The Duke Goes Down (The Duke Hunt #1) - Sophie Jordan Page 0,3

to hard silences, resentful of their parents forcing them to spend time together and vexed when things did not go according to his wishes.

“You mean the vicar’s daughter is not your fate then?” a voice trembling with mirth asked.

Imogen stiffened where she crouched. They spoke of her?

Masculine laughter broke out.

Hot mortification washed over her, but she strained for Penning’s response just the same, curious to hear if he would heighten her humiliation or alleviate it.

If he would be a decent human or not.

“Amusing,” he said, “but no.” Despite his words there was no amusement in his voice. Only hard denial. Stinging rejection that should not sting because she should not care.

She took a bracing breath.

Of course, he would not agree that their fates were entwined. That would be absurd. A vicar’s daughter and a future duke should not even be mentioned in the same sentence, and yet here, among this group of lads, it had somehow happened.

It had happened and she did not like it one little bit.

“Come now, Penning. Once you get beyond all the ruffles and bows, she’s a fetching lass.”

“I do not see it,” he countered.

The heat crept higher in her face.

“Indeed,” another voice seconded. “I would not mind exploring beneath all those ruffles and bows.”

The burn of humiliation now reached the tips of her ears.

“You lads are debauched. She’s a child,” Penning blustered. “And a sanctimonious one at that.”

She should feel grateful in his defense, except she did not appreciate being called a child. Or sanctimonious.

“She’s woman enough for me. And I would not be required to put a bag over her head during procreation like the chit my father wishes me to wed.”

“No, but you would need to put a bag over her personality,” Penning rejoined.


She flinched, feeling their laughter as keenly as the cut of a knife.

She did not know what offended her more: Penning with his clear abhorrence of her or his blue-blooded friends with their lewd comments. It was difficult to decide.

“Come now, Penning. She’s a fair lass and there likely isn’t much feminine enticement to be had in this little backwater. No brothels here, to be sure.”

“Unfortunately,” Amos inserted.

The voice continued as though Amos had not spoken. “All your visits home for holiday and she’s right down the road. Mightily convenient. You’ve never been tempted?”

Tempted? Outrage simmered through her. As though she were free for the picking. For his picking.

She had never rubbed on well with Penning. He never appreciated being stuck with her on those afternoons Papa visited the duke. He’d made his displeasure abundantly clear, treating all her attempts at conversation with scorn. And now she knew why.

You would need to put a bag over her personality.

His next words only further confirmed his enduring dislike of her. “She might not be hideous to behold, but other things matter.”

Might not be hideous to behold? Such a ringing endorsement. That was as much credit as he could grant her? Wretch.

“And what would those other things be, Penning? What is more important than a wife who is fair of face and not a chore to bed?”

“I can think of little else that matters more than possessing a lovely wife,” another voice seconded.

Possessing? Is that what these lads thought? That a wife was a possession? Papa did not think like that. Is that what Penning thought? She wanted to believe gentlemen did not think this way, but she knew the reality. Men controlled the world and women had to fight and claw their way for a foothold in it. She’d accompanied Papa on many a house call to visit a downtrodden wife, crushed beneath the boot of a domineering husband.

Their neighbor to the east was one such example. Mrs. Henry had five children and a brutal husband who was never satisfied with any of her wifely efforts. She was frequently “falling down.” Mama often tended to her after these mishaps—beneath the critical eye of her husband, of course. As though he feared his wife might tell Mama the true cause of her accidents.

Imogen held her breath, waiting for Penning’s response, her shoulders tightening to the point of discomfort.

Penning chuckled lightly. “One’s disposition must be considered. A wife will not stay young forever. Looks fade and then you’re left staring across the dining table at someone you can hopefully abide.”

“And you cannot abide Miss Bates?”

“Let us just say she has the disposition of a rotten lemon.”

Imogen pulled back as though struck.

Everyone laughed. Even Amos, and she had only ever been solicitous to him.

Not just