The Postilion (The Masqueraders #2) - S.M. LaViolette

Chapter One


November 1811


enedicta Elizabeth Norah Winslow de Montfort, tenth Duchess of Wake, tiptoed quietly—as quietly as it was possible to do wearing top boots—toward the servant staircase.

The house was silent except for the settling of ancient timbers, as it should be at three in the morning. The only occupants—other than servants—were Benna’s cousin Michael and his loathsome friend, Viscount Fenwick.

Life had changed drastically in the two weeks since her brother David’s death.

Not only did she miss David—although she had seen little enough of him in the three years since he’d inherited the title—but her happy, predictable routine had been smashed to flinders thanks to the arrival of her cousin and now legal guardian, Michael de Montfort, the Earl of Norland.

Michael had taken control of Wake House a scant two weeks ago but already his changes were profound—not to mention unwelcome.

He’d begun replacing servants with people he’d brought from his estate in Northumberland. Not just footmen and grooms, but old family retainers like Mrs. Hotchkiss, the housekeeper, and Clavering, the butler.

Benna scarcely saw a familiar face as she walked the house and grounds.

And now, ominously, Michael was making noises about replacing Old Tom, the stablemaster—a man who’d been more like a fond uncle to Benna than a servant. Tom had grown up on the estate and had once run barefoot and wild with Benna’s own father when the duke had been a lad.

To think of Tom not being part of her life was simply unbearable.

The other change Michael had imposed had to do with Benna, herself.

Ever since Benna could remember she’d been left to her own devices. And she liked it that way.

When it came to her doting father, Benna had needed to exert minimal effort to twist him around her finger. While the duke might have wished that the only daughter of his beloved wife had resembled that deceased beauty more than his own pale, tall, gangly person, he’d never made Benna feel that she was a disappointment to him.

Because horses had been the duke’s only passion after the death of his wife, he found nothing amiss in Benna’s desire to spend more time in the stables than in the schoolroom.

Since the age of twelve—after Benna had saved her father’s favorite hunter by prudently and competently fomenting the poor beast’s injured hock—the duke had all but put her in charge of the stables during his frequent absences from Wake House.

David, who’d inherited the unenviable task of running herd on Benna after their father’s death, had not been nearly as sanguine about her breeches, string of fifteen slapping hunters, or the fact that her closest—nay, her only—companion was Wake House’s crusty old stable master, Tom Barnum.

“Father gave you your head for far too long and now you are unmanageable, Benna,” David had shouted that last time he’d come home to visit, only three months before he’d died in a freak accident hunting with the Quorn.

“I warn you, Benna, I won’t be ruled by your tantrums like Papa was. You had better prepare to find yourself a husband next year in London, my girl, because I shan’t have you haunting the stables in your ridiculous garb and behaving like another one of my grooms after I am married.”

David’s betrothed. Lady Louisa—a so-called diamond of the first water—was a woman Benna had never met.

When Benna had asked when she would meet the nonpareil, her brother’s answer had crushed her. “I’m too embarrassed to bring her for a visit and expose her to your hoydenish behavior. You’ve run wild for a long time, Benna, but I shall break you to bridle by the time I bring my wife home.”

Even at the time Benna had deeply regretted throwing the porcelain statuette at his head. Not because she had liked the gruesome thing—a maudlin rendering of a goose girl with her adoring gaggle—but because that blazing row was the last memory she had of David.

Now he was gone, and she was the head of their ever-shrinking family.

Thanks to an ancient and unusual remainder in the Wake dukedom’s royal patent, Benna had inherited the title of duchess from her brother, although all the subsidiary titles had passed to her cousin Michael, Benna’s heir presumptive in addition to being her guardian.

It took less than a week of daily exposure to Michael’s reign to discover that he was not put off by either her temper or her stubbornness.

They’d first locked horns the day after David’s funeral, when Benna had burst into her cousin’s study—which should have been her study after