Prologue, Part One

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October 1823

Haverford House

London, England

Nick Northope, Duke of Wellbridge, paced the floor in a receiving room of Haverford House, waiting nervously for his oldest friend. He and his wife had been shown to the Duke of Haverford's family wing, where the rooms were as opulent and gargantuan as the public spaces, but a few touches showed that this space was for living rather than show. A workbasket stood by one chair, angled toward the fire, and a small stack of well-thumbed books sat within easy reach of another.

On a couch that favored comfort without sacrificing elegance, Wellbridge's duchess, Bella, clucked over little Davey, the new Marquess of Abersham, not quite half a year old, ensconced in Nurse's lap. It had been more than two years since the Wellbridges had married and left England to live on her frigate in his Venetian lagoon, In two days' time Davey would be christened, with King George IV for a godfather. After all they had been through with His Majesty, the dinner he was throwing in their honor on the morrow might prove the most trying of all their joint experiences thus far—even considering their previous ordeals had included kidnap, murder, penury, and exile.

"Do light somewhere, my love," Bella said. "You are wearing a hole through the Aubusson. Surely your friend will be along shortly." She distracted the baby with a silver rattle.

"It's not that.... it's... good God, Bella, it has been five years since I have seen my oldest friend, and so much has changed." Not least, Wellbridge had followed Haverford into matrimony, a state both men had sworn to always avoid, and between them, the two couples had logged an enormous amount of time in various ports abroad, adventures they had only shared in occasional letters. "I cannot believe he has yet to meet you, even after all this time. And though I have met his duchess, I cannot say we took to one another. But she makes him happy, or so his letters say. It is like I am to be introduced to a man I have never known, not one who knows me nearly as well as you do." With a half-smirk, he added, "Better, on a few topics."

Bella crossed to the decanter of brandy and poured for her husband, pressing it into his hand, gently pushing him to a seat in her inexorable way, her smile the only license she needed to manhandle him. "Calm yourself; you are vexing Davey. Haverford has invited us, so you need no longer fret he will bar the door to you, and after tomorrow, you not be able to fuss about having dinner with the king. And Haverford shall be there for that, too, so you are assured more friendly faces than just mine, so that fear may also be laid to rest."

Nick scowled slightly at Bella, even as he did her bidding. "I do not fret or fuss, and I am not afraid."

"No?" Bella gestured for him to drink. "I shall wager ten guineas the next thing you say will be in the very language of fussing."

"I do not a fuss, Your Grace." His eyes narrowed, but his lips turned up. "You must be cautious of Haverford. He is quite charming, and the greatest rakehell in all the British Empire, to hear the tabbies tell it."

"And here I believed you to be the greatest rakehell in all the British Empire," she teased, reaching into his purse for a guinea, transferring the coin to her reticule with a brow that begged him to suggest his comment was not the purview of a worrywart.

With a sardonic chuckle, he explained, "It is not that I do not trust him. I do. With my very life."

"Just not with your wife."

"Just so."

"Is he not reformed? I heard in Paris that he has been tamed these eight years."

"Haverford will never be entirely tamed, though given I can be so ensorcelled by you, I must believe it is possible for Haverford, too. I did not understand that when last I met Her Grace, and so she did not regard me with favor. Damn and blast!" Nick snapped. "I wish to Heaven he would hurry!"

Nick jumped up at the sound of the door opening, and set down his glass on the table. Bella looked up from calming Davey, who had become momentarily fussy at his father's outburst. The Duke of Haverford bore a slight resemblance to Wellbridge, if only in the greying blond hair, noble bearing, and perfectly tailored suits that needed no padding. The way he stooped and shortened his stride to give his lady his elbow was also reminiscent of Nick while Bella had been increasing.

The Duchess of Haverford was unremarkable in looks, brown-haired and brown-eyed, and shorter, by far, than her husband. She would be slender under other circumstances, but now moved with the cautious gait of the very pregnant. When they entered the room, she narrowed her eyes at her husband, and gestured for him to greet his friend. "Go on, dearest. You know you want to see your old friend. I have stood on my own two feet nearly forty years. I assure you, I will not fall without your arm."

Without a word, the two men rushed at each other and embraced. They had been the closest of friends for more than twenty years, two wealthy dukes' sons with an eye for the ladies and more money than sense. When Haverford had still been the Marquis of Aldridge, before he inherited his father's title and just down from university, Wellbridge had, at the marquis' father's request, escorted the boy to the appropriate clubs and gaming hells and brothels, setting up his accounts with Weston and Hoby and Tattersall's and making sure he got the right sort of town bronze.

Eventually, their exploits had expanded past London, and they had spent a full year traversing the byways of England before a spot of trouble led their fathers—and the Prince of Wales—to banish them for a time. After that, though, they racketed about England—and indeed, the rest of the world—as though they had no cares, until each had, finally, been given a noble title he could not avoid, and discovered a love and a woman they had both insisted for years just did not exist.

"Cherry, my love," Haverford said, drawing the woman forward to his side, "you remember my dear friend, His Grace, the Duke of Wellbridge? Nick, my duchess, Charlotte."

Nick made the politest bow he could muster, which was quite deferential indeed. "Your Grace, I am delighted to meet you again and to make known to you my wife, Bella, the Duchess of Wellbridge." Bella tried to give Davey to the nurse to rise and make her curtsey, but the little boy raised a fuss and grabbed on to her hair. "And, as it seems he has need of his mother, my heir, David George Northope, the Marquess of Abersham." He gently disentangled the tiny fingers from Bella's hair, caressing the nape of Bella's neck as he did so, and dropping a kiss on the little boy's curls.

"Normally, we would not have brought Davey, but your note did say..." Bella blushed a bit, settling Davey into her arms again, once he was satisfied he was not being handed away.

Cherry disengaged herself from her over-protective husband and sank onto the couch beside Bella. "Oh," she breathed, "he is beautiful, Your Grace."

Bella's smoldering look beneath lowered lashes set Nick's mind tripping off into directions better not explored in mixed company, but his libido was set aside in a wave of paternal pride when she said, "He looks exactly like his father." Nick stood a bit straighter, and Bella continued, "Call me Bella, please, and the duke always prefers Nick."

Cherry rested her hand on her belly and blushed herself. "Normally, I would not be entertaining guests to dinner—I've naught but a month more before I am called to childbed, but I could not wait all that time to meet you, and I could not bear you to think I will miss the dinner tomorrow out of malice or ill intent. It is only that I am unfit for broader company at present. Anthony insisted that Wellbridge is like family, and so it shall be. You must call me Cherry, and Haverford will be hurt should you call him Your Grace. We will dine en famille tonight and speak deeply, from our souls, of ghosts long forgotten."

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