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
And he was admitting that he shared her emotions.
Or was he just trying to control her, to keep her from revealing his secret?
She pushed hard and stumbled back just before their lips met. "Your seduction won't work. I know who you are. You're a liar, and I'll never trust the word of a liar again."
She turned her back and ran up the stairs to the nursery, barely remembering to lighten her step as she walked down the corridor past Stephen's room. When she was in her own room, she collapsed on the bed and hugged a pillow to her chest, desperate to find a way to ease the ache that never went away inside her.
That man knew her weakness for him, and he would try to find a way to exploit it. He was already exploiting her fondness for Stephen, trusting that she wouldn't want to hurt the child any more than necessary.
But Stephen would find out eventually. If Meriel went to the police now, she could end his suffering before it grew worse.
But she was still stuck in the same frozen position— no proof, no means to prove her case. All she could do was talk to Mrs. Theobald and gauge her opinion. If the housekeeper was being forced to keep quiet, if the woman's instincts also said this was a dangerous situation, then together they could go to the police.
Meriel didn't trust anything Richard O'Neill said. He was a man who would use his body to convince her to keep silent. That kind of man could be up to anything.
fter Meriel had gone, Richard dressed quickly, silently, in case she decided to eavesdrop. He went through the silent house in the dark, knowing his way since childhood to the servants' wing. He slipped into Mrs. Theobald's sitting room unannounced, but knocked quietly on her bedroom door. She opened it after a few minutes and stared up at him in surprise.
"Your Grace, is something wrong?" she asked, tying the sash of her dressing gown.
"Meriel knows who I am."
"Oh dear," the housekeeper said, walking past him to take a seat on the sofa in her sitting room. "Is she going to the police?"
"I don't think so," he said, sitting down opposite her. "After all, what proof does she have? But she doesn't trust my reasons, and of course I don't blame her, because I didn't tell her everything. That's why I'm here. I know she'll come to you for confirmation in the morning."
"Then tell me what you said, young sir. I'll be very convincing."
He smiled with relief. "I know you will. The only excuse I gave her was that Cecil didn't want people to know how ill he is. I didn't tell her anything about Charles. I'm worried that if she sensed a threat to the boy, she'd go out of her way alone to investigate Charles."
"She obviously considers herself a detective of sorts," Mrs. Theobald said thoughtfully, "since she was able to discover your identity, and she a newcomer to the household."
"Exactly." He rested his elbows on his knees as he leaned forward. "I'm antagonizing her with this flirting, but I told her I couldn't stop."
Mrs. Theobald raised an eyebrow.
He quickly said, "Because I need to look like Cecil. You know that."
"Of course, sir."
Richard felt foolish and transparent. Mrs. Theobald must see how easy it was for him to pursue Meriel. He rose to his feet. "I'm going to tell Hargraves what I've told you. But I'm certain she'll come to you first."
Mrs. Theobald saw him to the door. "Have no fear, Your Grace. I can handle myself with the intelligent Miss Shelby."
After having a talk with the butler, Richard finally climbed into bed, feeling so exhausted, he thought he'd fall immediately to sleep.
Instead he stared at the ceiling— and wondered where Meriel's bed was above him. He tossed and turned, haunted by her wild mane of golden curls that had hung to her waist. Without her corset and petticoats, she was smaller, more delicate, but still rounded with femininity.
And she was a threat, a danger to his— and Cecil's— plans. He had to remember that, to treat her with caution so that she didn't believe she could solve all their problems. He wondered who had lied to her, to make her so wary of his motives.
* * *
On her morning break, Meriel visited Mrs. Theobald in her sitting room and was not surprised when the woman confirmed Mr. O'Neill's story.
Meriel gritted her teeth and walked away from the housekeeper to stare blankly out the window. "And you have no problem with this deception, Mrs. Theobald?"
The housekeeper came to her side. "Of course I do. But I was not consulted. Mr. Hargraves and myself discovered it on our own, as you did. What would you have me do? Mr. O'Neill is doing a favor for his brother the duke. Am I supposed to go against that?"
"Are you certain that's what he's doing?" Meriel demanded, facing the housekeeper.
Mrs. Theobald met her stare calmly. "Above all of the family, Mr. O'Neill is the one I would trust the most. He had the worst situation here as a child, and he handled it with more equanimity than most adults could have. He was kind to the servants, even respectful to the duchess, who went out of her way to make him out in a poor light, so the duke would throw him out. Mr. O'Neill never responded to her behavior."
"Maybe not then, but don't you think a childhood like that can eat away at a person? Maybe his bitterness built and built, and now he has an opportunity for some kind of…redemption, a way to prove that he was the one who deserved the title most of all."
Mrs. Theobald put her hand on Meriel's arm. "I understand why you could think that, but you wouldn't if you knew him. He's made a success of himself— isn't that the best revenge?"
Meriel sighed and closed her eyes. "But Mrs. Theobald, Stephen will be so hurt! Even if he never discovers the lie, the duke will return and ignore him once again. He'll think it's all his fault!"
"I trust the duke and his brother to make things right with the boy."
But Mrs. Theobald couldn't meet her eyes as she defended them.
Meriel had gone to the housekeeper hoping to feel relieved, and left feeling more disturbed than before. For some reason, she knew that a part of the puzzle still eluded her. Someone wasn't being truthful. She had no one to trust, including herself.
* * *
Early in the afternoon, Stephen went off to play with his nurse, leaving Meriel to plan out the next day's lessons. She was having a hard time concentrating, when her mind was still sorting through all the evidence about Mr. O'Neill that she'd uncovered.
And then she heard a pounding down the corridor, and Stephen came running in, his face wet with tears. Nurse Weston was right behind him, looking resigned.
"Miss Shelby," Stephen said, "do you know where my father is?"
She tensed, suddenly uncertain about whom the boy actually meant. Before she could even think up an appropriate response, Stephen hurried on.
"We were supposed to have a boxing lesson, and he never came!"
Nurse Weston shook her head. "I tried to explain to his little lordship that sometimes the duke is too busy to make time for him."
Meriel took the boy's hands. "My lord— "
He pulled away. "No, you're wrong! He promised me, and he hasn't broken a promise since he returned."
It dawned on Meriel that Stephen was right. Mr. O'Neill seemed to have devoted himself to spending time with his nephew, and for him to not even send word of a change of plans seemed unusual.
Meriel stood up. "My lord, I'll go find him for you. Someone in the house will know where he is. He can make another appointment to be with you, and this time I know he won't forget."
Stephen stomped his foot. "We already did that! He's not in the house, and he's not anywhere in the park. We talked to Mr. Tearle the steward, and Hargraves and Mrs. Theobald. No one knows where he is. What if he's hurt?"
Nurse Weston scoffed at that, saying, "My lord, he simply forgot. People make mistakes, and you must learn to accept it and forgive. I'm certain he'll have a good excuse when he returns. Now let's go wash your face. And then perhaps a nap for the afternoon. You don't mind, do you, Miss Shelby?"
"Of course not. Lord Ramsgate, I'll see you when you wake up."
Stephen ran down the hall.
Nurse Weston lowered her voice. "I didn't have the heart to tell the poor lad that his father is probably in the arms of a woman as we speak."
Meriel tried not to blush. "So he's chosen his new mistress."
"I didn't think so, but maybe that's what he's doing right now. Of course, we all thought it was going to be you," she added with a shrug. Then she raised her voice. "Here I come, my lord."
Meriel had a bad feeling, a feeling she was learning not to ignore. She did not believe that Mr. O'Neill would sneak off with a woman and tell no one where he was. Especially when he'd seemed so convincing about choosing no one but Meriel.
But could everything he'd said have been a lie? Did Mrs. Theobald really know him after all these years?
Meriel tried to go back to her lessons, but she couldn't do it. She found herself wandering the house, until she finally had to admit to herself that she was looking for Mr. O'Neill.
Whenever anyone questioned her, she said she needed to discuss his son with him, but some people still looked at her with embarrassed sympathy. Everyone must think he'd abandoned his seduction of her.
Why did she almost want to defend herself? Finally, she found someone who'd seen him that morning. One of the gardener's staff, a boy who usually pulled weeds all day, said he'd seen the duke walking into the woods. He pointed into the distance, past the orchard, where Meriel could see the beginning of a wooded copse she'd never explored before.
She considered and abandoned the thought of asking for help. What could she say that wouldn't sound ridiculous?
And what if Mr. O'Neill truly had gone off on an assignation with a servant? Meriel needed to know if nothing he said could be trusted. So she set off through the park, past the orchard, and down the gravel lane that slowly gave way to bare dirt. The gray sky overhead released a light shower, and she quickened her pace to enter the woods.
At first she walked briskly, for the trees were spaced far enough apart to let in the light. But soon everything grew closer together, and she began to wonder if perhaps this wasn't a wise decision. The path hardly looked well traveled, so she couldn't imagine it being a profitable place for a thief to work.
She was just about to turn around and head back in defeat, when she thought she heard something. She froze and looked about her, but all she saw were endless trees and the occasional bird flittering from branch to branch.
Her skin suddenly crawled with gooseflesh, as worry coalesced into fear for her own safety.
And then she heard a muffled groan.
"Hello?" she called tentatively.
She cocked her head to her right, where she thought the sound had come from. She heard twigs breaking, dead leaves scattering.
"Is someone there?" she demanded.
There was another groan, louder this time, and she took several steps off the path and peered around a large ash tree. Richard O'Neill was crumpled in a heap facedown on the ground.
She gasped and dropped to her knees beside him. "Your Grace? Your Grace? Can you hear me?"
He got one hand under him and tried to roll onto his back. She pushed his shoulder, and together they moved him until she could see his face. His eyes remained closed, shadowed by lines of pain, and blood trickled across his cheek, coming from his hair.
"Good heavens, what happened?" she asked, not at all certain what to do.
She tried to lift his head into her lap, but he groaned, so she stopped, feeling helpless and afraid and suddenly very vulnerable in the dense woods.
Mr. O'Neill's eyelids fluttered, then finally opened, and he winced. "Have to go…have to protect him…Meriel?"
She leaned over him, her hand on his chest, feeling relieved at the steady beat of his heart. "I'm here. Shall I go for help?"
"Oh God, Stephen!" He gasped out the words, then came up on his elbows. He looked wide-eyed and frightened and not himself.
She put her arm beneath his shoulder, not sure if she was trying to comfort him or hold him. "Stephen's fine, I left him with Nurse Weston."
He shook his head back and forth. "But Charles…got to keep him from Charles…" His head lolled back against her shoulder.
She didn't understand what he was talking about; what had put him in this condition? Running her hand across his scalp, she found the large bump almost immediately. Her fingers came away sticky with blood.
Shocked, she stared about, wondering if he'd fallen. She didn't see a rock, or any mark on a nearby tree. But she did see a thick branch lying in the leaves about five feet away, one end covered in blood.
As if someone had hit Mr. O'Neill as he was walking by.
Could there be thieves in these woods, so close to the ducal estate? But surely if someone had meant to rob him, he would have done it already.
Unless she'd scared the thief away, and he was only waiting for a vulnerable moment…
"Your Grace, we have to get you back to Thanet Court. Can you stand?"
He tried to push away from her, but he was so weak, she could easily hold on to him.
"No," he murmured, "He can't know…his plan…worked."
"Who can't know?"
But he only shook his head, and she wondered if he was talking about his cousin, Sir Charles Irving. Mr. O'Neill had just said he needed to protect Stephen from him. She felt a chill of uncertainty and wished desperately that she knew what was going on. She'd had a premonition that he was keeping something from her. Did it really have to do with Stephen?
"Your Grace— "
He took several deep breaths, and she could see the calmness return to his eyes— or at least cover up his panic.
"There's— there's an old hunting lodge…another hundred yards down this path." He squinted and groaned and put a hand to his head. "Take me there."
"I don't know— "
Mr. O'Neill grasped her hand, and his eyes blazed darkly into hers. "He can't know he succeeded!"
Every instinct in her said that something was terribly wrong, that he'd lied to her about his purpose in masquerading as the duke. But she looked into his face, so full of desperation and worry, and could only help him. She'd question her own motives later.
"All right, can you stand up?" she asked.
Between the two of them, he was soon on his feet, shaky, leaning on her heavily, but seeming in no danger of falling down. With his arm around her shoulders, his body pressed tight to the length of hers, she felt almost shy and flustered, two things no other man had ever made her feel.
"Are you certain you can walk that far?" she asked.
He nodded and began to put one foot in front of the other. She led him out onto the path, and he tripped over a root, threatening to send them both sprawling.
"Your Grace— "
"I can do it," he said heavily.
The farther they walked, the more he leaned on her. The weight of him bent her spine and made her shoulders ache. Even her legs began to burn with pain.
The path curved, and there was the hunting lodge.
The front door hung ajar, and the shutters over the windows were broken in places. The roof was thatched, but a corner of that had somehow been stripped off to reveal the bare wooden slats of the ceiling. It looked like no one had hunted or lodged there in years.
"Your Grace, are you certain it's safe?"
He nodded. "Spent my…childhood here."
She glanced up at him curiously. He had his own secret place, just like her Willow Pond.
She helped him inside, and though the place smelled musty and damp, it was cozy enough. There was a small bare cot, a crooked wooden table, and two chairs that looked as if they might hold a child's weight. Mr. O'Neill leaned heavily on the table, then lowered himself into a chair. She winced, but it held him.
And then she saw the blood trickling down his neck from the gash in his head.
"You're still bleeding," she whispered. She put aside her feeling of helplessness and went to the battered cupboard in the corner. "Do you have supplies in here?"
He closed his eyes and shrugged. "We used to."
She found a bucket, a half-burned candle, flint and steel, a knife, and a couple of rags. She held a rag up with two fingers and grimaced.
"What did you use these for?"
He opened one eye. "Cleaning rabbit carcasses?"
"Ugh." She dropped it back in the cupboard.
"I'm just teasing. I can't remember. But there's a stream out back for washing."
She had no choice. She washed out the rags as best she could, filled the bucket with water, and came back inside. Mr. O'Neill was sitting up straighter, and his face was regaining some color.
She set to work, parting his hair until she could find the wound and cleaning it out as best she could. There were bits of tree bark to remove, but the blood flow itself had almost stopped.
"So you didn't see who hit you?" she said.
"No, he came from behind. Probably just a thief."
She straightened to see his face. "That's not what you implied."
"My head had just been dented. I'm sure I wasn't making sense." He gave her a lazy grin.
"Do not try to be Cecil with me. I will no longer be so gullible."
"I'm not trying— "
"You think by distracting me that I won't remember what you said, how frightened you were for Stephen's safety? And you said it all had to do with your cousin Charles."
"I'm sure I didn't mean— "
She used his Christian name in a forceful, angry tone.
He blinked up at her, so close, yet so far away.
"You're still lying to me," she said. "I knew it wasn't only Cecil's vanity at stake. That rationale just didn't make sense!"
But he was stubborn, remaining silent until she was finished cleaning the wound.
"Meriel," he said in a soft voice, "forget about this."
"I won't. I can't. If Stephen is in danger, I need to know."
"It's none of your business."
She glared at him. "Everything to do with Stephen is my business."
"I can take care of everything. This is just a misunderstanding."
She saw it now— his stubborn insistence on protecting her, as he was protecting Stephen. He was a liar and a cad…but maybe for the right reasons.
She didn't like how her feelings toward him were undergoing a rapid change. When he was just humoring his brother, playing tricks on all his staff and friends, she could despise him for the easy way he lied. And she hated liars.
But now that she knew he had deeper reasons for what he did— honorable reasons— her heart was melting, along with her resistance.
She needed to know the truth, and if her femininity would help, then she'd follow Richard's lead and do what she had to. She approached where he sat and stood between his legs, her skirts touching him. He suspiciously looked up at her, and she did what she'd wanted to do for so long. Putting her hands on his face, she looked into his eyes. He flinched but didn't draw away. His skin was warm, slightly damp, with the faintest rasp of whiskers along one side of his jaw where his new valet had missed a spot when shaving this morning.
Then he put his hands on her waist and pulled her even closer, so that her breasts were just below his face. She inhaled swiftly, but didn't struggle.
"Is this what you want?" he asked.
"I want the truth, Richard. You must tell me."
She looked into his eyes and willed the words to come out, but all he did was reach up and remove her spectacles, laying them behind him on the table. She found that she was trapped in his gaze, in the way he studied her face like a man who might never see again.
He kept her tight against him, even as he began to pull the pins from her hair. She should protest, she should pull away, but she stayed there, his arm around her, his thighs on each side of her.
Locks of her hair started cascading down around her shoulders, even falling forward to touch his cheek where her head was above him. He caught that curl between his fingers, smelling it with his eyes closed, then looked at her knowingly while he wrapped the hair about his finger, pulling her face closer and closer.
"Richard, tell me," she said, her mouth almost against his, their very breath mingling.
"I like how you say my name."
He tugged once more, and their lips met. The kiss was passionate and desperate and full of a temptation she'd never felt before meeting him. Inside her head a war began, with part of her saying,
Who would ever know?
and the other part insisting that she'd be going against everything she'd been taught to believe in.
But his mouth lured her; his tongue seduced her and made her forget everything but the two of them alone in the woods.
Where a villain had struck Richard down.
She broke the kiss. "The man who hit you could still be here."
"I doubt it." He cupped one side of her face, and his thumb brushed her lips. "You taste…like the sweetest candy."
His touch, his words, made her knees suddenly weak. She was leaning heavily against him, and with one simple move, he swung her off her feet and across his lap. Now he was above her, cradling her.