Home > The Duke's Privateer (Devilish Dukes #3)

The Duke's Privateer (Devilish Dukes #3)
Author: Amy Jarecki

Chapter One

 

 

The Royal Pavilion, Brighton, mid-April 1819

 

 

Eleanor Kent stepped nearer to the meticulous, hand-painted wallpaper, examining the green bamboo shoots festooned with exotic birds. The mural stood out against a blossom-pink background, stretching upward to the illusion of a pagoda roof trimmed with the authentic brass bells she’d smuggled into Brighton from India. This commission from the prince regent marked the pinnacle of a successful career. Eleanor had been contracted to supply Prinny with superb chinoiserie to immerse his guests in the mysterious world of the Orient here in his lavish pavilion. Once a meager dwelling, the regent’s Brighton retreat was swiftly being transformed into a palatial residence, one fitting of a future king.

Moving along, Eleanor’s chest swelled as she stepped beside a life-sized statue of a Mandarin chancellor. Adorned in ornate robes, the figure was painted with such attention to detail, the cloth appeared to be satin. She’d brought it and the pagoda lanterns hanging above from Constantinople, having personally inspected the shipment before allowing it to be included in her ship’s cargo—though no one had a clue she owned the King’s Jewel.

“The sculpture is so lifelike, I wouldn’t be shocked if the fellow winked,” said a deep voice from behind.

Though the words filled her with pride, Eleanor kept her expression impassive as she turned. A gasp caught in her throat when she met the hawkish gaze of Sherborn Price, the Duke of Danby. Why the devil had Prinny invited him? Indubitably, the two men were on a par when it came to rakishness, but Danby was dangerous. Not only because he could destroy a woman with those hooded, terribly enchanting green eyes, or make any female swoon with a mere quirk of the corner of his mouth, but the man standing beside her could utterly ruin Eleanor’s empire with a stroke of his quill.

Through her good fortune, she didn’t know the man well. Indeed, they had been introduced once or twice, which opened the door for him to initiate a conversation now. Bowing her head, she gave a polite curtsey. “It is, Your Grace. In truth, I was just watching the Mandarin chancellor, daring him to make a mortal gesture.”

He grasped her gloved hand and drew it to his lips as he bowed. “Miss Kent.”

She gulped, disappointed that he’d recalled her name, regardless of the fluttering of her traitorous heart. She pulled her hand from his fingers and rubbed away the tingling sensation. No matter how much Eleanor desired to flee toward another guest with whom to engage in conversation, she stood immobile. In the scarlet-hooded light of the gallery, Danby’s allure was as tempting to her as honeysuckle to a hummingbird. Brushing an errant curl away from her cheek, she allowed herself a moment to admire his symmetrical face, smooth skin, lips full enough to suit high cheekbones crested by a straight, Nordic nose. Though what truly made the duke striking was the intensity of his gaze, presently focused on her.

“Has your escort stepped out?” he asked.

“Above stairs,” she said as if that explained everything. Which it did not. Eleanor had traveled to Brighton with her lady’s maid, a footman, and a coachman, which she had done all along when overseeing George’s chinoiserie remodeling project. In truth, Eleanor had made an art of sidestepping societal norms required of unwed women of the ton. Besides, she wasn’t only seven and twenty, she was a self-proclaimed spinster, a bluestocking, and a woman of the world—not that it was any of Danby’s affair.

A single eyebrow arched as he glanced toward the stairs. “Enamored with exotic sculpted art, are you, Miss Kent?”

“I wouldn’t venture that far,” she fibbed—few knew she was an exceptional purveyor of many different art forms and more. “However, I’m never one to ignore a fine piece when I see it.”

“And this.” He motioned to the chancellor with an upturned palm, giving her a chance to inspect Danby’s velvet, double-breasted cutaway coat, the collar fashionably high, emphasizing an exquisitely tied, perfectly white neckcloth. “Is fine in your estimation?”

“Only the best for the prince.”

“Ah, yes. Prinny and this farmhouse.”

Eleanor flicked open her fan and chuckled behind it. “I say, he’s done a great deal to ensure no one ever refers to his little palace thus again.”

“I gather.”

“Have you seen the latest addition?”

“Are you referring to Nash’s monstrous iron framework flanking the two ends of this…ah…extravagance?”

“I am.” With a flourish of one hand, she snapped her fan closed. “Styled after the palaces of India, it will be a renowned tribute to the Orient and like no other royal residence in all of Christendom.”

Those assessing eyes raked down and up her body. “You seem to be quite well apprised of the prince’s plans.”

Eleanor glanced away. Perhaps she’d been a tad too exuberant. She’d best plead ignorance or risk further examination by His Grace. Danby was not only a rogue of the highest order, he was closely aligned with the prime minister, which was a flaming red flag as far as she was concerned. Anything more than an acquaintance with the duke could prove perilous to her business dealings, regardless if the prince favored her.

The corners of her mouth tightened as she raised her chin. “Why, anyone in Prinny’s confidence knows of his plans for the pavilion. Would you not agree?”

“Hmm,” he mused without conviction just as the Prince of Wales, Prinny to his friends, George to many, stepped beside them.

The host rocked back on his heels as he rubbed a hand around an embroidered silk waistcoat, buttoned snugly across his enormous stomach. “I’m happy to see two of my dearest friends are acquainted.”

The duke turned a critical eye toward Eleanor. Surely he was thinking the worst. After all, the prince had a reputation for rakishness, and she was a spinster attending a royal dinner, whose escort was nowhere to be seen. “We were just admiring your Mandarin statue. He is quite realistic, is he not?”

Biting the inside of her cheek, Eleanor remained a picture of placidness. Prinny knew better than to say she was, in a term, his privateer. Though Eleanor would never entertain a liaison with the prince. She was in his confidence and he in hers. Of course, she had many other customers to whom she sold rare treasures, but the prince was a special case. Working for him helped to ensure her dealings, which took place behind the façade of a legitimate import business, were always hidden from the public eye and never under the scrutiny of any parliamentary investigations.

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