A Duke of Her Own

Page 26


“Do join us!” Lisette called from the floor.
“Are you suggesting that I sprawl about on the floor?” the duchess demanded.
At that moment the door opened and a thin boy in a brown velvet suit entered. He was dressed like any boy of the aristocracy, Eleanor thought, though he clearly wasn’t one of them. There was something wild and proud in his face, as if he were more duke than the duke.
He walked forward and bent his head.
“Bow,” his father said, though not sharply.
He bowed.
Anne and Lisette both looked up. “Sit next to me!” Lisette caroled, patting the floor. “I am having a terrible time catching this little ball.”
The boy was like a miniature version of Villiers, from his cool gray eyes to his extreme self-possession. “May I present my son,” Villiers said. “His name is Tobias.”
The boy turned his head and looked at his father.
“He prefers to be called Juby,” Villiers added.
It was the first time she had ever seen Villiers bested, and by someone less than half his weight. Eleanor stepped forward and smiled.
“Lady Eleanor,” Villiers said. “My future wife.” There was just the slightest edge of irony in his tone.
Eleanor dropped a curtsy. The boy bowed his head again. He was fiercely beautiful in the way some young males are, as if their whole life were being lived through their eyes, and their large noses, and their ungainly limbs.
“Bow,” his father said unemotionally.
He bowed.
“Lady Eleanor’s mother, the Duchess of Montague.”
This time Tobias bowed without being told, which made Eleanor feel better. If this wild boy interpreted her mother’s murderous gaze properly, then perhaps she herself wasn’t such an incompetent coward for having given in to her so many times in the last twenty-two years.
“On the floor are Lady Lisette and Mrs. Bouchon,” Villiers continued. “Bow.”
Tobias bowed. Lisette looked up again and patted the ground. Naturally, Tobias dropped instantly into the place she indicated.
“I shall retire until supper to compose myself,” the duchess announced, her voice indicating that she was on the very edge of a swoon. She paused, clearly to allow Villiers and Eleanor to chorus their protests. Their eyes met.
“You must be exhausted by the long trip, Mother,” Eleanor said.
“Though one certainly couldn’t tell,” Villiers put in. “You look as exquisite as ever, Duchess.”
She automatically raised one shoulder in a coquettish gesture. “Oh, how can you say so!” she said, though without her usual vigor. “The dust! The dryness. We were easily half a day in the carriage.”
“Only a woman of remarkable fortitude could look as fresh as you do after a journey,” Villiers said.
“I’ll walk you to the stairs, Mother,” Eleanor said. “A footman will inform you the moment that the squire and his family arrive.”
As they walked into the entrance hall they came face-to-face with an enormous gilded mirror. Eleanor saw herself and stopped short.
“Just look at yourself!” her mother snapped. “What you’ve done to your eyes makes you look shameless.” She clutched Eleanor’s arm a little tighter. “I never thought I’d say such a thing, but I’m not certain you should marry Villiers, Eleanor.”
She kept talking, but Eleanor wasn’t listening. The kohl black that Anne had put on her lashes and smudged around her eyes made them look twice as large as they normally did. She looked…
Beautiful. Mysterious. Sensual. Anything but a virgin.
“Your curls are in terrible disarray,” her mother said. “You shall come upstairs with me, Eleanor, and I shall have a word with Willa. That sort of tawdry effect she’s created simply won’t do. If we do decide that you should accept Villiers’s proposal, you’ll have to find someone who understands the consequence of your position.”
“No,” Eleanor stated. She couldn’t pull her eyes away from her own face. Her small, ordinary face was transformed. Her lips looked naughty, like a woman who kissed in corners and laughed inordinately, rather than with the kind of constrained emotion that befit a duke’s daughter.
She didn’t look like the kind of woman who stood around, moping after her former lover. She looked like the kind of woman whose former lover pined for her.
“What on earth do you mean?” her mother demanded.
She turned to her mother, chin high. “I like the way I look, Mother.”
“You don’t look like a duchess.”
Eleanor knew perfectly well that her mother loved her, and that she only wanted the best for her daughters. But she was finished with the pretense that she was a perfect daughter.
“I don’t want to look like a duchess,” she stated.
“Villiers pays more attention to his appearance than the queen herself does. You wouldn’t catch him going about with his hair falling out of its ribbon. I’ve never even seen his neck cloth in less than pristine condition. He must assign a footman to follow him with spare cloths.”
“Quite likely,” Eleanor said. “But if he wants to waste his time being perfect in dress, he’ll have to do it alone.”
It was harder to withstand her mother when she was pleading rather than browbeating. But Eleanor didn’t want to dress like a wilting virgin any longer. “You’ve often criticized me for not being appealing enough to gentlemen,” she pointed out.
“I never criticize,” her mother said stoutly. And the worst of it was that she believed it.
“You have called me foolish,” Eleanor replied. “And you were right. I simply wasn’t interested in getting married. I couldn’t picture myself doing it.”
“Until Villiers changed your mind. I suppose every gentleman has peccadilloes. I’ll just have to impress upon him that he may never mention those children in your presence or mine again.”
“It wasn’t Villiers who changed my mind.”
“Whatever it was, I don’t see why that change entails dressing like a shameless wagtail,” her mother said, reverting to her former theme.
“Wagtail, Mother?”
“You know precisely what I mean!”
Eleanor smiled at her reflection. “I like that word.” She gave an experimental wag of her hips. “And more to the point, Villiers likes the way I look.”
“It is true that he proposed to you immediately.”
“There’s the evidence, Mother,” Eleanor said, cheerfully ignoring the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, Villiers hadn’t turned a hair when he saw her transformation. He must have noticed her face paint, but it certainly hadn’t warmed his heart, given the way he had been hovering over Lisette.
As if her mother read her mind, she gave her a little shove. “You’d better go back in the sitting room, now that I think of it. Lisette is the same as she ever was, but she’s so pretty that one hardly notices at first.”
“Poor Lisette,” Eleanor said.
Her mother snorted and headed up the stairs.
Chapter Eleven
Villiers looked down at his son’s head. Tobias—he’d be damned if he’d ever call him Juby—was sitting on the floor throwing the knucklebones. The boy had inky black hair that was just like his own. He’d have to warn him about the white streaks; they’d showed up just past his eighteenth birthday.