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Regency Romance Omnibus 2018: Dominate Dukes & Tenacious Women by Virginia Vice (1)

CHAPTER ONE

For the nobility of northern England, spread across their rolling hills and plains, dressed in their flowing black gowns and dapper black jackets, it was a sunny day along the moors; another chance to get out of the estates, mingle, and chatter about the state of the affairs; the state of the empire; the future of the nation.

For Lady Isobel Duskwood, however, it was the hardest day of her life. While they stood in scattered piles along shallow rolling hills, beneath frilly black umbrellas brought especially to block out the sun at this sordid affair, perfectly accessorized in black to match the prevailing dour mood, she wore a simple, loose gown, a black veil across her eyes. Rich brunette hair rolled messily along her shoulders, her skin pale; drained of vim from watching her father, the Duke of Upton, grow weaker and sicker by the day, until words failed him and life finally left his body. The body she had always looked up to in her youth; strong, vigorous, broad-shouldered. He had been reduced to a husk by the consumption; a shrill, coughing husk. She stroked his forehead as he passed, promising to keep dignity attached to Upton; to the Duskwood name, which she so proudly carried.

"And yea, though I walk through the valley, of the shadow of death, I fear no evil..." the priest, in his robes of gleaming white, appointed tastefully with golds and blacks, spoke in a solemn tone; dozens of social-climbers cried crocodile tears. Lady Duskwood could hear little; the whole world felt muffled as she watched the lid of the pine coffin hammered shut as it set in the opened grave. Everything felt artificial to her; manufactured in the gleaming ivory prison of the nobility. Even the priest looked too perfectly dressed and spoke too carefully for the occasion. She felt out of place. She felt desperate. Worst of all, amid a crowd of over a hundred, she felt alone in the world. 

"And so we consign our beloved to the earth you made, O Lord, returning his weary spirit to you." With a notion of finality to his voice, the priest mimicked the sign of the cross, coaxing more rehearsed tears from the socialites assembled in a loose circle around the family gravestones. Beneath her feet, the Lady Duskwood's mother rested; Isobel stared down at the grave, sighing softly. At least, Isobel thought, her mother wouldn't feel alone in the dark beyond now. The organ boomed atop the concluding moments of the religious ceremony. Gudheim, the friendly German fellow from the village who often played the Duskwood estate's grand, antique organ on Christmases and other hallowed occasions, laid deep into the keys of the instrument; the bellows howled a sorrowful tone, so precise and rehearsed; just like the rest of the elaborate affair. The organ's pipes reached out from the estate hall's chapel; decadent, perhaps, but it allowed Gudheim to serenade the entire, sleepy village of Upton, which the Duskwood estate overlooked from atop the hill.

As Gudheim's solemn and woeful dirge came to a calming and triumphant chord of finish, the gathering began to fragment once more. Where there had once been coos of disappointment, songs of sorrow and deafening silence, now gathered scattered fragments of laughter; of friendly banter. Isobel took a deep breath. While the rest of her life had now had its course altered, she knew this was no different than a debutante ball or any other social call, to the nobility of northern England. Father McConnell, an Irishman and distant associate of Isobel's father, had made the trip to Upton to administer the affairs; with his job finished, he approached Isobel to check on her, bringing a soft sigh to her lips. She knew Father McConnell - including his incessant need to preach to her of virtue.

"Ms. Isobel," he said, his rough brogue of a speaking voice so different from the commanding and almost musical boom of his liturgical tone, "I trust you're doing well?"

"You knew my father," she breathed out, crestfallen. "Both he and mother have left the affairs of Upton to me. At least they have one another, in Heaven. Yes?" Isobel asked him, hopeful. A girl of only nineteen, Isobel's shoulders felt heavy at the thought of taking up the affairs of the house - especially considering she would be doing it alone, and especially considering she was a woman. The least she could hope for, was that Father McConnell's service had sent her father's soul to rest alongside her mother.

"He rests well now, and so should you, Ms. Isobel," he warned.

"I suppose I'm Lady Duskwood, now," she sighed.

"Lady Duskwood, indeed," Father McConnell seemed to hesitate to say the title aloud. "I'm not certain it's a title befitting a proper young lady like yourself. Have you thought of finding a husband?" he asked; always, he asked. Father McConnell spoke often of a woman's place, supporting her husband. Lady Isobel looked away, swallowing hard. She had been far too shy and meek to throw herself to the courting wills of the wild woods of English nobility, and those few times her father had sought a hand for her to join in marriage, he had just as quickly and vociferously refused the man who sought it.

"Perhaps I should seek out the man who had always wished to marry me," Isobel mused. "With father gone, at least, there'll be no more barrier to that." Isobel knew what English nobility expected - it thought of the world in much the same terms as Father McConnell. A girl of child-bearing age, and inheriting such wealth, certainly needed a husband to help her navigate the affairs now set roughly and unexpectedly on her shoulders. She thought quite the same.

"Who?" Father McConnell asked, perplexed. "I hadn't known a man had already sought your hand in marriage."

"More than once, if I recall properly," Isobel chuckled softly. "I can scarcely recall his name or title, though I remember him visiting my father in private once. The argument they had shook the windows. I believe his name was..." she reached back through the painful murk of the past few months, searching for answers; hopefully, for the lifeline she needed to make some steady sense of this mess. "...the Duke of Norbury I believe?"

"The Duke of Norbury?!" Father McConnell exclaimed, a hint of his besotted Irish bluster shining through his words. He cleared his throat, collecting himself, as Isobel looked on in wide-eyed embarrassment. "The Duke of Norbury is... well, Lady Duskwood, there's a number of good reasons your father may have refused requests by him for your hand in marriage. He's... well, I don't think the words to describe his manners are fit for speaking in proper company, lass," the old priest grumbled. "Your father was keen to keep his hand away from yours in marriage."

She had heard that from others before - since she first had male callers visit her. As he began to fall ill, her father became increasingly scrutinizing of the men who came to visit, and always roared at the suggestion brought to him that the Duke of Norbury wished to meet with young Isobel. Now hearing Father McConnell's reaction, she swallowed hard, simultaneously intrigued and confused. What kind of man could inspire so much distaste in her father, and in the priesthood?

"Father McConnell, I think that's quite close-minded of you," Lady Duskwood teased, her voice belying the naive, if haggard, optimism still brimming in the back of her mind. "I've never even had the chance to meet the man. Perhaps he'd treat me the way a proper gentleman should. Who are we to judge?"

"I've had my experiences with the man, and I can only rely on the judgment of your father. You're a proper lady now, Ms. Duskwood," Father McConnell spoke in that booming tone he liked to take in his sermons, and young Isobel sighed, knowing a lecture awaited. "The Duskwood name, the people of Upton, they rely on you. You're best served being a good woman and making yourself useful to a good man, a man nothing like the Duke of Norbury."

"Perhaps," Isobel said meekly, quietly frustrated at the priest's attitude.

"Father McConnell!" A voice cried out from behind them; Isobel turned, pulling the veil down over her head when she saw the identity of the speaker. "Your sermon, father - so moving. Reginald would've been proud, the poor man." Thus approached the Duke of Thrushmore, Lord Eugenius Miller, a longtime associate of Isobel's father - and one that she couldn't quite stand. He fancied himself a gentleman, and he certainly dressed and spoke as such, down to the brimming smile worn on his cracked old lips. His head shaved clean and age beginning to show in wrinkles along his lips, the duke shook hands forthright with Father McConnell, who responded warmly. "And Ms. Isobel Duskwood," the duke turned his attention to Isobel, who squirmed under the older man's cloying words. "Certainly, you need guidance in this trying time. You've gone to the right place. Father McConnell would never steer you wrong," he announced proudly, his deep-set, dark eyes gazing along Isobel's simple dress, back up to her face; she looked away, feeling exposed.

"I had just told Lady Duskwood, with all the responsibilities here in Upton, now passed on to her, she could use a husband - and a man of charm and character. Don't you agree?" Father McConnell asked, shaking hands with the duke. Isobel could sense the implications in McConnell's condescending words; she clammed up, swallowing hard.

"Certainly! Certainly, as I said, a man of sound mind, always dispensing perfect advice," the duke commented.

"Perhaps you can speak to the new Lady, give her a mind of what life in the nobility is like," Father McConnell said. "I'll speak with you at some other time. Lady Duskwood, all the deepest condolences for your father," Father McConnell said, disappearing amid the mingling crowd. This left Isobel at the quaint mercies of Lord Miller, who repulsed her. Isobel sensed something so wrong with him; something beneath the surface with teeth. The Duke of Thrushmore had not made his intentions a secret to Isobel or her father in life - that when she reached the proper age, he had intended to seek her hand in marriage. Many, many years her senior, he nevertheless let none of his feelings about the young Lady of Duskwood hide. Isobel cast her gaze to the gathered crowd, even as the duke approached closer.

"Have you given thought to the proposals I'd offered, before dear Reginald passed? Bless him, of course," Lord Miller asked, his voice something like the hoarse hiss of a large snake. He grinned, all teeth and friendliness and sugar, but it only made Isobel uneasy. She couldn't put her finger on it - she had heard the women of the nobility go on and on about what a wonderful gentleman the elder statesman, Lord Miller, had always been; about how sad it was that he had lost his love, Elizabeth, to the ravages of an unexpected and sudden fever. Their wedding had been so idyllic; their love dying so young and tragic. Elizabeth, too, had been much younger than Lord Miller, and while this would generally generate some sense of scandal, the Duke of Thrushmore seemed untouchable by tawdry gossip.

So why was it that a man so beloved, who had pursued her so thoughtfully, gave Isobel such a sense of distaste?

"I'm... well, m'lord, you have to understand, there's a lot on my mind, in my thoughts, right now, Isobel let him down as gently as she could. "With my father's passing, I need to make an accounting of everything in the estate, settle so much..."

"I'm certain I could help you out in those arrangements, Lady Duskwood. You might find there's a thing or two worth knowing, rattling around in this head of mine," Lord Miller smiled that damn smile again, and Isobel forced her own, awkward smile.

"I'm... certain, there is, but..." a sudden, staccato and shrill laugh caught Lady Duskwood's attention; she shot her gaze across the familial grave site, the shrieking, nasally laugh of a woman catching her eye. Lady Brittany, a minor noblewoman, in her black gown with her flowing blonde hair, absolutely uproariously laughing. After a funeral, Lady Duskwood said, nose shrinking in disgust. She caught the sight of the lady's companion - a man that mystified her. Lady Duskwood had never seen the man - and she certainly would have remembered him, if she had. In a suit slickly tailored, with an expensive jacket flowing long down his back; his skin a dark tone of olive, his hair black, his eyes a piercing jade. He smirked and grinned and made a mockery of the funereal atmosphere; what's worse, nearly causing Lady Duskwood to choke, was the sight of an opened bottle of wine in his hand! Wine, open, and flowing, after a funeral. In the graveyard! Lady Duskwood couldn't say she knew every noblewoman and man whom her father's staff had invited to this affair, but she certainly wanted to know this particular ingrate's name. She nearly marched across the gravestones to accost the wine bottle herself.

"Is something troubling you, Lady Duskwood?" the Duke of Thrushmore asked. The laughs continued, and Isobel watched with fiery curiosity. The ingrate was handsome; strikingly so. He bore not the thick beard so characteristic of men; instead, he was clean-shaven, save a smattering of rakish stubble across his chiseled chin. He cared little for the disgusted looks thrown his way - and Isobel's was not the only one. Her fury turned to a stewing curiosity. She found herself unable to pull her eyes away from the man as he swallowed a whole heavy gulp of alcohol into his mouth. She scoffed in displeasure at the sight; she couldn't believe a man of nobility, a gentleman, would do such a thing. The Duke's eyes followed hers, catching sight of the man with the wine.

"Oh. Yes, well, I can't honestly say that every one of us is a gentleman," Lord Miller haughtily commented. "Some among us give in to such banal desires. But I can assure you, if you spend an evening with me, Lady Duskwood, we'll certainly not spend it swallowing merlot in a graveyard," the lord commented, trying to sound pleasing.

Instead, utterly disgusted at the whole charade, Isobel sighed. She picked her gown from the floor and in a huff made her way towards the gates of the small graveyard.

"I've not the time or inclination at this moment, Lord Miller. Please, allow me to mourn," she said in a fury, not listening for his reply. It certainly came, no doubt saccharine and rehearsed. As so much of this new life that burdened her could be - a facade atop lives of indulgent decadence and disgust. She stormed towards the front gates of Upton Manor, seeking refuge from the world.

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