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The Duke's Perfect Wife

By:Jennifer Ashley

d down from the landau behind her. “Mrs. Mayhew, how delightful to see you,” he heard her say. He entered his house to see her holding out her hands to Hart’s housekeeper.

The two exchanged greetings, and were talking about, of all things, recipes. Eleanor’s housekeeper, now retired, apparently had instructed her to obtain Mrs. Mayhew’s recipe for lemon cakes.

Eleanor started up the stairs, and Hart nearly threw his hat and coat at Franklin as he followed. He was about to order Eleanor into the front drawing room when a large Scotsman in a threadbare kilt, loose shirt, and paint-spattered boots came barreling down from the top floor.

“Hope you don’t mind, Hart,” Mac Mackenzie said. “I brought the hellions and fixed myself a place to paint in one of your spare bedrooms. Isabella’s got the decorators in, and you wouldn’t believe the racket—” Mac broke off, a look of joy spreading across his face. “Eleanor Ramsay, by all that’s holy! What the devil are you doing here?” He raced down the last of the stairs to the landing and swept Eleanor off her feet into a bear hug.

Eleanor kissed Mac, second youngest in the Mackenzie family, soundly on the cheek. “Hello, Mac. I’ve come to irritate your older brother.”

“Good. He needs a bit of irritating.” Mac set Eleanor down again, eyes glinting with his grin. “Come up and see the babies when you’re done, El. I’m not painting them, because they won’t hold still; I’m putting finishing touches on a horse picture for Cam. Night-Blooming Jasmine, his new champion.”

“Yes, I heard she’d done well.” Eleanor rose on her tiptoes and gave Mac another kiss on the cheek. “That’s for Isabella. And Aimee, Eileen, and Robert.” Kiss, kiss, kiss. Mac absorbed it all with an idiotic smile.

Hart leaned on the railing. “Will we get to this proposition sometime today?”

“Proposition?” Mac asked, eyes lighting. “Now, that sounds interesting.”

“Shut it, Mac,” Hart said.

Screaming erupted from on high—shrill, desperate, Armageddon-has-come screaming. Mac grinned and jogged back up the stairs.

“Papa’s coming, hellions,” he called. “If you’re good, you can have Auntie Eleanor for tea.”

The shrieking continued, unabated, until Mac reached the top floor, dodged into the room from whence it issued, and slammed the door. The noise instantly died, though they could still hear Mac’s rumbling voice.

Eleanor sighed. “I always knew Mac would make a good father. Shall we?”

She turned and headed up to the next floor and the study without waiting for Hart. At one time, she’d become well acquainted with all the rooms in his house, and she apparently hadn’t forgotten her way around.

The study hadn’t changed at all, Eleanor noted when she entered. The same dark paneling covered the walls, and bookcases filled with what looked like the same books climbed to the high ceiling. The huge desk that had belonged to Hart’s father still reposed in the middle of the room.

The same carpet covered the floor, though a different hound dozed by the fire. This was Ben, if she remembered correctly, a son of Hart’s old dog, Beatrix, who’d passed on a few months after her engagement to Hart had ended. The news of Beatrix’s death had nearly broken her heart.

Ben didn’t open his eyes as they entered, and his gentle snore blended with the crackle of the fire on the hearth.

Hart touched Eleanor’s elbow to guide her across the room. She wished he wouldn’t, because the steel strength of his fingers made her want to melt, and she needed to maintain her resolve.

If all went well today, she’d not have to be close to him again, but she had to make the first approach in private. A letter could have gone too easily into the wrong hands, or be lost by a careless secretary, or burned unopened by Hart.

Hart dragged an armchair to his desk, moving it as though it weighed nothing. Eleanor knew better, though, as she sat on it. The heavily carved chair was as solid as a boulder.

Hart took the desk chair, his kilt moving as he sat, showing sinewy strength above his knees. Anyone believing a kilt unmanly had never seen Hart Mackenzie in one.

Eleanor touched the desk’s smooth top. “You know, Hart, if you plan to be the first minister of the nation, you might give a thought to changing the furniture. It’s a bit out of date.”

“Bugger the furniture. What is this problem that made you drag yourself and your father down from the wilds of Scotland?”

“I am worried about you. You’ve worked so hard for this, and I can’t bear to think of what it would do to you if you lost everything. I’ve lain awake and pondered what to do for a week. I know we parted acrimoniously, but that was a long time ago, and many things have changed, especially for you. I still care about you, Hart, whatever you may believe, and I was distressed to think that you might have to go into hiding if this came out.”

“Into hiding?” He stared at her. “What are you talking about? My past is no secret to anyone. I’m a blackguard and a sinner, and everyone knows it. These days, that’s almost an asset to being a politician.”

“Possibly, but this might humiliate you. You’d be a laughingstock, and that would certainly be a setback.”

His gaze became sharp. Gracious, he looked like his father when he did that. The old duke had been handsome, but a monster, with nasty, cold eyes that made you know you were a toad beneath his heel. Hart, in spite of it all, had a warmth that his father had lacked.

“Eleanor, cease babbling and tell me what this is all about.”

“Ah, yes. It’s time you saw, I think.” Eleanor dug into a pocket inside her coat and withdrew a folded piece of pasteboard. She laid this on the desk in front of Hart, and opened it.

Hart went still.

The object inside the folded card was a photograph. It was a full-length picture of a younger Hart, shot in profile. Hart’s body had been a little slimmer then but still well muscled. In the photograph, he rested his buttocks against the edge of