A Duke of Her Own

Page 17


“Boys or girls?”
“Did you know that I was a boy?”
“What was my mother like?”
“Extremely pretty.”
Tobias froze, hoping that he would continue. But Villiers turned another page.
“You’re being an ass,” Tobias said, dropping the words into the silence of the carriage with great precision.
At first his father didn’t move. Then he looked up again. “Am I to gather you believe this is an unusual occurrence, or merely that I should be concerned by your assessment?”
“Why didn’t you marry my mother?” But he knew. He knew even as he asked it.
“I didn’t marry your mother because she was an opera singer, and my mistress. She was also Italian, and quite beautiful, and rather mad. She was not a lady in the strict sense of the word.”
Tobias hated him, from the tip of his polished boots to the sheen of his heavy silk coat.
“She didn’t care to rear you,” Villiers said, putting his book down. “She was not a motherly type. But she thought you were beautiful.”
“How do you know?”
“Unlike the other children, you were born on my estate. She was on tour through England, and when her confinement interrupted that tour, she and the rest of the troupe stayed with me.”
“In the house? With Ashmole?”
“With Ashmole, but at one of my country estates.”
Tobias couldn’t imagine that. “Did you ever see her again?”
Villiers looked at him straight in the eyes. “She was a very famous opera singer, Tobias.”
Tobias felt his blood running cold. But it was no more than he already knew, had known for years. There was no one for him in the world.
“She died in Venice of an ague. She had stayed out too late after singing a special concert for the doge.”
Tobias shrugged. “She means nothing to me. Just a doxy who was too pretty to wed.”
His father met his eyes until Tobias dropped his. “She thought I would keep you safe. You should be angry at me, if anyone.”
“If it’s all right with you, I shall take a nap,” Tobias said, closing his eyes.
He thought he heard his father say, “Toushay.” What did that mean, Toushay?
Chapter Eight
Knole House, country residence of the Duke of Gilner
Late afternoon
June 17, 1784
The Duke of Gilner’s estate lay deep in the green hills of Kent. It was a square house with aggressively symmetrical wings, the whole of it arranged with every bit of mathematical rigor that could be summoned to the task. Windows marched around the wings like soldiers on parade.
And yet…
If everything about the house celebrated the ideals of reason and rationality, the rest of the estate seemed to express the opposite. The gardens and the avenue had undoubtedly been calculated with algebraic excellence. Years ago, trees probably marched down that avenue at precisely calibrated intervals. Moreover, those trees had been chosen for their melancholy regularity, like the tall skinny mourning trees that surrounded Italian cemeteries.
But now the geometric skill of the architect was defeated by chaos. The avenue had begun with a series of oaks, now grown to stately proportions. A few had been lost to wind or were cut down. Missing oaks had been replaced with a beech here and an apple tree there. A short squat tree that looked like nothing so much as a claret bottle tipped gently to the right between two dignified trunks.
And the grounds! Worse and worse. Someone had apparently planned a hedge maze to the right of the house. Eleanor could see the vestiges of its lanes and alleys, but the hedges had withered and been cut down in places. A ramshackle cottage off to the left might have been called a folly, but only by those who were truly charitable. The untidiness of it all was exacerbated by several faded archery targets. They were stuck around the lawn with a permanent look to them; one had a rambler growing up its post.
“The estate looks even more disreputable than I remember,” she said, stepping down from the carriage with the help of a groom. “Why did we stop visiting? I remember when we used to pay a visit every year. Did you and Lisette’s mother quarrel?”
“Of course not! As if I would ever be so ill-bred as to quarrel with someone,” her mother replied, magnificently ignoring the many squabbles that enlivened her days. “And certainly not with poor Beatrice. I was one of her dearest friends; we were presented in the same year. And then when we both became duchesses, well…”
“What happened?” Anne prompted, hopping out of the carriage. “Goodness me, I’m happy to be out of that vehicle.”
“Lisette is a few years older than Eleanor,” her mother said, gesturing to one of the grooms, who trotted off to bang the knocker. The household appeared not to have noticed the arrival of a coach-and-four on the drive, let alone the second coach carrying three maids and a quantity of trunks. “There was a catastrophe. Beatrice quite lost heart, and when she was carried off with pneumonia a mere year later, I knew the real cause.”
“What catastrophe?” Eleanor asked patiently. The footman was thumping the knocker but apparently having no success.
The duchess hesitated. “It’s all very well for Anne to know, since she’s married. Though I suppose you’re a woman now.”
“I have been reconciled to that status for several years,” Eleanor said.
“How queer you are,” the duchess snapped. “Well, I’ll make it blunt, then. Lisette formed an unfortunate attachment to a gentleman.”
“She never seemed very interested when we were girls,” Anne observed.
“That could be due to the fact that she is unable to hold an interest in any subject for more than a day or two,” Eleanor pointed out. “It’s hard to imagine a man holding sway. She certainly never mentioned anything in her letters. Although to be fair, she has developed what seems to be a long-term interest in helping orphaned children.”
“I blame Beatrice,” their mother said darkly. “I have done my duty by you girls. Neither of you would ever shame me by an illicit liaison.” She shuddered.
“Was the gentleman ineligible?” Eleanor asked, thinking it best to draw her mother’s attention quickly away from the putative chastity of her own daughters.
“I shall never reveal that,” the duchess announced, taking on the tone of a martyr facing a hostile crowd. “I promised Beatrice that I would take the truth to my grave. But—” She relented suddenly, lowering her voice, “I will tell you that the child—”
“Child!” Eleanor exclaimed. “You didn’t say there’d been a child!”
“I said a catastrophe,” her mother replied. “And believe me, in cases such as these, the words are one and the same. We shall speak no more of it. Look at this house! Beatrice would be horrified by the muddle. But I am not one to criticize; I understand the difficulty of keeping household help.” It was certainly true that the duchess’s acerbic comments had a tendency to drive said household help straight out of said household.
Finally the groom’s repeated bangs on the door produced a response. A butler was trotting down the main steps, bowing slightly from the waist as he came, as if he wanted to get a head start on his salutations.