A Highland Duchess Excerpt

PROLOGUE

 

Chavensworth, outside of London

January,1864

 

 

Emma, Duchess of Herridge, approached the great house of Chavensworth feeling sick. Her palms were damp inside her gloves; her skin was clammy, and nausea had been her constant companion since leaving London.

Her maid, Juliana, said nothing as they entered the long drive sweeping up to the house but then, Juliana wasn’t married to the Duke of Herridge.

If Emma could have invented any excuse to avoid this meeting, she would have. She should have told Anthony that she was sick in the mornings, that her stomach did not agree with her, leading him to think – erroneously – that there were hopes of an heir.

She hadn’t thought that quickly. When she’d received the summons, she’d immediately left London for Chavensworth.

The tersely worded note from the housekeeper had been a surprise but regardless of how Anthony had summoned her, he’d done so, and she was not fool enough to anger him by being tardy. Anthony was even more vindictive when she did not obey him instantly. Whenever she thought she’d experienced the depths of his depravity, he managed to shock her again.

If only Chavensworth were a greater distance from London. If only snows had blocked the roads. If only ice had made the journey dangerous. If only…if only…if only…the wheels of the carriage seemed to sing that refrain as if mocking her.

The coachman halted in front of the north façade, the most dramatic face of  Chavensworth. Here, the three story, yellow stone structure was topped with a pediment adorned with Greek statues in various poses. The fact that all of the figures were barely dressed should have given her some hint about Chavensworth.

Emma nodded to Juliana, attempted to rearrange her features in an aspect that would be pleasing to Anthony, and waited for the footman to open the carriage door. He did so a moment later, and all too soon, she was walking up the steps to the massive front door, her maid a few steps behind her.

Williams, the majordomo, greeted her now, his bald head ringed by a tuft of white hair, his stocky figure immaculately attired in the Herridge livery.

“Your Grace,” he said, his usual sepulchral tones even more muted.

“What is wrong, Williams?” she asked.

Please God, don’t let Anthony have planned another entertainment so soon.

“Your Grace?”

She turned her head to see Mrs. Turner, the housekeeper Anthony had employed just weeks before their marriage. In a sense, she and Mrs. Turner had learned the secrets of Chavensworth together.

“Mrs. Turner,” she said, greeting the other woman.

“I’m very sorry, Your Grace.”

“Sorry?” She began to remove her gloves, ignoring the sudden plummeting of her stomach. “Whatever for?”

Had some housekeeping emergency called her to Chavensworth? The housekeeper’s look, however, did not lend itself to relief.

“His Grace has expired.”

For a moment, Emma didn’t understand. It took Juliana’s gasp behind her for her mind to race to the unthinkable.

“Anthony?” she asked. “He’s dead?” How very calm she sounded.

The housekeeper nodded. Williams moved to stand beside her. An armed front?

“He was found in his library this morning, Your Grace,” Williams said. “Slumped in a chair.”

“Anthony is dead?”

Williams’ face was smoothed of any expression as he nodded, an indication that the impossible had become possible.

Slowly, Emma removed her bonnet, and gave it to Juliana. Soon, she would go to the Duke’s Suite or to a dozen or so rooms that were comfortable in their way. At the moment, however, she couldn’t move at all.

“If I may speak to you in private, Your Grace,” the housekeeper said. She looked pointedly at Juliana. So, too, did Williams.

Emma nodded, and followed Mrs. Turner down the hall to the main corridor of Chavensworth, saying nothing as they passed the Yellow Parlor with its welcoming fire and entered the Chinese Parlor. There, on the other side of the room, was a bier, already erected by the carpenters.

Emma began to tremble.

“He’s really dead?” she asked softly.

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“We shall have to cover the mirrors,” Emma said, all too familiar with funeral customs since her father’s death two years earlier. “And close the curtains and set the clocks.”

She would need to have some dried lavender, grown in Chavensworth’s own fields, moved into the Chinese Parlor, arrange to have some beeswax candles burning. Should she have laurel wreaths adorning all the doors, or only those on the north façade? Did she have enough black-bordered stationery or would she need to order some? She would have to give instructions to Cook to prepare the funeral favors, biscuits wrapped in white paper and sealed with black sealing wax. Did she have enough black sealing wax on hand? If Anthony died this morning, the funeral should take place in four days. So much to do in so short a time.

“We’ve already begun preparing the body, Your Grace,” Mrs. Turner said, pulling Emma from her thoughts. “Which is why I needed to speak with you privately.”

Again, Emma thought she might become ill. What had Anthony done to shock the middle-aged housekeeper, and put such a look in her eyes? What horror had he committed at the last moment of his life?

“What is it, Mrs. Turner?” she asked, dispirited at the very moment she should begin feeling some joy.

Anthony, Duke of Herridge, was dead. Anthony, satyr and despot, breathed no more. Anthony, who’d done everything in his power to squander the fortune she’d brought to her marriage, was to be interred behind stone blocks in the family chapel. Anthony, about whom people spoke in scandalized whispers, would never summon her to Chavensworth again, never insist that she perform in his revels to her disgrace and shame.

“We were beginning to remove the headband from His Grace,” the housekeeper said.

Emma was all too familiar with that task because of her father. As close after death as possible, a three inch wide band of cloth was placed under the chin and then tied at the top of the head to keep the mouth closed as the body stiffened. Once the body was bathed – beneath a sheet in order to shield the naked limbs of the deceased from view – the headband was removed and the body dressed.

“Something appeared on the body, Your Grace, that was not visible when we began to prepare him.”

Mrs. Turner reached out and gripped her arm, something she would never have done at any other time. But the woman no doubt sensed that Emma would not advance on the bier without coaxing.

The coffin looked quite sturdy, and was covered in black cloth. Did Chavensworth’s carpenters have a store of coffins waiting for all of them?

Anthony looked restful but not asleep. In sleep, he’d still worn that half-smile of his, as if he knew that she watched him sometimes, wondering at his capacity for evil.

“You’re sure he’s dead?” she asked.

Mrs. Turner looked at her. “Yes, Your Grace, he’s dead,” she said, her voice warm with sympathy. Because of Emma’s loss? Or because Emma had been married to Anthony for four years?

Did they know, these loyal servants, of the activities that occurred in the ballroom on the third floor? Of course they did. Were they horrified? If they were, they had been careful not to reveal their emotions around the Duke of Herridge.

“This is what I want you to see, Your Grace.”

Mrs. Turner leaned into the coffin and unbuttoned three buttons of Anthony’s shirt.

Emma stared, uncomprehending. Understanding came in a rush. She looked at Mrs. Turner, then back at what the housekeeper had revealed.

“Dear God in Heaven,” Emma said, an oath no proper lady should utter.

Of course Anthony could not simply die like anyone else.

She couldn’t breathe; the air would not travel past her constricted throat. She swayed on her feet and was caught by Mrs. Turner. Emma began to laugh hysterically, the sound echoing around the Chinese Parlor until at last it faded, choked off by panic.