Home > The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister #1)

The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister #1)
Author: Courtney Milan

Chapter One

Leicester, November, 1863


True, he’d retreated to the upstairs library of the old Guildhall, far enough from the crowd below that the noise of the ensemble had faded to a distant rumble. True, nobody else was about. Also true: He stood behind thick curtains of blue-gray velvet, which shielded him from view. And he’d had to move the heavy davenport of brown-buttoned leather to get there.

But he’d done all that not to hide himself, but because—and this was a key point in his rather specious train of logic—in this centuries-old structure of plaster and timberwork, only one of the panes in the windows opened, and that happened to be the one secreted behind the sofa.

So here he stood, cigarillo in hand, the smoke trailing out into the chilly autumn air. He wasn’t hiding; it was simply a matter of preserving the aging books from fumes.

He might even have believed himself, if only he smoked.

Still, through the wavy panes of aging glass, he could make out the darkened stone of the church directly across the way. Lamplight cast unmoving shadows on the pavement below. A pile of handbills had once been stacked against the doors, but an autumn breeze had picked them up and scattered them down the street, driving them into puddles.

He was making a mess. A goddamned glorious mess. He smiled and tapped the end of his untouched cigarillo against the window opening, sending ashes twirling to the paving stones below.

The quiet creak of a door opening startled him. He turned from the window at the corresponding scritch of floorboards. Someone had come up the stairs and entered the adjoining room. The footsteps were light—a woman’s, perhaps, or a child’s. They were also curiously hesitant. Most people who made their way to the library in the midst of a musicale had a reason to do so. A clandestine meeting, perhaps, or a search for a missing family member.

From his vantage point behind the curtains, Robert could only see a small slice of the library. Whoever it was drew closer, walking hesitantly. She was out of sight—somehow he was sure that she was a woman—but he could hear the soft, prowling fall of her feet, pausing every so often as if to examine the surroundings.

She didn’t call out a name or make a determined search. It didn’t sound as if she were looking for a hidden lover. Instead, her footsteps circled the perimeter of the room.

It took Robert half a minute to realize that he’d waited too long to announce himself. “Aha!” he could imagine himself proclaiming, springing out from behind the curtains. “I was admiring the plaster. Very evenly laid back there, did you know?”

She would think he was mad. And so far, nobody yet had come to that conclusion. So instead of speaking, he dropped his cigarillo out the window. It tumbled end over end, orange tip glowing, until it landed in a puddle and extinguished itself.

All he could see of the room was a half-shelf of books, the back of the sofa, and a table next to it on which a chess set had been laid out. The game was in progress; from what little he remembered of the rules, black was winning. Whoever it was drew nearer, and Robert shrank back against the window.

She crossed into his field of vision.

She wasn’t one of the young ladies he’d met in the crowded hall earlier. Those had all been beauties, hoping to catch his eye. And she—whoever she was—was not a beauty. Her dark hair was swept into a no-nonsense knot at the back of her neck. Her lips were thin and her nose was sharp and a bit on the long side. She was dressed in a dark blue gown trimmed in ivory—no lace, no ribbons, just simple fabric. Even the cut of her gown bordered on the severe side: waist pulled in so tightly he wondered how she could breathe, sleeves marching from her shoulders to her wrists without an inch of excess fabric to soften the picture.

She didn’t see Robert standing behind the curtain. She had set her head to one side and was eyeing the chess set the way a member of the Temperance League might look at a cask of brandy: as if it were an evil to be stamped out with prayer and song—and failing that, with martial law.

She took one halting step forward, then another. Then, she reached into the silk bag that hung around her wrist and retrieved a pair of spectacles.

Glasses should have made her look more severe. But as soon as she put them on, her gaze softened.

He’d read her wrongly. Her eyes hadn’t been narrowed in scorn; she’d been squinting. It hadn’t been severity he saw in her gaze but something else entirely—something he couldn’t quite make out. She reached out and picked up a black knight, turning it around, over and over. He could see nothing about the pieces that would merit such careful attention. They were solid wood, carved with indifferent skill. Still, she studied it, her eyes wide and luminous.

Then, inexplicably, she raised it to her lips and kissed it.

Robert watched in frozen silence. It almost felt as if he were interrupting a tryst between a woman and her lover. This was a lady who had secrets, and she didn’t want to share them.

The door in the far room creaked as it opened once more.

The woman’s eyes grew wide and wild. She looked about frantically and dove over the davenport in her haste to hide, landing in an ignominious heap two feet away from him. She didn’t see Robert even then; she curled into a ball, yanking her skirts behind the leather barrier of the sofa, breathing in shallow little gulps.

Good thing he’d moved the davenport back half a foot earlier. She never would have fit the great mass of her skirts behind it otherwise.

Her fist was still clenched around the chess piece; she shoved the knight violently under the sofa.

This time, a heavier pair of footfalls entered the room.

“Minnie?” said a man’s voice. “Miss Pursling? Are you here?”

Her nose scrunched and she pushed back against the wall. She made no answer.

“Gad, man.” Another voice that Robert didn’t recognize—young and slightly slurred with drink. “I don’t envy you that one.”

“Don’t speak ill of my almost-betrothed,” the first voice said. “You know she’s perfect for me.”

“That timid little rodent?”

“She’ll keep a good home. She’ll see to my comfort. She’ll manage the children, and she won’t complain about my mistresses.” There was a creak of hinges—the unmistakable sound of someone opening one of the glass doors that protected the bookshelves.

“What are you doing, Gardley?” the drunk man asked. “Looking for her among the German volumes? I don’t think she’d fit.” That came with an ugly laugh.

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