Claiming the duchess (fi.., p.1
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       Claiming the Duchess (Fitzhugh Trilogy Book 0.5), p.1

          
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Claiming the Duchess (Fitzhugh Trilogy Book 0.5)
Copyright

  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.

  Claiming the Duchess © 2014 by Sherry Thomas.

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

 

  Claiming the Duchess

  Fitzhugh Trilogy Book 0.5

  Chapter 1

  Algernon House

  Derbyshire, England

  April 1882

  Just before Clarissa, Duchess of Lexington, met the man who would inspire four long years of unrequited love on her part, she was thinking about fossils.

  She didn’t have any particular interest of her own in these mementos of prehistoric life, but her fifteen-year-old stepson, Christian, quite adored them—and his collection was growing at a problematic rate.

  Christian’s father—and Clarissa’s husband—did not approve of his heir “mucking about in the dirt,” as he called it. Worse, he was always threatening to scrap all the specimens that Christian had painstakingly gathered.

  Every night during the boy’s Easter holiday, he had lugged about trays of fossils, hiding them in various trunks and broom cupboards. The house was vast and some of the fossils were sure to remain undisturbed. But there was every chance of the rest meeting an ignominious end in the rubbish bin.

  If only—

  “There you are, Duchess.”

  The voice belonged to Lord Hatchford, the duke’s good friend and fellow womanizer. And where Lord Hatchford was, the duke was never far away.

  Clarissa no longer loved her husband, but sometimes, when she came upon him, she still experienced a pang in her chest: She missed her younger self—not the naive girl who had worshiped him, but the optimistic and confident young woman who had believed the world her oyster.

  Or had that also been part of her naïveté? In either case, it had been a long, painful disillusionment to realize that the man she married was vain, arrogant, incapable of fidelity, and not even fun to have around.

  She turned from the balustrade of the grand terrace where she had been standing. To her surprise, alongside the duke and Lord Hatchford there was a third man.

  “Duchess,” said Lord Hatchford, “allow me to present my cousin, Mr. Kingston.”

  Mr. Kingston bowed.

  He was a young man—Clarissa was twenty-eight and he must be two or three years younger. He was also a handsome man, with an athletic build perfectly set off by his riding attire, a head of thick chestnut hair, and a chiseled face, the severity of which was softened just a little by the shapeliness of his lips—lips that were sharp and cleanly defined, like the rest of his features, yet fuller than one would have expected.

  That subtle contrast caught Clarissa’s attention. But she had learned all too well that beauty was only skin-deep—it was certainly the case for her husband.

  “Welcome to Algernon House, Mr. Kingston,” she said. “And please, gentlemen, don’t let me keep you from your ride. It’s a good day for a gallop in the country.”

  Mr. Kingston bowed again. When he straightened, his gaze returned to her, level and unwavering.

  “Did you invite that Miss Elphinstone again?” exclaimed the duke, who had sauntered to the edge of the terrace. “What use do I have for an old, ugly, and quarrelsome woman in my house?”

  Clarissa could only hope the woman she respected for her learning hadn’t heard the duke. “I happen to think Miss Elphinstone is unconventionally handsome and highly original,” said Clarissa.

  The duke rolled his eyes. “The duchess and her enlightened views.”

  Lord Hatchford chortled on cue.

  She waited for Mr. Kingston to do the same. Instead, he said, “I agree with the duchess. Miss Elphinstone possesses a leonine grace and a deep erudition. I hope to be fortunate enough to be seated next to her at dinner.”

  The duke, to say the least, was taken aback. Clarissa twice as much: Other than Christian, she was not used to anyone coming to her defense.

  Lord Hatchford chortled again, this time with more effort. “The day flees, gentlemen. We don’t want to ride in the dark, do we?”

  The duke stalked off, Lord Hatchford in his wake. Mr. Kingston bowed once more in Clarissa’s direction before he too walked away.

  At the door, however, he turned halfway around, as if he had something he wished to say to her. Her heart skipped a beat; her gaze fastened to his lips.

  But after a moment of hesitation, he left without another word.

  “Has he been an ass again?” asked Christian. “Should we throw darts at his portrait?”

  He and Clarissa sat in the shade of a chestnut tree, which overlooked the old quarry on the property. The quarry, with its exposed strata of limestone liberally sprinkled with fossils, had long been Christian’s preferred playground.

  “What?” asked Clarissa, her mind on Mr. Kingston, before she realized that her stepson was talking about his father. “Oh, no more than usual. Why do you ask?”

  He poured more tea from his canteen into her empty cup. “You are quiet.”

  “Well, sometimes when I’m quiet, I’m just scheming.” She smiled at the boy who was something of a cross between a son and a brother to her.

  He smiled back. “Do tell.”

  “Well, you know how your father is always going on and on about throwing away your fossils?”

  “Oh, yes, I do,” he said dryly.

  She admired the boy’s equanimity. When the duke had unkind words for her, Christian never failed to retaliate on her behalf, no matter how many times he had been sent to bed without his supper. But when he himself was the subject of the duke’s ire, by and large he brushed aside the duke’s tirades as if they were so many gnats on a hot summer day.

  “It so happens that I have commissioned a number of armoires for the rooms of the east wing.”

  “Nobody uses the east wing,” he reminded her.

  “Precisely. I have been waiting for the armoires to arrive, and I am pleased to inform you that they are going to be delivered on the morrow. When you open them, you will find that they have been equipped with partitioned drawers of various depths, perfect for the storage of fossils.”

  Christian sucked in a breath. “And they come equipped with locks, of course.”

  “Of course. And no one will even be curious about them, since they will be permanently hidden under dust covers.”

  He kissed her on the cheek, nearly upsetting her teacup. “You are a marvel, Stepmama.”

  “Well, yes, I am,” she admitted modestly.

  They both laughed and lifted their cups.

  “To outfoxing your father,” she said.

  “To you,” answered her stepson simply.

  Her heart ached. Often she wished she’d had the good sense to not marry the duke, but never had she regretted becoming part of Christian’s life. She kissed him on his forehead and rose. “You go back to digging. I had better reorganize the seating chart for dinner.”

  Mr. Kingston would be seated next to Miss Elphinstone even if Clarissa had to redo the entire arrangement from scratch.

  For the next three days, whenever Clarissa wasn’t seeing to her guests or helping Christian smuggle his fossils into the new armoires in the east wing, she studied Mr. Kingston.

  Very, very discreetly: a glance in passing, a question to someone in the next seat, a slightly more circuitous route that brought her near him as she wended among groups of guests.

  She was…disappointed. The man who had been so assertive and resolute in praise of Miss Elphinstone’s virtues had all but disappeared; even Miss Elphinstone herself could barely get two words out of him. And the man who had almost turned around for a private moment with Clarissa did not approach her again during the remainder of the house party—did not even glance at her, as far as she could tell.

  Except when he left. They happened to be alone in the entry hall of the house. As he said his good-byes—the first time she’d heard his voice since the day of their meeting—he gazed directly at her.

  His eyes were hazel.

  Her heart did something worrisome in her chest. A moment later she was looking at his retreating back, wanting something quite badly and yet not sure exactly what.

  The other guests also departed; Christian left for a new term at Harrow; the duke and his latest mistress took off for London. All at once Clarissa found herself alone in a house of a hundred fifty rooms, with only her own thoughts and memories of Mr. Kingston’s seemingly contradictory actions for company.

  Clarissa was taking her tea the next afternoon when a letter arrived from a woman named Julia Kirkland.

  Your Grace,

  I write in the hope of obtaining a cutting of lavender hydrangea from Algernon House. Please do not feel obliged to bestir yourself, for I am a terrible gardener and the cutting has a better chance of going around the world in eighty days than surviving my attempts at propagation.

  All the same, I pray that you would part with a stem or two.

  Some time ago, I had the opportunity of visiting Algernon House—and came upon a stranger standing by a large stone tub of the hydrangea. I fell in love at once. But, as is the way of such things, we parted with scarcely a word exchanged.

  I would like to remember that day—and my unobtainable beloved—with a profusion of hydrangea blooms in my garden. I am more than a little ashamed at this maudlin urge—I had always believed myself made of sterner stuff. But then along comes love and makes fools of us all.

  Yours sincerely,

  J.M.K.

  A portion of Algernon House, one of the greatest manors of the land, was open to the public, even when the family was in residence. From time to time, as Clarissa went about her duties, she would see clusters of tourists, necks craning, being guided by an under-housekeeper through suites of formal rooms or around the magnificent grounds.

  But how strange to think of a visitor falling in love on those very grounds, to know that someone, at this very moment, was experiencing the same pangs of longing and futility that plagued Clarissa.

  Dear Miss Kirkland,

  I write to you seated on the grand terrace of Algernon House, a profusion of lavender hydrangeas all about me. It is quite a likely place for falling in love, especially in the afternoon of a spring day, when the light is golden and liquid, and the air warm upon the cheeks.

  I wish I could send the affections of that perfect stranger via the Royal Mail. But alas, such gifts are not in my power. Please accept, in lieu of your heart’s desire, a sheaf of instruction from my head gardener, a lovely and well-spoken man, to help you in your effort at propagating the hydrangeas in your own garden.

  Please also accept a tin of my housekeeper’s famous spiced apple cake as well as a bottle of the butler’s raspberry wine, of which he is justifiably proud.

  Alas, would that it were as easy to appease the heart as it is to satisfy the stomach.

  Do let me know if you should ever make headway with your beloved. If not, keep me informed at least about the hydrangeas. I hope they take root in your garden.

  Yours truly,

  Clarissa Lexington

  She snipped the hydrangea stems before sunrise the next morning, wrapped the cut ends carefully in strips of moist toweling, and sent off the crate to the village post office.

  It felt nice to do something for someone, now that she didn’t have Christian to pamper anymore.

  To her surprise, a response came the very next day, accompanied by a large, beautiful conch shell.

  Your Grace,

  You cannot imagine my surprise and delight.

  The hydrangea stems I shall pare and pot to the best of my meager abilities. The cake will serve as my treat at tea and the wine something to look forward to at supper.

  At the moment, however, I have just finished a most unsatisfactory survey of my possessions and found nothing worthy of a thank-you present, except perhaps this conch shell, which I have had since I was a child, and which to me has always evoked the spirit of hope and adventure.

  I enclose it with much gratitude.

  Yours sincerely,

  J.M.K.

  P.S. I will endeavor to keep you abreast of any developments concerning the hydrangeas. As for my elusive beloved, only time will tell whether anything will come of it. But while I cannot recommend falling in love—the yearnings will prove my undoing—I have become most enthusiastic about falling in friendship.

  Clarissa turned the conch shell around in her hands. It was surprisingly heavy. And when she put it to her ear, she heard a low hum, almost like the soughing of distant waves.

  Falling into friendship, she liked that. She set the conch shell on the mantel, picked up her pen, and began her reply to Miss Kirkland.

 
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