"The Duchess of Love"
An original e-novella
Publisher: Zebra Books
Release Date: April 24, 2012
A DUKE IN DISGUISE . . .
The day was as hot as the pond was inviting. It's not as if anyone in Little
Huffington was going to happen upon a secluded vale on the Duke of
Greycliffe's lands. And Venus Collingswood didn't want to get her shift all
wet. It was the perfect setting in which to plan her lovely bookworm of a
sister's betrothal to the mysterious new duke arriving seven days hence. If
only she had a suitable accomplice . . .
Andrew Valentine, Duke of Greycliffe, never thought arriving at his own
household a week early would cause so much trouble. The housekeeper thinks
he's his own cousin. Actually, the chance to not be the duke for a while is
a pleasant opportunity indeed. It might even help him interrogate the
delectable little nymph he's discovered swimming in his pond-if he can
manage to get a word in edgewise . . .
Venus Collingswood ran
into the vicarage and flung open the door to the study. As she expected,
Papa, Mama, and her older sister, Aphrodite, were all there reading.
“Papa,” she said
breathlessly, “did you know the Duke of Greycliffe and his cousin are coming
to Little Huffington?”
“Hmm?” The Reverend
Walter Collingswood kept his eyes on his book.
Venus turned to her
mother. Surely with two unwed daughters, Mama would have heard the news.
“Mama, did you know?”
Mama turned a page.
“Did I know what, dear?”
“That the Duke of
Greycliffe and his cousin, Mr. Valentine, are coming to visit now that
Greycliffe has inherited Hyndon House.” Venus paused before she delivered
the most important part. “And neither of them is married.”
“Oh?” Mama made a
notation on the paper by her elbow. “That’s nice.”
Venus glanced at Aphrodite. At twenty-three Ditee was Venus’s only
matchmaking failure, in imminent danger of becoming an old maid despite
Venus’s best efforts. Surely she was interested in this news?
Surely not. Ditee was
consulting Papa’s large Latin dictionary. She likely hadn’t heard a word
Venus had said.
I swear I’m a changeling, Venus thought. It is the only
“Mrs. Shipley told me
Mrs. Edgemoor told her that Greycliffe and Mr. Valentine are expected next
week so Greycliffe can inspect the property,” she said, refusing to give
up. “We should invite them to dinner to welcome them to the neighborhood.”
Mama sighed and sat
back. “Walter, I am having the devil of a time making sense of this
“I’ll take a look at it
in a moment, my love.”
Mama blinked at Venus.
“I’m sorry, Venus, were you saying something?” She glanced back at her
book. “Oh, I have it! Malum is apple, not evil. The man threw the
ripe apple. How silly of me not to have seen it at once.”
“I’ve made the same
mistake, Mama,” Ditee said, glancing up from the dictionary.
Venus ground her teeth.
“I am going out to the road and throw myself under the next carriage to pass
“Oh?” Mama chewed on
the end of her pencil. “Please tell Mrs. Shipley to put supper back an hour
before you go, will you?”
Venus stepped carefully
out of the study. She did not slam the door behind her. She was quite
proud of herself.
Mrs. Shipley, standing
in the hall, clucked sympathetically. “Deep in their books, are they, Miss
swallowed. She was going to explode with frustration if she didn’t get out
of this house immediately. “Mama said to set supper back an hour.”
laughed. “I warned Cook when that package of books arrived they’d be in
there all night.”
Venus smiled tightly.
“I believe I’ll take Archimedes for a walk.”
“Good. He’s been trying
to beg a soup bone from Cook all morning. She’ll be happy to have him out
from under foot.”
Venus collected Archie
from the kitchen, and they stepped out into the hot afternoon sun. A
squirrel scampered by; Archie, barking maniacally, shot off over the broad
lawns in pursuit. Venus strode after him.
What was she going to
do? Having a duke--and a ducal cousin--fall into their laps was not an
opportunity to be missed, yet she couldn’t invite them to the vicarage
herself. Well, she might try--she wasn’t above a little, er, creativity for
a good cause--but the fact remained that unless the men appeared in togas
and laurel wreaths, no one in her family would notice them.
Her odds of nabbing
Ditee a duke were about as good as Archie’s for catching a squirrel--zero.
It was a crime. Ditee
was at her last prayers, and yet she was by far the most beautiful girl in
Little Huffington. Venus had managed to find matches in the admittedly
shallow pool of marriageable men for far less well-favored women. Farmer
Isley’s sister closely resembled his prize sheep, for goodness sakes, and
Mrs. Fedderly’s niece had an obvious squint, and yet she’d successfully
matched them with willing males.
Ditee was sweet
tempered, too, as long as you didn’t try to take a book away from her. That
was the problem. She wouldn’t pull her nose out of her Latin tomes long
enough to have a conversation with a man, let alone something of a warmer
nature. The men had finally given up and turned to younger, more
Not that Ditee noticed.
But if her sister could
catch the duke’s attention...
“I’m sure Ditee would be
considered a diamond even in London, Archie,” Venus said as the dog, having
chased the squirrel up an oak tree, trotted back to her.
Archie, tongue lolling
from his exertions, wagged his tail enthusiastically.
“And she is certainly
intelligent. Any man must be pleased to have intelligent children, wouldn’t
Archie barked twice in
“Of course, it would
help if he is a bit scholarly himself, but I suppose he’ll spend most of his
time at his clubs, so that shouldn’t make too much difference.” But Ditee
needed to cooperate in any matchmaking effort; Venus had learned that lesson
all too well. What would seduce her sister? Not a handsome face or deep
Venus snapped her
fingers. Of course--books! “I would think a duke, even if he isn’t much of
a reader himself, would have an extensive library, wouldn’t you, Archie?
Owning a vast quantity of books is considered most impressive.”
Archie was not
interested in books--he’d chewed one as a puppy and been exiled from the
house for months. He raced off after another squirrel.
Venus treated herself to
a lovely daydream of Ditee walking down the aisle at St. George’s, Hanover
Square, the ton, dressed in the latest fashions, filling the pews and
even standing in the back. Not that her imaginings could be very precise.
She’d never seen St. George’s or any church besides Papa’s here in Little
If Ditee did marry the
duke, she’d spend part of her time in London, wouldn’t she? Surely she’d
invite Venus to visit. Then Venus could see the museums and the parks and
go to the theater and perhaps even a ball or two. She’d not be condemned to
live forever in sleepy Little Huffington amid people she’d known her entire
Archie had reached the
gate to Hyndon House’s land and was waiting for her to open it. She paused,
her hand on the latch. Old Mr. Blant, the previous owner, had never cared
if they trespassed, but the duke might feel differently.
Archie barked and then
whined, bumping her hand with his nose. He smelled water.
She’d like to go down to
the water, too. It was so hot, and the deep, secluded pond was one of her
Archie jumped up as if
to push the gate open himself.
“Archie, your manners!
Show a little patience.”
Patience was not
Archie’s strong suit. He got down from the gate, but clearly it was a
struggle. His back end wiggled, his front feet danced, and his eyes were
bottomless pools of supplication.
The duke was still in
London; he’d never know.
“Oh, very well, we’ll go
in, but before we come again, we must ask Greycliffe’s permission.”
Archie backed away
enough so she could swing the gate open, but the moment there was space for
him to squeeze through, he was gone.
Venus closed the gate
carefully behind her. She must not get ahead of herself with her
matchmaking. She knew nothing at all about Greycliffe. He’d never come to
Hyndon House while Mr. Brant was alive, and Mrs. Shipley had not got any
details from Mrs. Edgemoor beyond the fact that the fellow was unwed. What
if he was Papa’s age? She frowned. She couldn’t wish for Ditee to marry an
old man. Or an ugly one. Or an unrepentant rake.
She heard a great deal
of quacking and honking and then a storm of birds erupted from the trees
ahead of her. Archie had reached the pond.
She hurried down the
rest of the slope and through the woods.
She’d been coming here
since she was a girl, but she was always a little surprised and thrilled to
step out of the trees and see this perfect jewel of water. The woods ringed
it, leaving a grassy bank on which to sit or sun; and on the south and
deepest side, a large gray rock sat as if it had been placed there
specifically to jump from. Once Papa had discovered the pond, he’d been
sure to teach her and Ditee how to swim.
It would be quite
peaceful, if it weren’t for Archie, romping and splashing in the water. He
started toward her.
“Oh, no, you’re not
going to shake half the pond all over me,” she said, dashing for the rock
and scrambling up onto it, well out of Archie’s reach. After some
good-natured barking, he ran back into the water.
She sat down. Even the
stone was hot.
When she was a girl, she
used to come here often. Before Ditee had become such a bloody bookworm,
Mrs. Shipley would pack them both a basket with their lunch, and they’d
spend lazy summer days playing in the water, lying in the sun watching the
clouds float by, and talking about all sorts of things.
She took off her shoes
and stockings and wiggled her toes. She’d dearly love a swim, but she was
nineteen now, not nine.
Yet if the duke did bar
the gate to his property, this might be her last chance.
It was so hot...
She looked around.
She’d never seen anyone else here. What were the odds someone would appear
Close to zero.
Certainly good enough to wager on.
She pulled off her
bonnet and plucked out her pins, shaking her hair free. She was wearing a
simple frock; it took only a moment to have it and her stays off. Then she
stood up in her shift and looked down at the deep, cool water. It would
feel so good washing over her.
But a wet shift would
feel terrible--even worse when she had to put her stays and dress on over
it. She didn’t have time to lie in the sun and let it dry.
This was a stupid idea.
She would get dressed again.
But if it weren’t for
She closed her eyes,
imagining the cool water rushing over her naked flesh.
No. That was too
But Archie didn’t care
what she wore-or didn’t wear--and there was no one else to see.
sensing he might have company, ran back and forth on the bank, barking
Damn it, what was the
benefit of living in the middle of nowhere if you couldn’t do what you
wanted? No one would see her but Archie, and he didn’t bear tales--except
for the one he was wagging furiously.
Before she could change
her mind, she grabbed her hem and pulled off her shift. She threw it on top
of her other clothes, turned back to the pond--
Oh! Her ankle twisted
slightly, throwing her off balance. Her arms flew out, but there was
nothing to hold onto.
She tottered on the edge
and then plunged down into the clear, cold water.
* * * * *
Andrew, Duke of
Greycliffe, stood with his cousin, Mr. Nigel Valentine, in the entry to
Hyndon Hall, their valises by their feet. The housekeeper gaped at them,
her face a chalky white.
“Oh, your grace,” she
said, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know how it happened, but I was given to
understand you wouldn’t be arriving until next week.”
She was actually
wringing her hands.
She was also addressing
Nigel raised a brow and
gave Drew a look as if to say, how do we gently correct this person?
In Town everyone knew
Drew, of course, but in the country people seemed to forget a duke could be
so young. Not that Nigel was old--no one would consider twenty-eight
ancient--but it must seem far more ducal than twenty-one.
Drew could powder his
hair like Nigel and most gentlemen did. That would make him look older--but
hair powder made him sneeze.
“Our plans changed,”
Drew said, “Mrs...?”
The woman’s eyes darted
to meet his. “Edgemoor, sir.” She was almost breathless with anxiety.
It sounded odd to be
addressed as “sir” rather than “your grace.” Odd, but not unpleasant. Ever
since he was thirteen and had had the title thrust on him, he’d had the
recurring fantasy he would wake up one morning himself again: just Drew, not
Why not now?
“Please don’t be
distressed, Mrs. Edgemoor,” he said. “The duke knows we came without
warning.” From the corner of his eye, he saw Nigel’s other brow shoot up.
“Take your time. Is there a place we can wait and not be in your way?”
“Oh, yes, thank you,
sir.” She turned to bob a curtsy in Nigel’s direction. “Your grace. It
won’t take long, truly. I’ve already aired your rooms. If you’ll just step
into the study,” she said as she led them to a pleasant chamber at the back
of the house, “I’ll have Cook send up some refreshments.” She wrung her
hands again. “And if you’d like your baggage, when it arrives--”
“That will not be a
problem, Mrs. Edgemoor,” Drew said. “We don’t expect to be here more than a
week or so, so we traveled light. All we have are the two bags we brought
The housekeeper looked
as though she would collapse with relief. “Very good, sir. I’ll have
Williams, the footman, take them upstairs. Your rooms will be ready as
quick as can be.”
“Splendid. Thank you,
but please don’t feel the need to hurry.”
Drew smiled at the
housekeeper as she curtsyed again and almost ran from the room.
Nigel cleared his
throat. “Since when have you taken to referring to yourself in the third
person, your grace?”
“Shh.” Drew glanced
over his shoulder. The hall appeared deserted, but it was always best to
take precautions. He closed the heavy door and moved toward the windows to
look out over the formal gardens and the broad, green lawns that ended at
some woods. “I have a plan.”
“A plan?” Nigel pulled
out his snuffbox and took a pinch. “What kind of a plan?”
“I thought you could be
the duke while we are here.”
Nigel made an odd,
strangled sound and sneezed violently. “Damn it, you need to warn a fellow
before you say something so preposterous.”
A servant scratched at
the door and entered, carrying a tray with bread and cheese and a jug of
ale. He looked almost as nervous as the housekeeper and fled as soon as
he’d deposited his burden.
Nigel poured a mug and
offered it to Drew. “You must be thirsty from the ride. You aren’t
Perhaps he wasn’t, but
the notion of getting out from under his title, even for only a few days,
was damn appealing. “It shouldn’t be difficult to manage.”
impossible. I won’t do it.” Nigel drained the mug he’d offered Drew.
understand. He’d likely never wished to escape his life. “But I might
never get this opportunity again.”
“I said no.”
Nigel’s face didn’t yet
look as unyielding as the cliffs of Dover, so perhaps Drew could wheedle him
into agreeing. “It wouldn’t be for long.”
“No!” Nigel scowled at
him. “I don’t know why you would want to do something so ridiculous.”
To get a brief taste of freedom. “At least think about
it, will you?”
Nigel grunted. “Oh, all
“Splendid. I’m off for a stroll. Do you want to come exploring with me?”
“Good God, no. I’ve
just ridden two days to get to this godforsaken place. I intend to
rest--and see if the house has something more sustaining than ale in its
cellars. But you go ahead. Youth is full of energy.” He tossed him some
bread. “Here. We can’t have you expiring in the fields somewhere.”
Drew caught the bread in
one hand. “Thanks. I’ll see you later.”
“Hopefully you’ll be thinking more rationally then.”
Drew grinned and let
himself out onto the terrace, taking the stairs down to the gardens. He
followed one of the manicured paths away from the house. It was hot in the
sun; he’d left his hat on the table in the entry. He should go back.
But it felt good to
stretch his legs. He’d walk as far as the woods. He popped the rest of the
bread into his mouth and lengthened his stride.
Nigel was likely
right--pretending he wasn’t the duke was a dunderheaded idea, but damn, he
wished he could do it. It might be different if he’d been born to the
title, but he’d become Greycliffe courtesy of an early morning fire at one
of London’s most exclusive gambling hells. His uncle--the fourth duke--his
uncle’s two sons, and his father had all died in the flames.
He frowned. He’d never
forget when word of his sudden elevation spread through Eton. Boys who’d
looked straight through him the day before suddenly fawned all over him.
Bah. At least it was practice for when he got older and went up to Town.
The toadying there was beyond nauseating, and the London women were worse
than the men. Whores, actresses, widows, debutantes--they all wanted to get
their hands on his purse and, if they could manage it, their name with his
on a marriage license.
He was almost at the
trees now. Was that barking he heard? And splashing? He grinned. He was
hot and sticky. He’d wade into the water and wash the dirt of the road
off. He started untying his neck cloth as he followed a narrow path down
through the dense pine trees.
Ah, there was a large
rock to the side of the path. He sat down to jerk off his boots as likely
many men before him had. He could just see the pond through the tree
branches; he didn’t yet see the dog, but it sounded as if it was having a
wonderful time. He couldn’t wait to join it.
He shed his coat, shirt,
breeches, and drawers quickly and stepped to the edge of the woods. Now he
saw the dog, a brown and white mix that was obviously part water spaniel,
running back and forth on the bank, barking up at--
He jumped back behind a
The girl hadn’t seen
him. She was standing on a large rock on the other side of the pond,
looking down at the water about ten feet below her, clad in only her shift.
Her long chestnut brown hair fell in waves to her waist, hiding her face.
She’d best take care or
she would fall.
Concern tightened his
gut. She didn’t intend to jump, did she? He should stop her, but catching
sight of a strange, naked man coming out of the woods might well frighten
her into losing her balance. What should--
The girl was pulling off
His jaw dropped as
another part of him sprang up. His eyes followed the cloth up her body past
the well-turned ankles; the long, pale thighs; the lovely nest of curls, so
dark against the white of her belly and hips; and the slim, curved waist to
stop at the two small, round, perfect breasts almost hidden by her hair.
The pond water had
better be ice cold or he’d never get his breeches back on.
She turned to throw the
shift behind her, and he got a glimpse of her lovely, rounded arse.
Zounds, he was going to
die of lust.
And then she turned back
and wobbled. Her arms flew out--Good God! She was falling.
He sprinted for the
pond, hitting the water at the same time the girl did.
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