A Duke of Her Own
The duchess cleared her throat with a sound of utter disbelief.
Eleanor didn’t want to sit on the floor. Her side panniers were likely to spring into the air and throw her skirts over her head. On the other hand, she didn’t want to align herself with her mother, especially given that Villiers was apparently finding the whole idea charming.
At least, that was what she gleaned from the laughter in his eyes. Naturally, he said nothing. Lisette, meanwhile, had dropped to the floor, scattered the bones, and was now practicing throwing the ball in the air and catching it.
“Knucklebones is a game for children,” the duchess pointed out.
Lisette’s mouth drooped. “I know. I do wish we had children in the house.”
“But we do have a child in the house,” Villiers said.
Lisette blinked up at him. “They all went home.”
“My son is here.”
Being Lisette, she didn’t wonder how Villiers had a son, given as he had no wife. “Leopold, how wonderful you are,” she crowed, as if he had produced that son solely for her pleasure.
Eleanor’s mother had been occupying herself by glaring at Anne’s bent head, but now she jerked around to stare at Villiers instead. She, if not Lisette, knew perfectly well that Villiers had never married.
“A ward perhaps?” she asked, her tone just this side of glacial. “Surely the word son was a slip of the tongue, Duke?”
“In fact, Tobias is my son,” Villiers said. He turned to the footman. “Summon my son from the nursery, if you please.”
“How lucky you are!” Lisette said wistfully. “I do wish I had children.”
“Be still!” the duchess snapped.
“Mother,” Eleanor said, feeling a pulse of sympathy. She had realized long ago that her mother found situations even slightly out of the ordinary to be frightfully upsetting. It wasn’t that the duchess had a puritanical attitude toward sin, precisely—but she had a positive loathing for irregularities of any sort.
“Hush,” her mother said, rounding on her. “You are far too innocent to understand the implications of this—this—of—” She ground to a halt, and then said, “Your son should not be in the vicinity of decent gentlewomen, Villiers. I should not have to emphasize such a common point of decency. You have offered your hostess a monstrous insult.”
Villiers’s gray eyes rested thoughtfully on the duchess and then moved on to Lisette. “I have an illegitimate son,” he explained. “I apologize for insulting you by bringing him under your roof.”
Eleanor felt like applauding. Villiers’s voice was so composed that not even a tinge of irony leaked into his words.
Since Lisette cared nothing for irregularities and indeed created them on a regular basis, she smiled up at Villiers. “You’re very lucky.”
“You see what you are doing?” the duchess hissed at Villiers. “Contaminating the ears of the innocent. She doesn’t even understand your effrontery.” If Villiers had himself under such tight control that he appeared emotionless, her mother was on the verge of losing her temper altogether.
Eleanor glimpsed the bleak look in Villiers’s eyes, and the unmindful—though not innocent—smile playing around Lisette’s lips. She hated the choking sense of inferiority she felt whenever her mother was about to call someone stupid. It didn’t even matter that she herself was not the subject of the diatribe.
What she hated, and had hated since childhood, was the moment when her mother lost control of her temper and flayed all those in her path.
“I have half a mind to leave this house immediately,” Her Grace said now, her voice rising. “Villiers, you are a fool if you believe that—”
Something snapped inside Eleanor: that same frail thread of patience that had carried her through twenty-two years of her mother’s bouts of irritability. She was tired of hearing people called stupid. She was tired of agreeing with her mother’s pronouncements simply because opposition took effort.
“Mother,” she said, stepping forward to put a hand on Villiers’s arm. “The duke has done me the inestimable honor of asking me to marry him.”
There was a moment of frozen silence. Even the gentle rattle of Anne’s tossing the knucklebones ceased. The only sound Eleanor heard was the muttering of two footmen stationed in the hallway.
“I have accepted,” she added, just to make everything clear.
Villiers’s eyelashes flickered as he glanced around the group. Really, his eyelashes were too thick for a man. “I was overcome by joy,” he said solemnly. “I shall never forget the moment that she accepted my hand.”
He drew Eleanor’s hand under the crook of his arm and gave her a smile. She retaliated by giving him a little pinch.
Lisette looked between them. “Are you saying that you’re going to be a duchess, Ellie?”
Since her mother was still paralyzed, trapped between outrage and ambition, Eleanor smiled down at Lisette. “Yes.”
Anne leaped to her feet and gave Eleanor a kiss. “What a surprise!” she cried, throwing a soulful look at Villiers. “Ah, Duke, you’ll never know what a treasure you’re stealing from those of us who love Eleanor best.”
Eleanor wished she had her hand free so she could pinch Anne as well.
“Isn’t that lovely,” Lisette breathed, rising as well. “I adore weddings. So pretty. So festive.” She waved at the footman who had just entered the room. “Champagne, James!”
James obediently trotted back out.
Apparently, that was the extent of Lisette’s interest in Villiers’s announcement. “Why don’t we start our game?” she asked, dropping back to the floor. Anne immediately sat back down, skirts spreading in an elegant circle around her.
Eleanor’s mother cleared her throat and turned to Villiers. “I will be blunt. I am not particularly pleased, given the circumstances.”
“I have six illegitimate children,” Villiers informed her, not kindly.
She visibly paled.
“Mother,” Eleanor said, “I know this has been a terrific shock.”
“My daughter is marrying a duke,” the duchess said between clenched teeth. “True, he apparently has the morals of a squirrel, but that’s my cross to bear.”
“Actually, the children will be Eleanor’s cross to bear,” Villiers said all too cheerfully.
“I gather you have this particular boy with you for a purpose,” the duchess said. “I must suppose you are conveying him to an appropriate household in the country. Surely you need not have effected this errand in person?”
Eleanor intervened before Villiers could deliver a death blow by informing the duchess that he intended to raise the children under his own roof. “There’s no reason to discuss such particulars now.”
Her mother’s eyes snapped to her. “Eleanor, you must forget that you ever heard this discussion. If your father were here, he would talk to the duke himself. But since he is ungrateful enough to be in Russia with your brother, I shall undertake that task myself. Duke, we shall discuss this tomorrow. In private!”
“I live in anticipation,” Villiers drawled.
His future mother-in-law gave him a look of extreme dislike, but she held her tongue.