She’s an heiress who needs a husband fast…he’s the brooding, handsome footmen who comes to her rescue…
Lady Venetia Dunham has plenty of money and freedom, until her father dies, leaving her and her feisty grandmother at the hands of her less than noble cousin when he becomes the new earl. Her cousin makes his wishes clear. She will marry a man of his choosing, a man who will split her fortune with her cousin.
Determined to avoid that fate, Venetia and her grandmother flee to a country house party hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Devon where Venetia stumbles into the arms of Adrian Montague, a handsome footman with a tragic past.
When Venetia sprains her ankle, she and Adrian are closeted together for a week. The attraction between them is undeniable and forbidden. Their passion could wreck Adrian’s life if they were discovered together. When love blooms between them, it comes at a great cost, and Venetia must choose to follow society’s laws or her own heart.
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The Duke’s Dove
Other Titles By Lauren Smith
About the Author
This book 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 coincidental.
Copyright 2020 by Lauren Smith
Cover Art by Jaycee DeLorenzo
All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitutes unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
ISBN: 978-1-952063-06-0 (e-book edition)
ISBN: 978-1-952063-07-7 (print edition)
“What you need, my dear, is a trip to the country.”
Venetia Dunham lay stretched out on a chaise, a Gothic novel abandoned in her lap as she stared up at the intricate crown molding of the ceiling in her Mayfair townhouse. She lowered her gaze to the speaker, her grandmother, Gwendolyn Dunham, the Dowager Countess of Latham.
She was Gran to Venetia, but Gwen or Lady Latham to everyone else. The old woman looked frail only because of her delicate bones and the walking cane she was never without. But anyone with even a passing relationship with the dowager countess knew that those bones encased a sharp tongue and an even sharper wit, and the cane was more of a weapon than a crutch, as many young men of the ton would attest to.
She was Venetia’s constant companion, the salve to her aching heart when her mother died, and her delightful mentor and dear friend in the eleven years since. Though they were of different generations, Venetia and her gran had a bond that could not be shaken.
“I mean it, Venetia. It has been a year since Andrew passed. We’re both out of mourning, and we need to escape that buffoon who has claimed his title. There are only so many things one can bear, and poor company is by far the worst.” Gwen sat with her back straight, her mouth twisted in a slight scowl. Her words held a cutting edge that bore a mix of impatience and sadness at the dreadful situation they found themselves in.
Venetia smiled a little at Gran’s reference to her cousin, Patrick, who had become the new Earl of Latham. When Venetia’s father had passed suddenly, she and Gran had become the unexpected guests to her late uncle’s son as he took over their townhouse as the new owner.
Gran, who hadn’t seen Patrick since he was a boy, had spent five minutes alone with him after the funeral and had declared him to be a cad. Now, a year later, Venetia and Gran were living with him and the situation was quite unbearable.
“If I have to hear any more about his plans to renovate the townhouse, I shall perish on the spot. A cardroom to replace the drawing room? Does the fool plan to run a gambling hell?” Gwen stamped her cane’s metal tip hard into the rug.
“I think you’re right, Gran,” Venetia said gently. “We must go to the country, I only wish we could go to our old country house.” Patrick had sold it the moment he’d had a chance. That particular sale had been most injurious to Venetia. Her father had left a vast sum of money in Venetia’s possession under a trust managed by an old friend of her father’s, but the townhouse and the country estate, Latham House, were firmly in Patrick’s control. The loss of the money had infuriated her cousin, but he’d held his temper in check. Venetia was relieved that marriage between first cousins wasn’t allowed, or else she would have been worried that Patrick would try to force a marriage simply to obtain her fortune. And marriage was the very last thing Venetia wanted.
“One does not need to own a country house to visit the country.” Gwen removed a small folded letter from a pocket hidden in her skirts and waved it with a triumphant smile.
Venetia sat up and set her book aside. “What is that?”
“Our escape, my dear. It’s a letter from Marrian Hampton.” Gwen passed her the letter.
Venetia stared at the letter’s signature; her lips parted as she scanned the contents. “The Duchess of Devon?”
“Exactly. She was a dear friend of your mother’s, and she has invited us to a house party in two days. I say we accept.”
“But, Gran, are you up to the rigors of a house party? You’ve been unwell these last few months.” Venetia hadn’t missed Gran’s increasing reliance on her cane or the pallor of her skin. Andrew’s death had been especially hard on Gwen.
Gwen waved away her granddaughter’s concerns. “Pish. I’m not unwell, but it serves me to appear to be.”
“If you must know, it’s Patrick. I cannot stand him, nor do I trust him. And as I am your only trust worthy escort for public events, my absence due to ill health prevents you from spending time with him where he might drag you away to marry you to some friend of his. But I cannot always pretend to be on death’s door to keep you safe. At some point, he may send me away and hire a chaperone he can bribe to be absent for the moment he finds a way to get you compromised by one of those friends.”
Venetia tried not to think about Patrick stooping so low as to trick her into marrying one of his friends. “Have you truly been feigning illness?”
“Yes, for the most part. Aren’t I quite the actress?” Gwen’s giggle was so animated that Venetia’s concerns abated slightly.
“Now, what do you say? Shall we attend this house party in the country?”
Venetia examined the letter again, seeing quite clearly the duchess’s invitation. “I suppose it would be nice . . .”
Just then the drawing room door opened and Patrick strode in. He wore a finely cut waistcoat and striped pantaloons, which quite dandified him. Selling her father’s country estate had lined Patrick’s pockets well, and he’d made it clear to Venetia and their grandmother that he wasn’t afraid to spend it.
“Ah, Venetia, there you are.” Patrick smiled. “I was hoping you’d be up for a ride in Hyde Park with me. There are a few friends I would like to introduce you to, especially Mr. Bernard Kenyon. He’s a dear chap, quite taken with you, and he’s only glimpsed you from afar. I think you would suit each other well.” The entire speech was delivered quickly, and it was quite obvious that Patrick didn’t realize his motives were blindingly clear.
“Patrick, I told you—with my trust, I’ve no need of marriage.”
Patrick’s smile withered, and a cold edge glinted in his eyes.
“I know you think that will satisfy you, I’m the head of this family now, and it is my wish that you marry.”
Venetia rose slowly from the couch. Her temper, which rarely flared, had sprung to life at her cousin’s threat. It seemed to her horror, Gran was right about her cousin. She’d been desperately not wishing to believe it but she could deny it no longer.
“Patrick, let us lay our cards upon the table and speak frankly. You wish for me to marry one of your friends. I have no doubt the arrangement would be that you would have been paid by this new husband from part of my money he would acquire control of after the marriage. I have the right of it, do I not?”
Red suffused Patrick’s face as fury took over. “Now see here, Venetia. I have tried to be polite this past year, but my kindness is at an end.” He grasped her arms quite forcefully. His grip was so tight that Venetia gasped as pain shot up her arms. He gave her a violent shake, and Venetia was so stunned that she couldn’t react.
But Gwen did. In a fluid motion, she swung her cane in a rapier-like arc to land between their bodies.
“Release her, Patrick. Now.” The steel in her tone clanged like a fencing blade.
Patrick seemed to recover himself and released Venetia, then took a measured step back as he straightened his waistcoat and cleared his throat.
“My apologies, cousin. That was undeserved. You hurt my feelings with your unwarranted accusations. I request again that you accompany me on a ride to meet Mr. Kenyon.”
Patrick’s sudden and unexpected brutality had made one thing clear to Venetia—she and her grandmother could not stay here any longer.
“I will go change into my riding habit, if you can give me half an hour.” It took every ounce of control to keep her voice light to prevent another angry outburst.
He was all pleasant smiles and joviality again. “Yes, yes, of course, cousin.” Then he looked to Gran. “Grandmother.” He nodded stiffly and left the room.
Neither Venetia nor Gwen spoke right away, waiting until the sound of booted steps down the hall assured them that Patrick was out of hearing.
“Good heavens.” Venetia wrapped her arms around herself.
“You will not go riding with them. I will not allow it,” Gwen declared.
Venetia rubbed her trembling arms and after a moment reached out to take her grandmother’s hand in hers. “Gran, I must. And while I’m gone, you will see to it that we are packed and ready to leave for the country.”
“I don’t want you alone with them. He could arrange to have his friend compromise you, or worse. For all we know, that man has a priest waiting there as well.”
It was a valid concern, but Venetia thought—or rather, hoped—Patrick was not that desperate yet.
Venetia dropped her arms to her sides and clenched her fists. “I am four and twenty. I have no need to let anyone force me into marriage simply out of a desire to avoid scandal. Society can hang itself.”
Her father had warned her before her first season that men usually did not like intelligent wives, nor wives who wanted to be considered a partner rather than a servant within the marriage. He’d warned her that many men would say pleasing things, and promise the moon, but that once married, she would find her wings clipped like a songbird trapped in a cage.
The thought had so frightened her at seventeen that Venetia had happily avoided all but the most necessary appearances during her first season. She’d garnered no suitors due to her almost hermit-like behavior, but that had been her intention. It was better to be alone than to sacrifice her happiness simply to marry.
Gwen sighed heavily. “My dear, listen to an old woman when she tells you that men like Patrick are dangerous, especially when they believe they stand no chance of getting what they want through civility. You must never assume you are safe from his schemes. Forced marriages can be achieved, and men of the cloth can be bribed. No, I think we must find a solution, but I know you will make a fuss over it when I speak it.”
Sudden realization of her grandmother’s intentions made Venetia shake her head frantically. “No, no, no, Gran.”
“Yes, my dear. It’s time we find you a husband. One who is up to scratch, and one of your own choosing, of course. But more importantly, one who can give Patrick a good thrashing when we need him to.” She whipped her cane in the air as though whacking an invisible Patrick on the head.
“You know my feelings on marriage. It is a trap, a devaluation of a woman’s already limited independence.”
“Yes, I know. But, Venetia, love, not all men are like that buffoon you call a cousin.”
“He’s your grandson,” Venetia reminded Gwen.
“Yes, and his father, was such a good lad. It makes one wonder if the poor man was cuckolded, because that boy is a terrible creature, and I would do anything to disclaim a connection to him.” Her grandmother covered Venetia’s shoulders with a gentle arm. “Go riding if you must, and I will have all of our things packed before you return. We won’t stay here another night, we’ll move out at once. We’ll go to the house party in the country, and I will find us a home elsewhere in London so that we won’t have to return here. With your trust, we will be able to afford something quite suitable.”
Venetia didn’t want to leave this house. It was her home, not Patrick’s, though she had no legal claim upon it. Patrick was free to tear it down to rubble if he so desired.
“How can we manage, Gran?” Venetia asked in a quiet voice. She didn’t mean the question in matters of money. Patrick was their only male relative, and it would be expected that they would have some dealings with him, yet neither she nor Gwen desired that. Two women alone in society, the youngest soon to be an old spinster, although she hated the thought of men labeling her such when she felt neither old nor spinsterish. She felt as though the disapproving gaze of all London society would burn them to ash if they attempted to declare their independence from men.
“How can we manage?” Gwen gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Because we’re Dunham ladies. We stand tall in the face of adversity. We may bend when we must, but we never break.”
Venetia tried to find a smile, but it never found her lips. She left the drawing room and headed to her bedchamber to change into her riding habit. She found her lady’s maid, Phoebe Upton, sorting out gowns on her bed. She was relieved not to have to ring the bell. Patrick had been attempting to reduce the staff, and Gran fought him on the matter frequently. He’d already terminated several of the upstairs maids, even though he was not the one who paid for their services. Each time this happened, Gran left the house to find the servants and bring them back. All of the servants now dreaded the ring of any upstairs bell. For them it had come to toll their employment doom. It was another reminder that it was time to leave this house and escape its great unhappiness.
“Afternoon, my lady.” Phoebe smiled. She was a lovely woman in her late thirties, and an experienced servant Venetia had trusted for years with the secrets of her heart.
“Would you retrieve my riding habit, Phoebe? I am to go out with Lord Latham.”
Phoebe halted abruptly before she reached the armoire. “You’re what?” Phoebe demanded, then apparently realized she’d overstepped and cleared her throat. “That is to say, what could he have offered to make that worth doing?”
Venetia sat down at her vanity table and buried her face in her hands. She pressed hard against her closed eyelids until she saw flashes of white. Then she breathed deeply and faced her maid.
“I am buying us time, Phoebe. We are to quit this place. While I ride this afternoon, you are to assist the dowager countess with packing as much as you can.”
“Now that makes far more sense,” Phoebe muttered. “Best to leave that man far behind.” The maid continued to mutter vigorously as she helped Venetia change into a blue riding habit with black braided frogging. When they finished, Venetia put her train over one arm and returned downstairs. Patrick was pacing at the entranceway, slapping his brown riding gloves against his palms. The harsh action of that single movement belied his congenial smile.
“There you are. We are running late. I told Bernard we would meet him at half past two.”
“I’m so sorry,” Venetia apologized, though she didn’t mean it at all. She forced a smile so genuine that Gwen would have been proud.
“Shall we be off? I had the horses brought round.”
“Of course.” Venetia was helped into the saddle by one of the grooms, and then they headed for Hyde Park, which thankfully was not far.
Venetia had not met many of Patrick’s friends. Between being in mourning for the last year and the fact that Patrick clearly preferred his club for socialization than with her and Gran, it meant they shared no social circles at all. Given Patrick’s choice of friends, it was no doubt a blessing to avoid any connections with the majority of them.
“Ah, there he is.” Patrick pointed at a distant rider at the opening to the park. A man astride a roan gelding waved his crop at them. Venetia tried to keep calm and remember that Patrick would not attempt some scheme in such a public place. He was a fool, but he was not stupid. Still, Venetia kept a tight grip on her riding crop. She would use it as a whip if they tried to manhandle her.
“Hello, Bernard. May I present my fair cousin, Venetia? Venetia, Mr. Bernard Kenyon.”
The man, not unpleasant in looks, offered her a dangerous smile. “It is indeed my greatest pleasure to meet you. Patrick has done nothing but sing your praises. I find his description of you falls quite short, however. He failed to mention your sunny-colored hair or those rich doe-brown eyes. You are quite enchanting.”
Simpering compliments, just as her father had said. But beneath those compliments, what lay in Bernard’s heart? Was he in league with her cousin to get her fortune? She’d wager anything that he was.
“Thank you, Mr. Kenyon. I am sure we shall become better acquainted in time, but if you do not mind, I would very much like to exercise my horse.” She gave the beast, a lovely white mare named Snow, a gentle pat on the neck, then urged the horse into a brisk trot. As much as she knew she needed to delay things to give Gran time to pack, she did not want this fortune hunter attempting to compose more false compliments. It made her uncomfortable. The two gentlemen soon caught up and settled on either side of her, which left her feeling distinctly trapped.
Do not panic, she reminded herself. But it was hard to convince her heart to listen. It was beating too fast, and an unwelcome heat flushed her cheeks as she soon became flustered. She tried to picture Gran marshaling the servants to pack faster, and a feeling of hope briefly distracted her from her rising panic.
“Will you be in London this fall?” Bernard asked her.
“Yes, of course.” Another lie, but she carried it off beautifully. If she and Gran were successful, perhaps they could even purchase a place in the country for a year and avoid Patrick entirely.
“That is excellent news indeed. I have high hopes that you and I will see more of each other.” Bernard offered her what she supposed was meant to be a charming grin. However, it was so clearly a performance that Venetia nearly cringed. She masked her reaction by fiddling with her reins.
“Would it not be lovely, cousin?” Patrick urged with a lift of his dark brows.
“Yes,” she replied.
After Patrick’s show of temper earlier, Venetia was quite sure he could do her and Gran a measure of harm if they were not careful. It was best to play along. For now.
“I heard that Lord and Lady Helmsley are hosting a ball in two days,” Bernard said casually. But the measured pace of his announcement hinted that he had practiced it. “I would be honored to claim your first dance.”
Venetia had been raised a lady and nearly every moment of her life had acted like one, but right then she had no desire at all to dance with him or anyone else. So she did the sensible—but unladylike—thing and promised she would when she had no intention of keeping that promise.
“See? What a lovely day this has been.” Patrick leaned in closer to her to whisper with a smug smile. “I told you, Venetia, that I would see you married, and it will be soon.” Despite his smile, his words dripped with poison.
Men truly did believe women were dolls to be moved about, dressed, played with, and put away until the mood suited them. Well, Venetia wouldn’t allow it. She nearly growled in frustration but swallowed the urge. There was too much at stake.
As much as she didn’t wish to agree with Patrick, she’d come to the sad conclusion that Gran was right. The only way to be safe from Patrick’s schemes was to marry, but someone of her choosing. Someone who would not threaten her, cage her, or strangle the life out of her by degrees over the decades.
But did such a man even exist? Someone who was kind, compassionate, and passionate, who believed in an equal partner in a marriage? If he did, she would do everything in her power to find him and marry him.
She smiled at Patrick, the expression laden with sugary sweetness. “Yes, I believe I will be married soon enough.”
He thought he could browbeat her into submission? He was even more a fool than Gran had thought.
She kept the two men at the park for nearly an hour and a half, and while they were content to enjoy the ride further, she was not. She suddenly winced and bent over on her sidesaddle.
“Oh heavens,” she exclaimed dramatically, calling the attention of both men.
“I say, are you all right, Lady Venetia?” Bernard inquired.
“I . . . Yes. That is to say . . . Oh, this is most distressing, but the matter is one of a feminine nature, and even telling you this much has caused me quite a bit of distress.”
“A feminine nature?” Patrick said, then his eyes widened with horror. “You must wish to return home at once.”
“Yes, but please go on with your ride. It would only pain me further to make you witness my embarrassment by having you escort me home. It might become . . . unsightly.”
Both men turned ruddy cheeked and looked bashfully away like schoolboys. Venetia held back a giggle. Leave it to men to run away at the first mention of anything connected to the feminine body that did not immediately lead to their own pleasure.
“By all means, go. We’ll be fine, won’t we, Bernard?”
“We certainly will.” Bernard offered her a congenial smile. Venetia had to remind herself to act disappointed before she turned her horse in the opposite direction.
When she reached home, she found that her grandmother had managed much in such a short time. A large wagon was out front, loaded with at least a dozen trunks. Footmen were piling more small boxes upon it. Their coach sat behind the wagon, already prepared for them.
“Heavens, Gran has been busy,” Venetia murmured as she rushed into the house. “Gran?” she called out.
“Up here, my dear.” Gwen peered at her from the top of the stairs, cane in hand, but she was looking livelier than ever. Phoebe was ready to assist her down.
“I’ve already secured a townhouse to accommodate everything we don’t need for the house party. Half the staff will move in to set up the house for us, it will be ready when we return from Hartland Abbey.”
“How on earth did you find a townhouse so quickly?”
Gwen’s eyes glinted with mischief. “When you are my age, you learn to plan. I secured the townhouse a week ago in case of such an emergency. I didn’t tell you, my dear, because I didn’t wish to worry you.”
Gwen reached the bottom of the stairs, and Venetia caught her free hand, gently holding it. “No more secrets, Gran. Please. If we are to survive this, we need truth between us.”
“No secrets? Child, half the fun in life lies in secrets. But yes, I’ll agree to the spirit of those terms. Now come along. Phoebe and I were preparing the coach when you arrived. It’s time we left for Hartland.”
“Isn’t the party two days away? Surely we cannot arrive earlier than expected.”
“Yes, but we will need to stay at an inn on the way. We can extend our stay at the inn another day and then finish the journey to Hartland.”
It seemed that Gran had planned for everything. Venetia should have been relieved, but she wasn’t. Her grandmother intended to see her good and married.
She just hoped Gran didn’t intend for her to put expedience ahead of happiness.
Adrian Montague groaned as he was shaken awake by a gentle hand.
“It’s half past five,” a sleepy voice murmured, trailing off into a yawn.
Adrian sat up. “Christ.” He raked his hands through his hair before glancing at Benjamin, one of the other footmen employed at Hartland Abbey. Their shared room had a pair of tiny wood-framed beds, one washstand, and a chest of drawers they split between them. Life in service meant everything was shared, right down to the livery clothes on his back.
He had been a footman at Hartland for ten years. Now nine and twenty, he was coming into the age where men like him would either move on or advance into an underbutler position. But he doubted that Hartland’s butler, Mr. Reeves, would consider him for the position. Not given his family history.
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