10 December 1814
The Duke and Duchess of Belfort's townhouse
Peter felt like the proverbial fox being run to ground by a pack of crazed hounds. And the mothers of those debutantes were the hunters with but a single goal in mind, run down their prey and marry their daughters to the highest-ranking peer they could snag. And the leader of those crazed women was none other than Lillian, his own mother, the Duchess of Rollens. Currently, he was the quarry they were searching for.
"I've often had similar desires to hide from them as well," said a deep voice from behind the potted plant.
Feeling like a recalcitrant child, Peter leaned around and checked to make sure no one was looking in his direction, then he turned to Gabriel, the Duke of Belfort. "Why? You're safely married. And to a reasonable and intelligent lady."
"Yes, and I thank God for that every day of my life," Belfort replied. "My Katie is one of a kind."
"Unfortunately, I fear you are quite correct. There are few like your Duchess."
The Duke and Duchess of Belfort were both one of a kind. He had first met the duke three years ago when Peter had bought a commission in the 85th Foot Regiment and went to fight the Corsican madman. Back then Gabriel Stoughton had been a very different man and going by the name of Sergeant-Major Gordon Campbell. Gabe had been one of the finest soldiers Peter had had the honor of serving with.
His new Duchess, Katherine McNair, was just as unique. Peter met her six years ago during her first season and had thought briefly about courting her. But she was the daughter of a newly minted baron, and according to his parents back then, she was not worthy of the Rollens’ title. Instead they badgered him into his second disastrous marriage to Lady Violet Hurston, the youngest daughter of an earl, whose mother had been a lifelong friend of his mother’s.
Violet’s sexual exploits had filled the gossip rags for more than a year after their marriage. Including her scandalous death in the arms of her current lover.
Which prompted his parents to suggest a third ton marriage barely three months after Violet’s death. However, Peter had had enough of their machinations by then. He loved his parents dearly. But he wasn’t going to allow them to push him into another socially advantageous marriage, just to benefit the Hendricks’ dynasty.
So, reeling from two disastrous marriages, and his parents’ match-making attempts, Peter joined the army and left England for three years.
"Maybe," Belfort said. "But that doesn't mean that they’re all like. . ."
"Like my first two wives,” he glanced toward the ballroom and the debutantes his family was rounding up, “and the young ladies my mother and family are throwing at me?" Peter asked. "You are undoubtedly correct, Gabe. But I haven't met them as of yet."
"So your ploy is to hide behind the flora for the rest of the season to avoid the parson's mousetrap?" Belfort asked.
Peter thought about it as he picked out the enemy troops that had him penned in. His mother was to the right of him with a debutante and a matchmaking mother. His grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Rollens, was to the left with two debutantes and three more matchmaking mammas corralled in a circle around her. And directly across the floor were two of his sisters with a bevy of hopeful young ladies surrounding them.
"No, I intend to honor my obligations to the title. I just refuse to do so with one of those scheming flirts my family has picked out for me," Peter replied.
His acquiescence to the inevitable was fairly new, something that had occurred just after a particularly vicious battle that nearly took his life. On that day he had felt the hand of God on his heart. And he’d had a vision of the woman he would like to marry. Or someone just like her.
Mary Penrose had been a childhood friend. At least for a fortnight. But during that short two weeks he had fallen in love with her. Are more to the point, he had become infatuated with the ten-year-old girl, who had given him a gift beyond words; she had encouraged him to pursue his love of science.
From that day on, he had dreamed of finding a woman just like Mary. Or, if not just like her, then one who was just as intelligent. Which neither of his first two wives had been.
So after the war ended earlier that year, he had sold his commission in the army to find the wife of his dreams, and also because his father was once again on his death bed. Something he had supposedly been on for nearly twenty years. Only this time his father’s illness had been real and not imaginary, and in September he had passed away, making Peter the Eighth Duke of Rollens. From that moment on the attacks against his widower-hood had been unrelenting.
The assaults on his marital status began as soon as the family had laid his father to rest. His mother had ambushed him at his father’s gravesite, demanding he do right by the title he now held. His three sisters had joined the fray as soon as they had returned to the house. Then within the week the push to get him married and an heir on the way had been joined by his grandmother, the social dragon, and nearly every one of his uncles and aunts.
The only one not pushing him to remarry was his Aunt Carolinna, who had married his eldest uncle and produced the only male child on the Hendricks' side of the family so far. Consequently, their son, Lonell Hendricks, was currently Peter's heir apparent. Which was the reason the rest of the family was pushing him so hard to remarry and produce the requisite heir and spare.
Lonell and his father’s supposed first brush with death had been the principal motivations behind his first two disastrous marriages. His cousin Lonell wasn't just the proverbial intolerable distant heir, he was in fact a walking disgrace. The man was a drunk, a cad, and a horrible gambler who never won but couldn't stay away from the tables to save his life. And Lowell would be the next Duke of Rollens if Peter didn't do his duty.
Breaking into his gloomy thoughts, Belfort said, "You know, they are not all scheming, frivolous dimwits. Some of them are quite intelligent."
Another image of Mary Penrose flashed through his mind, and he quickly pushed it away. Mary was more than likely married now, with a number of children of her own.
Turning, Peter followed Belfort's line of sight to the ballroom floor. A waltz was playing and colorfully dressed ladies and gentlemen whirled by in each other's arms. A splattering of tittering and muffled conversations floated on the stagnant air. A choking heat tried to suffocate him, despite the cooling temperatures and the French windows being open behind him.
"Not that I've met," Peter said. Which wasn't completely true. But that was a couple of lifetimes ago. And Mary wasn’t of the nobility. She was gentry, as her father was the brother to an earl, but that would never have been acceptable by his family’s standards for a future duke.
His gaze fell on his mother as she crossed the dance floor towards his grandmother, surveying the crowd with regal bearing, befitting a queen-or a duchess. She was obviously searching for him, as she had a vise grip on the arm of her latest sacrificial offering to the Hendricks' broodmare project.
"If your Grace will excuse me, I believe I need a bit of repairing air," Peter said as he slowly backed toward the open doorway.
"I believe I'll join you," Gabe replied as he snatched two flutes of champagne from a passing footman.
He followed Peter out to the balcony and handed him one of the flutes. "I wish I could offer you something more fortifying, but Katie insists that champagne is the proper beverage to serve at these infernal things."
The Duke of Belfort was nearly as tall as Peter and just as broad. And although Peter's time in the army had hardened his body somewhat, most of his bulk and physique had more to do with his years of boxing and physical exertions. Which had become a near obsession after Peter's first disastrous marriage and a requirement to survive his second one.
Peter knew the two of them were a formidable sight standing alone on the back balcony. The Duke of Belfort had dark auburn hair and cold brown eyes. Peter had inherited his father's raven black hair and emerald green eyes, a family trait that went back seven generations to the first Baron Rollens and made their Norman heritage plain to see.
"But if you would prefer something a little stronger, then we can adjourn to my study for some good Scottish whiskey," Belfort offered.
Peter thought about it. It would be nice to share a good glass of whiskey with his friend. But he couldn't do that to Gabriel.
"Do you like having your private offices invaded?" Peter asked. Belfort raised an eyebrow so Peter elaborated. "My mother would have no compulsion whatsoever about intruding into your private domain. And even if my mother might hesitate, my grandmother would not. They are both determined to match me with a bride of their choice this year. No matter how many times I tell them I can find a bride on my own."
Most of polite society knew about his family’s campaign to find him a new wife. But it was the first time he had spoken openly about it to someone outside the family. There hadn't seemed to be the need since in the last two months he had become the butt of the haut ton's jokes and favorite topic in most of the gossip rags. Last month the papers had dubbed him the "Run- Away Duke" as he had been seen quite literally running from a soirée to escape his mother's and grandmother's machinations.
"They might find you a suitable bride," Belfort said. "I, for one, can attest to the enjoyable state of stumbling into a ton marriage that turned out well."
Peter’s breath hitched, and a cold dread washed over him. His mind skidded to his first two marriages. "Like I said, I'm not opposed to marriage if it is with the right woman." Especially if they were like his childhood friend. He gazed back toward the open French window. "But can you honestly see me married to one of the ladies my family is currently throwing at me?"
Peter couldn't. They were all too much like his first two wives. He would rather let Lonell have the damn title than endure another marriage to someone like Hortensia or Violet. It was the reason he had bought a commission in the army. Back then he would rather have died than endure another ton marriage. But the war had changed him in more than one way, and he was now ready to do his duty by the family. Just not to one of the ladies his family was so focused on.
"No," Belfort said with a grimace as he shuddered. "But it is not my marital prospects that we are talking about. Is it? So what are you going to do?"
Peter glared at the open door then shook his head. "I'm going to give purchase to the bloody gossip rags and run like hell."
Belfort laughed for several minutes and then sobered. "And just where are you going?"
"Northumberland," Peter said.
Belfort laughed again then said, "Well, you can't get much farther away from London than that. Unless you want to go to the Highlands. Which is not advisable this time of year for anyone not born there. Hell, it's not even advisable for Highlanders this time of year. But why Northumberland? Surely there are less hostile places you can go than there?"
"Hugh, the Duke of Northumberland, has invited me and a number of others to join him and his family for their annual Christmastide house party. He is cosponsoring a couple of bills I'm trying to get through the House of Lords.”
Gabe nodded. “The Scientific Research bill and the funding for the women’s college. Katie told me about them. And you’ll have my support on both.”
Peter smiled and nodded. “Thank you, Gabe. I can guess which bill you support personally, and which one your duchess supports.”
They both laughed and then Peter continued. “Hugh’s son, Baron Percy, is opposing both of them and another one the duke is sponsoring. So Northumberland has invited me, Charles Grey, and a few others to Alnwick Castle for a stratagem meeting for the bills. Ostensibly it is a Christmas house party, but the old fox is stacking the deck against his son with a few Whigs who will support our causes."
Belfort shook his head. "Like I said, you have my support on both of your bills. But I’ll have to see the one Hugh is sponsoring before I throw my support behind him.” Peter nodded. “But it does sound like a rather dull party if all you're going to do is talk politics."
Peter laughed then said, “Maybe so. But this one promises to be a little more interesting. His Grace has also included his father’s illegitimate son, James Smithson, on the guest list. Additionally, Grey told me he was planning on bringing his daughter, Eliza Courtney, whom I met before I bought my commission. Eliza is a very lovely young lady. And quite intelligent as well." Not like the debutantes his mother wanted him to marry.
"And I've been wanting to meet his Grace's half-brother, James, for some time. He is a renowned chemist and scientist with the Royal Society and has authored a number of papers that I have read. I'm hoping to find time to sit down with him and compare notes on some of my own experiments."
Belfort slapped him on the shoulder. "Then it might prove interesting at that." His lips kicked up a little. "And you might find a wife in the wilds of Northumberland as well."
Peter doubted it. He had heard that his friend Colonel Robert Ellice had been courting Eliza lately. So he suspected she was already spoken for. Which was a shame as she was the only woman of his recent acquaintance that he would have even considered making his third wife.
"We will see," was all he would say on the matter. Then he added as he handed the empty flute back to his host. "Please make my apologies to your duchess. I believe I have had quite enough of being the prey for this evening."
With that he slipped down the stairs and headed for the back of the enclosed garden and his freedom for the night.