A Duke of Her Own

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Damon was smiling down at Roberta with such a foolishly loving look that Villiers felt nauseated.
Louise caught his eye and laughed. “I gather you plan to indulge in marriage, but not for love, Your Grace.”
“Marriage is for the courageous, but love is for the foolish,” Villiers said. “I have doubts regarding my own bravery, but I have long been convinced that I have at least a modicum of intelligence.”
“In that case you will fall in love quite soon,” Roberta announced. “Such monumental arrogance must necessarily be answered by the gods.”
Villiers walked away thinking of marriage. He could imagine nothing more repellent than the idea that his wife might fall in love with him. Or worse, far worse: that he might lower himself to worship a woman the way Gryffyn apparently did his wife.
A civil, practical union was far preferable to a messy pairing involving adoration.
That was an obvious point in favor of Lady Eleanor. She was in love with someone else. There was a courteous indifference about her that was remarkably peaceful.
It could be that he’d found his perfect match…as long as she decided to pay a visit to Kent, of course.
If not, he’d be stuck with the lady rather indelicately referred to as witless.
Chapter Four
Eleanor found her mother in the refreshment tent, surrounded by her friends. The moment the duchess caught sight of her eldest daughter, she rose with the air of a mother cat shaking off a litter of nursing kittens and bustled Eleanor to the corner.
“Well?” she demanded.
“It seems quite possible that Villiers will offer for me,” Eleanor admitted. “He implied as much.”
“I am astonished,” her mother cried, releasing her grip on Eleanor’s arm. “Astonished!” She dropped into a chair in a dramatic flourish of her hands. “This will surprise you. I thought you were a fool.”
The response that sprang to her mind seemed rather abrasive, so Eleanor said nothing.
“All these years, I thought you were a fool,” her mother continued. “And yet here you are, marrying a duke, just as you always insisted you would. I suppose one is never too old to correct one’s mistakes.”
“I suppose not,” Eleanor murmured.
“I made a mistake!” the duchess announced, patently dumbfounded at the very idea. “It never occurred to me, not even once, that you would have a chance at Villiers. For goodness sake, child, he is among the richest men in the kingdom.”
At least until he endows all those illegitimate children, Eleanor thought to herself.
“He must be very high in the instep, given his search for a woman of equal rank. Everyone has been predicting that he will have to widen his focus to include the daughters of marquesses. But I always insisted that you should be the one, even given your age. Oh Eleanor, I am so very grateful to you!”
“For what, Mother?” Eleanor sat down.
“For not putting him off, of course. When I think of all the matches you could have made over the past four seasons! Here you are, past your first blush, and still dodging gentlemen. I was fearful, Eleanor. I know I kept my fears from you, as a mother should, but I was frightened for your future.”
Eleanor smiled, as much from the idea that her mother kept any emotions to herself as anything else.
“I just couldn’t bear the idea that I, the most beautiful woman of my year, would produce an ape leader for a daughter!”
Eleanor’s smile withered.
“Thank goodness, you are the only eligible duke’s daughter this season. I must write to your father and brother immediately and order them to return from Russia for the wedding. And we must order a new gown tomorrow morning. In fact, we should probably—”
“Villiers plans to pay a visit to Sevenoaks,” Eleanor said.
Her mother frowned. “Sevenoaks, in Kent? Why? What—No!”
“Lisette.” Eleanor nodded.
“But Lisette is mad. Poor girl,” she added, but then returned to her main point: “The girl is mad as a March hare. Cracked. Moonstruck. And I say that not merely because I know the girl. Everyone knows it!”
“She’s not precisely mad,” Eleanor protested. “She’s merely—”
“She’s mad,” the duchess repeated flatly. “That will come to nothing.” A frown crinkled her brow. “Of course she is quite pretty.”
“Lovely,” Eleanor supplied helpfully. “Her eyes are a lovely blue, if you remember.”
Her mother’s eyes narrowed even further. “By now she must be fit for Bedlam. People never get better, only worse. Look at your uncle Harry. We used to think it rather charming that he believed he was a general. But now that he’s taken to thinking that he’s a Russian prince, your aunt Margaret has such an uncomfortable time. He’s always insisting she wear furs and trundle about in a sleigh.”
“Lisette has improved. She sends me quite cheerful letters.”
“Villiers plans to visit Knole House, you said?”
“I told him that I had been planning to pay Lisette a visit.”
Her mother’s head snapped up. “Eleanor! That’s the first intelligent thing I’ve seen you do in years!”
Eleanor involuntarily twitched but didn’t reply.
“We’ll leave tomorrow. Well, at the latest by the following day. I wonder if Gilner himself is home, though it hardly matters. I’ve lost touch with Lady Marguerite over the past few years, ever since Lisette’s mama died. What an unfortunate life dear Beatrice had! Only one daughter, and the child deranged.”
“Lisette has improved,” Eleanor repeated.
“Nonsense! Pretty is as pretty does, and your Lisette is not fit to be a duchess. I trust the duke will realize that himself, but just in case, we’ll be there as well.”
Eleanor hated the times when the world gathered itself up and began hurtling toward a goal that she hadn’t envisioned a mere five minutes before. She’d had the same feeling back on Gideon’s eighteenth birthday, when he paid a sudden visit, his face as white as a sheet of paper. She remembered being surprised that he had sent in his card and requested a formal visit. Gideon had never been formal…
Gideon was always formal now that he was married to another woman.
Which was fine, because she, Eleanor, was going to be married to the Duke of Villiers. Just then her mother squealed with delight. “Duke!” she caroled, springing to her feet with a huge smile.
Eleanor jerked her head up, expecting to see Villiers—but it was Gideon. Gideon, the Duke of Astley, who never approached her if he could possibly avoid it.
A combination of kindness and genuine affection on the part of Eleanor’s mother had caused her to insist that her son’s closest friend, a poor motherless boy, spend his school holidays with them. Which was why Eleanor felt as if Gideon had grown up with them, scrabbling and squabbling around the estate as if he were another brother—until the day they looked at each other and he wasn’t. He just wasn’t.
Now he walked toward them, as lean and beautiful as ever. When he was just a boy, he had been rail thin. Later, muscles started to conceal his ribs. Her memory gave her an unbidden and unwelcome recollection of how soft to the touch the first dusting of hair covering his chest had been.