The Duke Goes Down (The Duke Hunt #1) - Sophie Jordan

Chapter One

A garden party, 1838

The day was bright. The weather perfect. The guests attired in brilliant colors that seemed to celebrate the occasion, as though the heavens wished to shine down on the birthday of the privileged and lauded heir to the Duke of Penning.

But it might as well have been a funeral to Imogen Bates.

There was no pleasure to be had for her. She smoothed a trembling hand over her ruffled skirt. It was a new frock. Mama had insisted on the extravagance since it was to be such a special occasion. Mama’s words. Such a special occasion. Papa went as far as to proclaim it an honor.

Other far more apt descriptors leapt to Imogen’s mind. None of them flattering. She would have preferred to stay at home among her books or visit one of her friends in the village—all girls who were never invited up to the duke’s grand house on the hill. Lucky them.

Oh, why couldn’t I be one of them now instead of stuck here?

Imogen wore a matching blue and pink bow in her hair that was ridiculous. A great monstrosity at the back of her head that threatened her very balance. Mama was trapped under the delusion that Imogen, at ten and five, was still three years old. She would not yet permit Imogen to wear her hair up off her neck as most of the girls in attendance this afternoon did. Other than a few thin plaits coiled atop her head, her hair hung loose down her back.

Mama called her lovely. Papa said she looked like a princess.

Imogen knew the truth. She looked more like an enraged peacock in full fan.

There were dozens of people in attendance. All close friends of the duke’s family. Bluebloods. Titled. Wealthy. Gentlemen with jeweled signet rings and ladies in tea dresses that far outshone any gown her mother had ever donned—or, for that matter, any gown Imogen would ever don. They were modest people rubbing elbows with the crème de la crème of the ton.

At least Imogen and her family were not invited to the evening festivities. She would be spared that wretchedness. She did not have to sit down to dinner with any of these people and make conversation with whomever sat beside her. She did not have to feel inadequate in her modest and juvenile attire. She did not have to suffer dancing among them—or even worse. Not dancing. Either scenario would be a veritable punishment.

The garden party predominantly consisted of young people. Naturally. As it was a weeklong house party to celebrate the birthday of his lordship, the heir apparent, the guest list was abundant with his friends.

Imogen started across the lawn toward Mama who was chatting with several of the heavily powder-faced dames. Her mother spotted her coming. Of course. She had not taken her gaze off Imogen for very long since they had arrived and Mama thrust her away like the proverbial bird from its nest, forcing her to socialize with those of her own age.

Imogen wasn’t normally shy or reticent, but the young people here all touted old and renowned titles after their names. The young gentlemen went to Eton with Penning and the young ladies all took their curtsies at Almack’s. Imogen was achingly aware that she was not one of them.

As she advanced, Mama gave a hard and swift shake of her head in a clear warning that Imogen should not join her with the matrons.

Imogen stopped, frowning. She was aware that Mama wanted her fraternizing with the young lordling and his friends, no matter how vast the gap between them.

No matter that Imogen would rather rub shoulders with a pack of rabid hyenas. Hyenas would at least acknowledge her.

Sighing deeply, she turned back and obediently ambled through the garden where a game of croquet was being played out.

She stood to the side watching, trying not to feel obtrusive as a group of young ladies and gentlemen played a lively game, whacking their mallets and laughing merrily. Unfortunately the longer she stood there, watching, being ignored, the more awkward she felt.

After several minutes of that misery, she decided to move along. Clearly not back toward her mother and the old dames where she was not welcome. She felt like a dinghy, cast adrift, lost at sea.

It really was a dreadful day.

She looked around helplessly before settling on the quietly beckoning pond as a potential refuge. She strolled toward its calm waters, stopping when she noticed a group of young men congregating