To Capture a Duke's Heart(6)

By: Jennifer McNare

Do get a hold of yourself, Penny, she silently commanded, for while the Duke of Ainsworth might be the most handsome man she had ever laid eyes upon, he was just a man after all. Even so, she had to admit that no man had ever had anything even remotely similar to the effect the one standing before her had upon her now; and in truth she was finding it difficult to think straight as the weight of his piercing green eyes remained fastened upon her. Fortunately, however, she was saved from having to form an intelligible thought or articulate a coherent sentence as her father drew the duke’s attention once again.

“I see that your brothers have accompanied you to Scotland,” he remarked, flicking a glance to where Michael and Rafael Ashcroft stood conversing with the newly-titled Viscount Wexley across the room. “However did you manage to lure those two rapscallions from the amusements of Town?”

The duke grinned. “It wasn’t easy I assure you,” he acknowledged. “Truth be told, I had to promise them a stop in Hawick upon our return and a visit to the Earl of McKesson’s stables to view his current selection of thoroughbreds.”

“Ah,” the earl replied with an answering grin. “An irresistible temptation for any young buck, though I warrant such a visit might well result in a substantial letting of your pockets.”

“Indeed, I have little doubt that it will,” the duke agreed with a chuckle, for the McKesson stables were renowned for producing some of the finest and most expensive stock in the land.

“Excuse me, Your Grace.”

Their conversation disrupted, both men’s eyes turned to their hostess, Lady Gilchrist, standing at the duke’s elbow, an apologetic expression upon her face as she glanced between him and the earl.

“Please pardon the interruption, but the Dowager Duchess of Lyndon is requesting to speak with Your Grace at your earliest convenience,” she said, motioning to the petite, silver-haired matron seated upon a high-backed chair in the far corner of the room.

Catching the duke’s eye, the dowager raised her hand and beckoned, rather imperiously, for him to join her, a clear indication that at his earliest convenience was merely a polite euphemism for straightaway.

He tipped his head in acknowledgement before turning his attention back to the others. “Yes, of course,” he replied to Lady Gilchrist. “If you will excuse me, Beckford,” he continued, before nodding to the ladies. “Lady Beckford, Lady Penelope.”

“By all means,” the earl replied with an amused expression. “Lord knows we wouldn’t wish to keep the duchess waiting.”

Crossing the room, Gabriel studied the regal-looking dowager, perched like a queen upon her throne, as she surveyed the crowd around her. As was her custom she was dressed in black in homage to her late husband who’d made his journey to the great beyond more than a decade earlier. As was also her custom she was sporting a king’s ransom in jewels with a pair of large, pear-shaped diamonds dangling from her ears, a three-strand diamond and pearl choker wrapped around her throat and a set of matching bracelets circling her gloved wrists. She was an imposing figure and the undisputed grand dame of the ton, reigning supreme over the haute monde as she had for the past forty years, both admired and feared alike by those who moved within the ever-tumultuous machinations of Society.

“Agatha,” he greeted as he came to a stop beside her chair, knowing full well that he was one of the few people who could get away with calling her by her given name. “You’re looking lovely as ever this evening.”

She ignored the flattery, waiving a gloved hand dismissively at the compliment. “Tell me Ainsworth, are the rumors to be believed?”

Gabriel suppressed a grin at the duchess’ straightforward manner, for he was well-aware that she wasn’t one to waste time on pleasantries. It was one of the reasons he liked her as much as he did. “Rumors?” he queried with the quirk of one finely arched brow, keeping his expression deliberately blank.

“Come now,” the dowager admonished. “You know quite well to what, or rather to whom, I am referring, for everyone is talking about it.” She eyed him with a pointed stare. “The Penworthy chit. Is it true that you’ve spoken with her father?”

“Tis true indeed,” Gabriel affirmed. “In fact, the marquess and I have conversed on numerous occasions over the years; why anyone would find that an interesting topic of conversation, however, I haven’t the slightest notion.”

“You are being deliberately obtuse, my boy,” she accused with a reproving frown. “Now tell me straight out, have you offered for the girl or not?”