Pleasure is in her future...
Ellie Bowman is determined: during this year’s Valentine house party, she will choose one of the men the matchmaking Duchess of Greycliffe--aka the Duchess of Love--has invited for her. Unfortunately, that man will not be Lord Ned, the duchess’s second son. Ned is still mourning his wife and will never see “trusty” Ellie as anything other than a childhood friend. Now if only she could convince her heart of what her head already knows--and persuade the duchess’s thieving cat to stop stealing her red silk drawers and depositing them in Ned’s bed.
Lord Ned arrives at Greycliffe Castle vowing to finally cooperate with his mother’s matchmaking efforts. He’s been a widower for four years; it’s time to put his past behind him. He wants a family; he needs an heir. Ergo, he must get a wife--and this year’s candidate even looks like his lost love. But his old friend Ellie is behaving strangely, and Reggie, Mama’s cat, keeps bringing him a pair of shocking red underwear. This outrageous, alluring scrap of silk couldn’t be Ellie’s, could it? Suddenly his respectable old friend is invading his dreams in an utterly scandalous manner.
Named one of ALA Booklist’s top ten romances for 2012
"Once again MacKenzie creates a historical romance that will keep readers entertained from beginning to end."
"[A]n engaging tale that balances greed, jealousy, and malice with humor and sweetness."
"A pair of red drawers, a thieving cat, enchanting characters and the match-making Duchess of Love set the tone for MacKenzie's new series. With capable hands, she blends a touch of poignancy with just the right amount of humor into this delightful love story."
~RT Book Reviews
"...guaranteed to have you laughing and sighing..."
~Debby, Single Titles
A man’s pride needs careful handling.
--Venus's Love Notes
Miss Eleanor Bowman stood in the Duchess of Love’s pink guest bedroom and stared at the scrap of red silk spilling out of her valise, her heart stuttering in horror. That wasn’t--
Her brows snapped down. Of course it wasn’t. She was letting her imagination run away with her. The red fabric was merely her Norwich shawl. She distinctly remembered packing it, as she did every year. It was far too fine to wear to darn socks or mind her sisters’ children, but it was just the thing for the duchess’s annual Valentine party. It was her one nod to fashion, the small bit of elegance she still allowed herself.
She snatched the red silk up again, shook it out--and dropped it as if it were a poisonous snake.
Damn it, it wasn’t her shawl. It was those cursed red drawers.
She closed her eyes as the familiar wave of self-loathing crashed over her. She’d made these and a matching red dress to wear to Lord Edward’s betrothal ball five years ago, desperately hoping Ned would see her--really see her--and realize it was she he wanted to marry, not her best friend, Cicely Headley. But Mama had seen her first, when she’d come downstairs to get into the carriage, and had sent her straight back to her room.
She glared down at the red cloth. Thank God Mama had stopped her. If she’d gone to the ball in that dreadful dress, everyone would know she wasn’t any better than a jezebel.
It was no surprise Ned had chosen Cicely. She’d been everything Ellie wasn’t: small, blonde, blue-eyed--beautiful--with a gentle disposition. And then when Cicely and the baby had died in childbirth...
Ellie squeezed her eyes shut again, the mingle-mangle of shame and yearning twisting her gut. She’d mourned with everyone else--sincerely mourned--but she’d also hoped that Ned would turn to her and their friendship would grow into something more.
She snapped her eyes open. Poor Cicely had died four years ago; if Ned were ever going to propose he would have done so by now. She’d faced that fact squarely when she’d turned twenty-six last month. It was time to move on. She wanted babies, and dreams of Ned wouldn’t give her those.
She picked up the drawers. She’d dispose of this ridiculous reminder of--
“Ah, here you are, Ellie.”
“Ack!” She jumped and spun around. Ned’s mother, the Duchess of Love--or, more properly, the Duchess of Greycliffe--stood in the doorway, looking at her with warm brown eyes so like Ned’s.
“Oh, dear, I’m sorry.” Her grace’s smile collapsed into a frown. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Ellie took a deep breath and hoped the duchess couldn’t see her heart banging around in her chest. “You didn’t s-startle me.” If she looked calm, she’d be calm. She’d been practicing that trick ever since her red silk disgrace.
And what was there to be anxious about after all? The duchess’s house parties were always pleasant.
Ha! They were torture.
“I was going to look for you later.” Ellie tried to smile.
“Then I’ve saved you the trouble.” The duchess had an impish gleam in her eye. “I thought we might have a comfortable coze before everyone else arrives.”
Ellie’s stomach clenched, and all her carefully cultivated calm evaporated. There was no such thing as a “comfortable coze” with the Duchess of Love. “That would be, ah”--deep breath--“lovely.”
“Splendid! Come have a seat and I’ll ring for tea.” Her grace grasped the tasseled bell-pull and paused, her gaze dropping to Ellie’s hands. “But what have you there?”
“W-what?” Ellie glanced down. Oh, blast. “Nothing.” She dropped the embarrassing silk undergarment on the night table; it promptly slithered to the floor. Good, it would be less noticeable there. “I was unpacking when you came in.”
The duchess frowned again. “Should I come back later then?”
“No, of course not.” There was no point in putting this interview off. The sooner she knew the woman’s plans, the sooner she could plan evasive--
She clenched her teeth. No, not this year.
“Yes.” Ellie moved away from the incriminating red fabric.
“Excellent.” Her grace tugged on the bell-pull and sat in the pink upholstered chair, her back to the puddle of silk. “I told Mrs. Dalton to have Cook send up some of her special macaroons. It will be a while until dinner, and we need to keep up our strength, don’t we?”
“I’m afraid I’m not hungry.” Ellie would almost rather dance on the castle’s parapets naked--or wearing only those damn red drawers--than put anything in her mouth at the moment. She perched on a chair across from Ned’s mother.
“Oh.” The duchess’s face fell.
“But, please, don’t let me keep you from having something.” It was a wonder the woman stayed so slim; she had a prodigious sweet tooth.
Her grace smiled hopefully. “Perhaps you’ll feel hungrier when you see Cook’s macaroons.”
“Perhaps.” And perhaps pigs would fly. Ellie cleared her throat. “You had something of a particular nature you wished to discuss, your grace?”
No, good. Very good. Excellent.
The ton hadn’t christened Ned’s mother the Duchess of Love for nothing; she’d been matchmaking for as long as Ellie could remember, usually with great success. Ellie was one of her few failures, but this year would be different. This year Ellie was determined to cooperate.
“I was chatting with your mama the other day,” the duchess was saying, her eyes rather too direct. “She’s quite concerned about your future, you know.”
Ellie shifted on her chair. Of course she knew--Mama never missed an opportunity to remind her that her future looked very bleak indeed. She’d been going on and on about it while Ellie packed, telling her how, if she allowed herself to dwindle into an old maid, she’d be forced to rely on the charity of her younger sisters, forever shuttled between their homes, always an aunt, never a mother.
Perhaps that’s why she’d brought those damn drawers instead of her shawl; she’d been so distracted, she could probably have packed the chamber pot and not noticed. “I believe Mama likes to worry.”
The duchess laughed. “Well, that’s what mothers do--worry--as I’m sure you’ll learn yourself someday.”
“Ah.” Ellie swallowed.
Her grace leaned forward to touch her knee. “You do want to be a mother, don’t you?”
Ellie swallowed again. “Y-yes.” She wanted children so badly she was giving up her dream of Ned--her ridiculous, pointless, foolish dream. “Of course. Eventually.”
The duchess gave her a pointed look. “My dear, you are twenty-six years old. Eventually is now.”
Ellie pressed her lips together. Very true. Hadn’t she just reached the same conclusion?
“And to be a mother, you must first be a wife.” Her grace sat back. “To be a wife, you need to attach some gentleman’s--some eligible gentleman’s--regard. I believe you spent a little too much time with Ash last year. That will never do.”
“I like Ash.” The Marquis of Ashton, the duchess’s oldest son, was intelligent and witty...and safe.
“Of course you like Ash, dear, but I must tell you more than one person remarked to me how often you were in his company.”
Ellie narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Only that you appeared to be ignoring all the other gentlemen.”
She’d been trying so hard to ignore Ned--to hide how much she longed for him--that she hadn’t noticed the other gentlemen. “Certainly you aren’t insinuating...no one thought...” She shook her head. “Ash is married.”
The duchess sighed. “Yes, he is, at least according to church and state.”
“And according to his heart.” Ellie met the duchess’s gaze directly. “You mustn’t think he encouraged any kind of impropriety. He still loves Jess; I’m sure they’ll reconcile.”
The duchess grunted. “I hope I live to see it. But in any event, I don’t believe anyone truly thought there was something of a romantic nature between you--”
“I should hope not!”
“However people are so small-minded, you know, and they love to gossip, especially about Ash’s awkward situation.”
“I know.” Ellie hated how the marriageable girls and their mamas clearly hoped Jess would magically vanish and thus cease to be an impediment to Ash’s remarriage. Some had actually said they doubted Jess existed. “It makes me so angry.”
Her grace waved Ellie’s anger away. “Yes, well, Ash can take care of himself. What really matters is the fact you were ignoring the other gentlemen, Ellie. It quite discourages the poor dears.”
Her grace gave her a speaking look. “I assure you most men...well, I wouldn’t call them timid, precisely, but they hate to be rejected. If you wish a gentleman to court you, you must give him some encouragement--a smile, a look, something to let him know you would welcome his attentions. You cannot be forever scowling and dodging.”
“I don’t scowl or dodge.”
The duchess’s brows rose. “No? What about Mr. Bridgeton last year? I was certain you two would be extremely compatible and made every effort to throw you together, but whenever I looked to see how things were progressing, you were chatting with Ash, and Mr. Bridgeton was crying on Miss Albert’s shoulder.”
Which one had been Mr. Bridgeton? The sandy-haired man with the receding chin or the tall, thin fellow with the enormous Adam’s apple? “There was no one crying on anyone’s shoulder.”
“Figuratively speaking, of course.” The duchess shrugged. “I confess Miss Albert was my other choice for him. I do usually have more than one match up my sleeve, you know, since I’ve found young people can be somewhat unpredictable.” She smiled rather blandly. “They married last summer, by the by, and are expecting an interesting event this spring.”
Ellie felt a momentary twinge of envy. Mr. Bridgeton--she was almost certain he was the sandy-haired one--had been pleasant. His only fault was he hadn’t been Ned.
Well, whomever she ultimately married wouldn’t be Ned, either. “Whom have you invited...I mean, have you invited any gentlemen that I might...er, men who might...” Oh, blast, her face felt as if it was as red as those damn silk drawers. “You know.”
Her grace beamed at her. “Of course I’ve invited some gentlemen who might be suitable matches for you.”
Ellie willed herself to keep smiling. It would get easier with time...it had to. She cleared her throat. Her mouth was infernally dry. “Who?”
The duchess leaned forward. “First, there’s Mr. Humphrey. He’s a little younger than you and very, ah...earnest. He’s just inherited a small estate from his great aunt; rumor has it he wishes to start his nursery immediately.”
“Ah.” Mr. Humphrey sounded terribly dull...but dullness was fine. She wanted babies, not conversation. And he apparently wanted babies, too. Excellent.
“And then there’s Mr. Cox. He’s one of the Earl of Bollant’s brood, the fourth--or perhaps the fifth--son. He’s very popular with the ladies and a trifle wild, but he’s shown some signs of being ready to settle down. He’s to go into the church, so you could be very helpful to him, your papa being a vicar.”
“I see.” Taking charge of some silly sprig of the nobility was not especially appealing, but the man did have a number of brothers. With luck he would be equally skilled at procreating, though it would be nice to have a daughter or two as well.
The duchess was smiling at her, a rather expectant look on her face. Did she want her to pick one right now?
“I...er, they both sound very...pleasant, but...” Remember, she wanted children. “Well, I suppose I will have to meet them.”
“Yes, indeed.” The duchess glanced at the door. “Ah, here is Thomas with the tea tray.”
One of the footmen came in, a large ginger cat, tail high in the air, strolling along behind him.
“Reggie!” Ned’s mother bent to scratch her pet’s ears. “Did you come for a treat?”
Reggie meowed and butted his head against her hand.
“Cook sent up Sir Reginald’s dish, your grace,” Thomas said, putting down the tray.
“Excellent. Please give Cook my thanks.”
“Very good, your grace.” Thomas bowed and retreated while the duchess poured Reggie a generous saucer of cream and put the dish on the floor.
Ellie kept one eye on the cat, lapping delicately, as she prepared the tea. Reggie looked harmless, but he’d caused quite a commotion last year, stealing feathers and other items from the ladies--and at least one of the gentlemen--and hiding them under Ned’s bed. He’d even snatched the stuffed pheasant from Lady Perford’s favorite hat. Lady Perford had not been pleased.
“Has Reggie given up his thieving ways, your grace?”
“I don’t know, as he hasn’t had another opportunity to misbehave.” She snorted. “As you well know, Greycliffe hates having any of the ton underfoot and grumbles from the moment they arrive until the last one departs.”
It was true the duke rarely looked happy during the Valentine house parties. “How does his grace bear your London balls?” Ellie asked, handing the duchess a cup of tea. She used to read the London gossip columns, but as she only ever saw Jack, the youngest of the Valentine brothers, mentioned, she no longer bothered.
“With as much patience as he can muster which is not very much, but since people expect dukes to be annoyingly haughty, it just adds to his consequence.” Her eyes twinkled as she sipped her tea. “And it makes people toady him all the more which infuriates him further. No, once a month for four months a Season is the very limit of what he can tolerate. And a ball is only one evening. This...” She shook her head and sighed. “But it is my birthday as well as the boys’, and he knows how important it is to me, so he grits his teeth and endures. You can imagine how much he’s hoping Ned will remarry and Jack will wed soon so I have no more need to have these gatherings.”
“Ah.” Ellie forced a smile. “Yes.” She knew the main point of the damn party was to find Ned--and Jack, of course--a suitable wife. “I can see that.”
The duchess glanced down at Reggie who was now cleaning his paws. “Greycliffe is actually hoping Reggie pilfers things again. He thought it made the gathering much more interesting.”
Interesting was one way to describe the screaming and tears Lady Perford had treated them to upon finding her mangled pheasant.
Ellie took a sustaining sip of tea. She might as well know everything now; it would make it easier to appear composed in company. “And whom have you invited for Jack”--she swallowed--“and N-Ned?”
Damn, her voice cracked. Perhaps the duchess hadn’t noticed.
And perhaps Reggie would leap upon the tea table and sing an aria.
At least Ned’s mother didn’t comment beyond a raised eyebrow. “I’d originally had Miss Prudence Merriweather in mind for Jack,” she said, “however the girl eloped with Mr. Bamford three weeks ago. Quite a shock to everyone, but of course I must take it as a blessing. She clearly would not have done for Jack if she was in love with another man.”
Her grace sent her a significant, if obscure, look. Ellie took another sip of tea.
“I had to scramble a bit,” her grace continued somewhat dryly, “but I found Miss Isabelle Wharton to take her place. I’ve never actually met the girl, you understand, but my friend Lady Altman says she is quite striking. I imagine Jack would appreciate a lovely bride.” She shrugged slightly. “And if the match comes to nothing, well, Jack is only your age. He has plenty of time.”
“Yes.” Twenty-six was young for a man; it was firmly on the shelf for a woman.
“And as for Ned”--her grace shot Ellie another indecipherable look--“I invited Lady Juliet Ramsbottom, the Duke of Extley’s youngest daughter, with him in mind.”
A vise clamped around Ellie’s heart. Stupid. A duke’s daughter was an excellent choice for a duke’s son. She nodded and took a larger swallow of tea. If only there was some brandy at hand to flavor it.
“Frankly, I hope to see you and Ned married this summer.”
Ellie choked--and made the unpleasant discovery that it was possible to snort tea out one’s nose.
“Oh, dear.” The duchess leapt up and slapped her on the back. “Are you all right?”
Ellie, gasping, fished her handkerchief out of her pocket and waved her hand, trying to get the duchess to stop pounding on her. She would be fine if she could just catch her breath.
Of course Ned’s mother hadn’t meant she hoped to see Ellie married to Ned, only that she hoped both their nuptials would happen this summer.
The duchess pounded harder.
“Please,” Ellie gasped, “don’t--”
Through watery eyes, she watched Reggie abandon his ablutions and head toward...
“Ah, ah, ah.”
“What are you trying to say, dear?” The duchess paused in her pummeling. If she happened to glance in the direction Ellie’s horrified eyes were staring, she’d see Reggie sniffing a pair of red silk drawers.
Ellie sprang to her feet. Panic miraculously cleared her throat. “I’m fine,” she croaked. “Wonderful. Fit as a fiddle.” She glanced over her shoulder. Now Reggie was batting at the drawers with one paw.
She shifted her position to block the duchess’s view.
“I shouldn’t tease you, I know,” her grace said. Her eyes dimmed and she sighed, shoulders drooping. She suddenly looked every one of her fifty years. “I’ve certainly learned harping on a subject doesn’t get results. If it did, my boys would all be happily married.”
“I’m sure they will be, your grace.” Ellie impulsively laid her hand on the duchess’s arm. She hated to see her so blue-deviled. “Just give them time.”
“Time.” The duchess bit her lip as if she’d like to say more on that head. She let out a short, sharp breath and shrugged, smiling a little. “It’s only...well, I’m so happy with the duke. Is it wrong to want that happiness for my sons?”
“Of course not, your grace, but your situation is rather extraordinary.” The duke and duchess had fallen in love at first sight when they were both very young. Even more unusual, they’d been happily married for over thirty years and, by all accounts, completely faithful to each other. There was probably not another couple like them in all the English nobility.
Ellie glanced at Reggie again. Damn it. Now the drawers were over his head. If he got caught in them...
“I know,” her grace said. “When I look around the ton, I see so many unpleasant unions.” She shook her head. “Well, just consider Ash and Jess. They’ve been separated for eight years now.”
Ellie wrenched her gaze away from Reggie’s activities. “I’m certain they will reconcile eventually.”
“But when?” The duchess’s voice was tight with frustration. “Ash will be the duke; the duchy needs an heir, and neither he nor Jess is getting any younger.” She frowned. “And I want a grandchild or two before I’m completely in my dotage.”
Damnation. Reggie was now coming their way, the silk drawers in his mouth. Ellie took the duchess’s arm and started to walk toward the door with her.
“Ash--and Ned and Jack--can manage their own lives, your grace. You must know you’ve raised them well.”
The duchess sighed. “And there’s nothing I can do about it anyway, is there?” She paused and glanced around. “Where has Reggie got to?”
“Likely he finished his cream and left,” Ellie said. The blasted cat had just passed behind the duchess’s skirts and out the door. Where the hell was he going? Certainly not...last year he had...but he wouldn’t this year, would he? “Has Ned”--Ellie caught herself--“and Jack arrived yet?”
“Oh, no. I don’t expect them for a while.”
Ellie almost collapsed with relief. If Reggie was taking her undergarment to Ned’s room, she’d have time to get it back before anyone--especial Ned--found it. “I hope they reach the castle before the storm. Mrs. Dalton was just saying her rheumatism is acting up.”
“Oh, dear. Mrs. Dalton’s rheumatism never lies.” The duchess stopped on the threshold and smiled, her good spirits returning. “Just think! You young people can go on sleigh rides.”
“I’m hardly young.” At the moment she just wanted to chase down one misbehaving cat.
“Oh, don’t be such a wet rag; you’ll freeze stiff in this weather.” The duchess laughed. “You can make snow angels, and I’m sure the men will get into a snowball battle.”
“Everyone will be cold and wet.” Ellie did not want to play in the snow. Such activities were for children.
“And there are ever so many games and things we can do inside.” Her grace clapped her hands. “You know, I have the greatest hope this will be a wonderful party.”
“Er, yes.” Just wonderful, though perhaps snow would be better than rain or general February dreariness.
The duchess patted her arm. “And I have great hopes for you as well, dear.” She stepped into the corridor. “I’ll expect you downstairs in the blue drawing room before dinner. Don’t be late.”
Ellie watched the duchess walk down the passage--and the moment she turned the corner, she bolted for Ned’s room.
Copyright © 2012 by Sally MacKenzie