Sheri Cobb South is the Amazon Bestselling author of more than twenty books.
Her John Pickett series of historical mysteries was featured on USA Today’s book blog, and is now being released as an award-winning audiobook series. Her novels have been translated into foreign languages and published in large print editions. A native of Alabama, she has lived in Loveland since 2011.
The following is an excerpt from “The Desperate Duke.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
Colorado Authors League award winner for Romance
In a carefully offhand manner that did not deceive his brother-in-law for a moment, Theo added, “Truth to tell, Ethan, I’m deuced glad you’re here. I’d be obliged to you if you can advance me something on my inheritance—just enough to tide me over until the will is probated, you know.”
Sir Ethan shook his head. “Much as I’d like to oblige you, I can’t.”
“You can’t? But—well, but dash it, Ethan! You’re the executor, aren’t you?”
“Aye, I am.”
“Theodore, all that means is that I’m charged with making sure the terms of your father’s will are carried out the way ’e intended—and that includes seeing to it that everything is done open and aboveboard.”
“But it’s my own money, dash it!” Theodore protested.
Sir Ethan nodded. “Aye, and you’ll get it, all in good time.”
“Good time for you, maybe!”
“Aye, and for you. After all, you’d not like it if I started doling out legacies to your father’s valet, or housekeeper, or butler, would you?”
“But the money’s rightfully theirs,” he added with a look of bland innocence in his brown eyes. “It says so in the will.”
“It’s not at all the same thing!”
“It is so far as the law is concerned. If I were to distribute so much as a farthing from your father’s estate before probate is granted, I’d open meself up to legal action.” In an attempt to ease the young man’s obvious distress, he added in a lighter tone, “A pretty fellow I’d look, standing for Parliament with that ’anging over me ’ead! I might as well ’and the election to Sir Valerian Wadsworth on a silver platter.”
Theodore, however, was not to be distracted. “But I would be the logical one to bring any such action against you, and it’s not like I’m going to prefer charges against you for giving my money to me!”
“You might not do so, but your father’s lawyer might,” his brother pointed out. “ ’e’d be within ’is rights, too. In fact, ’e might even consider it an obligation to ’is grace.”
“Crumpton is my lawyer now—and he’d do well to remember it!”
“Aye, that ’e is. And if you know ’e can’t be trusted to look out for your father’s interests, ’ow can you trust ’im to look after yours?” Seeing that this observation had momentarily deprived his young relation of speech, Sir Ethan added gently, “What’s the matter, you young fool? Surely you ’aven’t got yourself rolled up within a se’ennight of in’eriting the title?”
“I’m not ‘rolled up,’ ” Theodore protested. “I’ve got plenty of money—or I will have, as soon as it comes into my possession.”
“Is it that little ladybird you’ve ’ad in keeping?”
“No—that is, not entirely, but—dash it, Ethan, she expected me to marry her! I may have been green, but I’m not such a flat as all that! And when she saw I couldn’t be persuaded, or seduced, or coerced into it—” He broke off, shuddering at the memory.
“Didn’t take it well, did she?” Sir Ethan observed knowingly.
Theodore gave him a rather sheepish grin. “Lord, you never saw such a shrew! It made me think that perhaps I’m well out of a bad business—Iversleigh may have her with my blessing! But I couldn’t let it get about that she’d ditched me, so I went to Rundell and Bridge and bought her the most expensive thing they had.”
Sir Ethan, who had bestowed upon his wife more than one bauble from this establishment and thus had a very good idea of the prices to be found therein, gave a long, low whistle.
“And then,” Theodore continued, “I went to White’s and—well, I just wanted to forget about it, just for a little while—not just Fanny, mind you, but all of it: the dukedom, and the steward and his blasted ‘improvements,’ and the House of Lords, where I’ll no doubt be expected to take my seat, and—oh, you don’t understand!”
“Actually, I do,” said his brother with a faraway look in his eyes. “More than you think.”
Theodore, intent on his own troubles, paid no heed to the interruption. “And I can’t let it get out that the Duke of Reddington don’t pay his debts, for we’ve had quite enough of that in the family already! But I don’t have to tell you that—God knows you shelled out enough blunt, towing Papa out of the River Tick.” At this recollection, a new possibility occurred to him. “I say, Ethan, I don’t suppose you would be willing to lend me the ready? Just until the will is probated, you know, and at any interest rate you care to name,” he added hastily, lest his brother-in-law balk at agreeing to this proposal.
Sir Ethan gave him an appraising look, and asked, “ ’ow much do you need?”
Theodore told him.
“You’ve managed to run through that much in less than a fortnight?” demanded his brother-in-law, staring at him.
“No!” Theodore said, bristling. “That is, I’ll admit I’ve spent more than I should, but old Crumpton says the will could take months! A fellow has to have something to live on in the meantime, you know.”
“Never mind that! ’ow much will it take to settle your gaming debts and pay for the trinket you gave that game pullet?”
This figure, while still much higher than it ought to have been, seemed quite reasonable compared to the sum Theodore had felt necessary to sustain him for the few months it might take for the will to go through probate.
“All right, then,” pronounced Sir Ethan. “It’s yours.”
Theodore was moved to seize his brother’s hand and wring it gratefully. “I say, Ethan, you’re a great gun! You’ll have every penny of it back, I promise—and, as I said, at any rate of interest you care to name.”
Sir Ethan shook his head. “There’ll be no interest. As for paying me back, you don’t ’ave to do that—at least, not in pounds, shillings, and pence.”
This assurance left Theodore more than a little puzzled. “What do you want, then? Does it have to do with your Parliamentary bid? I’ll be glad to use any influence I may have—”
Sir Ethan had to smile at this sincere but misguided offer. “I’m not sure but what the influence of a Tory might do me more ’arm than good.”
“I daresay it might,” Theodore acknowledged with a grin. “What, then—?”
“You’ll pay me back by working it off.” In case further explanation was needed, he added, “In the mill.”
Theodore’s grin faded, replaced by an expression that combined bewilderment with indignation. “Me? Work in a cotton mill? You can’t be serious!”
“Perfectly serious,” Sir Ethan assured him, and although his tone was pleasant enough, there was something in his eyes that gave Theodore pause.
“Dash it, Ethan, I won’t do it!”
“I guess you’ll ’ave to wait until the will is probated, then,” Sir Ethan said sympathetically, and rose to take his leave.
“No, but—but dash it, Ethan!” Theodore expostulated. “You can’t—you really can’t expect me to work in a cotton mill!”
“Why not? Men do it every day,” pointed out Sir Ethan.
“But—but I’m the Duke of Reddington! How would it look for me to—to—?”
“No one need know ’oo you are unless you choose to tell ’em,” his brother assured him. “I can promise you that I won’t. In any case, it won’t be for long—only until probate is granted.”
“But old Crumpton says that could take months!”
“Most of the mill workers will work their entire lives and never see such a sum,” said Sir Ethan, hardening his heart.
“I’ll tell my sister about this!” Theodore cried hotly. “Nell won’t stand for it!”
“When I left ’elen,” Sir Ethan recalled blandly, “she ’ad the fixed intention of introducing you to one or two females—not schoolroom misses, mind you, but sensible females ’oo might inspire you to settle down.”
“Oh, God!” groaned Theodore, clutching his golden locks in dismay.
“Come, Theodore, what ’ave you got to lose? It’s not as if there are that many entertainments to be found in Town this time of year, anyway. Besides, I thought you young bucks were up to any kind of lark. I’ll wager it would be something none of your cronies have done.”
“No, but everyone will think I’ve slunk back to Devon to nurse a broken heart for La Fantasia.”
“Not if you put it about that you’ve been obliged to leave Town and look into your estate. Your papa left several, and you need not say which one it is that demands your attention.”
“And what if something really does demand my attention?”
“You can give instructions that any letters are to be forwarded to me. No one will wonder at it, since I’m the executor of your father’s will, and I’ll know where to find you.”
Theodore gave a short laugh that was utterly devoid of humor. “You seem to have it all worked out, never mind the fact that I’ll stand out like a mustard pot in a coal scuttle.”
“Aye, you will if you dress like that,” Sir Ethan agreed, casting a critical eye over his young relation’s fashionable tailcoat of Bath superfine, buckskin breeches, and gleaming Hessian boots. “You’ll want some more suitable clothes.”
“I suppose I’ll just order them from Weston,” retorted Theodore.
“You might. Or you could ’ave your man buy you some things from the secondhand shops in Petticoat Lane.”
“And how, pray, am I to explain my sudden taste for castoff clothing?”
Sir Ethan gave Theodore the same sweet, disarming smile that had—eventually—won his sister’s fickle heart. “Can you wonder at it? Just tell ’im you lost a wager.”
“Touché,” Theodore acknowledged with a grin. “Now that you mention it, that would serve as an excuse for anyone who might wonder why I’m working at the mill, yet putting up at its owner’s house.”
Sir Ethan shook his head. “I’m sorry, Theodore, but I’m afraid that won’t do. No one at the mill is to know ’oo you are, for I won’t ’ave them giving you special treatment.”
“I suppose they would be bound to do so, if they knew I was a duke,” Theodore conceded generously.
“They would be bound to do so if they knew you were a relation of mine,” Sir Ethan corrected him gently. “But there’s a boarding’ouse not far from the mill, kept by a gentlewoman ’oo’s fallen on ’ard times. Not only would it give you a roof over your ’ead, but you’d ’ave someone to cook your dinner and do your washing. You’d also be doing a kindness for an unfortunate lady and ’er daughter.”
Theodore, listening to these plans for his future with a sense of fatal resignation, made no reply. At the moment, he could imagine no one more unfortunate than himself.
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