A Duke of Her Own
“I am certainly temperamentally different from my parents. And you, do you resemble your parents?”
“They are both dead. I hardly knew my father, and had very little to say to my mother.” There was something in his voice that did not welcome further enquiry on that front.
“Where is your country seat?” she asked.
He looked down at her and said, “You really don’t know anything about me, do you?”
“Why should I?”
“There are so few dukes that I know quite a lot about them without even trying. I believe your brother is great friends with young Duke of Astley, for example.”
“Indeed.” She climbed the stairs.
“I haven’t seen Astley in a few years,” Villiers said. “I suppose you know him well.”
“As you say, he is friends with my brother. He spent a great deal of time with us while we were all growing up,” Eleanor said steadily. “Of course now that he’s married, we see him much less frequently. I believe we shall find my mother in the refreshments tent.”
“You should probably remove this curl,” he said. With a start, she realized that one of the fat curls Rackfort had pinned into her hair was dangling by one pin alone. Villiers’s fingers brushed her cheek; he twisted and the curl lay in his palm.
“It looks like a country slug,” Eleanor said. She pulled off the other one as well.
“As opposed to a city slug?”
“A city slug would be wearing powder,” she said, smiling at him. She tossed the slugs into a nearby hedge.
He almost smiled back. She could see it in his eyes.
“Would you like me to escort you to your mother?”
If the duke arrived at her mother’s side, with Eleanor on his arm, rumors of a betrothal would flare through London. “I believe not,” she said. “I shall consider the matter, Your Grace. Perhaps, if I decide to continue our acquaintance, I shall pay a visit to Kent.”
“You are truly a very interesting woman,” he said slowly.
“I assure you that you are quite mistaken. I am positively tedious in almost every respect.”
“Not so. Do you know how unusual it is for a duke—myself—to speak to an eligible young lady without the woman in question making an overt expression of fierce interest?”
“I do apologize if I insulted you again,” she said. “First I compared you to an incontinent canine, and now I have apparently not marshaled the proper enthusiasm.”
His eyes did smile, even though his mouth didn’t curl. “Does that apology mean you are mustering enthusiasm for my charms?”
“I expect we feel precisely the same way about each other,” she said. “Cautiously interested. It appears that I suit your criteria, and you seem to suit mine, such as they are.”
“A group of people is coming our way,” he said, moving back slightly into the shadow of a pillar. “If you wish to retreat to your mother’s side without being observed with me, you ought to leave.”
She turned to go and his deep voice stopped her. “I set out for Sevenoaks in two or three days, Lady Eleanor. I would be—”
She looked back at him. “Yes?”
“I would be quite sorry not to meet you there.”
She curtsied. “Good evening, Your Grace.”
“Leopold,” he said.
“My name. It’s Leopold.” And with a quick glance at the group wandering toward them, he melted backward between the pillars and was gone.
Lady Eleanor might not have caught the connotations of that pool full of violets, but the Duke of Villiers certainly did. Once this party was over, his friend Elijah planned to lure his wife, Jemma, down into that fragrant bathtub and seduce her.
Villiers found himself smiling into the dark. He didn’t give a damn what Elijah and Jemma got up to. After spending months mooning over Jemma like a sick calf, it was a pleasure to think of her without a surge of desire and jealousy.
Lady Eleanor Lindel, daughter of the Duke of Montague, might well complete his cure. She was certainly Jemma’s opposite. Jemma was tall, slender, and duchess-like. Her every move signaled patrician blood enhanced by beauty, intelligence, and exquisite taste in clothing.
But Eleanor? She wasn’t proud, as he had assumed when he heard of her express desire to marry a duke. Her clothing was abominable. And she clearly didn’t give a damn about her appearance, considering the way she had tossed those curls into the bushes.
If Jemma was slender, Eleanor was curvy, with lush lips that resembled those of a naughty opera dancer. He could have sworn she wasn’t wearing lip color, although her mouth was a deep rose that hardly seemed possible in nature.
People’s faces tended to match their attire: a woman with a severe profile generally adorns herself with equally stern clothing, even though he himself chose to emphasize the rough character of his nose and chin by wearing outrageously luxurious garments. But Eleanor’s mouth didn’t match her prim attire and absurd curls. She was as mismatched as he was, albeit in a different key.
She looked acerbic. Peppery. Delectable. As if she’d get bored with chess, toss the board to the side, and climb into a man’s lap.
Though presumably she’d be unlikely to climb into his lap, since she was pining for another man. In truth, he had given up hope of that sort of adoration. And certainly he had never wanted it from a wife.
He pushed himself away from the wall. He ought to go home and plan his trip to Sevenoaks. He was itching to be on the road, but the Bow Street Runner had sent the name of the orphanage only that morning. After the third disappointment, he’d learned to wait until the presence of twins was confirmed before haring off to check their lineage.
He turned to find Louise, Lady Nevill, waving at him. She was standing with his former fiancée, Roberta, now the Countess of Gryffyn. That betrothal had been a profound mistake, but, thank God, one from which he’d escaped. And now that Roberta was happily married, they exchanged civil conversation on occasion.
“Villiers,” Roberta cried, holding out her hand. “I am so happy to see you looking so well. You were still terribly thin last time we met.”
Lady Nevill gave him a lazy smile, accompanied by an appreciative survey from head to foot. “Roberta, darling,” she drawled, “the man certainly isn’t looking thin. Though I wouldn’t call him precisely padded either.” Her gaze lingered for just a second at his crotch.
Louise was wearing what he thought must be the only low-cut toga in existence. Her lush breasts threatened to spill free at any moment. “Roberta and I are amusing ourselves by comparing men to types of food,” she announced.
“Louise says that Albertus Vesey resembles a stick of asparagus,” Roberta said with a gurgle of laughter.
Villiers raised an eyebrow. “Given his girth, I would suggest a melon.”
“Believe me,” Louise said, “you should be thinking about asparagus. That rather exotic white kind.” Her eyes twinkled wickedly. “Pale, slim…overcooked. Limp.”
“Hush, Louise,” Roberta said. “You’ll make Villiers blush. Now what kind of food would the duke be?” They both looked him over.