Be in the know:
Basil Sinclair, sixth duke of Cranbrook, was dying.
Or perhaps not.
One never knew with Basil.
Most anything could send him staggering to his bed, telling all who would listen (a diminishing number of ears), that he was not long for this world, about to shuffle off this mortal coil, stick his spoon in the wall, cock up his toes, be carried to bed on six men’s shoulders — and etcetera.
He hadn’t always been this way. Twenty years past, he was a happily married fifth son, living the life of the pampered and heavily allowanced, traveling the world with his lovely wife, Vivien.
Vivien and Basil, Basil and Vivien, carefree, high-spirited, game for any adventure. And without a care in the world.
But then Boswell, the second duke, died within days of his sixtieth birthday. Fit as a fiddle, happy as a lark, drinking and carousing, mounting a mistress in the country, keeping a canary bird or two in the city. The picture of health (and the envy of many), he was heading toward the dance floor with a lovely young thing on his arm one evening when suddenly he stopped, said something very much like “Erp?” rolled his eyes heavenward … and dropped like a stone.
Unnerving, to say the least, but the fellow had certainly had a good run at life, so that, all things considered, his wasn’t such a bad way to go.
Basil and Vivien paid their respects, mourned in their fashion (a trip to Africa to hunt anything with four legs and a tail), secure in the knowledge that their allowance would continue under Basil’s oldest brother.
Until Bennett, the third duke, just two weeks shy of his sixtieth birthday, whilst driving his new pair of matched bays in Hyde Park, his recently affianced and hopefully fertile bride at his side, uttered a rather surprised “Erp?” rolled up his eyes, and toppled to the gravel drive. Luckily, the bays being, as the saying went “all show and no go,” were easily stopped before running curricle and screeching fiancée into the Serpentine.
Basil, learning the news nearly six months later, gnawed on his bottom lip as his darling Vivien oohed and aahed at the sight of the Taj Mahal, unaware that a small seed of worry had planted itself in her husband’s brain.
Sixteen months later, when Ballard (the fourth duke, for those keeping track, and Basil most certainly was), having just finessed a mediocre hand into a five thousand guinea profit, reached out to gather in his winnings, he suddenly hesitated, said something his fellow gamblers swore sounded exactly like “Erp?” At nearly the same time, his eyes rolled up in his head, and a moment later he was facedown in the chips.
Ballard had been eight days shy of his sixtieth birthday.
“Let me guess,” Jeremiah Rigby said, holding up a hand to interrupt his friend Gabriel as he told the story, the two seated on a bench in the Cranbrook Chase gardens. “Basil and Vivien were on the moon, munching green cheese when they got the word?”
Gabriel smiled, because he wasn’t a man devoid of humor, even rather dark humor. “Not quite. They were somewhere in Virginia, visiting a distant relative of my aunt’s. She’s just home from there now, by the way, having had her reunion shortened by Uncle Ballard’s death.”
“Your uncle didn’t go with her, obviously, considering he’s upstairs, dying.”
“Again. He’s dying again. But let me finish.”
“Yes, there’s another B in there somewhere, isn’t there? The first duke was a busy man, and his wife even more so. Bronson? Bundy? Baldric? Now tell me he erped in Prinney’s lap, and I’ll die a happy man.”
“Bellamy, and he was being fitted with a new rigout when it happened. Word has it the waistcoat was to be striped orange satin, so at least Society was spared that.”
“He’d ordered new clothes to celebrate his sixtieth birthday?”
Gabriel stood up, smoothed down his cuffs. He was a tall man, much more so than his rather squat friend, so that he was used to looking down at him whenever he spoke. He did so now, raising one expressive eyebrow in mock disapproval. “Who’s telling this story? Yes, he was four days from his sixtieth, and there was to be quite a large celebration at Cranbrook House in Portman Square scheduled for the night after that birthday. Uncle Bellamy was out to prove the curse wrong.”
Now Rigby was on his feet, all eagerness. “Oh, now that’s something you forgot to mention. There’s a curse? Keep going, please. Nothing like a good curse to liven an otherwise dull afternoon.”
“Picked up on that, did you? Uncle Basil thinks so, yes. The moment word reached him that he was now the heir — they were in Venice, I believe — he packed up Aunt Vivien and has been hiding here at Cranbrook Chase ever since. He’s convinced his father and brothers lived too high and too hard — rather in the way he and Aunt Vivien were living — and the jealous fates had exacted a price for their excesses. He’s given up traveling, wine, song, adventure. And women. According to Aunt Vivien — who unfortunately shares everything other than her age — that includes her. His major worry is that he left redemption too late, and won’t even live long enough to, well, erp.”
“I see. Well, not actually, but go on. Wait. Before you do, how did your father die? And when?”
“That took longer than I expected, but thank you anyway for your concern. My father never reached sixty, either.”
“Ah-ha! You live a fairly high life, my friend. Why aren’t you hiding out up there with your great uncle, perhaps reciting psalms?”
“Papa accidently shot himself in a rather personal area of his anatomy while out hunting with his friends, who said they’d honestly tried, but couldn’t find a way to attach a tourniquet.”
Rigby politely coughed into his hand, undoubtedly to cover a smile, and Gabriel just as politely ignored the gesture. “And before you ask, my grandfather, brother of the first duke, passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of eighty-two. I think I’m safe, my only problem being that I’m now the sole heir of — to borrow from the Greek — that hypochromic hiding in his bedchamber, and his sixtieth birthday is fast approaching.”
“So are we here to plan a party to mark the day, or a funeral?”
“Neither. I received a note — no, a command — from Aunt Vivien, informing me of her return from America. I’m to meet her here because, God help me, she has a surprise for me.”
“Not a good thing, I take it?”
“That depends. Would you have liked to be, I’m fairly certain, the only child ever to have a stuffed lemur — grinning, mind you, and with beady glass eyes — in your nursery? I’ve also got, just to list a few, cowbells from Switzerland, a gondolier’s hat and pole from Venice, some sort of strange white coat — I refuse to call it a gown — from India. Oh, and a bull’s ears and tail from Spain. There was also a monkey, but, alas, the thing died on the voyage home. I would probably have liked the monkey.”
“I think I’d like to see the lemur before I give you an answer. So what do you think she’s brought you from the wilds of America? I’ve seen drawings of some fairly fantastical feathered bonnets their Indians seem to favor. Think of the stir you’d cause in London, going out on the strut wearing one of those.”
Gabriel looked at Rigby questioningly. “Remind me again exactly why I let you tag along with me? Clearly you’re not going to be at all helpful.”
“I’m to back you as you lie bald-faced to the duchess when you say you can’t linger here because you’re in hot pursuit of a certain young lady in London, and have promised her you’ll be there for the Little Season.”
“Ah, yes, I remember now. But not one lady. Several. I’ve decided, as uncle’s last and only heir, that I must marry, set up my nursery. Never say just one, for God’s sake, or Aunt Vivien will want to meet her. She’ll be happy enough I’ve taken her advice, and set out to produce several heirs of my own.”
“You probably should try for something else while you’re at it,” his friend suggested.
“Such as, since you say you’re not all hot be the seventh duke any time soon, making certain Uncle Basil wakes up hale and hearty, to greet the sun the day after his sixtieth birthday.”
“And how do you propose I manage that? According to him, there’s an erp out there somewhere just waiting for him between now and November.”
“True. But think on this for a moment, Gabe. If he does croak before his sixtieth, that would make five of the first six dukes of Cranbrook clearly carrying some sort of curse with their title.”
“Nobody’s noticed yet.”
Rigby grinned, his slightly pudgy face turning him into a red-haired cherub. “They will when I tell them. It’s the best story I’ve heard in years. You didn’t mention the first duke. Was he another erp?”
Gabe was beginning to feel uncomfortable, and Rigby’s good humor wasn’t helping him. “He was competing in a steeplechase, his always reliable mount balked at a five-barred gate, and the duke went flying over it.”
“Maybe the horse heard an erp, and that’s what stopped him. And…? I can see by your expression that there’s more.”
“And the first duke, Bryam by name, was only a few days shy of his sixtieth birthday.”
Rigby spread his arms wide. “And there you have it. The Cranbrook Curse. Destined to cock up your toes, almost like clockwork, before truly hitting your stride, and cursing your offspring to the same sad fate. Nobody would marry you, Gabe. I wouldn’t wish to bear your children.”
“Well, thank the gods for that, at least,” Gabe responded sarcastically, cocking his head at what he believed was the sound of a carriage coming up the drive. “Come on. I think my aunt may be arriving. And if you repeat a word to her of what we’ve said in the past half hour, I will personally stuff and mount you beside Lord Lemur.”
“You’ve really still got the thing? You even named it? And you don’t think that’s at least passing strange? May I see it?” Rigby picked up his pace in an effort to keep up with the long-legged Gabriel as they headed toward the massive stone edifice that was Cranbrook Chase. “In any event, there’s nothing else for it, old son. Somehow, some way, you have to keep Uncle Basil alive and kicking for at least another year. If I may remind you again, you already said you’re in no hurry to be duke.”
Gabriel stopped so quickly, his friend nearly ran into him. “All right, you’ve made your point. I don’t believe in this curse because there is no curse. All of the Cranbrook dukes drank and caroused like roman emperors of old, and probably were lucky to survive as long as they did. My uncle’s only problem is that he’s probably worrying himself to death — but I, according to you, with no idea how to do it — am now charged with singlehandedly saving him from—”
“Not singlehandedly. I’m more than happy to lend you my assistance. It seems only fair, as I’m the one who’s going to spread the rumor of the be-cursed B’s the moment we’re back in town. Now come on, I’m anxious to see what the duchess brought you this time.”
“Whatever it is, you can have it,” Gabriel told him as they rounded the edge of the building and approached the traveling coach.
Even from this distance, he quickly recognized his aunt’s petite, pillowy form as a footman assisted her down the folding steps to the ground. Her masses of silver hair were coiled into long, girlish curls that reminded him of sausages hanging in a shop window, and were topped by an enormous floppy hat seemingly fashioned out of a dozen circular layers of lavender silk. Her gown, similarly colored and even more embellished with thin silken layers that blew about in the breeze, was curiously abbreviated, exposing her ankles and the dark purple-heeled shoes on her short, dimpled feet, the purple an exact match to the tiny bunches of artificial grapes tuckered here and there on her skirt.
“The duchess?” Rigby whispered. “She puts me in mind of a — hmm, I don’t know what, but some sort of confection.”
But Gabriel wasn’t listening. He was too engrossed in watching as another leg appeared, a female leg supported by a slim foot and the most perfect ankle he’d ever seen … and he considered himself a good judge, as he’d seen his share.
A yellow straw bonnet exited next, to be neatly caught by the footman.
Only then did a young woman put out her second leg and completely show herself, posing on the top step in a butter yellow gown while steadying her hands against either side of the door as she slowly observed her surroundings.
Her hair was black, without a hint of red or gold as the sun hit it; unbound, and being gently caressed by the breeze. In profile, she was perfection, from the straight yet intriguingly flared nose, to the clean line of her chin … to the lush curve of her bosom.
And then she turned to look in his direction, and he saw the fullness of her pink lips as they slowly curved in a smile. She had freckles dancing on her slightly golden skin, her eyes were nearly as black as her hair, and her brows…? How to describe those brows? They were thick, beginning just above the inside edge of her eyes, and very nearly straight, only arching down as they met the edges of her brow bone. Dark wings, that’s what they were, and uniquely fascinating.
She could have been a warrior queen. Lord knows in his salad days he would have followed her anywhere, probably spouting an ode to her eyebrows. Good thing he was older now, and wiser.
“Ah, Gabriel, there you are!” his aunt called out, waving a lace-edged handkerchief in his direction. “Come here, come here. Don’t dawdle, Sunny! Look at the surprise I promised you. Thea — wave to Gabriel!”
“That’s it? That’s your surprise? She’s your surprise? The one you said I could have?” Rigby clapped Gabriel on the back hard enough to stagger him. “You’re a true sport, sonny boy, that’s what you are.”