The duchess war, p.1
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       The Duchess War, p.1
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         Part #1 of Brothers Sinister series by Courtney Milan
The Duchess War
The Duchess War

  by Courtney Milan

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  The Duchess War: © 2012 by Courtney Milan.

  Cover design © Courtney Milan.

  Cover photographs © Anna Furman | istockphoto.com.

  All rights reserved. Where such permission is sufficient, the author grants the right to strip any DRM which may be applied to this work.

  For Carey

  who prefers beagles over bagels

  Chapter One

  Leicester, November, 1863

  Robert Blaisdell, the ninth Duke of Clermont, was not hiding.

  True, he’d retreated to the upstairs library of the old Guildhall, far enough from the crowd below that the noise of the ensemble had faded to a distant rumble. True, nobody else was about. Also true: He stood behind thick curtains of blue-gray velvet, which shielded him from view. And he’d had to move the heavy davenport of brown-buttoned leather to get there.

  But he’d done all that not to hide himself, but because—and this was a key point in his rather specious train of logic—in this centuries-old structure of plaster and timberwork, only one of the panes in the windows opened, and that happened to be the one secreted behind the sofa.

  So here he stood, cigarillo in hand, the smoke trailing out into the chilly autumn air. He wasn’t hiding; it was simply a matter of preserving the aging books from fumes.

  He might even have believed himself, if only he smoked.

  Still, through the wavy panes of aging glass, he could make out the darkened stone of the church directly across the way. Lamplight cast unmoving shadows on the pavement below. A pile of handbills had once been stacked against the doors, but an autumn breeze had picked them up and scattered them down the street, driving them into puddles.

  He was making a mess. A goddamned glorious mess. He smiled and tapped the end of his untouched cigarillo against the window opening, sending ashes twirling to the paving stones below.

  The quiet creak of a door opening startled him. He turned from the window at the corresponding scritch of floorboards. Someone had come up the stairs and entered the adjoining room. The footsteps were light—a woman’s, perhaps, or a child’s. They were also curiously hesitant. Most people who made their way to the library in the midst of a musicale had a reason to do so. A clandestine meeting, perhaps, or a search for a missing family member.

  From his vantage point behind the curtains, Robert could only see a small slice of the library. Whoever it was drew closer, walking hesitantly. She was out of sight—somehow he was sure that she was a woman—but he could hear the soft, prowling fall of her feet, pausing every so often as if to examine the surroundings.

  She didn’t call out a name or make a determined search. It didn’t sound as if she were looking for a hidden lover. Instead, her footsteps circled the perimeter of the room.

  It took Robert half a minute to realize that he’d waited too long to announce himself. “Aha!” he could imagine himself proclaiming, springing out from behind the curtains. “I was admiring the plaster. Very evenly laid back there, did you know?”

  She would think he was mad. And so far, nobody yet had come to that conclusion. So instead of speaking, he dropped his cigarillo out the window. It tumbled end over end, orange tip glowing, until it landed in a puddle and extinguished itself.

  All he could see of the room was a half-shelf of books, the back of the sofa, and a table next to it on which a chess set had been laid out. The game was in progress; from what little he remembered of the rules, black was winning. Whoever it was drew nearer, and Robert shrank back against the window.

  She crossed into his field of vision.

  She wasn’t one of the young ladies he’d met in the crowded hall earlier. Those had all been beauties, hoping to catch his eye. And she—whoever she was—was not a beauty. Her dark hair was swept into a no-nonsense knot at the back of her neck. Her lips were thin and her nose was sharp and a bit on the long side. She was dressed in a dark blue gown trimmed in ivory—no lace, no ribbons, just simple fabric. Even the cut of her gown bordered on the severe side: waist pulled in so tightly he wondered how she could breathe, sleeves marching from her shoulders to her wrists without an inch of excess fabric to soften the picture.

  She didn’t see Robert standing behind the curtain. She had set her head to one side and was eyeing the chess set the way a member of the Temperance League might look at a cask of brandy: as if it were an evil to be stamped out with prayer and song—and failing that, with martial law.

  She took one halting step forward, then another. Then, she reached into the silk bag that hung around her wrist and retrieved a pair of spectacles.

  Glasses should have made her look more severe. But as soon as she put them on, her gaze softened.

  He’d read her wrongly. Her eyes hadn’t been narrowed in scorn; she’d been squinting. It hadn’t been severity he saw in her gaze but something else entirely—something he couldn’t quite make out. She reached out and picked up a black knight, turning it around, over and over. He could see nothing about the pieces that would merit such careful attention. They were solid wood, carved with indifferent skill. Still, she studied it, her eyes wide and luminous.

  Then, inexplicably, she raised it to her lips and kissed it.

  Robert watched in frozen silence. It almost felt as if he were interrupting a tryst between a woman and her lover. This was a lady who had secrets, and she didn’t want to share them.

  The door in the far room creaked as it opened once more.

  The woman’s eyes grew wide and wild. She looked about frantically and dove over the davenport in her haste to hide, landing in an ignominious heap two feet away from him. She didn’t see Robert even then; she curled into a ball, yanking her skirts behind the leather barrier of the sofa, breathing in shallow little gulps.

  Good thing he’d moved the davenport back half a foot earlier. She never would have fit the great mass of her skirts behind it otherwise.

  Her fist was still clenched around the chess piece; she shoved the knight violently under the sofa.

  This time, a heavier pair of footfalls entered the room.

  “Minnie?” said a man’s voice. “Miss Pursling? Are you here?”

  Her nose scrunched and she pushed back against the wall. She made no answer.

  “Gad, man.” Another voice that Robert didn’t recognize—young and slightly slurred with drink. “I don’t envy you that one.”

  “Don’t speak ill of my almost-betrothed,” the first voice said. “You know she’s perfect for me.”

  “That timid little rodent?”

  “She’ll keep a good home. She’ll see to my comfort. She’ll manage the children, and she won’t complain about my mistresses.” There was a creak of hinges—the unmistakable sound of someone opening one of the glass doors that protected the bookshelves.

  “What are you doing, Gardley?” the drunk man asked. “Looking for her among the German volumes? I don’t think she’d fit.” That came with an ugly laugh.

  Gardley. That couldn’t be the elder Mr. Gardley, owner of a distillery—not by the youth in that voice. This must be Mr. Gardley the younger. Robert had seen him from afar—an unremarkable fellow of medium height, medium-brown hair, and features that reminded him faintly of five other people.

  “On the contrary,” young Gardley said. “I think she’ll fit quite well. As wives go, Miss Pursling will be just like these books. When I wish to take her down and read her, she’ll be there. When I don’t, she’ll wait patiently, precisely where she was left. She’ll make me a comfo
rtable wife, Ames. Besides, my mother likes her.”

  Robert didn’t believe he’d met an Ames. He shrugged and glanced down at—he was guessing—Miss Pursling to see how she took this revelation.

  She didn’t look surprised or shocked at her almost-fiancé’s unromantic utterance. Instead, she looked resigned.

  “You’ll have to take her to bed, you know,” Ames said.

  “True. But not, thank God, very often.”

  “She’s a rodent. Like all rodents, I imagine she’ll squeal when she’s poked.”

  There was a mild thump.

  “What?” yelped Ames.

  “That,” said Gardley, “is my future wife you are talking about.”

  Maybe the fellow wasn’t so bad after all.

  Then Gardley continued. “I’m the only one who gets to think about poking that rodent.”

  Miss Pursling pressed her lips together and looked up, as if imploring the heavens. But inside the library, there were no heavens to implore. And when she looked up, through the gap in the curtains…

  Her gaze met Robert’s. Her eyes grew big and round. She didn’t scream; she didn’t gasp. She didn’t twitch so much as an inch. She simply fixed him with a look that bristled with silent, venomous accusation. Her nostrils flared.

  There was nothing Robert could do but lift his hand and give her a little wave.

  She took off her spectacles and turned away in a gesture so regally dismissive that he had to look twice to remind himself that she was, in fact, sitting in a heap of skirts at his feet. That from this awkward angle above her, he could see straight down the neckline of her gown—right at the one part of her figure that didn’t strike him as severe, but soft—

  Save that for later, he admonished himself, and adjusted his gaze up a few inches. Because she’d turned away, he saw for the first time a faint scar on her left cheek, a tangled white spider web of crisscrossed lines.

  “Wherever your mouse has wandered off to, it’s not here,” Ames was saying. “Likely she’s in the lady’s retiring room. I say we go back to the fun. You can always tell your mother you had words with her in the library.”

  “True enough,” Gardley said. “And I don’t need to mention that she wasn’t present for them—it’s not as if she would have said anything in response, even if she had been here.”

  Footsteps receded; the door creaked once more, and the men walked out.

  Miss Pursling didn’t look at Robert once they’d left, not even to acknowledge his existence with a glare. Instead, she pushed herself to her knees, made a fist, and slammed it into the hard back of the sofa—once, then twice, hitting it so hard that it moved forward with the force of her blow—all one hundred pounds of it.

  He caught her wrist before she landed a third strike. “There now,” he said. “You don’t want to hurt yourself over him. He doesn’t deserve it.”

  She stared up at him, her eyes wide.

  He didn’t see how any man could call this woman timid. She positively crackled with defiance. He let go of her arm before the fury in her could travel up his hand and consume him. He had enough anger of his own.

  “Never mind me,” she said. “Apparently I’m not capable of helping myself.”

  He almost jumped. He wasn’t sure how he’d expected her voice to sound—sharp and severe, like her appearance suggested? Perhaps he’d imagined her talking in a high squeak, as if she were the rodent she’d been labeled. But her voice was low, warm, and deeply sensual. It was the kind of voice that made him suddenly aware that she was on her knees before him, her head almost level with his crotch.

  Save that for later, too.

  “I’m a rodent. All rodents squeal when poked.” She punched the sofa once again. She was going to bruise her knuckles if she kept that up. “Are you planning to poke me, too?”

  “No.” Stray thoughts didn’t count, thank God; if they did, all men would burn in hell forever.

  “Do you always skulk behind curtains, hoping to overhear intimate conversations?”

  Robert felt the tips of his ears burn. “Do you always leap behind sofas when you hear your fiancé coming?”

  “Yes,” she said defiantly. “Didn’t you hear? I’m like a book that has been mislaid. One day, one of his servants will find me covered in dust in the middle of spring-cleaning. ‘Ah,’ the butler will say. ‘That’s where Miss Wilhelmina has ended up. I had forgotten all about her.’”

  Wilhelmina Pursling? What a dreadful appellation.

  She took a deep breath. “Please don’t tell anyone. Not about any of this.” She shut her eyes and pressed her fingers to her eyes. “Please just go away, whoever you are.”

  He brushed the curtains to one side and made his way around the sofa. From a few feet away, he couldn’t even see her. He could only imagine her curled on the floor, furious to the point of tears.

  “Minnie,” he said. It wasn’t polite to call her by so intimate a name. And yet he wanted to hear it on his tongue.

  She didn’t respond.

  “I’ll give you twenty minutes,” he said. “If I don’t see you downstairs by then, I’ll come up for you.”

  For a few moments, there was no answer. Then: “The beautiful thing about marriage is the right it gives me to monogamy. One man intent on dictating my whereabouts is enough, wouldn’t you think?”

  He stared at the sofa in confusion before he realized that she thought he’d been threatening to drag her out.

  Robert was good at many things. Communicating with women was not one of them.

  “That’s not what I meant,” he muttered. “It’s just…” He walked back to the sofa and peered over the leather top. “If a woman I cared about was hiding behind a sofa, I would hope that someone would take the time to make sure she was well.”

  There was a long pause. Then fabric rustled and she looked up at him. Her hair had begun to slip out of that severe bun; it hung around her face, softening her features, highlighting the pale whiteness of her scar. Not pretty, but…interesting. And he could have listened to her talk all night.

  She stared at him in puzzlement. “Oh,” she said flatly. “You’re attempting to be kind.” She sounded as if the possibility had never occurred to her before. She let out a sigh, and gave him a shake of her head. “But your kindness is misplaced. You see, that—” she pointed toward the doorway where her near-fiancé had disappeared “—that is the best possible outcome I can hope for. I have wanted just such a thing for years. As soon as I can stomach the thought, I’ll be marrying him.”

  There was no trace of sarcasm in her voice. She stood. With a practiced hand, she smoothed her hair back under the pins and straightened her skirts until she was restored to complete propriety.

  Only then did she stoop, patting under the sofa to find where she’d tossed the knight. She examined the chessboard, cocked her head, and then very, very carefully, set the piece back into place.

  While he was standing there, watching her, trying to make sense of her words, she walked out the door.

  Minnie descended the stairs that led from the library into the darkened courtyard just outside the Great Hall, her pulse still beating heavily. For a moment, she’d thought he was going to start interrogating her. But no, she’d escaped without any questions asked. Everything was precisely as it always was: quiet and stupefyingly dull. Just as she needed it. Nothing to fear, here.

  The faint strains of the concerto, poorly rendered by the indifferent skills of the local string quartet, were scarcely audible in the courtyard. Darkness painted the open yard in a palette of gray. Not that there would have been so many colors to see in daylight, either: just the blue-gray slate making up the courtyard and the aging plaster of the timber-framed walls. A few persistent weeds had sprung up in the cracks between the paving stones, but they’d withered to sepia wisps. They had scarcely any color in the harsh navy of the night. A few dark figures stood by the hall door, punch glasses in hand. Everything was muted out here—sight, sound, and all of Minnie
s roiling emotions.

  The musicale had drawn an astonishing number of people. Enough that the main room was mobbed, all the seats taken and still more people skirting the edges. Odd that the weak strains of badly played Beethoven would draw so many, but the crowd had come out in force. One look at that throng and Minnie had retreated, her stomach clenching in tight knots. She couldn’t go into that room.

  Maybe she could feign illness.

  In truth, she wouldn’t even have to pretend.

  But—

  A door opened behind her. “Miss Pursling. There you are.”

  Minnie jumped at the voice and swiftly turned around.

  Leicester’s Guildhall was an ancient building—one of the few timberwork structures from medieval times that hadn’t perished in one fire or another. Over the centuries, it had acquired a hodgepodge collection of uses. It was a gathering hall for events like this, a hearing room for the mayor and his aldermen, storage for the town’s few ceremonial items. They’d even converted one of the rooms into holding cells for prisoners; one side of the courtyard was brick rather than plaster, and made a home for the chief constable.

  Tonight, though, the Great Hall was in use—which was why she hadn’t expected anyone from the mayor’s parlor.

  A stocky figure approached in quick, sure strides. “Lydia has been looking for you this last half hour. As have I.”

  Minnie let out a breath of relief. George Stevens was a decent fellow. Better than the two louts that she’d just escaped. He was the captain of the town’s militia, and her best friend’s fiancé.

  “Captain Stevens. It’s so crowded in there. I simply had to get some air.”

  “Did you, now.” He came toward her. At first, he was nothing more than a shadow. Then he drew close enough for her to make out details without her spectacles, and he resolved into familiar features: jovial mustache, puffed-up sideburns.

  “You don’t like crowds, do you?” His tone was solicitous.

  “No.”

  “Why not?”

  “I just never have.” But she had, once. She had a dim memory of a swarm of men surrounding her, calling out her name, wanting to speak with her. There’d been no possibility of coquetry at the time—she’d been eight years old and dressed as a boy to boot—but there had once been a time when the energy of a crowd had buoyed her up, instead of tying her stomach in knots.

  Captain Stevens came to stand beside her.

  “I don’t like raspberries, either,” Minnie confessed. “They make my throat tingle.”

  But he was looking down at her, the ends of his mustache dipping with the weight of his frown. He rubbed his eyes, as if he wasn’t sure what he was seeing.

  “Come,” Minnie said with a smile. “You’ve known me all these years, and in all that time I’ve never liked large gatherings.”

  “No,” he said thoughtfully. “But you see, Miss Pursling, I happened to be in Manchester last week on business.”

  Don’t react. The instinct was deeply ingrained; Minnie made sure her smile was just as easy, that she continued to smooth her skirts without freezing in fear. But there was a great roaring in her ears, and her heart began to thump all too swiftly.

  “Oh,” she heard herself say. Her voice sounded overly bright to her ears, and entirely too brittle. “My old home. It’s been so long. How did you find it?”

  “I found it strange.” He took another step toward her. “I visited your Great-Aunt Caroline’s old neighborhood. I intended to merely make polite conversation, convey news of you to those who might recall you as a child. But nobody remembered Caroline’s sister marrying. And when I looked, there was no record of your birth in the parish register.”

  “How odd.” Minnie stared at the cobblestones. “I don’t know where my birth was registered. You’ll have to ask Great-Aunt Caroline.”

  “Nobody had heard of you. You did reside in the same neighborhood as the one where she was raised, did you not?”

  The wind whipped through the courtyard with a mournful two-toned whistle. Minnie’s heart pounded out a little accompanying rhythm. Not now. Not now. Please don’t fall to pieces now.

  “I have never liked crowds,” she heard herself say. “Not even then. I was not well-known as a child.”

  “Hmm.”

  “I was really so young when I left that I’m afraid I can be of no help. I scarcely remember Manchester at all. Great-Aunt Caro, on the other hand—”

  “But it is not your great-aunt who worries me,” he said slowly. “You know that keeping the peace forms a part of my duty.”

  Stevens had always been a serious fellow. Even though the militia had been called on only once in the last year—and then to assist in fighting a fire—he took his task quite seriously.

  She no longer needed to pretend to confusion. “I don’t understand. What does any of this have to do with the peace?”

  “These are dangerous times,” he intoned. “Why, I was part of the militia that put down the Chartist demonstrations in ’42, and I’ve never forgotten how they started.”

  “This still has nothing to do with—”

  “I remember the days before violence broke out,” he continued coldly. “I know how it starts. It starts when someone tells the workers that they should have a voice of their own, instead of doing what they’ve been told. Meetings. Talks. Handbills. I’ve heard what you said as part of the Workers’ Hygiene Commission, Miss Pursling. And I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.”

  His voice had gone very cold indeed, and a little shiver ran up Minnie’s arms. “But all I said was—”

  “I know what you said. At the time, I put it down to mere naïveté. But now I know the truth. You’re not who you say you are. You’re lying.”

  Her heart began to beat faster. She glanced to her left, at the small group ten feet away. One of the girls was drinking punch and giggling. Surely, if she screamed—

  But screaming wouldn’t do any good. As impossible as it seemed, someone had discovered the truth.

  “I cannot be certain,” he said, “but I feel in my bones that something is amiss. You are a part of this.” So saying, he thrust a piece of paper at her, jabbing it almost into her breastbone.

  She took it from him reflexively and held it up to catch the light emanating from the windows. For a second, she wondered what she was looking at—a newspaper article? There had been enough of them, but the paper didn’t have the feel of newsprint. Or perhaps it was her birth record. That would be bad enough. She retrieved her glasses from her pocket.

  When she could finally read it, she almost burst into relieved laughter. Of all the accusations he could have leveled at her—of all the lies she’d told, starting with her own name—he thought she was involved with this? Stevens had given her a handbill, the kind that appeared on the walls of factories and was left in untidy heaps outside church doors.

  WORKERS, read the top line in massive capital letters. And then, beneath it: ORGANIZE, ORGANIZE, ORGANIZE!!!!!

  “Oh, no,” she protested. “I’ve never seen this before. And it’s really not my sort of thing.” For one thing, she was fairly certain that any sentence that used more exclamation points than words was an abomination.

  “They’re all over town,” he growled. “Someone is responsible for them.” He held up one finger. “You volunteered to make up the handbills for the Workers’ Hygiene Commission. That gives you an excuse to visit every printer in town.”

  “But—”

  He held up a second finger. “You suggested that the workers be involved in the Commission in the first place.”

  “I only said it made sense to ask workers about their access to pump water! If we didn’t ask, we would have done all that work only to find their health unchanged. It’s a long way from there to suggesting that they organize.”

  A third finger. “Your great-aunts are involved in that dreadful food cooperative, and I happen to know you were instrumental in arranging it.”

  “A business
transaction! What does it matter where we sell our cabbages?”

  Stevens pointed those three fingers at her. “It’s all of a pattern. You’re sympathetic to the workers, and you’re not who you claim to be. Someone is helping them print handbills. You must think I’m stupid, to sign them like that.” He gestured at the bottom of the handbill. There was a name at the end. She squinted at it through her glasses.

  Not a name. A pseudonym.

  De minimis, she read. She’d never learned Latin, but she knew a little Italian and a good amount of French, and she thought it meant something like “trifles.” A little thing.

  “I don’t understand.” She shook her head blankly. “What has that to do with me?”

  “De. Minnie. Mis.” He spoke the syllables separately, giving her name a savage twist. “You must think me a fool, Miss Minnie.”

  It made a horrible kind of logic, so twisted that she might have laughed outright. Except that the consequence of this joke was not amusing.

  “I have no proof,” he said, “and as your friendship with my future wife is known, I have no wish to see you publicly humiliated and charged with criminal sedition.”

  “Criminal sedition!” she echoed in disbelief.

  “So consider this a warning. If you keep on with this—” he flicked the paper in her hands “—I will find out the truth of your origins. I will prove that you are the one behind this. And I will ruin you.”

  “I have nothing to do with it!” she protested, but it was futile. He was already turning away.

  She clenched the handbill in her fist. What a damnable turn of events. Stevens was starting from a false premise, but it didn’t matter how he found the trail. If he followed it, he’d discover everything. Minnie’s past. Her real name. And most of all, her sins—long-buried, but not dead.

  De minimis.

  The difference between ruin and safety was a little thing. A very little thing, but she wasn’t going to lose it.

 
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