A Duke of Her Own

Page 15


“All I’m saying is that if you want to marry Villiers, you shouldn’t let him in your bedchamber to look at your combs—or anything else. That’s all I’m saying.”
“We were in love,” Eleanor repeated.
“He sneaked about, and did secret things with you,” Anne retorted. “How would you feel about him if you heard that he had been tupping one of the second footman’s daughters? You were a young girl, not old enough to know better.”
“You just don’t understand. We were both young. I was lucky to have loved like that for a time.” She said it stoutly, even though she didn’t really believe it.
Anne snorted. “I hope I’m never so lucky.”
Eleanor managed to summon up a crooked smile. “I won’t invite anyone into my chamber to examine my silver combs, I promise you that.” It was an easy enough promise to make.
She and Villiers had an utterly different sort of relationship in mind. If she and Gideon had married, they would have been like twigs caught in a forest fire. They had made love barely ten times, and she remembered every single time. Every single moment.
“Stop smiling like that,” Anne commanded. “Gideon is married, remember? Think about Villiers.”
“I was, actually,” Eleanor said.
“No, you weren’t,” Anne said sourly. “I’ve been your sister for eighteen years. I know what that daffy look means, and it has got nothing to do with the Duke of Villiers.”
“Do you really think that I’ve been worshipping at Gideon’s shrine?” Eleanor wrinkled her nose. “How wet I sound.”
“You were unlucky. He is a debaucher who took the first chance he could to leave you in the dust and marry the oh-so-pretty Ada.”
Eleanor bit her lip.
“I didn’t mean it like that!” Anne said hastily. “You’re pretty too, Eleanor.”
“In my own way.”
“It’s just that Ada has that heart-shaped face and seems so fragile. She’s like a fairy princess. Irresistible, for a man who loves to think of himself as a knight in shining armor.”
“She truly is fragile—and sweet,” Eleanor said. “I’m not, and I can’t pretend that I am.”
“Of course you’re not. And Gideon knows it now,” Anne said with unmistakable satisfaction.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that he’s tired of Ada and her fainting and coughing and carrying on. I saw it last time Mother took me there for tea and he stayed with us for barely a moment or two. I think he probably fell in love with the idea of saving her, poor fragile little darling that she was, but now he—”
“Don’t go on,” Eleanor said. “You’re making everything in my life, everything I care for, seem shabby and nasty. I know you don’t mean it, but I want you to stop now.”
The door bounced open again. “Girls! Don’t keep me waiting, if you please!” Their mother stood in the doorway, ringed by three maids. “Hobson, gather that lace shawl, if you please. Eleanor, hand the dog to Hobson; he can travel with the maids. Oyster may be a source for conversation, but I’d rather arrive without urine on my skirts.”
“We’ll be there in a moment, Mother,” Eleanor said. Her mother swept back into the entryway, demanding her gloves.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Anne. “I didn’t mean to be unkind. It’s—”
“No, you were right,” her sister said, darting over to give her a hug. “That’s the problem with me. I see everything in the darkest possible light.”
“Don’t you think I’d know it if Gideon had showed the slightest interest in me after marrying Ada? He has rarely spoken to me since hearing his father’s will read.”
“But you would never consider adultery, would you?” Anne asked, sounding truly scandalized.
“Of course not! I would never do anything so depraved.”
Anne kissed her. “I want you to be married, Eleanor. You’ll be a wonderful mother.”
“I shall. That is, I already like Villiers, and that’s all that’s necessary for a sound marriage.”
Their mother’s voice shrieked from the entry. “Oyster has peed on the marble again, Eleanor!” There was a smacking noise and a yelp. “You bad dog! Hobson, make him sit down.”
“I have to rescue poor Oyster,” Eleanor said, hastily straightening her bonnet and snatching up her gloves. “Poor thing. I’m afraid that when Mother is excited it all gets worse, and smacking does not help.”
“We have to make sure he doesn’t get nervous on Lisette’s carpet. Or on Villiers’s boots. It might be enough to ruin your chances of being a duchess. Men are absurdly attached to the shine on their boots.”
“You think you know everything about men, don’t you, little sister?”
“I consider myself a naturalist of the male species,” Anne said loftily. “I have made a study of their habits.”
“I shall wear your clothing,” Eleanor said. “Because the truth is that I don’t want to appear like a frump, and I didn’t really understand that I was. But I can tell you this: a new gown won’t make Villiers burst into my bedroom and assess my silver accoutrements. We plan to have a quite different kind of relationship.”
“After I transform you, you can choose whatever sort of relationship you wish—but Villiers won’t have the same freedom of mind. I’ll guarantee you that.”
“You’re no naturalist,” Eleanor said.
“Then what am I?”
“A hunter. Poor Villiers.”
Their mother appeared. “Eleanor, I’ll thank you to use what intelligence you have and follow me to the carriage. At this rate, Villiers will appear before you, and Lisette will snap him up without a moment’s remorse.”
Anne leaned over and ripped the lace fichu straight out of Eleanor’s bodice.
“What on earth are you doing!” Eleanor looked down. Without its lace kerchief, her neckline was shockingly low.
“Preparing you for the trip,” Anne said, standing back and nodding with satisfaction. “I must say, it doesn’t seem fair to me that you inherited those eyes and that bosom.”
“I don’t see why I must display every inch of my inheritance,” Eleanor retorted.
“Because you wish to present a delicious contrast to Lisette,” her sister said. “Unless Lisette’s shape has changed a great deal, she is less fortunate than you are. Think of it as a generous toss of corn.”
“The corn will draw the pheasants,” Anne said with a wicked grin. “And then the hunters can take them down.”
Chapter Seven
London residence of the Duke of Villiers
15 Piccadilly
June 17, 1784
Tobias had made up his mind to go to Kent with Villiers by hook or by crook. In the beginning, he had been happy simply to eat whatever he wished. But that paled quickly, and now he was bored. The other children were babies. Colin was obsessed with learning how to read, and Violet had found an old doll that she talked to all the time.
The only dilemma was how to stow away on Villiers’s coach without being caught. If he could just sneak inside, one of the seat cushions concealed a large box meant for storing blankets. He knew because he’d been cold on the way from Wapping, and the duke had thrown one at him.