The Art of Duke Hunting

ISBN 10: 0062022334 or  ISBN 13: 978-0062022332

Book II – The Royal Entourage series: Six Regency heroes — One royal hangover!

Last night was a blur. This morning is a shock. Tonight will be a secret...

The Duke of Norwich has two rules: never marry and never go to sea. So on the morning after the most extravagant royal bachelor party of the century, he is stunned to find himself aboard a storm-tossed ship and locked in the arms of a proper lady.

The Countess of Derby has two rules as well: never give away your heart and never let anyone get in the way of your life's deepest passions. But Esme cannot resist Roman when all seems lost at sea. Yet when their ship returns to London, everything will be forgotten... as long as they can keep their secret from the Prince Regent. For if the future king commands them to marry, all their fondest dreams will be ruined. But where love is concerned, some rules are made to be broken...

EXCERPT . . .

 

Prologue

 

Roman Montagu, the seventeenth Duke of Norwich, knew he would end up at the bottom of the sea. He'd known it for almost two decades.

 

Yet, he never complained about his fate. For God sakes, no. Why, he had cheated death longer than most of the devilishly long line of Norwiches before him. He even considered himself lucky.

 

For a Norwich.

 

Indeed, almost everyone in England knew why there had been a dizzying number of Norwich dukes in two hundred years. They were cursed. Every last one of them had found death prematurely.

 

It was said the first bloodthirsty duke had damned the family by publicly accusing a young lady of witchcraft after she had refused his ham-handed offer of marriage. But really, who could blame her for her less than enthusiastic response? The duke had not brought jewels to profess his affection. No, he had brought a half dozen ill-plucked fowl to her family and proclaimed her the luckiest lady alive due to the honor he would bestow on her. That did little to impress the young lady, or rather, the young witch, whose powers might not have saved her from persecution, but had managed to thereafter damn each and every Norwich duke, whose blood matched Norwich I, the Duck Hunter.

 

Roman had learned to live with this familial noose by adopting the blackest sense of humor concerning his forbearers' early visits by the Grim Reaper. Indeed, he could recite the family's history by rote.

  1. The first duke stuck his spoon in the wall when he choked on a giblet in his favorite duck stew not two days after his not-so-beloved burned at the stake, while cursing all Norwich dukes.

  2. The second unfortunate duke ate grass for his last breakfast when a bolt of lightning struck his duck blind in which he was silently perched at dawn in the pouring rain. It was then that the whispers of the curse began.

  3. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth dukes vowed to give a wide birth to all fowl to stay alive. Instead, they dampened their insatiable thirst for hunting by pursuing the dangerous fairer sex in London's ballrooms. While they might have been well-endowed with passion for the wives and daughters of their class, sadly, they were not well-talented with dueling pistols or swords borne by the husbands and fathers. The line devolved to a far less romantic branch with better aim.

  4. The seventh duke tried to avoid the curse by daily readings from Johnson's sermons. He tumbled from the rolling ladder in Norwich Hall's famous, but mostly unread (especially by dukes III through VI) library while looking at an illustrated guide to geese hidden between Johnson's pages.

  5. The adventurous eighth duke tossed away all sermons and took his dirt nap after sinking in a Scottish bog in search of a rare merganser, which barely looked like water-fowl at all. He had wrongly assumed the curse would not cross the border.

  6. The ninth, tenth, and eleventh dukes were never seen or heard from again when they heroically went to war against the French. At least they were brave. Then again, when you knew you would die young, why not embrace your fate and die like a hero instead of a demented bird-brained predator?

  7. The twelfth duke refused the call to arms. Indeed, he refused to put one toe out of bed in an all out effort to avoid his fate. He cocked his toes in an acute case of gout within a twelve month. Most said it was the duck paté enveloped in goose fat.

  8. The thirteenth duke knew he stood not a ghost of a chance given his number and family history. He went out in a blaze of pleasure, at full cry, with one of his seven mistresses, who tickled him with duck feathers.

  9. The foppish fourteenth duke sacked a host of valets before he inadvertently strangled himself whilst fashioning a new knot for his Widgeon-colored neck cloth the scandal sheet dubbed "The Norwich Noose."

  10. The fifteenth duke decided to confound the curse by befriending the enemy. He raised a pet mallard, who quacked on command and followed him everywhere. But while taking a short lie-down under a willow tree, a poacher aimed for the sitting duck and killed the dreaming duke instead.

 

Only Roman Montagu's father, the sixteenth Duke of Norwich, had lived past his fourth decade. Some said it was due to a tragedy of which he never spoke, or his avoidance of all spirits and hunting. Indeed, the stern aristocrat refused to sin in any fashion whatsoever.

 

But Roman knew better. The man had avoided a premature rendezvous with his maker by sheer bloody pigheadedness. Yes, the sixteenth duke had been nothing if not inflexible. But even the most wary and stubborn Montagu man could not avoid his destiny. At least Roman's father's death had been dignified. It was hard to find humor in a fall from a horse. Then again, the sixteenth duke had not possessed a shred of wit. Roman never told his sister or his mother that there had been feathers nearby, indicating his father's horse had most likely bolted from the sudden appearance of a migrating flock.

 

And so Roman Montagu, "Seventeen" to his intimates, did not worry overmuch about his future since it was already written. He would be the first Norwich to sink to the ocean floor—just like his elder brother before him, who should have been duke. He did not know how a duck would cause it, but of his fate he held not a feather of doubt. The other point on which he was decided, was that he would be the last—the very last—Norwich. There were no males left in the line—not even a fourteenth cousin twenty-four times removed.

And so, Roman Montagu, went about the process of life in a simple manner. He avoided ducks, and he did not enter bodies of water larger than his bath. The rest he left to chance. He worked on his grand schemes, and seized every moment of every day with gusto for who knew when the lights would go out.

 

But at this very moment in time, it appeared he was about to break the record of shortest title-holder. Well, at least it did not involve a damned duck.

 

Or did it?

 

Chapter One

 

Sheer unadulterated terror rained down on Roman Montagu, the Duke of Norwich. He was in the grip of a hellish nightmare—on the one thing he had vowed never to set foot on again . . . a ship. He shook his head, and it seemed to spin endlessly in the gale wind. Seawater lanced his eyes as waves crashed and retreated over the railing, while clips rattled against the masts over the roar and whine of a storm.

 

Hell and damn. 'Twas not a dream. His brother was not some ghostly figure haunting him. No. Roman was wedged in the windward corner, unable to move. His fingers clawed the quarterdeck, only to find one hand tied to the sodding taffrail. His blood seized and stood still in his veins.

 

Blindly, he freed his wrist, and managed to crab-walk away from the stern. The vessel rose and violently shifted on a massive wave and he slammed into the mizzenmast. The blow sent a shower of white hot pain sparking through his brainbox. He lunged for the aft mast again. It was his only chance.

 

Safety was up in the rigging, where he would wait for the hair-raising crack of the deck's wooden beams giving way to shoals–when the sea always won her game with foolish mankind who tried to tame her. Up one of the three masts, he would be the last to lose.

 

As the ship violently creaked and rocked in the kaleidoscope of the summer storm tumbling through the inky darkness, he tried mightily to make the muscle of his brain flex. He had not one particle of an idea of how or why he was on this bloody wreck in the making. Flashes of insane evening revelry with his fellow dukes in the royal entourage crackled through his mind as he was tossed away from the mast.

 

Well, damnation, he knew how to swim. He'd once proved he could outswim fate. Maybe he could do it again.

It was worth a try.

 

Esme March, the Countess of Derby, peered out of the rain-riddled porthole of the door leading to the ship's deck. She was probably the only passenger not terrified or ill. Yet.

 

Well, at least she was not afraid. The captain had warned of an approaching storm when they set sail, and the vessel was a very fine ship. But the greatest deterrent to any sort of fear was excitement. She was finally embarking on the trip of a lifetime. All by herself, despite everyone's please to the contrary.

 

But she might become as green as a pea if she didn't inhale a few gulps of bracing sea air instead of remaining in her small cabin. Her gaze swept the murky seascape as she gripped the door handle to keep her balance.

For a moment, she thought she saw something odd–likely just a poor sailor whose task it was to secure a line. The deck would be impossible to negotiate given the pitch and sway.

 

There he was again—an eerie image of a man, his hair whipping his face in the storm. She inhaled sharply as he slammed into a mast and fell back.

 

Good God. The man regained his footing and swayed dangerously as an enormous wave crashed over the railing.

 

He reached wildly for the mast but the wave dragged his body toward the edge of the ship.

 

Esme bolted past the door, knotted a line about her, and dashed for the stranger about to be lost to the sea. She couldn't breathe for the ferocity of the wind and the freezing sheets of rain.

 

She grasped the man's wrists just as he would have been tossed into the deep blue. Esme prayed for strength. His hands gripped her arms as another wave crashed over them both, the white foam glowing in the darkness.

 

As the seawater receded, for just a moment hanging in time, she chanced to see his face; harsh lines etched the corners of his mouth and forehead. But it was his translucent pale eyes that frightened her.

 

She recoiled. It was the only time she'd ever spied death. The ship pitched to advantage, and they were hurtled in the direction of the door to the cabins.

 

For some odd reason, the gentleman appeared to pull away from her. She used the last remaining strength she possessed to navigate him over the threshold before he sagged. She had but a moment to open her door before he lost consciousness.

 

Esme struggled to move his leg from the doorjamb, and then shut her cabin door and locked it. She paused, dripping puddles on the bare wooden floor. She pushed back her wet, tangled hair from her eyes.

 

Lord, he was so deathly pale; his lips waxy and almost blue. Wind-whipped strands of dark hair threaded with premature gray plastered his vaguely familiar, noble profile. He looked like a weary archangel felled to earth while she probably looked like a drowned rat.

 

Please let him not be dead. It would be too much to witness twice in one year. Finally, his chest rose and fell. By habit, she slipped the door key into the top of one of her sodden calfskin half boots.

 

She grasped his nearly frozen hand and felt for his pulse. Not that she'd know what to do if she found it. She had not an idea if it was too fast or slow. She was tempted to slap his face to revive him since cold water would likely not work on someone who'd just endured a wall of seawater.

 

Just then, with a rushed gulp of air, he came full awake, scrambling like a wild animal looking for escape. The unearthly pale blue eyes that met hers were intensified by an intriguing web-like line weaving through each iris.

 

Lord, it was he. Only one man had eyes like that. They were unforgettable. It was unfortunate that none of her features had had the same effect on him.

 

Lurching to one knee, he flinched away from the touch of her hand and half crawled toward the door. He wrestled with the brass lever.

 

For some absurd reason, he wanted to get out. Thank God she'd hidden the key just as she had on so many other occasions with her husband. But this gentleman was another case altogether. She had not a chance of holding him back. He might be her height, but his torso was immense and he was clearly as strong as a bull stampeding the corridors of Pamplona in August.

 

"Please stop," she said, gripping the back of the one sturdy chair in the cramped cabin. "Wait a minute."

 

He again rattled the handle, his shoulders flexing with the effort to rip the door from the frame.

 

She had a terrible thought. "Is there someone else out there?"

 

"Key," he shouted. "Where is the bloody key?" They both stumbled sideways when the ship heaved starboard.

 

"But you'll die out there." There was not a single melodramatic note in her words-just stated fact.

 

He didn't deign to turn to face her, but at least he paused, a sign he was finally listening to her. He then jammed down the brass lever so violently, a screw gave way and the handle failed to return to its position. The oath he swore was so blue it made Esme cringe.

 

"Fool," he gritted out, still not looking at her. "Death is in here, not out there.”

 

Esme stared at the back of his coat. The stitches at the center seam were stretched to the limit. The drenched blue superfine clung to the striated muscles of his shoulders.

 

“Please look at me,” she said quietly.

 

“I'll find it myself,” he choked, finally turning to stare at her. His eyes swept down her tall frame.

 

“What is so important out there?” She'd never backed down from a threat in the past, and no matter how intense his glare, the clothes of a gentleman were a good calling card.

 

He marched toward her, his black riding boots with the arched outer edge molded to his calves. The seawater-soaked leather soles made smacking sounds as he walked. He extended his palm for the key.

 

“All right,” she said. “I’ll tell you where it is if you tell me what you were doing.”

 

“I’ll have the key and then I might tell you." He grasped her arms and Esme felt the strength in him as his hands squeezed her. He was a mere half inch taller than she so she looked almost directly his light blue eyes that almost glowed in the static air.

 

"Are you going to growl now?"

 

His eyes narrowed.

 

"Look the storm is waning. There's no need to go out there." And, indeed, it was true. Even the howl of the wind seemed muted.

 

He released her abruptly, but the wildness in his eyes did not disappear.

 

"You've a cut on your forehead."

 

He refused a reply.

 

She continued her tried and true methods of speaking calmly in the face of insanity. "I'm freezing." She reached for her two blankets and offered him one. "You must be too."

 

He muttered something incomprehensible and didn't take the blanket. She set both back down.

 

"Oh pish. Do tell me what's going on, Lord . . . ?" She might know exactly who he was, but she didn't want to terrify him any more than he already was.

 

"Grace. . ." He barely paid her any attention.

 

"Lord Grace? Hmmm, I've never heard of a Lord­-"

 

"No," he sighed, "Duke."

 

Yes . . . That explained it precisely. All dukes were overbearing. Too much power. Too much deference. She raised an inquiring eyebrow. Too much inbreeding.

 

"For Christsakes . . . I'm Norwich."

 

"I see. Are we sure?"

 

He sighed heavily. "Roman Montagu, not at your service."

 

She smiled inwardly. There was always such a darkly humorous side when past and present collided. "Really? How lovely. I didn't know we had such refined company on board."

 

Again he muttered.

 

"Would you be kind enough to speak louder, Your Grace? I guess I must be becoming a bit hard of hearing in my advanced years."

 

When he didn't refute her, it irked her, which annoyed her even further.

 

"I said," he enunciated clearly, "I didn't know such refined company would be aboard either."

 

"I'm merely a countess, Your Grace. I'm-"

 

He interrupted. "I was talking about me."

 

She frowned. "Of course you were." She lowered her voice. "It's what dukes do best."

 

"I beg your pardon," he replied. "What did you say?"

 

"I see old age has affected you, too, sir," she said sourly. She would not kowtow to him. He hadn't even thanked her for saving his life. That reminded her. "I saved your life."

 

"Sorry?"

 

"I'll enunciate better, Your Grace. I. Saved. Your. Life."

 

"What is your name, madam?"

 

"Esme March, Countess of Derby," she dipped the smallest curtsey possible, "at your service even if you aren't at mine. May I see to that gash?"

 

"No." He showed not an ounce of recognition.

 

How lowering. "It's the least you could do since I saved your life."

 

He rolled his eyes. "Look, I'll tell every last sodding person in London you saved my life if you give me the key." His voice rose with each syllable.

 

She smiled and hoped it didn't appear sincere. "But the winds have died. Why are you acting so oddly and what is so bloody important to you out there?" She was proud of herself for swearing. She so rarely had an opportunity to try it unless she was in private. And blaspheme was much more fun with two.

 

He stared at her and those strange eyes of his bored into hers with an intensity she felt down to her toes—just like the first time she had seen him in a ballroom, and he had not noticed her.

 

"Ships sink." He shrugged his shoulders. "If you can swim, you are far less likely to drown if you're on deck. You won't be able to open that door"-he nodded to hers-"with the weight of water pushing against it. It's simple science."

 

His words made a small amount of sense, and so she locked away the schoolmarmish tone from her words. "Of course. But I really don't think we have anything to worry about now. Don't you agree? The Drake is new and well built—such fine craftsmanship."

 

He closed those unnerving eyes of his. "The Drake? This ship is named The Drake?" He seemed to moan.

 

He might be a handsome devil with that oddly ancient noble mien, but his wits were scrambled. Right. She walked to the secured water jug, poured a good portion in a bowl and dipped a piece of linen in it. Crossing the space, she faced him. "May I?"

 

He didn't move. She wiped his face with clean water and dabbed at the cut on the upper edge of his forehead. She almost recoiled when she noticed a familiar licorice scent almost oozing from his being. Absinthe. One of her beloved deceased husband's poisons of choice. She held her breath and forced herself to say not a word lest she lose her grip on common civility.

 

When she was done, she dropped the linen and he stepped on it so she could upend the bowl over his head to sluice the salt from his face and clothes. Silently, she repeated the steps to cleanse herself. After scrubbing her face dry, she offered him a new scrap of linen too.

 

"Are you ever going to tell me what was going on out there?" she finally asked.

 

"I was preparing to die, madam. You must be one of the few in England who hasn't heard of the Norwich Curse."

 

"Oh, I know all about The Duke of Duck Curse." Why, she knew more about it than most. But now was certainly not the time to tell him she was a direct descendant of the initiator. She certainly didn't want to play, ahem, ducks and drakes with his sanity.

 

He pokered up. "We prefer the other reference."

 

The vessel immediately dipped ominously and both stumbled sideways. His eyes glazed over as his face paled. He looked ready to lose his bearing again and so she dragged him to the sole bunk in her cabin to urge him to sit.

 

"Rest for a moment," she urged. Esme crossed the space to pour a tin cup of water for each of them and then returned to his side and offered him one.

 

As she watched his drink, she suddenly remembered. Remembered hearing what had happened to his brother all

those years ago. The duke had every right to be terrified especially since he obviously had not an idea why he was on the ship. If she had to wager on it, she would guess it had something to do with the royal entourage, the infamous rapscallion band of dukes who walked hand in glove with the Prince Regent, and of which he was a member.

 

Every English lady worth her weight in smelling salts had a favorite member of the royal entourage, and Norwich had always been Esme's since the night many seasons ago when she had first spied him entering a gilded ballroom in Mayfair—his mother on one arm, his ravishing sister on the other. His intelligent, regal face full of angles had mesmerized her, and she had silently prayed his cool eyes would meet hers. But they had not. He had swept the room with a casual, arrogant gaze and had not caught her even though she had been standing in prime view. And he had barely glanced at her again when the Duke of Candover had introduced her along with a bevy of his sisters. Then again, this gentleman's indifference to ladies with matrimony on their minds was legendary. Like all the other events she spied him attend afterwards, he danced once with his mother, once with his sister, and then disappeared with members of the royal entourage. He was the most mysterious one of the tribe.

 

But right now, there was not a hint of pride in the duke's stark expression. He drank the last bit of water and returned the cup to her hand. His unguarded expression met hers and she could not stop herself from moving a step closer.

 

She set the two cups on the side table, and then paused, trying to fight the intimacy of the moment. But the black

despair she spied in his face broke her. She sat on the bunk beside him.

 

 

 

***Starred review*** Publisher's Weekly! 'In Nash's highly entertaining second Royal Entourage Regency a cursed duke evades his date with death. Nash creates intense romantic tension between multidimensional characters to keep the pages turning.'

 

"This lively, sometimes poignant Regency sparkles with humor and brings another delightful couple happily together, leaving just enough loose ends to tempt series fans." ~ Library Journal

 

"There's a heartbreaking, gratifying depth to this story. With its intrieguing historical aspects, seductive tone and a hero and heroine who truly deserve a happily ever after, you're sure to find The Duke Diaries royally entertaining." ~ USA Today

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