His Grace, the Fifth Duke of Norwich looked out over the dance floor and frowned. Being taller than most, he was able to examine the room easily. The same people as always, he thought. Nothing ever changed, not really.
Men who wished they were elsewhere. Young women, girls really, on the prowl for a husband. Nothing more than cats stalking a mouse. More interested in the title than the man who held it. And old women watching over it all like owls perched on a fence rail.
“Norwich,” a voice said from behind him, sending a cold chill down his spine.
“Mother,” he replied as he turned to find his mother looking as serious as always. A diminutive woman, it always amazed him to think that someone of his size could come from such a small woman.
Her sandy brown hair was turning gray. But she was still a handsome woman.
She stepped up next to him and watched the couples dancing. “I’m surprised you deigned to grace us with your presence tonight,” she said with that haughty tone that made his skin crawl.
“Well, you did say it was important to you. That, and I couldn’t think of a good reason to beg off.”
She glanced up at him and slowly shook her head. “Lady Everton is a good friend. Your presence will make her event all that much more successful.
He fought to stop from growling. This was his world, he told himself. His mere presence made an old woman he barely knew happy. All because of his title and eligibility as a bachelor of the highest rung of British society. Of course, a vast fortune didn’t hurt either.
The repetitive nature of the ton and its parties had begun to drag on him. No wonder so many men turned to whiskey and fallen women.
“So,” his mother asked. “Do any of this year’s hopefuls catch your eye?”
His stomach clenched up. “Mother, you know our arrangement. You don’t push me to marry and I remain civil.”
She smiled slightly as she turned to stare at him. Slowly, her smile turned to a frown.
“You have been fighting,” she said with an accusatory tone that reminded him of his younger years. She continued to stare at him until she gently reached up and brushed the slight bruise beneath his eye. A look of motherly concern threatened for a brief moment then was quickly contained.
“It is called boxing,” he said. “As you well know and is perfectly acceptable.” Why did he have to justify himself? He was a Duke of the realm.
“Hmpf,” she snorted as she shook her head.
He sighed internally, his mother would never understand his passion for boxing. But then how could she. It was one of the few things in this world unaffected by his title. A man was judged on his abilities, not the lineage of his fathers.
“You will have to marry someday,” she said with a sad frown as she once again looked out at the dancing couples. “It would be better for you if you allowed me to help. At least I can provide guidance so that you do not make a grave error.”
The Duke of Norwich rolled his eyes before he could stop himself. Twenty-eight years old and his mother still didn’t understand. The thought of being chained to one of these social climbing, fortune hunting, …. women, was not going to happen.
“I have more than enough cousins to take up the responsibility.”
His mother shuddered, “Lord Pemberton? Don’t be ridiculous. The man could no more be a duke than a chambermaid could become a princess. Besides, his wife would make an abominable duchess. The woman wouldn’t know the first thing about maintaining standards.”
Norwich slowly shook his head.
“I am serious,” she said as her voice rose just a little. “Not just anyone can be a duchess. It takes … someone strong. A woman who can hold up under the constant scrutiny. A woman who knows the rules and lives by them. Especially the unwritten rules. Only someone raised and trained for the task will be suitable. No, this is why you need my help.”
He shrugged his shoulders. He never intended to marry. But he had not told her. Not officially. No need to break her heart.
A sadness filled him as he realized why his mother was so passionate about the subject. She had been a young woman when his father had died. Only days after she had given birth to their first son. A drunken celebration had led to him falling off the Tower Bridge at high noon. A story that still made people laugh all these years later.
No, his mother had been left to raise a duke and face the world alone. This was why he allowed her to poke into his life occasionally. He did care for her. But not enough to shackle himself to one woman for the rest of his life.
“I hear the tables in the back rooms calling,” he said. “Will you excuse me? I believe I have put in enough of an appearance to satisfy Lady Everton.”
His mother smiled sadly as she took his arm to stop him from leaving. “You will think about it, won’t you? Marriage?”
A shot of guilt filled him. “Perhaps,” he answered, it was the best he could do at the moment.
She sighed heavily and released him. He smiled down at her then turned to leave. As he made his way around the room, he was repeatedly stopped by young women and their mothers. Each of them smiling at him as if he was something special. A trophy to be won.
His mother’s words echoed in his mind.
He knew what they saw. A tall man, well formed, dark and handsome, some said. With more money than was good for him. And a title that placed him at the height of society. The perfect catch.
No, he thought. He knew he was right in his intentions. He would never be some woman’s prey.
When he reached the back room, he was disappointed to find the tables already full. His mother had delayed him, probably unintentionally, but one could never be sure.
“Norwich,” his friend James said as he handed him a whiskey. He studied the young man for a second and realized that his best friend, Johnathon, James’s older brother would have been proud.
Norwich and Johnathon had attended the same school and formed a bond of friendship that could not be dismissed. At least not until Johnathon had stupidly gotten himself killed on some Portuguese field charging the French lines.
In accordance with Johnathon’s request, Norwich had taken on the responsibility of ensuring James’s smooth transition into manhood. What had surprised him was how much he had come to like the young man. He was intelligent without being pedantic. Funny, without being silly. And perhaps most of all. Unimpressed with Norwich’s title.
“James,” he replied.
His friend sighed heavily. “It is Brookenham, now.”
Norwich blanched, he had not heard. “Your uncle? Your cousin …”
Lord Brookenham nodded slowly. “It appears my uncle had a hunting accident, or at least that is what the family is saying. His son, on hearing the news, and desperate to take up the title and all of its social status, raced across half of Britain only to fall from his horse outside of Cambridge. Now, he is neither an earl nor able to enjoy any of its benefits.”
Norwich’s could only shake his head. Jonathon had often spoken of his family’s poor luck. “So, you are an earl? How does it feel?”
Brookenham took a long sip from his glass and shuddered. “What do I know about being an earl? I wasn’t trained for this. I was a cousin. A relative. Expected to make my own way in the world. With a nice allowance of course. What do I know of estates, tenants, rents? Whether I should turn land over to sheep or keep producing corn. It is mind-boggling.”
Norwich smiled slightly. He had grown up with those issues being drilled into him by both his tutors and by Old Stevenson. By the time he was thirteen, he knew well how to tell when a man was lying to him. Knew when a barn needed to be replaced. Which roads were being kept in good repair and a thousand other things it took to keep society running smoothly.
He raised his glass to his friend and smiled slightly. “Welcome to our world and don’t worry too much. Your agents will do the work. You just need to make sure they don’t steal you blind. And that your tenants are well taken care of. That is important. If not, they have a habit of leaving to work in the factories. And believe me, no estate can be run usefully without tenants.”
Brookenham sighed heavily, “that is just it. When I talked with my uncle’s barrister yesterday, he seemed to think the estates should be performing better.”
“Perhaps,” Norwich said as he stared out over the tables and watched Lord Cochran lose a big hand. “You will have to visit your estates and investigate for yourself.”
Brookenham grimaced and shook his head. “How would I know what to look for? I tell you I would be lost. Numbers, people, fields. All of it is a bit … I don’t know, a little too much like work if you ask me.”
Norwich frowned as he studied his friend. James was still young at barely twenty-one. But what is more, he had been given an easy life. Enough of an allowance from his uncle to live without fear or concern.
No responsibilities and no expectations. It was a shame. The man had never been challenged and now he had been thrust into this new world. The new Earl would be taken advantage of, he realized and the thought troubled him. Jonathon would be disappointed in him.
“If you want, I could go with you,” Norwich said before he had thought the matter through.
“Really?” James said with surprise as a hope filled his eyes.
Norwich sighed internally. It would be a disruption. But when he thought of it, the idea of escaping London and this world of clinging woman and their mothers sounded better and better as he thought of it.
“Yes, of course,” he told his friend. “The main estate and most of the land are in Wycombe, correct?”
Brookenham nodded. “Yes, with another estate in Cornwall. A long-lost pirate in our family history, I believe.”
Norwich nodded. “Very well. We will travel to your estates and discover the truth. A good agent is all you need.”
His friend sighed heavily, “Thank you. That is very kind of you.”
The Duke laughed and smiled. “It is you that is doing me a favor. Pulling me out of London before my mother can marry me off.”
James laughed, “Yes, I know what you mean. It is so strange, suddenly I find myself the interest of every woman I know. Before, I was the half-forgotten distant relative of an earl. Now, it seems I am of extreme value.”
Norwich laughed but refrained from telling his friend how bad it would become.
“Of, course, if this is to work,” The Duke of Norwich said, “perhaps I should arrive incognito. One thing I have learned is that when people learn I am a duke, they have a habit of dissembling or telling me things they think I wish to hear. It is so hard to learn the truth.”
“They know me there,” Brookenham said. “Or I would join you in being in disguise.” The young man smiled at the idea of the two of them sneaking into his new home. Then sighed heavily. “But yes, a friend from London. You would be able to find out the truth so much easier.”
Norwich smiled to himself. The thought of becoming someone else sounded very appealing. Even if it was but for a short time. Yes, this would be most enjoyable.
“What should we call you?” Brookenham asked, obviously raising to the idea.
Norwich shrugged his shoulders, “I suppose my real name. The one I was born with.”
Brookenham frowned for a moment, “And that is?”
Norwich laughed, “Daniel. Daniel Marlow.”
Brookenham smiled as he held out his hand, “Nice to meet you, Mister Marlow.”
Norwich took the outstretched hand. Gave a small bow and said, “Lord Brookenham, it is an honor.”
The two of them smiled at each other. Both of them looking forward to their upcoming adventure.