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Primrose and the Dreadful Duke
The first book in a new Baleful Godmother series!
An irrepressible duke, a bookish spinster, a devious murderer … Regency house parties have never been so hazardous!
Oliver Dasenby is the most infuriating man Primrose Garland has ever known. He may be her brother’s best friend, but he has an atrocious sense of humor. Eight years in the cavalry hasn’t taught him solemnity, nor has the unexpected inheritance of a dukedom.
But when Oliver inherited his dukedom, it appears that he also inherited a murderer.
Oliver might be dreadfully annoying, but Primrose doesn’t want him dead. She’s going to make certain he survives his inheritance—and the only way to do that is to help him catch the murderer!
“I absolutely adored this book. It’s a mix of a mystery, thriller and romance all rolled into one.”
“I read it in one sitting. I also rolled my eyes and laughed until I snorted in an unladylike manner.”
“Absolutely delightful. I won’t forgetting the game Oliver and Prim played for a long time!”
Winner of the 2019 Romance Writers of New Zealand Long Romance of the Year Award
Winner of the 2019 Romance Writers of New Zealand Best Overall Romance of the Year Award
Primrose Garland liked books. All kinds of books, but especially books written many centuries ago, and most especially books that were the real thoughts of real people. Pliny’s letters, for example. Catullus’s love-sick poems. Marcus Aurelius’s philosophical musings.
That morning, she was reading Aurelius again, experiencing the same delight and wonder that she always felt. Aurelius had been an emperor in Rome, she was a spinster in London—and yet here she was, reading his private notes to himself, his musings on life. It was extremely intimate, this insight into a man’s thoughts. Sometimes it felt as if he were talking directly to her, that if she turned her head, there he would be: Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, seated at the writing table, and he’d look up from his notes and say to her, “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
That was one of her favorite quotes. It had made her cry the first time she’d read it. Two sentences that a stranger had written more than sixteen hundred years ago, and they’d made her cry.
Which was why she loved Aurelius so much.
So when she looked for the second volume of his Meditations and realized that she’d left it in Staffordshire, Primrose was a little annoyed. But only a little, because it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes to fetch it.
She went upstairs to her bedchamber and locked the door, so that no servant could walk in and discover the Garland family secret, then she clasped her hands together, took a deep breath, and pictured the library at Manifold Park, and in particular, the shadows behind the black-and-gold lacquered screen in the corner.
Primrose wished herself there.
In the next instant, she was.
There was a familiar moment of vertigo—the library seemed to spin around her—and then everything steadied into place.
Primrose held her breath and listened intently. The library sounded empty.
She peeked around the edge of the black-and-gold screen. The library was empty. As it should be when the Garland family was in London.
Primrose crossed quickly to where Aurelius was shelved, selected the volume she wanted, and wished herself back in her bedchamber in London.
In the blink of an eye, she was.
The vertigo hit again, as if she’d spun around a thousand times. Primrose waited until it passed, then glanced at herself in the mirror. She always expected her hair to be disheveled and her clothes to be a windswept tangle after translocating, but they never were. She looked as neat and well-groomed as one would expect of a duke’s daughter.
Primrose unlocked her bedroom door and went down to the morning room. A housemaid was clearing away the tea tray. “Would you like another pot of tea, Lady Primrose?”
“Yes, thank you, Elsie.”
Primrose crossed to the sofa, thinking how shocked the maid would be if she told her she’d just traveled to Staffordshire and back.
But of course she didn’t tell the housemaid. She couldn’t tell a soul. It was far too great a secret. And even if she did tell Elsie, the girl wouldn’t believe it.
No one would.
Primrose curled up on the sofa and returned to her reading.
An evening in early June, London
Oliver had enjoyed being a soldier. Not the killing, of course, but the camaraderie, the sense of purpose, the challenges, the fun. When the letter had arrived informing him that he’d inherited his Uncle Reginald’s dukedom his first emotion had been astonishment. His second had been chagrin. He’d planned to be a colonel by the time he was forty; instead, at twenty-nine, he was a duke. Not that being a duke wasn’t without its challenges or its sense of purpose. Or its fun, for that matter.
Oliver glanced around the ballroom. His gaze passed over shimmering silks and spangled gauzes, glossy hair and rosy lips—and the bright eyes of young ladies searching for husbands.
He’d enjoyed balls when he’d been a cavalry captain in India. They’d been rare events, something to look forward to—the dancing, the flirting, the snatched kisses in shadowy corners.
Balls as a duke in London were quite a different matter. In fact, when a duke had so many caps set at him as Oliver did, he had to exercise caution else he’d get caught in the parson’s mousetrap. A prudent duke didn’t snatch kisses from respectable young ladies—not unless he wanted to end up with a wife. A prudent duke didn’t even flirt while he danced.
A prudent duke could get mightily bored if he wasn’t careful . . . but Oliver had a strategy for that.
He made his way across the ballroom, replying to the murmured greetings of Your Grace, and Duke, and Westfell, before coming to a halt in front of Miss Elliott and her mother.
“Lady Elliott.” He inclined his head in a coolly ducal nod. “Miss Elliott.”
“Your Grace.” Miss Elliott curtsied and glanced up at him through her eyelashes. She was only nineteen, but she had mastered the trick of tucking her shoulders back slightly to bring her bosom into more prominence. Lush breasts tilted up at him, snug in a nest of ribbons and silk.
Miss Elliott—like most unmarried young ladies—was on the hunt for a husband, but even if Oliver had to be prudent, it didn’t mean that he couldn’t enjoy her efforts to snare him. He awarded Miss Elliott one point for the upwards glance and two points for that enticingly displayed bosom, then he gave her his most charming smile and led her onto the dance floor.
Miss Elliott started the cotillion with three points. She increased this to six points rather rapidly—by sending him three more of those glances—and then she exercised a masterful ploy: she bit her lower lip briefly and moistened it, a move that looked bashful but most definitely wasn’t, not with the glimpse of her tongue she’d given him.
That was five points, right there, and they’d been dancing less than a minute.
Oliver gave her his most charming smile again. “Do you like horses, Miss Elliott? I must tell you about my mount, Verdun.”
He described Verdun in detail, from his ears to his hooves, while Miss Elliott tilted her enticing bosom at him. “I’m certain you’re a magnificent horseman, Your Grace,” she said, when he’d finished describing the precise length and color of Verdun’s tail.
The compliment sounded genuine. Oliver added another two points to her tally and launched into a description of the horses of every officer he’d ever served with in India. He was rather enjoying himself. This was a game: Miss Elliott’s bosom versus his ridiculous monologue.
The cotillion lasted twenty minutes, and Miss Elliott made very good use of them. When Oliver returned her to her mother, she had accrued one hundred and forty-three points.
* * *
His next partner was Lady Primrose Garland, the sister of his oldest friend, Rhodes Garland—and the only unmarried young lady in the room whom he knew didn’t want to marry him.
“Lady Prim,” he said, bowing over her hand with a flourish. “You’re a jewel that outshines all others.”
Primrose was too well-bred to roll her eyes in public, but her eyelids twitched ever so slightly, which told him she wanted to. “Still afflicted by hyperbole, I see.”
“You use such long words, Prim,” he said admiringly.
“And you use such foolish ones.”
Oliver tutted at her. “That’s not very polite, Prim.”
Primrose ignored this comment. She placed her hand on his sleeve. Together they walked onto the dance floor and took their places.
“Did I ever tell you about my uniform, Prim? The coat was dark blue, and the facing—”
“I don’t wish to hear about your uniform.”
“Manners, Prim. Manners.”
Primrose came very close to smiling. She caught herself just in time. “Shall we discuss books while we dance? Have you read Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum?”
“Of course I haven’t,” Oliver said. “Dash it, Prim, I’m not an intellectual.”
The musicians played the opening bars. Primrose curtsied, Oliver bowed. “I really must tell you about my uniform. The coat was dark blue—”
Primrose ignored him. “Wolf proposes that The Iliad—”
“With a red sash at the waist—”
“And The Odyssey were in fact—”
“And silver lace at the cuffs—”
“The work of more than one poet.”
“And a crested Tarleton helmet,” Oliver finished triumphantly.
They eyed each other as they went through the steps of the dance. Oliver could tell from the glint in her eyes and the way her lips were tucked in at the corners that Primrose was trying not to laugh. He was trying not to laugh, too.
“You’re a fiddle-faddle fellow,” Primrose told him severely.
“Alliteration,” Oliver said. “Well done, Prim.”
Primrose’s lips tucked in even more tightly at the corners. If they’d been anywhere but a ballroom he was certain she’d have stamped her foot, something she’d done frequently when they were children.
“Heaven only knows why I agreed to dance with you,” she told him tartly.
“Because it increases your consequence to be seen with me. I am a duke, you know.” He puffed out his chest and danced the next few steps with a strut.
“Stop that,” she hissed under her breath.
“Stop what?” Oliver said innocently, still strutting his steps.
“Honestly, Daisy, you’re impossible.”
Oliver stopped strutting. “No one’s called me that in years.”
“Impossible? I find that hard to believe.” Her voice was dry.
“Daisy.” It had been Primrose’s childhood nickname for him, in retaliation for him calling her Lady Prim-and-Proper.
Oliver had been back in England for nearly a month now, and that month had been filled with moments of recognition, some tiny flickers—his brain acknowledging something as familiar and then moving on—others strong visceral reactions. He experienced one of those latter moments now. It took him by the throat and wouldn’t let him speak for several seconds.
Because Primrose had called him Daisy.
Oliver cleared his throat. “Tell me about that book, Prim. What’s it called? Prolapse ad nauseam?”
“Prolegomena ad Homerum.”
Oliver pulled a face. “Sounds very dull. Me, I much prefer a good novel. Especially if there’s a ghost in it, or a headless horseman.”
And they were off again, arguing amiably about books, the moment of emotion safely in the past. Primrose knew a lot about books. In fact, Oliver suspected that she preferred books to people—which would be why she was still unmarried at twenty-seven. Primrose was a duke’s daughter and she was pretty—that ash-blonde hair, those cool blue eyes. If she wanted to be married, she would be.
Therefore, he deduced that she didn’t want to marry. Which made her unique in a ballroom filled with young ladies on the hunt for husbands.
“Do you know Miss Ogilvie?” he asked her.
“Vaguely. She seems quite nice.”
“Nice? She’s a dashed harpy, is what she is.”
“You can’t call her a harpy,” Primrose objected. “A siren, perhaps, but harpies have claws and—”
“Miss Ogilvie is a harpy,” Oliver said firmly. “Beneath the evening gloves, she has claws.”
“Now that is hyperbole.”
“It’s metaphor,” Oliver corrected her. “She’s a metaphorical harpy. She wants to feast on my carcass.” And carcass was a metaphor, too; it wasn’t his body Miss Ogilvie wanted to devour, it was the title and fortune that he’d so unexpectedly inherited.
Primrose uttered a small sound that his ears barely caught.
“Did you just snort, Prim? That’s not very ladylike.”
“You’re the most idiotic person I’ve ever met,” she told him severely.
Oliver opened his eyes wide. “Ever? In your whole life?”
“High praise, Prim. Very high praise. You quite unman me.”
This time Primrose did roll her eyes, even though they were in the middle of a ballroom.
Oliver grinned at her. He could tell she was struggling not to grin back.
At that moment, the dance ended. Oliver escorted Primrose from the dance floor. He could see Miss Ogilvie out of the corner of his eye: the glossy ringlets, the ripe bosom, the dainty evening gloves that hid her metaphorical claws.
“Marry me, Prim,” he joked. “Save me from Miss Ogilvie.”
“I’d sooner marry a crossing-sweeper. You’re even more of a fribble than that cousin of yours.”
“I’m wounded.” Oliver placed his hand over his heart, tottered a few steps, and sank down on a gilded chair. “Mortally wounded. I may expire here, right in front of your eyes.”
“You can’t expire now,” Primrose told him. “Miss Ogilvie is waiting to dance with you.”
Oliver pulled a face. “Maybe I should become a crossing-sweeper.”
“Addle-pate,” Primrose said.
Oliver laughed, and climbed to his feet. “Thank you for the dance, Prim.”
Primrose demurely curtsied, as all his other partners tonight had done. “It was a pleasure, Your Grace.”
“Don’t, Prim,” Oliver said, and this time his tone was serious.
Primrose’s glance at him was swift and shrewd. She didn’t ask what he meant; instead, she said, “Away with you, Daisy,” and made a brisk shooing gesture. “Miss Ogilvie fancies herself as a duchess.”
“Not my duchess,” Oliver muttered. “Not if I have any say in the matter.”
* * *
Miss Ogilvie had alabaster skin, a delightfully full lower lip, and a bosom to rival Miss Elliott’s. Like Miss Elliott, she had mastered the trick of displaying her bosom to full advantage.
Oliver didn’t like her at all.
His antipathy had been instantaneous and instinctive. Miss Ogilvie was pretty, charming, vivacious—and ruthless. Oliver wasn’t certain exactly how he knew she was ruthless. Something in her eyes? In that light, musical laugh? All he knew was that he had seen people like Miss Ogilvie before, not in ballrooms but in the aftermath of battle, looting the wounded of their belongings.
But the fact that he disliked Miss Ogilvie didn’t mean that he disliked dancing with her. On the contrary, dancing with her was often the highlight of his evening. He had a special voice for her—a monotonous drone—and a special topic—Trésaguet’s method for paving roads—and he always managed to stand on her toes and fall out of time with the music.
Primrose Garland would have given him the sharp edge of her tongue if he’d tried such tactics with her; Miss Ogilvie gave him smiling glances and flaunted her breasts and at the end of the dance she said in a soft, sweet, admiring voice, “You’re so knowledgeable, Westfell.”
Oliver could imagine the expression on Primrose’s face if she’d been close enough to hear those words. He puffed out his chest and said, “I fancy I know a lot about a lot of things.” Then he escorted Miss Ogilvie back to her aunt.
Her score: one hundred and sixty-one.
The ballroom had become rather warm. Faces were shiny and shirt-points wilting. Oliver found himself craving fresh, cool air. He was bespoken for two more dances, but after that he’d slip away, and that was something he’d never done as a soldier: leave a ball early. Lord, he’d danced until dawn more than once—
“Oliver,” a cheerful voice said at his elbow.
Oliver turned. “Uncle Algy.” He shook his uncle’s hand heartily. “How are you, sir?”
“Very well, my boy. Very well indeed.”
Lord Algernon Dasenby was one of Oliver’s two surviving relatives. He was a burly fellow with graying hair and merry eyes and a booming laugh. It was Uncle Algy who’d dealt with the paperwork while Oliver had undertaken the six-month-long journey back from India, Uncle Algy who’d gathered the documents required by the House of Lords—proof of his parents’ marriage, proof of his birth—so that by the time Oliver had finally set foot on English soil there were only a few legal hoops to jump through and it was done: he was the ninth Duke of Westfell.
Ironic, that. He trod in the footsteps of the seventh and eighth dukes every day, drank from the same glasses they’d drunk from, slept in the same great four-poster bed, even pissed in the same chamber pot, and yet he’d never met them when they’d been alive.
Not that he repined.
Oliver didn’t need to have met his grandfather to know he’d been a coldhearted bastard—how else could you describe a man who cut off a son for daring to refuse an arranged marriage? And Uncle Reginald had been a coldhearted bastard, too, for obeying the parental injunction to sever ties with his brother.
Uncle Algy hadn’t obeyed the parental injunction. Oliver had childhood memories of his uncle’s brief, secretive visits—the rumble of voices in the parlor, the laughter, the pipe smoke, his uncle winking at him when he arrived and slipping him a guinea when he left.
Strange to think that Uncle Algy was now Oliver’s heir.
He would have stayed talking to his uncle if he could, but the musicians were picking up their instruments again and the next aspiring duchess awaited him. Regretfully, Oliver bade his uncle goodbye. A dozen more steps and he hove to in front of Miss Buxton.
Miss Buxton’s main ploy for hunting dukes was a simper. Oliver didn’t like simpers. Every time Miss Buxton simpered, he deducted one point. Her score rapidly sank below zero. By the time the musicians played the final notes, she had reached minus eighty. Tonight’s lowest score.
One more dance to go and he could call it a night.
It was while he was heading towards his final partner that Oliver encountered the second of his two surviving relatives: Uncle Algernon’s son.
“Ninian.” Oliver looked his cousin up and down. “You look very, uh . . .” Pretty was the word that sprang to mind.
Their Uncle Reginald, the eighth duke, had been in his grave for more than a year. The time for mourning was long past, but Ninian was lingering in shades of lilac and lavender.
Lilac and lavender were colors Oliver would never willingly wear, but there was no denying that they suited Ninian’s golden hair and blue eyes. He looked beautiful. But Ninian always looked beautiful.
“Do you like it?” Ninian said. His gaze was bright and hopeful, and he might be a fribble and a fop, but he was also Uncle Algy’s son and Oliver’s only cousin.
Oliver strove for a compliment. “Very pretty coat. What color do you call it?”
“Periwinkle,” Ninian said, beaming.
“Suits you,” Oliver said, and then, “Excuse me, Ninian; I’m claimed for the next dance.”
* * *
His last partner for the night achieved a respectable one hundred and twenty-eight points, not because of her bosom, but because she had a very pretty pair of dimples. Oliver liked dimples, and in another time and place he might have tried to coax a kiss from Miss Norton. But he was no longer a devil-may-care dragoon captain, he was a prudent duke, and so he escorted Miss Norton back to her mother, unkissed.
Oliver was aware of young ladies hopefully eyeing him. He made for the door, not pausing long enough for anyone to catch him.
A flight of stairs beckoned him downwards. He breathed a sigh of relief and descended to the vestibule. A footman fetched his hat for him. Oliver stepped outside. It wasn’t completely dark under the portico—flambeaux burned, keeping the night at bay—but it was blessedly cool and quiet after the ballroom.
A dozen marble steps led down to the street, gleaming in the light from the flaming torches. Oliver stood for a moment on the topmost step. Funny that one could feel lonely in a city as large as London, but he did feel lonely at this moment, had in fact felt lonely rather often in the month he’d been back on English soil.
If this were India, he’d have Ned Lovelock at one shoulder and Tubby Hedgecomb at the other, and they’d be laughing together, enjoying being young and alive.
But this wasn’t India.
Oliver put his hat on, tilted the brim until it sat just right, and promised himself that he’d call on Rhodes Garland tomorrow. A few hours in Rhodes’s company would make him feel less alone.
His ears caught the faint scuff of a shoe behind him—and then someone shoved him violently between the shoulder blades.