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…
2013 RITA® finalist
Winner New Jersey Romance Writers 2012 Golden Leaf Award for Best Novella
Finalist 2012 National Readers’ Choice Awards, Novella
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.”
“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 explanation.
“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 passage.”
“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 by.”
“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 Venus?”
“Yes.” Venus 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.”
The housekeeper 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 approachable girls.
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 you say?”
Archie barked twice in apparent agreement.
“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 pockets or--
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 Huffington.
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 life.
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 favorite spots.
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 today?
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 the shift...
She closed her eyes, imagining the cool water rushing over her naked flesh.
No. That was too scandalous.
But Archie didn’t care what she wore-or didn’t wear--and there was no one else to see.
Archie, obviously sensing he might have company, ran back and forth on the bank, barking encouragement.
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.
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 Greycliffe.
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 in.”
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 thinking clearly.”
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.”
“Difficult? It’s impossible. I won’t do it.” Nigel drained the mug he’d offered Drew.
Nigel didn’t 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 right.”
Drew laughed. “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.”
Nigel snorted. “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 tree trunk.
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 her shift.
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.
Copyright © 2012 by Sally MacKenzie