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
lone in his room, Richard collapsed in a chair and let his head fall back.
What had he done? He was supposed to flirt with the maids and avoid Meriel all together. Instead, she'd come into his study, and he'd forced himself on her the moment they were alone.
Hell, he'd asked her to stop him, and she hadn't. But she was an innocent young woman, and he was a man who knew where such things led. She had morals and principles; sleeping with an employer was something she would never do.
Richard knew that it would be better for him were she gone. There would be no danger of losing control as he flirted with the maids, unlike with Meriel, who set his mind dwelling on provocative thoughts rather than his real mission at Thanet Court.
And Meriel was too intelligent not to eventually discover the truth about his masquerade.
But how could he punish her by relieving her of her governess duties after only a few months? He could not take away her only source of livelihood when it was his fault that she was in this predicament. What if her sister's husband refused to have her in his household?
Richard would just have to apologize and hope she accepted. He would promise to stay far away from her.
But the real duke wouldn't apologize, nor would he leave her alone. What was Richard supposed to do?
* * *
The next morning, Meriel used her free time to search out Mrs. Theobald, who was overseeing the kitchen maids as they made preserves.
When they were finally alone in the housekeeper's sitting room, Mrs. Theobald stood with her hands on her hips. "Miss Shelby, I don't mean to be rude, but I'm very busy. Can we not talk later?"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Theobald, but this is my only free time until dinner, when I'm certain you shall be far too busy to talk to me." She took a deep breath. "I was reorganizing the schoolroom and came across some books and papers with the name Richard O'Neill on them. Do you know who he is?"
Meriel thought that Mrs. Theobald's face paled, but it was hard to tell since they'd just left the hot kitchen.
"The duke's half brother, miss," the housekeeper said, lowering her voice.
a brother. This changed everything.
"It's been over ten years since he lived here," Mrs. Theobald continued. "It's an awkward situation, with Mr. O'Neill being illegitimate and all. The duke asked the staff not to discuss his brother with his son, so you won't need to cover Mr. O'Neill in your ancestry lessons. Now if you'll excuse me."
Meriel had no choice but to let the housekeeper leave. She had a feeling she wasn't going to get any more from Mrs. Theobald— or the rest of the staff— about such a sensitive subject. And if she blurted out her suspicions about the duke being replaced by his brother, everyone would think she was crazy. After all, Richard O'Neill could be a balding, portly man.
Who else could she talk to?
Renee Barome had been a friend of the duke's since childhood. Miss Barome had asked her to tea, but Meriel had been unable to go before leaving for London. Meriel would just have to rudely invite herself over. She ran back up to her room, wrote and sealed a note, and found a groom willing to deliver the letter.
But she still had to face dinner with the duke— or whoever he was. She could only imagine the knowing smirk he'd give her after the way she'd kissed him. Would he think she stayed because she was
Her impending confrontation with him affected everything she did. Stephen complained when they did all their lessons in the schoolroom instead of venturing outside. Meriel did not want to risk running into the duke.
She watched the little boy with pity heavy in her heart, worried about the effect on him should the duke be an impostor. Stephen finally felt like he had a father to cherish.
What was she supposed to do if she found out that her suspicions were fact? She could tell the senior staff and let them deal with it. Or she could confront the impostor or go to the police.
Her mind was awhirl with disjointed thoughts and conflicting theories. The day passed much too quickly, and then it was time to bring Stephen to the dining room.
She tried to downplay her features, pulling her hair back tight enough that her eyes felt stretched apart. Since she hadn't slept much last night, her face was surely lined with fatigue. Her heart pounded so loudly that she could swear her bodice vibrated.
The duke— she could think of him no other way, not yet— was already sipping wine when they arrived. She deliberately looked anywhere but into his face as she sat down beside Stephen. The boy chattered on about the latest training session with the wolfhounds. Her throat ached with suppressed tears as she listened to his happy words.
When Stephen stopped talking long enough to take a bite of his pigeon pie, the duke said, "Miss Shelby, I thought I would hear about new plans of yours today."
She was caught off guard and looked at him without thinking. He watched her as directly as always, but he looked neither apologetic nor smug. Simply curious.
"Your Grace, you're not asking me to consult you about Lord Ramsgate's lesson plans, are you?"
"Of course not. But when I didn't see you and Stephen today, I thought something new must have happened to distract you. I'm glad to see I was wrong."
She knew exactly why he was curious— he was wondering if she was leaving his employ. Did he expect her to? Or did he assume she would not dare to? She wished she knew the truth, so she could decide how to think of him. As it was, she felt confused and worried and still too attracted to him.
Whoever he was.
God, what did that say about her judgment? she thought bitterly. Either he was a lecherous duke or a criminal impostor. And she
wanted to experience his kiss again. There had been something magical, something soul shattering between them, and she worried that she would never experience its like again.
She wondered how she could lock her door to keep
in at night.
* * *
For two days, Meriel kept an entire house between herself and the "duke" except for dinner, where she spoke very little. She assumed the duke thought she was still angry about the kiss— which she was, of course, but she was more upset that he might be an impostor. She felt terribly, terribly confused.
On Sunday afternoon after church, she requested the use of a horse to ride to Miss Barome's. After receiving directions from Mrs. Theobald, she rode through the countryside, smelling the sea, which was out of sight behind the rising hills. Miss Barome's home was not a mansion like Thanet Court, but it was old and elegant, as befit the station of her widower father, who was a local landowner and justice of the peace. Meriel assumed that Miss Barome took care of him. Certainly she could have been married if she'd wanted to.
Miss Barome showed her to the garden, and they sat outside amid the roses and had tea at a little white marble table with matching benches. For several minutes they talked about their education and their pastimes. They even had a friend in common. Meriel was enjoying herself so much that she almost hated to begin steering the conversation toward her true goal for the day.
Miss Barome smiled as she poured Meriel another cup of tea. "So how was your sister's wedding?"
"Lovely, thank you," Meriel said, accepting her cup and saucer. "Victoria does not know her husband well, but he seems like a decent man. I hope they'll be happy. I'm anxiously awaiting her next letter."
"If she's anything like you, I'm sure she'll succeed admirably."
Meriel eyed her. "Miss Barome, that is such a gracious compliment, but how can you assume that about me?"
"You've had to make your way in the world as a governess," Miss Barome said, offering a plate of tiny sandwiches. "I often wonder if I could be so brave were my circumstances reduced."
"Of course you would be. Just look how you stand up to the duke." Now they were into the subject Meriel really wanted to discuss.
"But that's easy. It's just Cecil, after all. To me, he'll always be the boy who pushed me into streams and brought me frogs."
"Ah, so there was no one to curb his boyish enthusiasm?"
"There was his brother, Richard, of course," Miss Barome said matter-of-factly.
Meriel found herself sitting on the edge of her seat, tea forgotten.
"Cecil worshipped him," Miss Barome continued, "but not enough to follow his example. You see, Richard was a serious, quietly ambitious boy."
"I'm surprised there is not a painting of the duke's brother in the portrait gallery," Meriel said.
Miss Barome lowered her voice. "Well, that is the sad part. Richard is illegitimate."
"Oh my." Meriel felt like a fraud, but how could she confess that she'd already come by this information by snooping?
"Before the old duke married, Richard was practically treated as the heir. But once the duchess arrived, and then Cecil was born, she made sure that Richard knew his place."
Meriel felt a twinge of sympathy, but she quickly banished it. After all, Richard O'Neill could be taking out his anger on the family right now.
"So was he sent away?"
Miss Barome sighed. "Are you sure you don't mind hearing all these old tales? I don't wish to bore you."
Meriel tried to smile normally, though she was tense with the need for the truth. "It's important to know these things. He is my pupil's uncle, after all. So how long did he live at Thanet Court?"
"Until he was twelve, when he went away to school like so many other boys his age."
"Then he was treated decently by the duke, fed and housed and educated."
"Oh yes, and he would be the first one to tell you that."
"You've seen him recently?"
"No, he hasn't been home for many years. There probably are not that many good memories for him. But he used his chance at education well. Last I heard, he'd graduated from Cambridge, and was quite the successful investor and businessman in Manchester."
"Did he and the duke remain close?"
"I can't say for certain, since even the duke and I don't see each other enough anymore. My father has been ill, so I don't get up to London as often as I used to. But from what Cecil has led me to believe, he still sees his brother several times a year."
"That's surprising. I didn't think the duke liked being out of London— except for Thanet Court, of course."
"Richard occasionally comes to London on business. When the two of them are in the same city, I imagine the sightings begin again." Miss Barome smiled, her eyes full of fond memories.
"The sightings?" Meriel asked in confusion.
"That's what we used to call it when someone would mistake one brother for the other."
Meriel simply blinked at her hostess, while inside her, panic and fear bounced off each other. "So they looked alike?" Her voice squeaked, and she had to clear her throat.
Miss Barome laughed. "We noticed it most when Richard would come home from school for holidays. By then, Cecil was getting old enough that the brothers were more alike in height. Cecil used to enjoy teasing his mother, but I know Richard didn't care for the masquerade, because of the duchess's furious reaction. Richard had a hard time saying no to Cecil. During those years, wherever one would go, he would often be mistaken for the other. Cecil used to tell us, 'I had another sighting today,' and make us laugh with how he would lead the poor person on as a joke. When it happened to Richard, he was always very careful to correct the person immediately. He never wanted to be accused of taking the place of a future duke."
"But he had to know that the dukedom could have been his, but for the circumstances of birth."
Miss Barome sighed and sat back, looking out over her garden. "He never talked about it. In fact, I thought he rather disapproved of the way his father and Cecil behaved as peers."
So would Richard scheme to prove that he could do it better? Meriel would have enjoyed discussing it with Miss Barome, who probably could have provided more answers. But she didn't want to entangle the woman in what could be a dangerous plot.
On the ride back to Thanet Court, Meriel considered every motive that Richard O'Neill could have for assuming the dukedom. Had he hidden his lust for power all these years, plotted and planned until he could make it happen? Maybe he had even come up with the scheme as a young man, when everyone was constantly mistaking him for the duke. Or perhaps his investments had gone bad, forcing him to find another way to support himself.
But killing his brother? It just didn't seem like the serious, studious boy Miss Barome described. Nor could she imagine that this man, who seemed to enjoy spending time with Stephen, could kill the boy's father.
The duke was rumored to have been seriously ill. Could he have died, and Mr. O'Neill simply have taken over his life?
Or perhaps the real duke was only being held somewhere while Mr. O'Neill got something he wanted. But what? He seemed in no hurry. He spent his days as Cecil did, although he socialized less. Meriel had even overheard that the tenants had never seen so much of the duke before.
Perhaps he really was righting wrongs, being the duke and the father that his brother should have been. But then did he plan on leaving the country when Cecil came back? Or even going to jail as a martyr to a cause?
Meriel didn't know what to think, or especially what to do. There was no physical proof for her suspicions. Perhaps she should tell Mrs. Theobald, and let
Meriel knew she was letting her own feelings intrude, and she could not trust herself to make the right decision. She'd been lied to by her own parents, and hadn't realized it until it was too late. She'd trusted with her heart and her emotions, not her intellect.
Now with the Impostor Duke, she'd once again submerged the little suspicions she'd had along the way. She'd let her improper feelings for him sway her.
A small part of her considered just putting this behind her, getting out before the impostor was aware of her dangerous knowledge. She knew she could stay temporarily with her married sister.
But Meriel couldn't be that cowardly. Stephen was going to be crushed when he discovered the truth. And if his father was dead—
She couldn't imagine how the boy would recover from such a thing. He needed her now— he needed her to find a way to the truth. If she tried to bring in the police, no one would believe her, and she'd be removed from the household, leaving Stephen vulnerable.
She would have to discover Mr. O'Neill's motives, and what he hoped to accomplish. She needed proof, so that she'd be taken seriously. It would help to have accomplices, and she'd gradually see if Mrs. Theobald or even Miss Barome might believe her.
But until then, she would have to work on her own. And she could never leave Stephen alone with his father again. For after all, Mr. O'Neill had been showing too much interest in his nephew, the future duke. What reason could he have for that? Her first thought was that he needed to win the boy over, in case Stephen might have suspicions about his real identity.
But maybe Stephen himself was somehow part of Mr. O'Neill's purpose. The boy could be in terrible danger.