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The English Duke Excerpt

Chapter 1

July, 1871

Griffin House, England

 

Martha York stared down at the letter her sister had just handed her.

For months she’d been trying to satisfy her father’s bequest. He’d asked her to see that his work was given to the Duke of Roth. That’s all. Except it hadn’t been easy, had it?

She’d been writing to the duke for nearly a year and never received an answer. Not a note. Nothing dictated to a secretary. Not one small sliver of information. She’d kept writing and he’d kept ignoring her.

“Aren’t you going to open it, Martha?” Josephine asked.

She nodded, staring at the distinctive emblem on the reverse before removing the seal.

Part of her never wanted him to write back. There, a bit of honesty. She hadn’t wanted to relinquish all her father’s precious diaries, all his prototypes, all his notes.

“What does he say, Martha?” Josephine asked. “Has he invited us to Sedgebrook? Has he?”

Martha frowned at her sister. “Of course he hasn’t.”

“But what has he said? Are you going to read it to us?” Josephine asked, her glance encompassing their grandmother.

Gran didn’t say a word, but she was looking over at Martha. Normally, nothing could divert her attention from her crochet work.

“He says he doesn’t want Father’s bequest. He does send his condolences on Father’s death. A year late.”

“He has to take it,” Gran said calmly. “Shall we just send everything in a wagon? He’d have no choice but to accept everything.”

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if something happened to Bessie,” she said, referring to her father’s latest prototype. “Why he thought the duke would want it, I’ve no idea.”

“They were friends,” Gran said. “Matthew didn’t spare the time for many people.”

Martha only nodded. Gran’s son, their father, had been a hermit, but a happy one. He went to the cottage situated at the end of the lawn every day, content to tinker there surrounded by his inventions, and allowing his imagination to take him where it would.

The unlikely friendship between Jordan Hamilton and her father had begun before the man had become the Duke of Roth. He’d been a naval officer then, curious about her father’s work, and writing with his questions. That had sparked an intense correspondence, one that lasted until pneumonia had taken Matthew suddenly and unexpectedly.

“At least he finally deigned to answer my letter,” Martha said. “Which is the most he’s done all these months. He probably got tired of me writing.”

“What are you going to do?” Gran asked, her crochet work forgotten on her lap.

“I could simply keep writing him until he agrees to come here.”

“Or we could take Father’s bequest to him,” Josephine said.

She glanced up at her sister.

“That’s out of the question,” she said, staring down at the distinctive handwriting. She knew it well. She’d read every one of the duke’s letters to her father.

She hadn’t expected him to repudiate her father’s gift. Doing so was worse than a slap in the face. His ignoring her letters ridiculed the relationship that Matthew York had valued so much. She’d thought the Duke of Roth had felt the same, but evidently he didn’t.

“Why is it out of the question?” Josephine asked.

“Josephine, please sit,” she said, looking up at her sister.

Each time Josephine passed in front of her, perfume wafted in her direction. Ever since her mother had departed Griffin House, Josephine had taken to wearing Marie’s favorite French perfume. It was, according to her sister, a sophisticated fragrance. Martha thought it was overbearing and too flowery.

Perhaps Josephine wore it to remind her of Marie. No doubt that was the same reason her sister gravitated to the Rose Parlor. Her mother often sat here, staring out at the lawn, her gaze impenetrable and almost troubling to witness.

The room was filled with all those things Marie loved, but evidently not enough to remain at Griffin House. Needlepoint sat in a frame, patiently waiting to be finished. Needlepoint pillows were arranged on the sofa. Footrests upholstered in needlepoint sat at their feet while needlepoint pictures of flowers framed in gold hung on one wall. Even the draperies had needlepoint tiebacks.

She couldn’t help but wonder if Marie truly had an affinity for needlepoint or if it was only an outlet for other feelings.

The Rose Parlor had been decorated by her stepmother. The sofa and love seat, as well as the curtains that framed the view of the back lawn and the lake were pink. The pillows that weren’t covered in needlepoint were pink as well. The round carpet beneath her feet consisted of overblown lush roses—in pink, of course—with a contrasting green border.

Josephine loved the room. Martha felt slightly bilious in it. Gran didn’t seem to mind, being as involved in her crocheting as Marie had been in her needlepoint.

As for herself, when she wasn’t in her own room, she was in her father’s cottage. Although not quite a laboratory, it truly wasn’t an office, either. Instead, it was a combination of the two with tall skinny windows looking out over the lake.

She was his assistant and one of her tasks was to record his thoughts and experiments for the ages as well as to serve as his sounding board.

He’d been a good man, a truly inventive one. If he was more involved in his pursuits and less his family, perhaps that was to be expected.

No one, least of all her, had been that surprised when Marie had hied off to France six months after his death. According to the letter she had written Josephine, she was madly in love with a French count.

Of course I will send for you, my love, she’d written. As soon as Pierre and I are settled at his estate. You will love the château. It’s so much more to my taste than Griffin House ever was.

Marie was French, a fact that Josephine seemed to recite more and more often of late. As if being half-French was something preferable to being completely English.

“Well?” Josephine asked. “What are you going to do?”

Martha looked out at the lake, placid in the July morning, remembering her father’s words. “Wherever there’s a mystery, you can’t help but feel excitement. Always seek to find a mystery. The sheer act of solving it will keep you happy.”

The mystery that had occupied her mind ever since his death was finding how that final experiment had been successful. He’d been so happy when he’d come in from the storm. He’d been drenched but ecstatic, telling her that his vessel had leveled off, heading directly for the target.

But he hadn’t told her how.

In this instance there were no notes. No thoughts or idle speculation. Nothing to give her any clue.

She was determined that his life’s work would be finished, even if she had to turn over all his notes and work to the duke.

“We have to go,” Josephine said, interrupting her thoughts. “It’s what Father would have wanted. Besides, it’s the Duke of Roth! Can you imagine, Martha? We could see Sedgebrook!”

She stared down at the letter again.

Jordan Hamilton, the Duke of Roth, had a great deal to answer for, not the least of which was putting their household into disarray. His words were curt, almost to the point of rudeness, and made her even more determined to fulfill her father’s wishes. Like it or not, Matthew York had wanted the Duke of Roth to have his notes and Bessie, his latest invention.

For years she’d been her father’s assistant. She was the only one who knew what he wanted, who could pull the exact notes he needed from the volume of his work. She’d been the only one to help him with his experiments. No one else could take apart the reciprocating engine he’d devised, a clever thing run by compressed air, or the hydrostatic valve, and the most important piece of all—the pendulum balance that kept the ship at a certain depth.

She’d spent months categorizing all the parts, carefully labeling the inventions. With the help of the footmen, she’d packed everything away in wooden crates, ready for the duke to come and get them. Several of her father’s devices had shown promise, like the light that followed the path of water and the photographs capable of absorbing the colors of its subject.

But it was the York Torpedo Ship that had fascinated her father and the once naval officer Jordan Hamilton.

“What are you going to do, Martha?” Gran asked.

Martha glanced at Josephine, who was practically dancing in place in front of her then over at her grandmother.

“I see nothing else to do, Gran, but to take Father’s work to him.”

“You can’t mean to do it alone, Martha,” Josephine said. “You can’t do such a shocking thing.”

She looked up at Josephine. “No less shocking than all of us descending on Sedgebrook.”

“Nevertheless,” Gran said, packing up her crochet work in the special bag designed for it, “that’s exactly what we shall do. I’ll not have you go alone.”

She frowned down at the letter again. The penmanship was perfect. Yet the duke had not explained why he’d ignored all of her letters. Evidently he hadn’t even opened them. Otherwise, he would have known that her father asked for him, even on his deathbed.

She didn’t want to visit the Duke of Roth. She couldn’t forget all those occasions when her father had weakly asked, “Has he answered yet? Is he coming?”

Each time she had to tell him the news that there hadn’t been any response. All she could do was hold his trembling hand in hers and will him to be stronger.

Wishing for something doesn’t make it come about; she’d learned that lesson in those terrible days. She’d been powerless to prevent his gradual fading away until the last breath had almost been a relief.

“Very well.”

“Does that mean we’re going?” Josephine asked.

“Yes,” she said, the word uttered reluctantly.

[no ornament]

“Did you lose it?” Unspoken was the word again.

“Yes, I lost it, Reese,” Jordan said.

There, a fair attempt at an equitable tone. No one needed to know he was furious.

Another failure. Just one more to add to the stack.

The damn thing had sunk like a rock to the bottom of the lake. Just like the other two.

“Shall we call it a day and have a whiskey?”

He glanced over at his friend.

Reese Burthren had unexpectedly descended on him two weeks ago and didn’t look to be in a hurry to leave. Normally, Jordan wouldn’t object to his friend’s presence. In fact, it had been enjoyable having another person to talk to at Sedgebrook. The footmen always looked a bit uncomfortable when he talked about gyroscopes and fin angles. Lately, however, Reese had begun to watch his experiments and offer criticisms about his toy—Reese’s word.

“Be my guest,” he said now. “I’ll join you when I’m finished here.”

Reese didn’t budge from his stance at the end of the dock, which meant he was going to stay there as long as Jordan did.

Turning, he forced a smile to his face and addressed Reese. “But not necessarily today,” he added. “We’ll have that whiskey.”

Jordan made his way to where his majordomo, Frederick, stood.

The man was blessed with a stubborn nature the equal of his own coupled with an English bulldog’s tenacity. Because of Frederick, no one bothered him. No visitors interrupted his study. No solicitation of any sort ever reached him. No staff problems hounded him. Nor did any shop owners, desirous of their payments. For that alone Frederick was worth his not inconsiderable annual salary.

Frederick had been with the family for most of his life, beginning his apprenticeship as an eager footman. What Frederick had lost in height over the years he’d gained in girth. The man was a living example of John Bull, stout, middle-aged, affable, and a pragmatist. His face was almost always florid, his hair graying but kept rigorously in place by a concoction the housekeeper had devised for him.

Frederick was one of the few people among the staff who knew how dire his financial situation was, yet Jordan knew he would never divulge the information to anyone.

“Ask for volunteers among the footmen,” he told Frederick. “Tell them there will be a reward to the one who locates the ship.”

Frederick nodded. “Yes, Your Grace.”

He knew he’d get enough volunteers, footmen eager to get out of polishing the silver. Not that there was much left of it. His father had managed to keep Sedgebrook solvent by selling a great many portable items.

He, himself, was getting rid of the horses his brother had worked to acquire. One sale a month was enough to keep the staff.

He stared out at the lake, intent on the ripples the wind was creating, anything but think about money at the moment.

“What do you think went wrong?” Reese asked.

“Something in the guidance system. I need to review my calculations.”

One of Reese’s eyebrows winged upward. “Will it help?”

“In other words, do I know what the hell I’m doing?”

“Not quite,” Reese said, smiling.

“The answer is evidently not,” Jordan said.

He’d refer to his notes, find out where he’d gone wrong. For now, however, he’d pretend a conviviality and bury his disappointment somewhere Reese couldn’t see it.

They’d been friends at school, had renewed their friendship later at the War Office. He and Reese had both been assigned to the Topographical & Statistics Department, he as a naval officer and Reese as a civilian. His duties were to collate military statistics, with a concentration on the Crimean War. Reese had been tasked with ensuring that the archival maps of the region were correct. They’d dreamed of glory in their respective posts but had never found so much as a hint of it.

Yet his work had opened up another avenue for him, something in which he’d found an abiding interest. The Russians had come up with a small device they called a torpedo in the Crimean War that was used as a mine in the harbors. Rumors persisted they were inventing a mobile mine, thereby creating a devastating weapon. When he’d overheard a superior officer discussing York Armaments and the newest work by Matthew York, he’d been intrigued.

Little did he know, five years ago, that the York Torpedo Ship—or his own invention, the Hamilton Torpedo—would keep him from going mad.

“How many does that make?” Reese asked as they walked toward the boathouse.

“Three,” he said.

With any luck, Reese would cease questioning him. He’d give his friend the task of selecting a bottle of wine for dinner from his father’s wine cellar. Only one more example of a Hamilton spending money they didn’t have.

“Don’t you have the material to build another one?”

He debated trying to explain to Reese how much time it took to bend and hammer the copper to a smooth shape, build another engine, not to mention the guidance system and propeller. He might be able to make Reese understand, but the other man would never realize the emotional toll each failure cost him. It was better to keep his thoughts to himself.

“Well, it doesn’t really matter, does it?” Reese said, his tone affable.

Jordan grabbed his walking stick and began the slow and painful journey to the end of the dock.

The past year had been difficult. When he’d been laid up in bed he spent hours occupied with plans and sketches. During the months of learning to walk again, he’d kept his mind from the pain with thoughts of leveling devices and timing mechanisms. The idea of developing a workable torpedo had taken on the importance of a quest.

“Yes,” he finally said. “It matters.”

 

The English Duke, available March 28, 2017.