My favorite scene from the book is the very first. It was great fun to write.
Nathaniel Gresham, Viscount Hightower, stirred in his sleep. His hands groped for bedclothes, found nothing. Sensing wrongness, his consciousness rose through layers of befuddlement and wisps of dreams. He opened his eyes to find a gaping maw of three-inch fangs inches from his throat.
Nathaniel threw up his arms to shield his face and twisted to the side. The convulsive movement brought him right to the edge of a large four-poster bed, and he scrambled to avoid falling three feet to the floor. He twisted in the opposite direction and struck out at the sharp, yellowed teeth. They did not snap shut on his forearm or lunge into his face once more. Indeed, they did not move at all, except sideways under his blow. There was no snarl or slaver, no spark of rage in the shiny eye behind the fangs. Nathaniel shoved them farther away and sat up.
He was stark naked, on a large bed stripped bare of linens, covered only by a moth-eaten gray wolf skin. The wretched thing’s head had been carefully placed on his chest, to ensure the rude awakening. His hips still rested under its hindquarters. Molting fur peppered the bed. The mere sight of the ancient pelt made his skin itch. Revolted, he pushed it all the way off and moved to the foot of the bed, struggling to get his bearings. This wasn’t his bedchamber. The blue-striped wallpaper was alien, the furnishings unfamiliar; the windows with their slant of early morning light were in the wrong place. Then he remembered. He was staying at the Earl of Moreley’s country house, because tomorrow—no, today—he was to marry the earl’s daughter at their local parish church.
Nathaniel glared at the wolf skin, then rubbed his hands over his face. This was what it meant to have five brothers—five younger brothers—on one’s wedding day. Or rather, on one’s wedding eve, a night they’d insisted upon marking with bowls of rack punch. Had it been three? Or had he lost count? No wonder they’d kept filling his glass, if they had this prank planned. Where the devil had they found a wolf skin in a strange house? And hadn’t he told his father, when Robert was born in his sixth year, that four sons were quite enough? Even for a duke, six sons were excessive. At this particular moment, Nathaniel thought that his parents might have been content with just one.
He rose, stretching stiff limbs and marveling that he had only a mild headache. Revenge on his brothers would have to wait for another day. Today, he was getting married. He was doing his duty to his name and his line, pledging himself to a woman who would be an admirable duchess when their turn came—may it be far in the future. The match was eminently suitable. All society acknowledged its rightness. And despite Violet’s irascible grandmother, the occasional bane of his existence, he could have no complaints.
Indeed, why had the word even occurred to him? No one had rushed him into marriage. He had enjoyed a plenitude of seasons in London and a number of agreeable flirtations and liaisons with delightful females. Though they had never spoken of it, he was aware that his parents had given him every opportunity to fall in love. But the passion that had overtaken them in their young days had not befallen him. He wasn’t sure why, but once he’d passed thirty he concluded it never would. He’d had more than enough time to observe that such a bond was rare in the circles of the haut ton.
Nathaniel stretched again, his bare limbs a bit chilly. This marriage was certainly not a penance. He liked Violet very much. They’d been acquainted for years. He did not know whether she’d had other offers, but he supposed that she too had waited for love to find her. They had that in common. They were also well suited by background, had similar tastes, and enjoyed the same even temperament. When he’d decided that the time for marriage had come, he’d simply known that she was the proper candidate. He expected their union to be gracious, harmonious, and ideal for the significant position they would someday be called upon to fulfill. And now it was time to stop wool-gathering, put on his dressing gown, and begin this momentous day.
Nathaniel walked over to the oaken wardrobe on the far wall and opened it.
It was empty. All his clothes had disappeared.
He stared at the bare hooks. This part of the prank would be Sebastian’s doing, he imagined. It had his next younger brother’s touch. Nathaniel met his own gaze in the mirror set into the wardrobe door, and acknowledged the spark of amused annoyance in his eyes. His brothers had a fiendish facility for complicated jests.
The figure in the glass shook its head. All the sons of the Duke of Langford were tall, handsome, broad-shouldered men with auburn hair and blue eyes. Sebastian was the tallest. Robert the wittiest. Randolph was acknowledged as the handsomest, James the most adventurous, and Alan the smartest. But he was the eldest, and the heir.
For as long as he could remember, Nathaniel had felt the weight of his destiny. The others said it was a burden to have everything done ahead of them, but he’d felt the onus of being the pattern, setting up the expectations, being the son visitors scrutinized the most. He would be the next duke; he must show he was worthy. Thus, he kept a tight rein on his wilder impulses. Instead, he was the one who came to the rescue when one of his brothers went too far, kicking up a lark.
And so now, he did not slam the empty wardrobe shut, but simply closed it. He would leave it to his valet to straighten this out. He wanted hot water for washing, and then clothes, and then breakfast. He went to ring for Cates, and discovered that the bell rope had been removed. He could see the wire to which it had been connected, near the ceiling, twelve feet up. It must have taken two or three of his brothers to reach so high.
For a moment he just stood there, staring at it. This final touch would be Robert’s idea, no doubt. He’d always been the most ingenious, the brother who added the crowning climax to a prank. Robert would be the one to set the others guffawing—describing their elder brother slinking through the corridors of the Earl of Moreley’s house wrapped in a wolf skin, like some sort of demented ancient Celt. Even Nathaniel had to smile at the picture. How would Violet’s fierce stickler of a grandmother like that? And all the other near and distant relations visiting for the wedding? He’d barely met most of them. Perhaps he’d twine some ivy from outside the window in his hair and attempt a Gaelic war cry.
Nathaniel laughed. Truth to tell, it was a splendid prank, unfolding like a puzzle box upon its hapless victim. All that remained was for him to wiggle out of the trap so cunningly set.
He eyed the windows and considered pulling down some of his almost-mother-in-law’s elaborate draperies to wrap about himself. But one panel would trail behind him like a coronation robe. The picture was little better than the wolf skin. Perhaps he would just wait until Cates arrived on his own. It couldn’t be too much longer. In fact, judging by the sunlight, his valet ought to have appeared well before now. Where the devil was he?
As if in answer to this thought, there was a knock at the door.
The voice was the last he expected. “Violet?”
“Are you all right? James said you needed to speak to me most urgent—” The door opened, and Nathaniel’s promised bride looked around the panels. “Oh!” Her mouth dropped open.
Nathaniel—stark naked, next to a bed sporting only a rumpled wolf skin—braced for a shriek, a shocked retreat, babbled apologies. But Violet just looked at him. Indeed, it seemed as if she couldn’t tear her eyes away. He could almost feel her gaze traveling along his skin, as if it left trails of warmth. He saw something stir in those gray eyes, something he’d never observed before, and his body began to respond to the possibility of much more than he’d expected from his suitable marriage. Respond all too eagerly.
Nathaniel moved over behind the bed. “My brothers’ idea of a joke,” he said with a gesture toward the wolf skin.
Violet blinked. Color flooded her cheeks, and she looked away. “How did they…?” Her voice was rather choked.
“They are endlessly inventive. They stole my clothes as well. Would you have someone send Cates to me? I would ring but”—he pointed to the bell wire—“they were quite thorough.”
Violet glanced at the denuded wire, swallowed, and gave a quick nod. “Of course.” In the next instant, she was gone.
“Well, well,” murmured Nathaniel to the wolf. “That was interesting.”
His days of being capable of interest long past, the wolf made no reply.
Nathaniel has some very enterprising brothers, to be entered to win a copy of HEIR TO THE DUKE tell us the trick played on you, or if you’re the “inventive” type, what you played on someone else.
About Jane Ashford
Jane Ashford discovered Georgette Heyer in junior high school and was captivated by the glittering world and witty language of Regency England. That delight led her to study English literature and travel widely in Britain and Europe. Her historical and contemporary romances have been published in Sweden, Italy, England, Denmark, France, Russia, Latvia, Slovenia, and Spain, as well as the U.S. Twenty-six of her new and backlist Regency romances are being published by Sourcebooks. Jane has been nominated for a Career Achievement Award by RT Book Reviews. She is currently rather nomadic.
About HEIR TO THE DUKE
Book 1 of The Duke’s Sons series
From bestselling author Jane Ashford comes a brand new series of sparkling Regency Romance
Life is predictable for a Duke’s first son
As eldest son of the Duke of Langford, Nathaniel Gresham sees his arranged marriage to Lady Violet Devere as just another obligation to fulfill—highly suitable, if unexciting. But as Violet sets out to transform herself from dowdy wallflower to dazzling young duchess-to-be, proper Nathaniel sets out to prove he’s a match for his new bride’s vivacity and daring.
Or so he once thought…
Oppressed by her family all her life, Lady Violet can’t wait to enjoy the freedom of being a married woman. But then Violet learns her family’s sordid secret, and she’s faced with an impossible choice—does she tell Nathaniel and risk losing him, or does she hide it and live a lie?