The Duke Goes Down (The Duke Hunt #1) - Sophie Jordan Page 0,1

at the edge, initially obscured behind the large oak with bowing branches. They skipped stones, laughing and chatting congenially.

At the center of them stood Penning’s unmistakable form. He cut a dashing figure with his dark hair and sharply hewn profile. She recognized only one other person in the group. Amos Blankenship. Like the young duke-to-be, he was easy to identify, but for different reasons.

Amos Blankenship was blinding in his lime-green-and-gold jacket. Amos’s father possessed untold railway shares and his son reveled in his family’s wealth, oft tearing through the village in a flashy new phaeton. They might not possess title, but money like theirs paved the way for them and bought them position. The Blankenship family took pride in leading village society. Mrs. Blankenship was the epicenter of all social activity . . . and the town’s biggest gossip.

Imogen studied the group of young gentlemen undetected. The young Lord Penning was no longer boyish. All his softness was gone, replaced by hard edges—a fitting observation on this, the celebration of his eighteenth birthday. He was a man now. She looked down self-consciously at herself, fisting a handful of ruffles in disgust. Whilst she was an overdressed little girl.

He reminded her of one of the chiseled Greek gods at the British Museum she’d visited not very long ago. Except he was attired in clothes, of course. Just last summer she and her cousin Winifred had giggled and gawked at the naked statues longer than they ought to have done. Their mothers would not have approved, which only made them revel in their silliness. There was something to be said of being away from their mothers’ gimlet stares that brought out the ridiculous in them.

Deciding she could not stare at the young men forever and remain undetected, Imogen turned in a small circle, renewing her search for a place where she might take refuge. Her choices were limited. She could not return to the house where the older gentlemen assembled over their drinks and cigars. No one wanted to include her in croquet. Mama would not welcome her with the other matrons, and she dared not approach the urbane lads near the pond.

Her gaze arrested on the conservatory in the near distance. She lifted her skirts and walked briskly toward the building.

She sent a quick glance over her shoulder. Satisfied no one was observing her, she unlatched the door and slipped inside. Instantly the loamy smell of plants and vegetation assailed her. She inhaled deeply and started down a row, colorful flora on each side of her. She felt pleased with her resourcefulness. If she only had a book, she could spend out the remainder of the afternoon quite contentedly here.

She stopped before a pair of potted lemon trees, relishing the scent of citrus on the air. She reached out to stroke a well-nourished leaf. She was debating whether or not plucking one of the fruits would constitute stealing when she heard the creak of the conservatory door.

She whirled around, seeing them before they spotted her. Penning and his friends. Apparently they’d departed the pond and decided to invade her sanctuary. Monsters. Could she find no peace today?

With a muffled whimper, she dropped down before they could spot her and scurried under a table. It was undignified, but then so was she in this dress.

Imogen squeezed herself into the smallest ball possible, wishing she had the power of invisibility.

The voices grew louder, more raucous.

She slunk lower and buried her hot face in her knees. What had she done? She should have revealed herself once they entered the building and then pardoned herself from the conservatory. As simple as that.

Now she was trapped. Crouched beneath a table, cowering without a shred of dignity, praying the young gentlemen soon took their leave so that she might emerge.

Alas the muffled thud and shuffle of their footsteps came closer.

She hugged herself tighter.

There was the scratch of a match being struck.

Ah. So that’s what they were about. Evidently they did not wish to join their papas indoors for cigars, but would indulge among themselves.

“Is your father still keeping that opera singer?” one of them asked.

Imogen had a fairly good notion what he meant by “keeping.” She might be a vicar’s daughter, but she was not wholly ignorant on such matters. She read. She read a great deal. She devoured books her parents would not approve should they know of their content. And then there was Winifred in her life.

Imogen spent a few weeks with her London cousin