Dukes Prefer Blondes (The Dressmakers #4) by Loretta Chase

Prologue

Muse make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed

And genius versatile.

—­The Odyssey of Homer, translated by William Cowper, 1791

Eton College

Autumn 1817

To begin with, he was obnoxious.

Oliver Radford’s schoolfellows didn’t need more than a day or two after his arrival to discover this.

They didn’t need much time, either, to administer the nickname “Raven,” though why they chose it was less obvious. Maybe his thick, black hair and too-­piercing grey eyes gave them the idea, or maybe it was his deep, husky voice, better suited to a grown man than a boy of ten. Or maybe they referred to his nose, although this, while by no means small, wasn’t as beaky as many others.

Still, he did always have the nose in question in a book, and some—­one of his paternal cousins, in fact—­said that young Radford reminded him of “a raven poking into the guts of a carcass.”

The cousin failed to mention or forgot or perhaps didn’t know—­not being observant or clever—­how extremely intelligent ravens were, for birds. Oliver Radford was extremely intelligent, for a boy. This was one reason he found the books vastly preferable to his schoolmates.

Especially his unbelievably stupid cousins . . .

At present he leaned against a wall at the edge of the playing fields, well away from the others, who were choosing sides for cricket. Unlikely and unwilling to be chosen, but required to be present at the character-­building proceedings, he had his nose in the pages of Homer’s Odyssey.

A shadow fell over Oliver and a fat hand with grimy fingernails covered the page of Greek script. He did not look up. He was, like his father, more-­than-­average observant. He recognized the hand. He had good reason to.

“Here he is, gentlemen,” said Cousin Bernard. “Spawn of the family’s laboring branch: our Raven.”

Laboring was meant to disparage Oliver’s father. Since the eldest son inherited everything, the others and their offspring had to find rich wives and/or places in “gentlemanly” professions like the military, the church, or the law. George Radford, son of a duke’s younger son, had elected to become a barrister. He was successful as well as happily married.

All that Oliver had observed told him the other Radfords had extremely small brains and marriages the antithesis of his parents’.

That a boy of ten knew what antithesis meant was another reason to hate him.

He didn’t help matters.

“Naturally you find the law laborious,” Oliver said. “Firstly, it wants a mastery of Latin, and you barely comprehend English. Secondly—­”

Bernard cuffed him lightly. “I’d hold my tongue if I was you, little Raven. Unless there’s tales you want told.”

“Firstly, if you were me,” Oliver corrected. “Since you are patently not, you require the subjunctive. Secondly, tales is plural. Therefore you want the third person plural of the infinitive to be. The correct verb form is are.”

Bernard cuffed him less lightly. “Best not to mind him too much,” he told the small crowd of his disciples, some of them cousins. “No manners. Can’t help himself. Mother not quite the thing, you know. Bit of a tart. But we don’t talk about it much.”

George Radford’s family had made a fuss of some kind when he married, at age fifty, a divorced lady. But Oliver didn’t care what they thought. His father had prepared him for the vicissitudes of Eton and the less-­than-­likable relatives he could expect to encounter there.

“You’re contradicting yourself,” Oliver said. “Again.”

“No, I’m not, you little fart.”

“You said we don’t talk about her but you did.”

“Do you mind, little Raven?”

“Not a bit,” Oliver said. “At least when my mother pushed me into the world, she contrived to keep my brain intact. The evidence shows the opposite result in your case.”

Bernard yanked him away from the wall and threw him down. The book fell from Oliver’s hands and his head rang and he was aware of his heartbeat increasing and a wild panic. He shoved these sensations to the very back of his mind, and pretended the feelings were miles away. He pretended that what was happening to him happened to somebody quite separate, that what he felt was felt by another self, whom he observed with detachment.

The panic vanished, the world came back into balance, and he could think.

He rose onto his elbows. “I’m so sorry,” he said.

“You ought to be,” Bernard said. “And I hope it’s a lesson—­”

“I should have read it as ‘in an agony to redeem himself,’ rather than ‘anxious to save himself.’ ”

Bernard looked blank, not an unusual expression for him.

“Odysseus,” Oliver said patiently. He rose, picked up the book, and brushed away the dirt. “He strove in vain for his fellows, whose own witlessness destroyed them. The witless destroy what they don’t understand.”

Bernard’s face got very red. “Witless? I’ll teach you witless, you insolent little turd.”

He leapt on Oliver, knocked him down, and started punching.

The fight ended for Oliver with a black eye and a bloody nose and ringing ears.

This wasn’t the first time. It wasn’t the last. But more of that anon.

Royal Gardens, Vauxhall

July 1822

Oliver was baffled, an unusual condition for him.

His experience with women was limited. Mothers didn’t count. His stepsisters were somebody else’s mothers already.

The Earl of Longmore’s sister Lady Clara was, she had announced, eight and eleven-­twelfths years old.

Though nursemaids abounded to look after the dizzying numbers of young Fairfaxes, Clara, according to Longmore, was usually let to tag after the boys. Her brothers treated her like a pet, perhaps because she was the first girl after three boys, and something of a curiosity. Then, too, the young Duke of Clevedon, whose guardian Longmore’s father was, doted on her.

But tonight’s planned activity was not for girls. Cle­vedon was moving away, gesturing to Longmore to follow. The latter gave him a nod and told his little sister, “You’re not allowed to go in the boat with us.”

She kicked him in the ankle. This only made her brother chuckle, but she must have hurt her toe, because her lower lip trembled.

Then, for reasons unknown, Oliver heard himself saying, “Lady Clara, have you ever seen the Heptaplasiesoptron?”

He was aware of Longmore throwing him a puzzled glance but more aware of the sister, who turned a sulky blue gaze upward to meet his. “What is it?”

“It’s a sort of kaleidoscope room,” Oliver said. “It’s filled with looking glasses, and these reflect twining serpents and a fountain and palm trees and lamps of different colors and other things. It’s over there.” He pointed to the building containing the Rotunda and the Pillared Saloon. “Shall I take you to see it?”

While Oliver was talking, Longmore slipped away.

“I want to go in the boat,” she said.

“I don’t,” Oliver said.

She looked about and noticed her brother’s back retreating from view as he hurried to catch up with Clevedon. Her gaze came back to Oliver, eyes narrowed accusingly now.

“Your brother doesn’t want you along,” he said. “He doesn’t want to worry about your being sick or falling out of the boat and drowning.”

“I won’t,” she said. “I’m never sick.”

“You will be if Longmore’s rowing,” he said. “Why do you think I’m not going?”

She said, “That rhymes.”

“So it does,” he said. “Shall I show you the Heptaplasiesoptron? I’ll wager anything you can’t say it. You’re only a girl, and girls aren’t very clever.”

Her blue eyes flashed. “I can too say it!”

“Go ahead, then.”

She screwed up her eyes and mouth, concentrating. Her expression was so comical, he had all he could do not to laugh.

Longmore and Clevedon had come to Eton the year after Oliver arrived. Very much to his surprise, they made a friend of him. This was more or less in the way they made a pet of Lady Clara. They’d dubbed him Professor Raven, which they soon whittled down to Professor.

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