Read The Duke in Disguise Online
Authors: Gayle Callen
Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #General, #Love Stories, #Historical, #England - Social Life and Customs - 19th Century, #Historical Fiction, #Nobility, #Governesses
Sisters of Willow Pond 02:
The Duke in Disguise
The Duke in Disguise
To my son, Jim,
now off on your own
and exploring the world.
May every goal you pursue
bring you the same happiness
you've brought me.
Meriel Shelby stood on the edge of the cliff, the…
It was difficult to keep Stephen interested in addition and…
After the governess had gone, Richard O'Neill collapsed into a…
Richard felt like a fool. Clearly the fears that Cecil…
As Stephen sat at his elbow, and Miss Shelby sat…
Richard watched how the shadows highlighted the beautiful curves of…
Two days later, Meriel used her free time during the…
Meriel breathed a sigh of relief when Miss Barome stood…
To stay true to Cecil, Richard made the poor nurse…
Richard was contemplating another evening alone. He'd turned down a…
As Meriel walked down the dirt lane lined with hedgerows,…
Alone in his room, Richard collapsed in a chair and…
The next day, Meriel took Stephen for a long walk…
Meriel managed to avoid the Impostor Duke for the three…
Meriel and Stephen were studying a globe in the library…
Richard heard the pain in the little boy's voice. He'd…
After Meriel had gone, Richard dressed quickly, silently, in case…
Richard could not stop looking at Meriel, bedraggled from the…
Richard was caught up in a need so profound he'd…
The next afternoon, Meriel was listening to Stephen's Sunday catechism…
Meriel couldn't discuss Charles's visit at dinner, and it took…
Through the night, part of Meriel berated her weakness where…
Meriel wanted to give Richard and Stephen more time alone,…
Meriel was so busy for the next several days that…
Richard fought his every impulse to strangle Charles, to see…
About the Author
Other Books by Gayle Callen
About the Publisher
eriel Shelby stood on the edge of the cliff, the wind swaying tall grass against her skirt, and looked out over the glistening North Sea. Watching the sun sparkle off foam whitecaps on the waves, she could imagine the bend of land off to the north, hiding the mouth of the Thames. She felt peaceful, alone, away from Thanet Court and the strangers she now worked for. But she knew she couldn't stay away long, so she turned and started back down the narrow, well-worn path. Little Stephen, the future Duke of Thanet, would be with his nurse, but it was time to resume his studies for the afternoon.
Meriel had never imagined that she would one day be forced to earn her living as a governess. She'd been a child of wealth, whose father earned his success as a banker to the nobility. Not quite a gentleman, of course, but she hadn't really seen the difference. She'd been educated and trained as a lady, meant to be the bride of a wealthy man— preferably a peer, if her mother had gotten her way.
Practical Meriel had understood the need for a husband and was not against the concept. She had always planned to make a logical decision on a man that she had much in common with. If love happened after that, then she would have been fortunate.
But all those plans dissolved with the death of her father, and the revelations that he'd died penniless and that her mother had known of their precarious finances.
Meriel's emotions varied wildly, from grief to the clutch of anger that never quite went away, and disappointment in her own ignorance. Why hadn't she recognized the signs of imminent trouble? Her parents' betrayal was a bitterness that still clouded her every judgment and left her with a heavy guilt that should not be hers to bear.
Her childhood home had been bought by a distant cousin, who would soon return and take possession. Meriel and her sister Louisa had secured positions as a governess and a companion, but their wages had not stretched as they'd all hoped. Her sister Victoria had been forced to sell family heirlooms to feed their mother, who was so devastated by her fate that she had to be coerced from her bedroom.
But a beacon of hope had come only last week— Victoria was getting married. It was a shock to think that her shy sister had been proposed to by a viscount! Their mother would have a place to live. It eased the burden on Meriel, who had been sending home as much of her meager salary as she could these past months. It had been a long struggle to this point.
She had lost her first governess position due to the wife's jealousy. Meriel had since learned to hide her golden curls with a severe hairstyle, mask her blue eyes with glass spectacles, and dress as plainly as possible. Luckily, her new position had no duchess to critically oversee her. That was one of the reasons she'd been glad to accept it.
Little Stephen had been alone but for the servants. His father, the Duke of Thanet, spent most of the year in London, the center of every gathering, socializing into the night, sleeping away half the day. Perhaps it was good that Stephen was not exposed to that, she thought wryly.
The grass swishing past her skirts gave way to a trim lawn overlooking Thanet Court, which was set lower than the cliffs. The house sprawled across the grounds, a living thing, three stories tall, with a turret housing the grand staircase, and hundreds of windows glittering in the sun. Meriel had grown up wealthy, but Thanet Court was like a palace to her. She'd gotten lost almost every day the first week of her employment.
Starting down the hillside, she remembered her naiveté when she'd first begun her new position. She had always admired her own governess, who'd filled Meriel with a love of learning. Mathematics had made the world seem a logical place, and she had appreciated the orderliness of it. She wanted to pass that on to her student.
Instead she'd found a six-year-old boy who'd been allowed to roam his estate like a wild thing. His mother had died at birth, leaving him with an absent father and longtime family servants who coddled him with their love. Meriel had expected resistance— especially when Stephen had informed her in a well-rehearsed sentence that his title was the Marquess of Ramsgate— but he was polite and inquisitive, and over the last several weeks, she thought she was making progress acquiring his trust.
Then they received word that the duke was returning to Thanet Court for an extended stay as he recovered from a recent illness. The servants did not openly say what he suffered from, but their urgent whispers were filled with the word "consumption." Stephen had seemed sad and worried, and Meriel had felt a maternal instinct to protect him as her parents hadn't protected her.
She was halfway down the hill, almost into the formal gardens, when in the distance she saw someone riding up to the estate. Shielding her eyes with her hand, she squinted, but all she could see was a man riding with quiet precision. He avoided the portico that sheltered the grand entrance to the mansion, and instead guided the horse alongside the building, heading for the servants' entrance. Yet the man rode like no servant she'd ever seen, and he was certainly dressed far too fashionably.
Then he pulled the horse to a stop and glanced up at the building. Without his hat shading his face from the sun, Meriel recognized him as the duke himself, whom she'd met when he interviewed her two months before. She'd thought him an arrogant, idle, handsome man, with little interest in his son. But he'd certainly been a man cognizant of his high status in the world.
He could not possibly have ridden all the way from London alone, a journey of several days if he didn't change horses. Where were his carriage, his coachman and valet, his outriders?
Instead the duke seemed to hesitate, and he turned his horse back toward the front entrance and rode up beneath the portico. Before he could even dismount, several servants spilled out of the door as if they'd been waiting for him. After a groom took his horse, the butler escorted him inside. Meriel was left to stare after him, puzzled by his behavior.
Putting aside her curiosity, she hurried back through the garden to the servants' entrance, knowing that Nurse Weston might need her help should Stephen's father wish to see him. The nursery was above the master suite, with its own private staircase to connect parents to children. As far as she knew, no one had ever come up that way to see Stephen. The nursery had a washroom and several bedrooms for the nurse and children. The schoolroom was down a little corridor within the nursery, with Meriel's own bedroom next door. The bedroom was not as large and airy as her own in London, but it had a beautiful view of the grounds and orchard, with a distant glimpse of the blue sea.
She was just about to go looking for Stephen when his nurse knocked on her open door.
"Miss Shelby?" Nurse Weston said, folding her plump hands beneath her bosom with a practiced gesture.
She spoke with the formality that Meriel was all too familiar with. Meriel was not considered a servant, so the other servants behaved awkwardly around her.
"Yes, Nurse Weston?"
"His Grace is waiting to see you."
?" she asked in surprise. Whyever would the Duke of Thanet want to see his child's governess the moment he returned home after a long absence?
The nurse betrayed a touch of impatience that surprised Meriel.
"His little lordship is getting changed as we speak, Miss Shelby. His Grace would like you to escort his son to him."
"I had assumed you would do such a thing, Nurse."
Again there was a flicker of impatience that made Meriel feel like a fool.
"He doesn't want to see
, Miss Shelby, not when he hired you personally. You're so pleasing to the duke's eye, but perhaps not so smart about such things, eh?"
Her reluctant sympathy made Meriel's stomach tighten, and she couldn't help thinking,
. "I don't understand why such a thing as my appearance should matter. I am his son's governess."
"He likes the women servants to be comely." The woman tried to hide a smirk, but didn't quite succeed.
Meriel eyed the departing nurse suspiciously, realizing that the woman was definitely pretty regardless of her plumpness. Meriel certainly didn't want to attract the duke's attention, so the plain brown gown with the grass-stained hem remained on. She sat at her dressing table, and instead of fixing her wind-blown hair, she loosened a few more curls to scatter untidily over one ear. If she was going into battle, she needed her armor as dented and unappealing as possible. She wanted to keep her position— but she did not want the attention of the duke.
Stephen met her in the nursery corridor, dressed in a clean shirt and trousers, dragging his frock coat behind him. The little boy had dark eyes and dark hair with a lock that always wanted to stand up at the crown of his head. She smoothed it down fondly, and he ducked away, unable to hide his eagerness. He was still young enough to think that this time, his father would pay more attention to him. She understood how he felt; her childhood had been filled with such disappointing moments.
"Miss Shelby, my father has come!" Stephen said, his face tilted up to her, his eyes shining.
She smiled and helped him into his coat. "You'll be on your best behavior, won't you, my lord?"
But she knew Stephen. Like all little boys, he couldn't sit still for long. Whenever she turned away for a moment, she often found him on his knees examining a bug or picking at a scab.
"How long has it been since you've seen your father?" she asked, as they walked down the long corridor to the grand staircase.
"I can't remember," he said, practically bouncing beside her, then running his finger along a table they passed.
"Keep your hands to yourself, my lord." She caught a vase as it tottered.
When they reached the ground floor, Meriel hesitated. "Why don't you lead the way to your father's study?"
Stephen beamed with importance, and she was glad he was still too young to realize she didn't remember the way. She'd been at Thanet Court for only five weeks, and the duke's study was not a room she'd visited.
She caught Stephen before he could barge through the closed door. "Please show your consideration by knocking, my lord."
"But why?" Stephen said. "Mrs. Theobald doesn't make me."
The housekeeper and all the other servants were unintentionally trying to turn Stephen into a regular little peer, arrogance, entitlement, and all.
"Mrs. Theobald loves you and always looks forward to your visits," Meriel said, "but adults have business that children cannot be privy to. You must always knock."
"Oh very well," he grumbled. He knocked quickly and danced in his little boots as he waited.
A man's voice called for them to enter, and Meriel felt an unfamiliar worry. The duke had hired her; she was confident that she could prove she was a valuable employee. But what if he wanted certain other…needs met?
Stephen opened the door, and to her satisfaction, he entered at a walk instead of a run. The room had long, tall windows that cast sunshine across the floor. It took her a moment to see the duke's desk in a corner, surrounded by bookshelves and glass cabinets. The last time she'd met the man, he'd seemed very bored with the need to interview a mere governess. He'd been talkative, but so easily distracted by anything on the desk, or an everyday item he'd never noticed in the room before. He'd been only a man she needed to impress; titles had never overawed her. And then he'd been recently ill. She'd warned Stephen to be prepared for this.
But now something was different. The duke had obviously recovered. Indeed, he was a picture of good health, as he lounged to one side in his leather wingback chair. His head rested against the back, his posture as casual as she remembered it. He had black, close-cropped hair, but gone were his muttonchop sideburns and his mustache. His face looked strangely bare— masculine cheekbones above a mouth thin and sensuous.
His dark eyes seemed to study Stephen with an intensity that she would never have thought him capable of. It vanished a moment later, leaving her to question if she'd really seen it.
Why did she feel so…off-balance? She'd met the duke before; other than his facial hair, nothing had changed. But now she was nervous, and staring at him too much, and she wanted to fidget. The room seemed too hot.
"Stephen, it is good to see you," the duke said, rising to his feet.
She'd once thought his gracefulness a vain, practiced art, but now it seemed very much a part of him.
What was wrong with her?
The duke came around the desk and stood in front of them. Meriel had to look up at him. She was short in stature, which made him not all that tall for a man, but he seemed…taller, powerful, broad through the shoulders, stocky through the chest. He was dressed as immaculately as before, in bright patterned London colors, a man who obviously took pride in the clothing that adorned him like the brushstrokes necessary to a masterpiece.
She wanted to groan. Since when had she become a secret poet? She was a woman with a head for figures: mathematics was her specialty. She taught literature only because it was expected of her. Words were not something that called to her soul.
But she found she wanted to…describe the duke. Luckily, his attention was for his son.
Stephen stared up at his father, and Meriel found herself touching the boy's shoulder. He remembered to bow then, but he still looked up at the duke with curiosity. How long had it truly been since they'd seen each other?
"Hello, Father," Stephen said, wariness making his voice sound even higher than normal.
Meriel was glad to put all her concentration back on her pupil, where it belonged. He would need her comfort when his father dismissed him. Mrs. Theobald had warned her about the duke's disregard.
To her shock, the duke knelt on one knee to look in the boy's face.
"You are well, Stephen?"
"Of course, Father." The little boy was tense, his fidgeting gone.
"I see you've begun your studies. I hope you've been behaving for your governess."
"Yes, Father. I like her."
They discussed her as if she wasn't there. Even after all these months, it still took Meriel a moment to remember that she was almost a servant now.
"She likes numbers, just like I do," Stephen continued, his words rushing faster and faster as if he might be stopped. "We go on long walks and we even find things in the woods, like birds' nests and beetles and flowers. Miss Shelby knows