A Duke of Her Own
Eleanor felt as if the air actually burned her lungs. “I shall probably—”
“Just when are you planning to marry? At age twenty-five, or thirty? Who will marry you when you’re that old, Eleanor? You may be beautiful, but if you don’t make an effort, no one will notice. In my experience, men are not terribly perceptive.” She leaned forward, peering. “You aren’t wearing even a touch of face paint, are you?”
“No,” Eleanor said. “None.” Of course she wanted children. And a husband. It was just that she wanted Gideon’s children. She was a fool. Seven times a fool. Gideon was not hers, and that meant his children wouldn’t be either. How on earth had the years passed so quickly?
“I am not finished,” her sister added. “There’s not a bit of your bosom to be seen, and your skirts are so long they’re practically dragging in the mud. But it’s your attitude that really matters. You look like a prude, and you jest and poke at men. They don’t like it, Eleanor. They flee in the other direction, and why shouldn’t they?”
“No reason.” Eleanor resorted to praying that Anne would run out of words, though she saw no sign of it.
“Everyone thinks you’re a snob,” her sister said flatly. “All of London knows that you swore not to marry anyone below the rank of a duke—and they don’t think well of you for it. At least the men don’t. In one fell swoop you made almost every eligible man in London think you are a condescending prig.”
“I merely intended—”
“But now there’s a duke on the market,” Anne said, overriding her. “The Duke of Villiers, no less. Rich as Croesus and apparently just as snobbish as you are, since everyone says he’s intent on marrying a duke’s daughter. That’s you, Eleanor. You. I’m married, Elizabeth is still in the nursery, and there isn’t another eligible lady of our rank in London.”
“I realize that fact.”
“You’re the one who announced that you’d marry no one below the order of a duke,” Anne continued, scarcely pausing for breath. “You said there were no eligible dukes and then one appeared like magic, and everyone says that he’s thinking of marrying you—”
“I don’t see anything particular to celebrate in that,” Eleanor retorted. “Those same people describe Villiers as quite unpleasant.”
“You said you’d marry no one but a duke,” her sister repeated stubbornly, “and now there’s one fallen into your hand like a ripe plum. It wouldn’t matter if the duke were as broken down as a cart horse, or so you always said.”
Eleanor opened her mouth and then realized with some horror that the Duke of Villiers was standing just behind her sister’s shoulder.
“Remember dinner last Twelfth Night? You told Aunt Petunia that you’d marry a man who smelled of urine and dog hair if he had the right title, but no one below a duke.”
Eleanor had never met the Duke of Villiers; nay, she had never even seen Villiers, but she had no doubt but that she was facing him now. He was precisely as described, with the kind of jaw and cheekbones that wavered between brutish and beautiful. By all accounts, Villiers never wore a wig, and this man didn’t even wear powder. His black hair was shot with two or three brilliant streaks of white and tied back at the neck. It couldn’t be anyone else.
Her sister just kept going, with the relentless quality of a bad dream. “You said that you would marry a duke over another man, even if he were as stupid as Oyster and as fat as Mr. Hendicker’s sow.”
The Duke of Villiers’s eyes were a chilly blackish-gray, the color of the evening sky when it threatened snow. He didn’t look like a man with a sense of humor.
“Eleanor,” Anne said. “Are you listening to me? Aren’t you—” She turned. “Oh!”
The Duchess of Beaumont was standing beside Villiers, obviously fighting to suppress her laughter. “Good evening, Lady Eleanor. And Lady Anne, though I really must call you Mrs. Bouchon now, mustn’t I? I have been looking everywhere for the two of you. May I present to you His Grace, the Duke of Villiers.”
“Your Grace,” Eleanor said, sinking into a deep curtsy before the duchess. Anne gave something of a bob, since she was hampered by her toga. “And Your Grace.” Eleanor curtsied again, this time before the Duke of Villiers.
Like herself, the duke had eschewed the compulsory toga, presumably with the same insouciance with which he refused to wear a wig. Instead he was wearing a coat of heavy, brandy-colored silk. The cut was simple, but the embroidered vine in coppery silk that danced among his buttons and around the hem turned simplicity to magnificence.
“Lady Eleanor,” Villiers said. He looked at her from head to foot, his eyes pausing for a moment on the curls next to her ears. A blaze of humiliation went down her spine, but she raised her chin. If the duke wanted nobility, she had it. Elegance, no. Blood, yes.
When Eleanor had fixed on the idea of insisting that she marry a duke or no one, she wasted no time imagining a potential suitor. She had intended her proclamation to reach the ears of one duke—a married duke—so he would realize that even though he had been untrue to her, she would hold true to him. It was a stupid strategy that had hurt no one but herself, obviously.
The Duke of Villiers was altogether a different order of duke from Gideon. She had not known, would never have been able to imagine, such a potent mix of elegance and carelessness. It wasn’t the silk embroidery, or the sword stick, or the careless power about him. She hadn’t imagined the pure raw masculinity of him: the brooding look in his eyes, the jaded lines around his mouth, the width of his chest.
If Gideon looked like a prince in a fairy tale, Villiers was the tired, cynical villain who would try to usurp the throne.
“I gather that you heard my sister teasing me about my childhood wish to marry a duke,” she said. “I do apologize if you felt your consequence reduced by comparison to Mr. Hendicker’s sow.”
“Oh, Villiers never experiences such awkward emotions, do you?” the Duchess of Beaumont said, laughing.
“I was more intrigued by the idea of being stupider than an oyster,” Villiers said. He had a deep voice, the kind that made Eleanor instinctively wary. It wasn’t the voice of a man who could be led; he would always lead. “How does one determine the intelligence of such a silent creature?”
“Oyster is Eleanor’s puppy,” Anne put in.
“In that case, it would depend on Oyster’s breed,” Villiers said. “Unless you have a pet poodle, I am fairly sure that I exceed expectations on both counts.”
“I can also assure Lady Eleanor that you never smell like urine, although I gather she is gracious enough to overlook that in a spouse,” the duchess said with a giggle. “Now if you’ll forgive me, I must introduce Mrs. Bouchon to my second cousin’s daughter; the poor dear hardly knows a soul in London. And you must tell me all about your marriage and the wonderfully successful season you’ve had…” She drew Anne’s arm through hers and began leading her away without further farewell.
“It appears that we are both looking for the same thing,” Villiers observed.