, he thought to himself.
The Duke wrinkled his nose. “But to go and live in Scotland….”
Shrugging his shoulders, Andrew got to his feet. “William, you know very well that I care about you dearly, and that is why I am willing to put my life on the line for you.” His eyes took on a mischievous look. “Besides, I am more than delighted to take on the role of Duke for a month or so!”
Elenford rolled his eyes. "I am sure you are, brother dear," he muttered, passing a hand over his eyes. There was no smile on his face, however, as he returned his gaze to his brother. "Although I do not like to think of you at the mercy of a rebel of some sort!"
Andrew snorted. "Hardly a rebel, Elenford, merely someone who wishes to ensure you pay for your sins. You can hardly expect to seduce so many women without someone seeking retribution!" In truth, Andrew suspected that there was more at play than was immediately apparent. Whoever it was sending such threats to the Duke evidently had quite a vendetta against him, which meant that it was something personal - although Andrew had very little idea about what the Duke might have done. It did not help that the Duke was quite the rake, using his title for his own personal advantage. Despite Andrew's many great warnings, his brother continued his erratic and improper behavior with na'ar a thought for anyone except himself.
“I don’t really believe that someone wishes me harm,” the Duke muttered, breaking into Andrew’s musings. “These letters mean nothing!” He gestured to the small pile of unsigned notes on the table, the latest of which had arrived only yesterday.
"They should be taken seriously," Andrew replied, firmly. The notes had initially been of very little concern, given how much correspondence the Duke received on a daily basis - not all of it welcome - but of late, they had become much more threatening. They told the Duke, in no uncertain terms, that his time was slowly coming to an end, describing his behavior as a ‘disgrace to the title'. Unfortunately, Andrew had to agree with that part, although, of course, he did not wish his brother harm. "Besides," he continued, seeing his brother's deepening frown. "Scotland is not so far away, and you shall be there only a month or so. Just until this has all calmed down and we can be sure that it is safe for you to re-enter society here in London. I shall remain here in town and ensure that everything continues to run smoothly, as we agreed.”
“Very well, very well,” Elenford sighed, evidently irritated at having to do as his brother asked. “But I do not believe this is necessary at all.”
Wishing that his brother would, at the very least, consider showing him even a modicum of thanks, Andrew poured himself a brandy, deliberately ignoring his brother’s empty glass. He was growing more and more irritated with every moment that passed. If only the Duke would keep himself in check, then perhaps this situation might never have arisen.
“Then I shall expect this entire situation to be cleared up within the month,” the Duke muttered, crossly, as he poured himself his own brandy. “This is quite ridiculous, Andrew.”
Sitting down, Andrew crossed his feet at the ankle, stretching himself out. "There are a great many lines of inquiry," he murmured, calmly. "After all, I do believe you have crossed a great many people of late."
“I have not,” the Duke spluttered, his face slightly mottled.
Andrew raised a single eyebrow, before lifting his own glass to his mouth. He did not need to say a single word for, soon, the Duke ran out of steam, calmed himself down and sat down opposite his brother.
“Very well,” he sighed, eventually. “There was a Lord Turnbridge, whom I ensured was barred from Whites last month, and I may have tumbled Lady Astley.”
“Lady Astley?” Andrew repeated, flabbergasted. “But her husband is barely in his grave!”
A flicker of guilt crossed the Duke’s face. “Yes, I was aware of that,” he replied, softly. “Mayhap it was a little too soon.” Clearing his throat, he gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. “It appears the late Lord Astley’s brother is more than upset over the perceived slight to his family.”
Andrew wanted to scream, his blood pumping furiously through his veins. His brother used his title for his own pleasures, not caring a whit about what others thought of him. Andrew could not even begin to comprehend behaving in such a way, although, of course, he had sown his own wild oats. However, he had done so in a careful and considerate manner, always ensuring he never took advantage of any woman. Neither had he ever even attempted to seduce the untried ladies, the newly out young women of the ton, unlike his brother. Was it any wonder there were those who wished the Duke harm? Closing his eyes briefly, Andrew hoped to goodness that there were not any babes born from his brother’s actions. Yes, it would be best if the Duke retired to Scotland for a time, holidaying - if one could call it that - at his friend, the Duke of Paisley’s, estate. He, on the other hand, would remain here and attempt to find out exactly what his brother had done and who, in particular, might be after his blood. He just had to hope that the Duke’s absence from society would do everyone the world of good, including the Duke himself. Otherwise, Andrew was not quite sure what to do next.
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Two days later, Andrew waved off the Duke’s carriage with a huge sigh of relief. His brother had gone, and now Andrew was left in charge of the townhouse, as well as ensuring he kept in correspondence with his brother, should anything be discovered. He also intended to calm a few ruffled feathers, in whatever way he could, in the hope that some of the Duke’s deeds could be forgiven.
Turning to face his brother’s butler, Andrew gave a quick nod. “Yes?”
“I did not wish to bother the Duke before he left, but there has been another note.”
Raising his eyebrows, Andrew’s mouth formed a grim line. “Well, I suppose I should read this note, then,” he muttered, walking into the house. “And then I shall see if I can decipher any clues as to whom this man might be.”
Breaking open the letter, noticing the same handwriting scrawling the address on the front, Andrew shook his head to himself. The note said nothing about the sender, nor about what it was the Duke had done but was rather yet more threat
“That would be far from society, at least,” he muttered to himself, running a hand through his hair. He simply hoped he could find the writer before the month was out, for then he would only have the task of convincing his brother that he could not continue to behave in such a manner. Of the two tasks before him, Andrew considered that perhaps convincing his brother to change his ways would actually be more difficult than the task of finding the writer of the threatening notes!
“Heaven help me,” he murmured, throwing the note back down on the table. Where was he to begin?
“I have had more than enough!”
Arabella froze, wincing a little as her father’s diatribe continued.
“That man thinks that he can simply do as he pleases? Well, he will not rest so easy!”
“Papa,” she begged. “Please, leave the Duke be. He did not come upon the Marling Necklace by chance!”
Her father turned puce, his voice dropping to a threatening whisper. “He is a cheat and a fraud, taking that from me and pretending that he won the round honestly.”
Feeling completely helpless, Arabella spread her hands. “I do not know what it is you wish me to do to help you, Papa. I cannot exactly get it back for you.”
He lifted one eyebrow, pinning her with his gaze. “But that is exactly what you are to do.”
A shiver ran through her as she saw his conniving expression. She did not want anything to do with her father’s plans, since, as far as she was concerned, he had lost the necklace entirely by his own foolish choices. It was well known among the ton that a man simply did not bet against the Duke. Whether it was through luck being on the man’s side, or whether through more nefarious means, the Duke of Elenford always seemed to get exactly what he wanted.
“I should never have put such a priceless heirloom on the table,” her father muttered, his eyes filled with regret. “But, as things stand, we are going to get it back - and more with it.”
“More?” Arabella repeated, faintly. “What are you talking about, papa?”
He studied her for a moment before a slightly calculating smile appeared on his face. "You are close to being on the shelf, Arabella, is that not so?"
Heat filled her cheeks at once, ashamed at her father’s cruel words. It was hardly her fault that he refused to allow her out to the various balls she had been invited to. Had her mother been alive, perhaps things might be different, but she had died over ten years ago now, leaving Arabella quite alone with her indifferent father. He had never been interested in presenting her to society, nor for her to catch a husband. Despite being out, Arabella had slowly lost hope about ever having her time in society. Her dreams of meeting an eligible gentleman, of being courted and then betrothed slowly dimmed and died, until they were only ashes in her hands.
“The Duke is unmarried,” her father repeated slowly. “And has something of a penchant for young women, it seems.”
“Papa!” Arabella gasped. “You cannot expect me to allow him any liberties!”
He chuckled, darkly. “You are to be friendly, my dear, that is all. And then, I expect you to find and return the Marling necklace to me.”
Arabella did not want to ask how her father expected her to find the Marling necklace, given that it was, more than likely, being kept in the Duke’s townhouse somewhere, possibly under lock and key.
“Papa,” she whispered, the blood draining from her face. “I cannot do such a thing.”
“You can, and you will,” he retorted, firmly. “Should you chose not to do as I’ve asked, then things will be all the worse for you. You know of what I speak, Arabella.”
Unfortunately, Arabella knew exactly what her father meant. He had often threatened her with marriage to his second cousin, a much older man with a violent temper. It was his way of keeping Arabella in line. Having met the man on a few occasions, Arabella had always lived in fear of her father doing exactly what he threatened. She would be dragged to the altar, and the words forced from her lips, should her father decide to do such a thing. After all, he was a particularly cruel and vicious man.
“Please, Papa,” she begged, trying desperately not to cry. “Don’t force me to do this.”
His hand reached for his cane, making Arabella shudder as his threat became apparent.
"Do you have anything else to say?" he asked, softly, his deep gray eyes boring into her.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Arabella shook her head, wishing she could have the courage and strength to refuse him, but knowing there was no fight left in her.
“Good,” her father replied, silkily. “Now, off to the modiste with you. There is a masquerade ball two nights hence, and I expect the Duke will be going. No time like the present to make a good first impression!”
Scrambling from her chair, Arabella left the room at once, blinking back tears of frustration and hurt. The maid and carriage were waiting for her, apparently already aware of her father’s dictates. In no time at all, she found herself at the modiste, being offered a variety of materials and styles.
Arabella didn’t care what she wore, still stumbling over what her father was asking her, or in truth, forcing her, to do. It wasn’t her fault that her father had chosen to take on the Duke of Elenford at cards, despite being fully aware of his reputation. Arabella had begged him not to go, of course, but had received a resounding slap for her trouble. It was not the first time her father had struck her, but it was enough to remind her that he was completely in charge and she had best stick to her place.
It had been a long night but she'd waited up for her father, wondering if they would be destitute come the morning. Eventually, when the sun was already beginning to come up, she'd heard him enter the house, ranting and raving like a madman. With her heart in her throat, she’d followed him at a distance, seeing him storm into his study with a man by his side. The door had been left ajar, and she’d pressed her eye to it, only to see her father unlock the safe and pull out the family heirloom. It had been in their family for generations, and he had often warned her of its significance and worth, telling her that one day he would have to pass it on to her. Over and over, he had repeated that she must never sell it or lose it, that it must be kept safe at all times. In truth, Arabella believed that her father did not even know the true worth of the necklace, given that it was encrusted with diamonds, emeralds and other gems, all of different sizes and shapes. It was possibly the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
Her father had been forced to give it to the Duke’s manservant, along with his blistering curses and angry words. The manservant had pocketed the wrapped package, without so much as a word of appreciation, before walking back towards the door. Arabella had run back to her room before her father found her watching, her heart sinking into her toes.
It had become apparent that her father had put up almost everything he had on the table, only to win it all back and more to boot. But he had been arrogant enough to go one final round, putting the necklace against the vast sums of wealth the Duke had left on the table. Of course, his pride and arrogance had pushed the necklace into the Duke's possession, although Arabella was glad that at least her father had not lost the entirety of his wealth.
"And now I am supposed to get it back," she murmured to herself, staring at her reflection morosely. Even the emerald green dress didn't bring a smile to her face, despite the modiste's brilliant smile and her maid's sigh of happiness. The only reason she needed a new gown was to catch the Duke's eye. The very thought made her nauseous.
“There he is,” her father whispered, elbowing Arabella in the ribs. “I am sure he has just been announced.”
Frowning, Arabella shook her head to herself, catching sight of the tall, handsome gentleman who walked into the room. He had a black and white chequered mask covering his eyes and forehead, but his mouth was smiling slightly. "I do not believe they said the
"Nonsense, girl," he hissed, his hand snaking around her upper arm. "Now, you know what you are to do. I expect to see you dance with him at least once, Arabella. The family's honor lies on your shoulders."
With those harsh words, he gave her a slight shove in the Duke’s direction, which made Arabella almost trip over her own feet. Righting herself, Arabella straightened her own mask, which was made up of some bird feathers and sequins. She had thought it gaudy, embarrassed to be wearing such a creation, but her father had forced the issue, telling her not to be so particular.
Walking towards the man her father thought was the Duke, Arabella could feel her father's eyes boring into her back. However, what was she to do? It was not the done thing to introduce oneself to the Duke, for that would be most improper. On the other hand, Arabella did not know anyone else here – and, even if she did, she would struggle to recognize them. Perhaps the masquerade ball would work to her advantage.
“Your Grace,” she mumbled, curtsying beautifully. “How lovely to see you again.” It was a complete and utter lie, given that she had never seen the man before, but the flash of surprise in his eyes disappeared almost the moment she straightened.
"I must confess, you have the better of me, my lady," came the reply. "For, of course, that mask hides a great deal of your beauty."
Arabella tried to smile, ignoring the rolling ball of tension in her stomach. “You are too kind, Your Grace. Of course, no one could mistake your identity here.”
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