The Duchess of Mischief (Preview)

Chapter One

In the Year of Our Lord 1809, in that grand, grey metropole of London, there existed a great many strictures that prescribed every facet of proper behaviour for the men and ladies of the upper classes. Primary among these rules were those related to the manner of dress. To the untrained eye, the nobles and would-be nobles who attended the truly important events of the season clad themselves however they chose, adorning their bodies with whatever outrageous article on which they chose to spend their considerable fortunes.

To those in the know, however, there was a very clear order to the chaos. The colour, fabric, and cut of every garment, from gown to hat to unmentionables, was rapidly evaluated by the keen eyes of London society—each dimension and ornament, no matter how miniscule, conveyed a great deal about the wearer. What’s more, this order was ever shifting: what was appropriate at one affair was rendered ridiculous by the following week.

Indeed, the ways of London fashion were a language unto themselves. And there was perhaps no greater speaker of this tongue than the Lady Iris Bellamy, only daughter of the Duke of Beauchester. From one season to the next, Lady Iris was much reputed for composing veritable symphonies of fashion, bedecking herself in showers of green silk or fashionably plain muslin according to the dictates of the moment.

In addition to the sartorial commandments that ruled the city, there were also a vast array of unwritten rules related to the overall physical appearance of a young unmarried Lady. As with the ton’s guidelines for clothing, these rules were also broadly seen as correct, at least by Lady Iris and anyone she deemed to be in their right mind. Consequently, Iris never appeared in public with anything more than the slightest application of cosmetics, and whether dancing or walking or standing still, she always carried herself in a manner that earned approving looks from onlookers of all stations—a simple task, as it happened, considering her God-given wealth of natural beauty. Indeed, with the generously feminine curve of her hip and abundant auburn locks that looked equally fetching in any modern hairstyle, Lady Iris Bellamy found it quite easy to win the approbation of her peers and betters with nothing more than a glance.

Unfortunately, in addition to these very right-minded and appropriate rules that governed the lives of the women of London at this time, there was also a considerably longer list of prohibitions that constantly chafed at Lady Iris. ‘Young ladies must be modest above all.’ ‘Young ladies must not cause disruption or mischief.’ ‘Young ladies are most beautiful when they keep silent.’

Lady Iris was as well-versed in these rules as she was in the ways of fashion and courtship. “All the better to flaunt them,” she would remark to her friends when the subject of rules was brought up, provoking a chorus of giggles every time she did.

And every time the laughter subsided, a vague something whispered at the back of Iris’ mind that she would not be able to carry on living as she pleased for ever. This stern and scornful voice, though quiet, grew more insistent with the passing of each season. Now that the spring season of 1809 was drawing to a close, Iris had to fight all the harder to ignore it.

* * *

To the men and ladies of the ton who happened to pass through Hyde Park on that particular night, Lady Iris Bellamy presented a most compelling sight. For those few who were not previously acquainted with her reputation in London society, the first thought that occurred was, What a beauty!

Standing beneath the vibrant pink arms of a flowering tree, near the elegant bend of the Serpentine, Lady Iris indeed stood out even surrounded by the cluster of comely young ladies and their late-afternoon finery. Her sheer, lilac-coloured dress was slightly more winning; the glint of her subtle yet undeniably luxurious jewels shimmered and glittered slightly more enthusiastically in the dying orange sunlight. And her voice, as ever, rang clear and melodious as a bell as she spoke to a passing married couple. Her speech rose in a plaintive tone as she pled with a lady and gentleman on the crowded park road, so lovely and singsong that the dozens of pedestrians and carriages that trundled by slowed to listen.

“Lady Patricia, I tell you, it’s not only a matter of safety, I tell you, but it is the law!” Iris continued, sympathy shining in her limpid green eyes that shone all the prettier as her hands clutched a glass jar filled with something shining and green.

“The law, she says,” grumbled the gentleman as he looked to his wife, his moustache twitching uncomfortably.

Lady Patricia shook her head, arms folded sceptically. “I tell you, it’s nothing but nonsense, Frederick,” she grumbled, pulling her husband away from Lady Iris and the other young ladies who had gathered around. “This is Lady Iris Bellamy, after all. She’s probably just having us on with some joke or another—”

“And yet, think of how tragic it should be if this lovely evening were spoilt by being accosted by the guardians of the king’s laws over such a trivial thing!” Lady Iris reached out her hands, letting the married couple examine the jar more closely. Within, they could see dozens of small wriggling worms, each of which periodically emitted a bright green glow from its abdomen.

“Until the end of the season,” Iris continued soberly, “in the evening hours, all carriages are required to hang a jar of glow-worms from the front harness of their carriage. It’s a new law, I understand, but nonetheless important for its newness.”

From the crowd of young women behind Lady Iris, there came the sound of muffled laughter, a noise silenced with the slightest twitch of her foot. “And as my friends and I have already harvested more than we can use ourselves, we agreed that it is only right that we give this, our penultimate jar, to your Lord and Ladyship.”

At this point, the passers-by who were better acquainted with the important personages of London society laughed and walked away from the scene. Lady Iris Bellamy was nearly as infamous for her practical jokes as she was for her beauty—in her mere ten-and-nine years on Earth, she had already trained most of the members of the ton to view her every word with scepticism.

Fortunately for Lady Iris and her hangers-on, her current audience was more gullible than most.
“For God’s sake, Patricia, let’s just take the things and be off.” The lord reached out and took the jar gingerly between two fingers, then turned to attach it to their carriage that waited nearby. Lady Patricia stood her ground, however, keeping him in place as she folded her arms and glared at Lady Iris warily.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing, Frederick, and I can’t believe you would ever believe such an outlandish story as this. What sort of country do you suppose we live in that would have such bizarre laws?”

Iris half-turned to look at a slim, dark-haired woman behind her. “You see, Miss Spencer? There are those who still have great faith in the laws of our land.” She sighed, looking down with a sorrowful expression.

“If only it were not our misfortune to be governed by a sovereign so beset by maladies of the brain. I fear such whimsical laws will grow ever more commonplace as—”

“Perhaps best not to speak further of such things, Iris,” said Johanna Spencer gravely, reaching out to silence Iris with a hand on the shoulder.

The esteemed lord had evidently heard enough and tipped his old-fashioned tricorn hat in farewell as he tugged his wife’s elbow. “It’s a fair point, and the less said, the better. Come now, Patricia.”

“But Frederick, that—”

“Come on, blast it,” cursed the gentleman, pulling away from his wife and climbing into his carriage. Lady Patricia gave Iris one more sceptical look before following her husband and closing the carriage door behind them.

If either of the couple noticed the snickering of their driver or the roar of laughter from Lady Iris and her friends as the horses pulled them away from the crowd, a shining green jar dangling from the harness, they gave no sign.

“Brava, Iris!” called one of the triumphant pranksters.

“I really can’t believe they fell for it!” cheered another. Miss Spencer was doubled over in laughter, unable to speak.

“Neither can I! London has no shortage of credulous nobles, it would seem.” Iris laughed as she jumped into the air with glee. “‘It’s a fair point, and the less said, the better,’” she grumbled, twirling an imaginary moustache in an imitation of the gentleman and sending another wave of merry laughter through her friends and those onlookers who had stayed to enjoy the celebration of another successful prank.

Iris wiped away a tear of laughter and breathed out a contented sigh. If only I could have this much fun every day of my life, she thought, then immediately wished she hadn’t. Even this brief contemplation of her future brought all manner of responsibilities and arguments with her parents crashing onto her head. Soon she would have to turn her attention to all manner of serious things like marriage and duty and…
None of that. Not now, not today, Iris thought, looking around and trying her hardest to savour the laughter she had generated among the noble onlookers.

“You know, I fancy I can still see the glitter of those little worms on Lady Patricia’s carriage from here,” she twittered, striding forward across the road and standing on her tiptoes to see if she could get a better look at the vehicle. Delicately holding her last jar of glow-worms in hand, she lightly stepped between passers-by and ducked her head around trees bursting with blossoms and new, verdant leaves. As she chased the distant yet still clearly illuminated carriage, Iris felt her skirts pleasurably shift and dance about her knees with the effort.

Father would scold me if he saw me dashing about like this, she thought with a wicked grin. ‘It’s not appropriate for ladies to behave like little monkeys,’ he would say, or something equally asinine. You would think the man was never young himself. Hah!

Iris paused after rapidly covering a few hundred yards or so, stopping from her vantage point atop a point in a dirt trail that led over a small hillock. As the road was poorer in this place and the trees more overgrown, she saw she was alone in this tiny glade in the heart of Hyde Park. If any of her friends had followed her in her haste to view the fleeing carriage, they had evidently lost track of her for the moment.
She took a moment to enjoy the sensation of her heart pounding in her chest, her breath pulling the warm, clean air of the park into her lungs. Then she peered forward and savoured her plain view of the elegant gig wheeling away towards the city streets, its front painted in an unearthly green glow that drew points and crowing laughter from nearby pedestrians.

What a splendid jape indeed! Iris laughed to herself, taking great pleasure in the sight of the stir she had caused. She found her fingers beating a gentle tattoo on the glass jar of insects still held firmly in her grasp. If only the season were not coming to a close. This may be the most diverting evening I will be able to enjoy until—

Suddenly, with a cold bolt of fear running down the back of her neck, she felt something large trundle dangerously close by.

All at once, the world was turned upside-down. From somewhere nearby, a deep voice cried, “Look out!” amid a clatter of hoofbeats and the frenzied jangling of leather and brass.

Eyes wide, Iris found herself freezing in place as the shadow of a horse reared high overhead, and with a scream, she felt the trees spin about her in a whirl. Then all sound was erased, stifled by the furious thundering of her heartbeat in her ears, and she closed her eyes.

Am I injured? Iris wondered blankly, her eyelids fluttering open wanly. First, she was dimly aware that she was not in any pain save a mild soreness on her backside. Then she deduced by the sight of sunset-dappled branches before her eyes that she was lying on her bottom on the grass. Her blood was still shot through with fear, her breath coming quick even as it became clearer that the danger had abated.

Then, before she could conjure any reasonable thought or action, a vision appeared before her eyes that stole the breath from her entirely.

It was a man’s face, she saw, but a man unlike any she had ever seen before. The dim orange light of the sunset painted his features in radiant golden shadows, but Iris could see that he had a thick head of wavy, dark blond hair crowning his high cheekbones and aristocratic features. His eyes were impossibly blue and set beneath thick, expressive eyebrows, and there was something deep, even sorrowful lurking in their depths. The man’s jaw was strong and masculine, and Iris saw a corner of his lip was pinched between his teeth in a nervous expression.

Most remarkably of all, the man was positively shining, she thought in wonderment. It was as though his face was a star like the very sun itself, emitting a light all its own into the air around him.

Who on Earth is this man? Iris wondered, still not drawing breath for reasons beyond her understanding. From somewhere deep in her memory, something indistinct, beyond words, came bubbling up into her mind—it was a familiar feeling, somehow, though she was certain she had never experienced anything remotely similar before. A yawning, hungry kind of feeling that was frightening in its intensity as it was completely ineffable. The only thing that she was sure it truly resembled was the furtive, unspoken thoughts that governed her midnight explorations in her own bed, though she never dared breathe a word of them to anyone but Johanna Spencer, the fantasies of being carried off by rugged pirates and handsome kings were painted in the same light as the vision before her eyes now, somehow.

I must have hit my head while falling, she reasoned, though this thought made her feel strangely sad.

The man’s lips moved, and his eyes were growing wider, Iris saw. He was saying something, Iris realised distantly, but it was muffled, incomprehensible against the pounding of her heartbeat.

“I’m sorry?” she asked, feeling rather silly as she did so.

If anything, the gentleman’s face grew even more handsome as it contorted in an expression of concern, even fear. From somewhere in the haze that filled her mind, Iris thought she had never seen anyone look at her with such abject concern for her well-being.

“I said, ‘Are you injured, My Lady?’” The sound of the man’s voice was as rich and compelling as the sight of his face—a low, earthy baritone that seemed to shift something within Iris’ body with each syllable it uttered. He spoke in the dialect of an educated gentleman, Iris could not help noticing, and was likely from London.

Why am I even thinking of such things? I was nearly killed!

“My word, I have stunned the poor thing senseless,” muttered the man to himself, looking about with frantic energy.

“No, I’m not,” Iris protested, drawing a look of relief from the man. She winced at her inarticulate choice of words. “That is … I don’t believe I’m injured.”

She raised a delicate hand from the grass to inspect herself for any wounds, but even as she did so, she felt herself flying through the air to her feet—the gentleman had evidently taken the gesture for a request to be helped to her feet. Still at a loss for words, Iris found herself marvelling at the strength of the man’s arms, the memory of his hand holding hers, even as she swayed unsteadily on her feet. Iris quickly saw that save for the elegant black stallion standing behind the man, they were alone on this relatively lonely section of dirt path that cut through a copse of trees.

“I’m terribly sorry, but I didn’t see you run onto the path until it was nearly too late to stop. Are … are you sure you’re all right?” the man asked, standing nervously to one side and stretching out his arms as though ready to catch her before she fell once more. “I think I had better call for a doctor.”

“No!” Iris protested, looking away from the man’s arms even as she felt her cheeks redden furiously. “No, I …” She patted her legs, thighs, hips, and bottom, checking to ensure nothing was broken, then finished, “I’m not hurt, I don’t think. Embarrassed, perhaps, but not injured.”

Why is he averting his eyes? Iris wondered, puzzled, then realised that she had not presented herself as a proper young lady in the process of running her hands over her lower half. At this point, Iris discovered she could blush even more deeply than she had ever realised, and she, too, turned her eyes away with great haste.

As she did so, she saw another glittering of the radiance that had suffused the man from her position on the ground. Blinking, Iris suddenly put together what she had been seeing.

“Oh, my glow-worms!” she exclaimed. The jar was miraculously unbroken, but the luminescent creatures had been scattered all across the ground nearby. Before she could think twice, Iris fell to her knees and began recapturing the worms one by one.

“I’m sorry, are these … glow-worms? Are they yours?”

“I just said as much, didn’t I?” Iris snapped, rushing to chase down a worm that was making its escape in the direction of a tree trunk.

The man must surely think me mad, Iris mused. Then again, he’s the one who nearly ran into me. Let him laugh if he will. She knew how silly she must appear making such a scene over insects, but she and her friends had spent hours procuring the things in the first place, and one thing Iris could not abide above all else was seeing her hard work go to waste.

But to her surprise, laughter was not how the gentleman answered this scenario. After a long moment in which she could feel those blue eyes examining her intently, the man dropped to his knees and joined her in retrieving the errant glow-worms. Glancing over at him in disbelief, Iris noticed that the man seemed to pay no mind to the dirt he was getting on his obviously expensive trousers while crawling around in the dirt. Then she could not help noting the delicacy with which he picked up each glow-worm he retrieved—not with disgust, it seemed, but with great care not to injure the bug as he scooped up each one in his hand and cautiously deposited it in Iris’ upturned jar.

After a few minutes, Iris was satisfied that most, if not all, of the runaway insects had been returned to their glass prison. Sealing the jar once again and wiping off the dust from her hands on her skirt, Iris looked with gratitude at her assailant-cum-saviour, who stood before her awkwardly.

“Before another word, for the sake of propriety, I really think we ought to introduce ourselves,” said the man in an oddly formal tone. He doffed his hat and bowed deeply, cutting a dashing figure as he did so. “Mark Dunn, Earl of Langtree.”

Langtree … I have heard this name, but I cannot remember ever having given it any real thought.
Iris curtsied as best as she could with a jar of glow-worms in one hand. “Lady Iris Bellamy, daughter of the Duke of Beauchester. Thank you for your assistance with my glow-worms, Lord Langtree. And for sparing my life, I suppose, as long as I am offering my thanks. I should have been more aware of my surroundings.”

Looking as though he was supressing a smile, Lord Langtree bowed again at the waist. “It is my pleasure, My Lady. Not running over young ladies … is something of a passion of mine, I suppose.” He coughed uncomfortably at his own joke, an expression that sent that same bizarre half-familiar feeling shooting through Iris once again.

“I don’t suppose I am in any position to enquire about your business, having endangered your life so,” said Lord Langtree, rubbing the back of his head in an appallingly endearing gesture. “However, I will confess that I am frightfully curious what the Lady Iris Bellamy is doing running through the park with an apparently very important cargo of glow-worms.”

Remembering the childish prank that had just occupied her time, Iris was suddenly filled with a desire to run away from the man in embarrassment. Instead, she put a hand to her mouth in what she hoped was a coy gesture. “Unfortunately, My Lord, explaining a lady’s business is not a passion of mine. No matter how charming the asker.”

She winced, feeling her face grow hotter still. Stupid girl! Get hold of your tongue before you embarrass yourself to death!
Iris had ever been a formidable player at the conversation game, and Lord Langtree clearly had no shortage of clever words himself. But for the first time, she found herself rocking back and forth mutely on her heels as she and the gentleman stood awkwardly amid the shadowy trees, illuminated only by the last red sliver of the day’s sunlight and the faint green light from her jar of glow-worms. Their eyes met, and as soon as they did, Iris looked away hastily. She opened her mouth to speak at the same time Lord Langtree did, then each closed their mouth to allow the other to continue. They shared an awkward laugh, then lapsed into silence once more.

Glancing in his direction as discreetly as she could while pretending to recount the worms in her jar, Iris’ eye roved up and back down the lord’s height. Despite his good humour, the man was dressed most formally for a solitary ride through the park, and the confident strength in his limbs struck a strange contrast with his bashful bearing.

Their eyes met once again, and this time Iris did not look away. For half a heartbeat, their gaze was locked onto one another, and Iris fancied she could see reflected in those pure blue orbs all the emotion—the fear, the relief, maybe even a flicker of attraction—that the man did not voice aloud. Then she blinked, and the moment was gone.

“If … if you are indeed unhurt, My Lady,” said Lord Langtree, reaching for his horse’s reins, “then I shall offer you my apologies once more and leave you to … well, a lady’s business.”

Iris smiled. “Only if you accept my thanks once more, Lord Langtree. Any lady would be fortunate to be nearly ridden down by such a helpful, handso—” She stopped herself, fearing she was about to babble something else unbecoming of a lady and curtsied so he would hopefully not notice her blush. Without another word, he mounted his horse with a great swing of his powerful legs, tipped his hat to her, and rode off the way he had come. Through the cloud of dust rising behind him, Iris could not pull her eyes away from the receding form of Lord Langtree, wishing she could speak with him awhile longer—And more intelligently, perhaps, she hoped.

Then, just as suddenly as the world had been turned on its head a few moments before, Iris found herself plunged back into reality as a half-dozen of her friends rushed to surround her in a cloud of laughter and praise. Judging by their lively demeanour, it seemed none of them had noticed either her near-accident or her interaction with the strange Lord Langtree.

“Did you see them, Iris? Oh, what an amusing show indeed!” Johanna said with a giggle.

One of her cohorts chimed in, “To think what everyone will be saying about Lady Patricia at the Duke of Kent’s ball tomorrow! I shall simply die with laughter, I’m sure!”

For a moment, Iris’ mind was so preoccupied with thoughts of what had just transpired that she could only look at her friends blankly as they carried on celebrating her triumphant joke. But then she felt her feet reach the earth once more, leaving behind the confusion she had just experienced and only a vague sense of wistfulness in its place.

“I suppose it will be good to hear talk of something other than the endless gossip about courtship and marriage,” Iris said with a tight smile. She began to walk back towards the carriages that had conveyed her party to Hyde Park, and her friends followed suit even as they continued to chatter about the success of the glow-worms scheme.

All but Johanna Spencer, who Iris could not help noticing had developed a sullen demeanour at this last comment. “Easy for you to say, Iris,” the slim young woman grumbled. “Not all of us are in such high demand among the eligible men of the ton. In fact, some of your friends have not been so lucky as to receive and reject three proposals this season.”

Iris felt her cheeks redden. Though the women’s gait continued without interruption, she could hear the rest of her friends quiet in their conversation, likely waiting to hear Iris’ response.

“Goodness, I hadn’t realised it had been quite that many,” she muttered. Have there really been so many proposals already this season? Iris thought. Her mind raced through the interactions she had engaged in with London’s upper-class bachelors at dances, social clubs, and other functions, her mood growing darker with each proposal she recalled.

“I suppose I have had more than my share of suitors, come to think of it,” she said with a weak smile at her friend Johanna. “Actually, it’s been five proposals, come to think of it. That is if we are counting that half-Swedish Lord Solberg’s half-hearted words at—”

“Five!” Johanna Spencer breathed in an astonished tone of voice. She affectionately put a hand on Iris’ shoulder, giving her a concerned look. “But my dear Iris, surely you see you are being far too selective? Why, you are nearly twenty years old, and if you are not more open-minded, you will still be unbetrothed at season’s end!”

“It’s no great sin to be particular about such matters,” said Iris coolly. “I simply have yet to meet an appropriate match. I still have faith there is at least one man in London who can capture my heart.”
Unbidden, the image of Mark Langtree flashed in her mind as she had first seen him—looking down at her, his masculine face ringed by petal-laden branches. Again the peculiar sensation of heat came over Iris, and she knew she must be blushing once more.

She scowled and shook her head. I must still be dazed from my fall, else I would have more sense than to let my thoughts linger on this man.
But Johanna was undaunted by this glib dismissal. “Come now, Iris. We all enjoy our stories of romance as much as any woman,” she enjoined the other women, who nodded enthusiastically with this characterization, “but we live in the real world, not a fairy story. Surely one of the gentlemen who proposed to you must be acceptable.”
“Acceptable,” Iris repeated, saying the word as though it were a bitter invective. “Now you sound just like my mother. Of course, they were all acceptable. The men who propose at society events always are—barons, earls, wealthy men, and what have you.”

“The son of a duke, even!” one of her friends put in eagerly. “You remember Lord Carrington, don’t you?”

Iris laughed. “I remember how he spoke of horses and nothing else for so long that I fell asleep in my chair. No, I’m afraid none of these would-be suitors have been even the slightest bit interesting. Dullards to a man. And I don’t know about any of you, but I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life fainting away of boredom.”

The women erupted in laughter once more just as they reached their respective carriages and began to climb in to be taken home. Before she followed suit with her own conveyance, Johanna Spencer shook her head sceptically and looked into her friend’s eyes keenly. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Iris. You can’t always be sure of what sort of man someone is after just a single dance or conversation … nor even knowing their reputation. Things aren’t always what they seem, you know. Any young man may have hidden depths that take time to discover.”

Iris harrumphed at this, ignoring the gentle encouragement from her driver to board the carriage. “You may plumb any depths you like, Johanna. I am sure I will know the man for me the moment I meet him, and nothing will convince me otherwise.”

The smile on Miss Spencer’s face made her look much older and more world-weary than Iris knew her to be. But without another word, she gave Iris a resigned embrace, then took her leave.

Iris allowed her gaze to linger over the darkened trees of the park, hoping to steal one last moment of freedom before returning home to family and duty. The barest memory of stars twinkled down on the greenery through London’s smoky haze, and once more, Iris was reminded of the glittering sight of Lord Langtree in her mind’s eye. Climbing into the carriage with a sigh, she faintly wondered whether she would encounter the solicitous if stuffy young man again anytime soon.

Perhaps there will be one or two more diverting evenings in my near future after all …

Chapter Two

The gate of the Langtree family’s London townhouse swung shut behind Mark as soon as Bucephalus had walked him through their yawning iron lips.

Swallowed by the great whale of Langtree once again, Mark thought with a grimace. The London townhouse had once been a place of respite for Mark, a small if luxurious home in the city that felt positively cosy compared to the Langtree estate in the country. Of late, though, he had found no escape from his duties as earl in this house, either, and dreaded returning here almost as much as to his family seat.
That ride was hardly the diversion I had anticipated … I pray it was restful enough for a time, as I can only guess what has piled up here in my absence.

As if summoned by this thought, no sooner had he descended from his mount into the darkened courtyard than Mark was surrounded by half a dozen household functionaries. Other than the groom, who gamely took Bucephalus to the stables for his supper, every one of them had an urgent matter that could not wait one second longer for the attention of the Earl of Langtree.

And like it or not, that means me. Mark afforded himself a single regretful swallow before dispensing with one request after the next; his voice filled with what he hoped would sound like the confidence of a lord. A dozen invitations to local events had been delivered that day—the earl asked that they be added to the pile of correspondence in his study so he could answer them presently, or as close to presently as his affairs would allow. The Langtree estate on the coast was having a minor dispute with some obscure neighbour or another relating to the woodlands that abutted both territories—the earl bid his man to bring word in person acknowledging the difficulty of such matters and reassuring the ego of the neighbour’s surely ancient and storied house. The governess of the young Langtree siblings Charles, Reginald, and Elizabeth had quit once again—the earl sighed wearily and charged the messenger to return to Langtree at once and instruct his housekeeper Mrs Cotton to hire another at her earliest convenience.

“Walton,” Mark muttered under his breath, glancing in the direction of the aged Langtree butler, “was my lord father always beset by such a deluge of responsibilities after coming back from a scant two-hour ride?”

Mister Walton’s grim visage curled in a wrinkled smile. “I wouldn’t know, My Lord,” he wheezed in a not-unkindly tone of voice.

“Come now, Walton, surely you haven’t forgotten already,” Mark chided him, turning away from the queue of supplicants for a welcome bout of conversation. “It’s only been four years since father passed away, and I suspect your memory is famously as sharp as it’s ever been.”

The old man’s grey eye twinkled. “Sharper, My Lord. And begging your pardon, but I believe it has been more than five years since the late Lord Langtree passed on.”

“Five years?” Mark repeated in disbelief.

“Five years, three months, and—”

“Yes, yes, I remember.”

“As to the matter of your father and, as you put it, this ‘deluge of responsibilities’, My Lord?”

“Yes?”

“I confess, I only had the privilege of serving your lord father while he was residing here at the Langtree townhouse in London. However, as I understand it, the fact of the matter is that your lord father only took a journey of such a length if he had business elsewhere. And on such occasions, he inevitably travelled in his carriage in the company of his secretary in order to be able to deal with affairs of his office during the journey.”

The butler’s voice swelled with pride at these words, and Mark fancied the wizened old man stood even taller than his usual ramrod-straight posture allowed. Mark swallowed something cold and thorny, feeling even more underwater than he had before. “Thank you, Walton,” he grumbled, then returned to the affairs thrust in his direction by the waiting throng of scribes and secretaries.

By the time he made it through the door into the house itself, he realised he was as famished as he was exhausted. Though he had only been away for a short while, his limbs were sore from exertion, his eyes bleary from another sleepless night. Mark searched his memory, unsure if he had eaten anything at all today. Glancing at the elegant clock hung from the wall, Mark saw that it was nearly nine o’clock already.
My God, however is one man expected to manage so much business on his own? he wondered darkly as he passed his jacket to a nearby manservant and trudged towards the dining room. Yet Father must have done, somehow or another. That’s what I remember, and that’s what everyone keeps telling me, at least. At one point, he thought hiring more staff would help, but somehow that had only compounded his duties.
Mark paused before stepping through the door, hearing sounds of conversation within. He closed his eyes and took a long breath to steel himself. Wistfully, he allowed his memory to linger on the thoughts of the peculiar Lady Iris Bellamy, who, despite the ridiculousness of her posture lying on the ground, had seemed to him to be the most attractive creature he could remember seeing in some time.

Hang onto that memory, Mark, he thought as he entered the dining room. As much as you felt you needed that ride to preserve your sanity, you’ll need to fight twice as hard to hang onto it now.

“Well, Mother, I suppose you were right. It seems Mark hasn’t abandoned us quite yet after all.”

“Hush, Trevor, don’t be contentious.”

Mark tried to keep his face neutral as he took in the scene before him. As usual, the long, polished table was occupied by his own empty chair at one end, the stout figure of his mother, the Dowager Countess of Langtree at the other, and the ever-smirking Lord Trevor Dunn at the centre.

“And a good evening to you, dear brother,” said Mark dispassionately, pulling his chair out as he did so. Just before he sat, however, he saw that his mother’s wineglass was empty and gestured to a servant to refill it.

“Oh, thank you, Mark,” said the countess with a kindly smile. “I trust you had a pleasant ride this evening?”

“Yes, well—”

“It had better have been damn well pleasant, considering all the trouble that’s accumulated here while you were off enjoying yourself,” grumbled Trevor.

“Trevor!”

“And what of you, dear brother?” Mark asked in a patient voice. “How did you pass this lovely spring day?”

The surly young man shrugged and took a long sip of wine but did not answer. Mark felt a flash of anger at this churlishness, but it dissipated as soon as he detected the scent of his dinner being brought to his place by a handful of serving men. He picked up his knife, eager to cut into the excellent piece of beef before him, but stopped as he heard a voice speak just to his right.

“I beg your pardon, My Lord, but I’m afraid there is a matter that demands your attention. There’s been a fire at one of the mills on Langtree lands, and the residents of the local village urgently need materials to rebuild,” said Walton, who had discreetly slid into the dining room in the meantime. He held a letter in his long, wrinkled fingers.

The dowager countess tutted. “Really, Walton, this cannot be the proper moment for business. The earl has scarce touched his dinner, and—”

“No, Mother, it’s all right,” said Mark, setting down his cutlery and examining the proffered document. “Our tenants have already had to wait long enough for an answer as this news made its way to London—”
“And another several hours as their lordship was indisposed in matters of his own amusement,” Trevor chimed in snidely.

“Now, Trevor, we will have no more of that kind of talk!” snapped the countess, sitting straighter in her chair. The harshness of her tone drew every eye in the room, and Trevor slowly straightened from his lackadaisical posture.

Clearing her throat, tears heavy in her voice, the countess went on with a finger shaken fiercely at her second son. “Mark is your brother, and he is the Earl of Langtree! If you wish to help him in his labours for the good of our family, we shall all be glad to know it. But if you mean only to go on denigrating him, I will ask you to leave this table right this instant.”

Trevor opened his mouth in protest, then took in his mother’s glare and shrank back instead, rising noisily from the table and storming out of the room. “My Lord,” he grumbled by way of excusing himself, though he neither broke his stride nor looked back in Mark’s direction as he did so.

The countess raised a handkerchief to her brow and sniffed lightly. “I’m terribly sorry, Mark. You shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of treatment from anyone, least of all your own brother.”

“You don’t have to apologise for him, Mother,” Mark answered, signing his name to the letter and passing it back to Walton before returning to his dinner. “The fire in Trevor’s heart burns hotter than any of us, as it ever has.”

“He is a man of three-and-twenty, not a child. He should know better.”

Mark shrugged. “Perhaps he simply needs a bit more time and patience on our parts. At least one of those is not in short supply, fortunately.”

“Oh, you are such a kind brother, Mark!” sighed the countess. “Your poor father would be ever so proud of you.”

Of that, I am not so sure, thought Mark, his mind returning unhappily to the mountain of correspondence that awaited him as soon as he finished eating. And the accounts! Lord help me, I’d nearly forgotten. Those cannot be put off any longer.

As though fleeing from this latest burden, Mark found his thoughts drifting far away from accounts and official business and peevish siblings. As he absentmindedly cut and chewed his dinner, his mind returned to that perfect sunlit glade in Hyde Park. If only I could have stayed a while longer. There was so much I wanted to say to that strange Lady Iris, so much I wanted to ask if I had not been so damnably tongue-tied. He shook his head, unable to keep a smile from his lips. Glow- worms … the very idea of it!

He knew it was a mistake to let his imagination linger in such frivolity—Father would use his every moment to consider important matters, Mark thought angrily. But he could not help roaming about this daydream for another second or two. The look of helplessness in the woman’s shining green eyes as she lay on the ground and the intelligence that flashed there after he had helped her to her feet. Mark had never helped a young woman in distress before—the experience had given him a strange, heady rush of pride and self-assuredness. He could not help wondering what might have gone on if he had stayed in that beautiful, isolated copse a moment longer, had drawn closer to Iris Bellamy’s mischievous smile, had held her even closer in his arms …

“I noticed the Duke of Kent will be holding his ball at Westchester tomorrow evening,” said the dowager countess in a calm, unemotional tone that pricked at Mark’s ears.

Mark started, jolted back to reality by his mother’s words. The Dowager Countess of Langtree had been a formidable personality in her younger days, but the death of her husband right after the birth of her fifth child had been extremely hard on the woman. Five years later, she had recovered from the depths of her depression and was now in good health save for the gout that had begun to attack her right leg. Better still, of late she had reclaimed some of the verve for which she was renowned … which was a comfort to Mark as well as a cause of worry from time to time. This was one of those times.

What’s she thinking of, I wonder? Likely she has some designs for another match for me. “Yes, Mother, I remember,” Mark said, trying not to allow himself to grow too despondent at being dragged away from his reverie.

A long moment passed in which the dowager countess feigned disinterest, running her finger along her glass and looking up at the chandelier. Mark was filled with an urge to answer the question he knew was coming but decided instead to use this time to try to finish his dinner while he still had the chance.

“I don’t suppose …” she spoke at last.

“No, Mother, I don’t suppose so,” Mark interrupted her. “It’s those accounts, I’m afraid—you remember, we were speaking of them yesterday. They really can’t be put off any longer, unfortunately. Not even for the Duke of Kent.”

The countess nodded eagerly. “Of course, yes, I understand. It’s just … oh, Mark, you know how I worry about you. I know how busy you are with taking care of Langtree, but you really do need to take care of yourself as well. A bit of dancing and merriment will do you good, don’t you think?”

“Yes, Mother, I’m sure it would. But the accounts—”

“And after all, what are we even in London for if not to attend such important social events?” She glanced at him, something keen in her eye. “It is important for the Earl of Langtree to be seen at such things, you know. Especially as there is still a very important affair yet to be addressed … related to the continuation of our house, you understand.”

Mark groaned and rested his head in his hand. “Mother, please. Marriage is the last thing on my mind. Perhaps once the household has been taken care of when things are not so tumultuous from Father’s passing …”

With great dignity and only a small wince of pain, the great lady rose to her feet, hands up in surrender. “I understand, Mark. I don’t want to rush you. But mark my words: life may not wait another five years for you to be ready.”

He opened his mouth to protest, but the countess had already shuffled over to him and kissed him tenderly on the top of the head. “I’ve said my piece. Now, please try to get some sleep tonight, won’t you?”
“I will, Mother.” Mark sighed. Alone in the room, he took a long, heavy breath, hoping to keep himself from drowning for at least one evening more.

Life will not wait … no, I suppose it will not, at that. For the last second, he allowed himself before retiring to his study to answer his letters, Mark found his thoughts turning once again to glow-worms, of all things on God’s earth.



“The Duchess of Mischief” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

When her parents decide to force her hand in marriage, the rebellious Lady Iris Bellamy feels desperate. While the cruel and arrogant Archduke Leopold is hastily becoming a threat to her freedom, Iris will try to enact a cunning plan to hide from his wicked clutches… However, a chance encounter with a seductive stranger, would lead to an unforgettable night with shocking consequences…

What will the price she has to pay for her sinful whims be?

As Mark Dunn, Earl of Langtree, is struggling between his mother’s precarious health and the demands of his tenants, he is slowly feeling himself sliding into a bottomless pit of despair… Until the unforeseen happens; two magnetic women, vastly different from one another, yet, equally compelling, suddenly appear in his life and he finds himself entangled in a web of attraction and deceit. When one of them, Iris, manages to tear down the walls surrounding his heart…

Will he be able to make the right choice?

One challenge after another conspires to pull Iris and Mark apart, and before long the consequences of their scandalous dance begin to grow deadly… As the truth becomes even more elusive and jealousy burns at a fever pitch, the lovers are facing a lethal question: how much are they willing to risk for a chance at love? Will they sacrifice all they have ever known, to fulfil their sinful desires or will they abandon one another forever?

“The Duchess of Mischief” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

Get your copy from Amazon!

15 thoughts on “The Duchess of Mischief (Preview)”

      1. Thank you, my dear Sue!

        I’m really grateful for your support and kind feedback!

        I’m glad to hear that you enjoy my stories! Make sure to stay tuned because I have more coming!

      1. I’m so grateful, my dear Patricia!

        Thank you for your support and kind feedback!

        I’m glad to hear that you enjoy my stories! Make sure to stay tuned because I have more coming!

  1. I enjoyed the preview.Looking forward to reading the book.I love romance and comedy mixed together with love and laughter.

    1. Thank you, my dear Bobbie!

      I’m really grateful for your support and kind feedback!

      I’m glad to hear that you enjoy my stories! Make sure to stay tuned because I have more coming!

    1. Interesting situation for the two main characters. How will they interact with each other when they meet again. Look forward to “the rest of the story!

      1. Thank you so much for your kind words and support, dear Jeanette. I truly appreciate it!

        So glad you enjoyed the story! Make sure to stay tuned because I have more coming!

        Thank you again and have a lovely day!

    2. Thank you so much for your kind words and support, dear Cheryl. I truly appreciate it!

      So glad you enjoyed the story! Make sure to stay tuned because I have more coming!

      Thank you again and have a lovely day!

  2. I already love Lady Iris. She’s going to be awesome. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. Not to mention what happens when they see each otheragain.

  3. I read books on my I pad Apple. How do I get your books from Apple or book Funnel so that I can download them onto my I pad? I only see them on Amazon.

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