Lord Stratford Sweet smirked. “It’s big, isn’t it?”
His companion turned obediently to look. “I’ve seen bigger.”
“I’d like to know where,” Stratford muttered, and then sat back with a grunt.
“It is impressive,” Mr. Dane Winston offered with an indifferent shrug.
Stratford pursed his lips in annoyance at the faint praise for so grand a view. “Ravensworth Palace is one of the largest homes in all of England. You could get lost in there on the first day.”
“I’ll do my best not to,” Winston murmured, a faint twist of condescension hovering on the fellow’s lips. “But if I do, I will ask for directions, or perhaps a map.”
Stratford had been forced to hire a replacement for his usual valet, Cuthbert, who’d been injured at the first inn they’d stopped at on his journey home. Cuthbert couldn’t have carried out his duties with a broken wing and banged up head from his tumble down the staircase, and Stratford couldn’t function without a valet to clean up after him. That way led to chaos and tardiness his brother the duke would tease him about. Although this fellow was young, Dane Winston had been eager to escape the inn where he’d been slaving away underpaid, for a better position and wages. Even if it was only to be a temporary position.
Winston was hard to figure out and harder to impress.
Stratford had taken him on despite only having the innkeepers word he was a sensible and dedicated worker and would give him no trouble. But as a traveling companion, he left a lot to be desired.
Winston’s indifference to the things that mattered had begun to irk the longer they were trapped inside the slow-moving carriage. Stratford talked a lot, but Winston seemed to prefer their journey be conducted in near silence. It had already been an hour since their last real conversation. Stratford was about ready to toss Winston out to ride on the back of the carriage with the grooms. However, given the man’s small stature, there was an obvious risk he’d lose the valet at any rough spot along the road.
He regarded Winston with a critical eye, yet again wondering if he’d made a mistake plucking him out for the plum role. Stratford was the younger brother of the new Duke of Ravenswood, after all. But given that Winston had performed all the duties expected of a valet exceptionally well—save for conversation—he had little choice but to keep him until Cuthbert recovered and appeared at Ravenswood Palace. If only Winston had a more outgoing personality, Stratford would be entirely satisfied with his new employee.
He sighed and set his preoccupation for getting a rise out of his new employee aside until later. Coming home would be interesting. It was the first time he’d ever looked forward to it, that he could ever remember. The long-suffering servants should be happy about it too. “You can trust the butler to set you right. That man knows every nook and cranny in the place. He rose through the ranks from pot boy. As for the other servants, I could not say who you might rely upon.”
Winston nodded. “I will be guided by your wisdom.”
“That would be a nice change. I told Cuthbert to watch that step and he still blundered into a fall,” Stratford complained. “Cuthbert surely must have noticed the wobble going up.”
But on the trip down the next morning, he took a tumble and had broken bone. Quite an unsettling howl he’d made, too. By midday, Stratford had known he had to leave the moaning servant behind. It was not every day your beloved elder brother hosted the family for the first time since becoming the Duke of Ravenswood. Stratford was already late.
He turned to take in the view of his ancestral home as they drew nearer. Ravenswood Palace, deep in the heart of Somerset, was a truly spectacular building. Four floors in total, thirty-five bedchambers. Nestled on a slight rise of land. It commanded a view of many miles in every direction.
But best of all was what would be found inside. He could not wait to see all those smug faces in the family wiped clean when they were denied the privilege of the new duke’s favor. Their hands outstretched and smiles imploring, and then those same greedy hands closing over nothing but air as their smiles became a mere memory. It was their own damn fault that Ravenswood would never give any one of them a penny. They should have been kinder to him all along, rather than pandering to the late Duke of Ravenswood’s capricious whims because he preferred to foster competitiveness for his attention.
Stratford’s elder brother, Algernon Sweet, sixth Duke of Ravenswood, did not suffer fools. And the family had a legion of those. He would have to be on his guard, and Stratford had counted on Cuthbert keeping his ear to the ground in the servants’ hall for any potential signs of trouble. Without Cuthbert’s insights, he would have to face the family at large with more of a disadvantage than usual.
But Stratford had made the best of a bad situation. The inn really had only the one decent footman who had dared apply for the position before Stratford had decided he even had need of a replacement. Mr. Dane Winston had seemed the only logical choice. Quite bold, too. He’d quickly gathered up Stratford’s things strewn about the room, spoke with his moaning valet, and promised Stratford would not regret his hire.
And he had not, for the first days, but he would wait to pass judgement until he’d spent a few days at Ravenswood. That would surely be a test of his new valet’s mettle.
When the carriage finally stopped at the front of Ravenswood Palace, he bounded out and rushed toward the massive carved old entrance doors, leaving the servants to do what they normally did when he wasn’t around. It was not strictly a palace, Ravenswood, but the name had stuck, and Father of course would never have diminished the family’s importance by changing it back to merely calling it an overly large manor house.
The Ravenswood butler stepped out the doors before he could reach them, beaming a smile of welcome. “Lord Stratford. Welcome home.”
Desperately Seeking Seduction releases April 18. Click here to find a pre-order link.