The tall, powerfully built man in deerskins stared at the polished brass knocker and hesitated. The large townhouse presented its aristocratic face to the quiet street. Few carriages would be about at this hour of the morning, for their owners generally slept late. Freshly washed windows sparkled, the gray stones solid and unmarred by the harshness of a London winter rose three stories high. Spring was wending its magic path here, in the wealthy section of London. He glimpsed fresh hothouse flowers in a vase through one of the windows, a harbinger of those nature would force from the earth. Straightening his shoulders, the man raised his arm and with one blunt finger touched the gleaming knocker on the front door. Nothing had changed about his London home, at least not outwardly. Only he knew the sheer act of will that had forced him to come this far.
His tanned hand, black tattoos across the wrist exposed at the end of the fringed sleeve, hesitated only briefly. He dropped the brass handle with a solid push.
Valentine, the Duke of Devore, was home.
Stooping to pick up his sack, he hoisted the beaded and fringed deerskin to his shoulders. It held all that remained of his life fur trapping in America, all that linked him to the freedom of the past five years. His fingers tightened on the straps.
Felders answered the door, his hooked nose lifting just the right amount as he stared, eyeball to eyeball, with the tall, sun-darkened stranger with black hair sweeping his shoulders. Trade beads in red and blue swirls and lines adorned his leathered shoulders, catching the weak London sun. Felders’ eyebrows matched the angle of his nostrils as he gave the beggar a second glance.
“If you require food, inquire at the rear entrance. Cook will see to your needs.” The large door began to swing shut.
Valentine jammed an arm between it and the jamb. “Tell the Duchess the Duke has returned,” he snapped in clipped tones. “And have someone get my chamber ready immediately.” Thrusting his pack into Felder’s stomach, he watched in satisfaction as the butler’s jaw fell.
“Your Grace?” Felders never uttered a word in less than a stentorian tone, but these two sounded close to a mousey squeak. “It can’t be.”
“Sorry to say, it is. A bath too. As quickly as you can arrange it.” Valentine strode past the butler, his easy grace emphasized by his long, lithe figure. But there was a bulk now to the shoulders, muscles in the arms, a powerful tilt to his head that hadn’t been there when he’d sailed for the Americas. He paused inside for a second to glance at the London house he hadn’t allowed himself to think about for five years. His mother had held court here all his life. The memories weren’t pleasant, for she’d never loved him. He wasn’t Simon, his elder brother, and she’d never let him forget it.
His life was in America. Not here.
The black and white tiles of the entrance way sparkled with new wax. The wallpaper shone with gilt highlights. Silver sconces held expensive beeswax candles. Crepe didn’t shroud the ornate French mirror, Valentine noticed. Mourning for his dead elder brother would have ended months ago, long before he received the letter at the trading post informing him that he must return to England to assume the ducal mantle. He forced down the feeling of panic the news had engendered.
Housemaids scurried by the front hall, hands to their lips, eyes wide, some clutching aprons to their cheeks as if they feared a savage had been loosed among them.
“I don’t bite. I may lift a scalp or two, however, if I don’t get something to eat,” Valentine growled. He flashed white teeth in a grimace that passed for a smile. His teasing fell on ears which hadn’t heard his voice in so long, they still didn’t believe it was he.
“Wickens, have cook prepare a tray to take up to his Grace’s chambers. Trevor, set the fire in his rooms, Mary, carry up his Grace’s, um, luggage.” Felders passed the deerskin bag to the youngest maid. “I’ll tell her Grace you’re home.”
“No need.” The Dowager Duchess, Lydia, descended the staircase, one pale hand on the banister the only sign she felt any shock at all at seeing her only surviving child. Her silk morning gown rustled as everyone in the grand foyer held their breaths to see how mother would greet son. Many of the servants remembered clearly the days when she would have ignored him as if he were a floor beneath her feet. A particularly dirty floor.
Valentine swept her a perfectly correct bow, the fringe on his sleeve fluttering with the gesture. “Madam, my compliments.”
Floating to where he stood rooted, she presented him with one faintly powdered cheek. “Don’t you know a civilized man never makes an appearance before noon? Or has your time among the savages robbed you of all your training in etiquette?” A faint smile crossed her lips, more than Valentine had ever seen her bestow on him before. As a child, he’d never been able to please her. When he was an adolescent, she’d done all she could to make his life miserable. He’d fought back the only way he could, with words aimed to hurt her and her favorite, Simon.
Valentine reined in the old urge to lash out at the woman who’d birthed him and who’d had no use for him until now, when the ducal heir was most unexpectedly dead. “I can only hope,” he mocked. “My time among the savages, as you call them, was most elucidating.”
One plucked eyebrow rose as his mother allowed him a score for that remark. “Well, well, not so changed after all.”
“You would be amazed.”
The duchess turned to Felders. “His Grace will have luncheon in my room. Send for Mr. Weston’s assistant, and let me know when he arrives.” She turned to Valentine. “Shall we talk? I’m sure Cook will have your tray ready as soon as we leave everyone to get on with their work. After you bathe, of course. You’ll need a new wardrobe, fashions have changed since you left us.”
With that subtle admonition, the dowager duchess cracked her invisible whip over her gawking servants. The action that rippled from her command reminded Valentine of the Algonquin organizing for battle. Valentine trailed her up the stairs, feeling the cold marble through the thin soles of his moccasins. Everything about the house bespoke of power, good taste, and an ancient bloodline. Of which he was the last. His mother may have possessed the coin that paid for the power and good taste, but she needed him to maintain the image of the ducal duchess.
Once into the dowager duchess’ powder blue and silver bedroom, Valentine waited until his mother had seated herself at her dressing table. This room had been forbidden him as a child. Often, he’d wonder what games she played with Simon, as their laughter rode under the door into the hallway, where he lay on the floor, trying to peek through the crack into the magic world where he wasn’t allowed. He’d braved crossing her several times, sneaking in when she was out, avoiding the servants who would tattle on him if they’d seen him touching her silver mirror, the azure silk of her bed hangings. Had his father ever felt welcome in that room? He’d wondered often, for his father the duke avoided his wife as assiduously as she, he.
Val almost touched the silken bed hangings, now a soft sea green with persimmon colored tassels. She’d changed much since he’d left five years ago. He wondered if the alterations were all on the surface.
Waving aside her maid, Lady Lydia picked up a gilt-backed brush and began to stroke her blonde hair. He wondered if silver strands would show upon closer inspection. She’d been young, seventeen, when Simon was born. He’d come along six years later and she’d never spared him a glance from that moment forward. Now she had to pay attention to him, damn her.
Her back was as straight as if she wore her stays under her dressing gown, her eyes in the mirror watching his face. He schooled himself to show no emotion.
“Leave us,” Lydia commanded her maid. The woman curtsied and backed from the room as if ordered from the presence of Prince George. Valentine was aware her eyes never left him for an instant. What did the woman think, that he was going to strike his mother with a tomahawk? Turning his back to the fire leaping in the grate, he graced the lady’s maid, Roberts he thought he remembered was her name, with his fiercest stare. She squeaked, turned, and skipped from the bedroom.
“Honestly, Valentine, stop torturing the servants. You haven’t been home ten seconds and you’re already behaving like a schoolboy.”
The smile that answered her didn’t come from a schoolboy. “Just giving them what they expect. There’d be nothing to discuss below stairs if I didn’t set everyone quaking.”
“Well, stop it.” Lydia set the gilt-backed brush firmly on the dressing table. Her still-beautiful green eyes surveyed her younger son mercilessly. Spine as straight as a lodge pole, her figure still curvy, she was an impressive-looking woman, Valentine realized dispassionately. Before he’d escaped to America, he’d seen as little as he could of his mother, who preferred the company of her husband and his heir. America had been a relief that Valentine hadn’t known he’d craved until he was there. Valentine refused to acknowledge her order.
“You took your time returning.” Her voice soft as silk, she could have been discussing the weather, but Valentine could see the censure in her eyes. Censure and dislike, after all this time.
“Many pardons, dearest mama. Your missive, however, took several months to reach the trading post, and I didn’t receive it until many more months after that.”
“It really was quite thoughtless of you to go so far away. Wouldn’t Italy have suited you better?” Her green eyes ran from his moccasins to his head. “At least you’d have returned better dressed.”
He refused to quake at the disdain he heard. His shirt had been made by one of the supreme bead stitchers in the tribe, and he wore it with pride. His history among the Algonquin could be read by those who knew how in the patterns of porcupine quill and colored glass.
“No, the American Indians with whom I’ve been living were more to my liking.” He refused to say more about the tribe with which he’d become a blood brother, a respected warrior.
“At least you’ve filled out, become more of a ... man. Weston shouldn’t have to pad your shoulders.” Pleased with her observation, she turned once more to her mirror and began to twist up a curl, which she pinned with studied accuracy. “We’ll have to hold a ball. Something small and tasteful, not too elaborate. It’d look as though you were celebrating Simon’s demise. But large enough to show the ton you’ve come back, and you’re now the Duke of Devore.
Inwardly, Valentine shook with distaste at the thought of a ball. He hated the social affairs that had sustained every waking hour of his father, then his brother. Their neglect of the family properties was legendary, but their toilette and social standing had never suffered from lack of attention. Or money. The duchess’ money.
“The only reason I returned at all, mama, is to see if I can retrieve the Devore lands from complete and total ruin. I know your estate supported father and Simon. But I intend to act as the Duke of Devore should. I’ll return to Hammersly tomorrow and have a talk with the estate agent.” He thought he sounded calm, business-like. He knew he’d inflame her with his plans, but he couldn’t hide them. He still needed her, probably as much as she needed him. They both knew it, and hated it.
“A waste of time, mon petit fils.” A dab of rouge on the tip of one finger gently caressed the duchess’ lips. “He’s here now. I brought him to London when I didn’t hear from you, in the event the title would have to go to your imbecile of a cousin.”
Valentine’s eyes glinted. “Then I’ll see him now.”
The duchess’ shrewd gaze slipped from her mirror to her son. “I’d recommend dressing a bit more conventionally. You’ll frighten the poor man into quitting.”
Valentine’s face betrayed none of his annoyance. “Convention is the least of my concerns. I’m sure he’s being adequately compensated to tolerate my presence as I am.”
Pivoting silently on his deerskin moccasins, he crossed to the door with an effortless grace that had the duchess raising one eyebrow.
“He is. Remember you’re the Duke of Devore now. Please behave as such.”
“As if I could ever be allowed to forget.” With a bow that reminded the duchess that he hadn’t forgotten his etiquette lessons, Valentine withdrew from her presence. The chill in the corridor cooled his back, hot from the crackling fire in the grate. He’d forgotten how hot she kept her chambers.
Shivering, he told himself it was the damp English spring that seeped into his bones with an oppression he couldn’t shake.
Winter snows in the mountains of America hadn’t been this cold. Hardened to outdoor changes in climate, he’d seldom noted whether it was hot, damp, humid, or dry. Now though, he longed for his buffalo robe and a bowl of hot pemmican stew as if it were the heart of a killing winter and his lodge the only place safe for anything without fur for covering and a hole in which to hide.
His mother had never touched him. Not a finger to his face to ascertain that it was truly he. Not a peck on the cheek. No embrace. No smile of recognition.
He was the Duke of Devore, and that was all that mattered to the Dowager Duchess. He couldn’t wait to see what she had planned for him. Because he was going to enjoy thwarting her more than he’d loved fur trapping in America.