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

The Duke in Disguise (16 page)

BOOK: The Duke in Disguise
11.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

"Richard, we can't do this. Stephen will be looking for me— for us. He's the one who knew you were missing. He was waiting to box with you."
He frowned and glanced at the open doorway. "You're right. When you drape yourself across me, it's difficult to think."
Aghast, she cried, "Drape myself— "
"Ah, Meriel, you are so easy to tease. Up you go."
He set her on her feet, then stood up beside her. He swayed once, and she caught his waist.
"No, no, I can't kiss you again," he said with a grin.
She ignored his teasing. "Will you be able to walk?"
"With you at my side, of course I can."
She put her hands in her hair, realizing her state. She surely looked like a woman who'd been well kissed by a man. How was she going to repair the damage?
Smiling, Richard held up his open palm and showed her all the pins. "You didn't think I threw them on the floor, did you?"
"Your brother probably would have."
He arched a brow. "As you've already pointed out, I am not my brother."
And that was the frightening part. He was so much more appealing to her as a man rather than the duke. She turned her back on him and put up her hair as best she could. But it would be obvious to any woman that she'd done it herself, without the aid of a mirror.
Walking back through the woods, Richard leaned on her so much that she feared he would not make it. She had to keep one hand on his chest, just in case he pitched forward.
The closer they got to the open parkland, the more the rain showers dampened them. Just before they came into view of anyone on the grounds, Richard stepped away from her.
"Are you certain you can walk all the rest of the way alone?" she asked.
"I was able to conserve my strength with your help. I'll be fine." He cocked his head as he looked at her. "Your spectacles are rain-soaked and almost falling off your nose. Are you certain you can see like that?"
She found herself blushing. "I'll be fine."
He gave a slow grin. "You don't need them, do you?"
"Of course I do." That wasn't a lie. She'd needed to protect herself from employers like the duke— or his brother.
He shook his head. "It seems to me I'm not the only one wearing a disguise."

Chapter 18

ichard could not stop looking at Meriel, bedraggled from the rain, her hair lopsided, her spectacles useless. She looked…beautiful, stunning, and he could have gladly taken her back to the hunting lodge and—
And what? Seduced the virginal governess?
But he wasn't at Thanet Court to satisfy his own needs. He was here for Stephen, who now thought that his uncle had forgotten him— just as his father always had.
And he needed to see that Stephen was all right. How had he forgotten that?
"We'll talk about your spectacles another time," he said. "Let's get back to Stephen."
As they walked through the park, past the stables, through the gardens, he couldn't help noticing the attention they attracted. Everyone turned to stare at the duke and his governess, alone and wet and…disheveled. Heads came together in whispers, people knowingly nodded, and two grooms blatantly exchanged money.
Richard glanced down at Meriel. She couldn't have missed that they were the focus of everyone as they passed. But she only lifted her chin and kept walking, nodding and smiling at the people she knew. Only he could see the hot color in her cheeks. But she said nothing, made no protest.
He felt like a scoundrel, because he couldn't protest on her behalf. He was ruining the reputation of a good woman. Though he told himself it was for Stephen's benefit, his self-disgust wouldn't go away.
They entered Thanet Court through the conservatory, and once again it was as if the indoor staff had simply been waiting for their arrival. Some maids sighed and slunk away, while others— namely Beatrice and Clover— struggled to hide their anger and disappointment. Richard hoped they wouldn't take out their wrath on Meriel, because surely they knew that Cecil always grew bored with his latest conquest after one month.
But Richard would dare even Cecil to grow bored with Meriel.
The merest thought of his brother having power over her made him feel indignant.
But didn't the servants think that he himself used his power over Meriel?
Before he could sink any lower in his own estimation, he heard "Father!" coming from the grand staircase. Stephen came rushing toward them, Nurse Weston trailing behind, and skidded to a stop.
"You're all wet," Stephen said in a puzzled voice.
"It's raining outside," Richard said mildly. He put his hand on the boy's head. "Forgive me for missing our boxing lesson. Miss Shelby came to tell me what I'd done. I'll be happy to have our lesson right now— after I change, of course."
"It's all right, Father. We had a visitor while you were gone, but we both missed him!"
Richard frowned. "Who was it?"
"Our cousin Charles! But I was out playing with Nurse Weston, so I missed him, too."
Richard felt a stab of fear that turned into anger at his own gullibility. Someone had sent him a note to meet at the hunting lodge; it was unsigned, and promised information on Charles. Richard hadn't been able to ignore it.
Charles had succeeded in getting him out of the house, just as easily as that. He felt Meriel's hand on his back, the weight of it meant to be a comfort. He took a deep breath and controlled his anger.
Had Charles meant to talk to Stephen, to begin to sway the boy's opinion of him?
Or had Charles meant to steal the boy away?
That couldn't be the case— what would he accomplish? Everyone would insist that Stephen be returned to his father.
But what if Charles suspected the truth about the masquerade?
Richard had to rethink all his plans, but right now Stephen was counting on him, and he found that he needed the comfort of knowing the boy was all right.
"Did Charles leave me a note?" he asked, looking toward Nurse Weston. Then he saw that Mrs. Theobald had come into the great hall as well. Though she wore her usual calm expression, there was something in her eyes that suggested she was as worried as he was.
"No, Your Grace," Mrs. Theobald said. "Sir Charles did not remain long, once he realized that both you and Lord Ramsgate were out of the house."
"It must not have been important," he said, smiling down at Stephen. "I'll change and meet you right here. Nurse Weston, can you wait with Stephen?"
"Of course, Your Grace."
"I'll send up your valet," Mrs. Theobald said, disappearing through the far doors.
Meriel excused herself as well. Richard wanted to talk to her, but it would have to wait. Stephen needed him.

* * *

At dinner that evening, Richard was the first to arrive. He did his usual Cecil impersonation by starting to eat without Stephen and Meriel. He had a forkful in his mouth when he caught sight of Meriel walking through the double doors.
And he froze there, not certain if he would remember how to chew.
Meriel wore her hair up in the latest London style, with several blond ringlets free to cascade to her shoulders— her very bare shoulders. Though no cleavage was even hinted at, he almost choked on his food, and took a sip of wine to get it all down.
Her gown was a brilliant, vivid red, with silk flowers sewn down her bodice and spreading out across her overskirt. Short puffed sleeves left her arms mostly bare except for her white gloves.
She looked like a princess— or a fallen woman.
Why did she allow everyone to think that she'd succumbed to his advances? It would have worked out fine if he only had to pursue her. He noticed that the footmen ogled her, barely able to fulfill their roles.
"Father, doesn't Miss Shelby look pretty?" Stephen asked, pointing to his governess.
"Stunning," Richard said, rising to his feet.
Instead of sitting on the other side of Stephen, Meriel came around and sat at Richard's right hand, like an honored guest.
The full understanding of her plan hit him, and his heart squeezed painfully. She was sacrificing herself, so that all would believe he was Cecil. Why had she changed her mind?
Stephen. Richard had given away his concerns about Charles this afternoon. Now Meriel was as deeply involved as he was.

* * *

After Meriel left to take Stephen to bed, Richard remained at the table, drinking a glass of brandy slowly, staring at the liquid as if it held an answer to the pain eating away inside him.
"Your Grace?"
It was Mrs. Theobald, but he didn't look up at her, just continued swirling the glass in his hand.
He heard the door shut, then the swish of her skirts as she walked toward him.
And suddenly the silence was too much.
"Did you see her?" he asked, speaking softly as if the words would hurt his throat.
"I did, Your Grace."
He closed his eyes. "She's letting everyone think that…that she's my mistress."
"That was your plan, was it not?"
He raised his startled gaze to find her watching him with concern. "It was not! You know that I only meant to
to be pursuing her. She was supposed to resist, and keep her reputation intact. But then I accidentally told her that Stephen is in danger."
Mrs. Theobald sighed and sat down on his left. "Accidentally?"
"My brain was scrambled from a blow to the head."
She gasped aloud, her hand going to her throat.
"I'm fine. Meriel found me. But I wasn't making sense, I know, and my fears for Stephen were what I spoke about first. I must have been lured out there so that Charles could meet with Stephen alone."
"Thank goodness that didn't happen," Mrs. Theobald said with relief. "So you told Miss Shelby about the plan to pretend to seduce her?"
"And she took it further." He slammed his hand down on the table, and the housekeeper twitched. "I didn't want this to happen!" He spoke more forcefully than he'd intended to.
Mrs. Theobald's eyes were filled with sympathy. "But it was her choice, Your Grace. You cannot fault yourself."
"This has happened to her before, Mrs. Theobald. You can tell by the way she tries to hide within those plain garments. I'm using her, and she's willing to be used, and it makes me feel— "
He broke off, hating himself in that moment. And still Mrs. Theobald waited, and the words came out though he tried to hold them back.
"I feel like I'm seducing the governess, like my brother would have done." He clenched his jaw. "Though it started out as an illusion, it doesn't feel that way anymore. Is being the duke changing me so much? Am I turning into my father?"
Mrs. Theobald touched his arm gently. "You could never be that, young sir."
"But today I almost forgot about Stephen because I could only think about her!"
"You were hit on the head," she said firmly. "And as for becoming your father, he would have had no guilt over using a woman any way he pleased. You should not feel guilty that Miss Shelby wants to help Stephen."
"There are other things concerning her that I can feel guilty about," he said darkly.
She hesitated, and he thought she might have blushed.
"Are you…coercing her into something she does not want?"
"No." The kiss they'd shared had been equally passionate. He was shocked by how much her willingness made their relationship seem all right.
"Then all you can do is talk to her, young sir. Keep everything open between you."
"My motives wouldn't be pure. I know I should tell her so that she can understand the danger and minimize the risk to herself, but a selfish part of me wants her to know the full truth about me, so that she doesn't think I'm like my brother. What does that say about my motives?"
"That's something only you can answer, young sir. Be as honest with her as you can be." She smiled. "Although it sounds to me like you have far too many things to think about where Miss Shelby is concerned."
He grimaced.
"But if she wants to help you protect Stephen…how can you refuse?"

* * *

Richard waited until midnight, then he climbed the private staircase to the nursery. He remembered where the governess's bedroom was, and he knocked softly on the door.
Meriel opened it a crack and stared up at him. "May I help you, Your Grace?"
He rolled his eyes. "You know why I'm here."
She let him in, then closed the door. She was wearing the same dressing gown again, buttoned up to her throat, belted at her waist, falling in smooth lines over each curve of her body. By candlelight, her hair shone in its loose braid, and her spectacles were nowhere in sight, letting him see the glistening blue of her eyes.
She waited patiently for him to begin.
"Meriel, almost every servant saw you in that red dress, and those who didn't surely heard about it from someone else."
She inclined her head as regally as a queen. "I saw the way everyone looked at us when we came out of the woods. I simply took it a step further."
She was a proud woman; this could not sit easily on her. Why didn't she yell at him?
"But Meriel, flirting would have been enough. They were all betting on whether I'd win."
"Or how long I'd resist," she said. "And how long do you think that charade would have contented everyone who knew the duke? I could not have delayed my answer to you beyond a few days. Will this masquerade be over by then?"
He had no answer for her.
"I thought not. I've solved your problem. As long as Mrs. Theobald and Hargraves know the truth of our relationship, I'm content to let the other members of the staff think what they will. The duke has captured his newest prize."
A feeling of tenderness washed over him, startling him, leaving him speechless for a moment. She was so strong, so courageous. Finally he cleared his throat. "But Meriel— "
"And in return, I demand answers," she said, advancing toward him.
He found himself backing up a step toward her bed.
"Meriel— " he repeated, this time with a warning in his voice.
"No, you are not keeping me in the dark a moment longer. Stephen is with me more of each day than he's with anyone else. I will not go on in ignorance, now that I know he could be in danger. You think you're protecting me, but you're wrong. Only the truth can help us now. So what is Sir Charles up to?"
He sighed and sat down on the edge of her bed. Her eyebrows shot up, but she remained silent, only crossing her arms over her chest.
"Cecil did ask me to take his place so that he wouldn't look weak, but it's because of our cousin Charles. He's next in line to the dukedom after Stephen. Cecil owes him money, and is repaying it on time, but Charles used this to press his advantage on the subject of Stephen's guardianship. He wants to be named the legal guardian should something happen to Cecil."
"Is there one already appointed?"
"No. But Cecil is thinking about naming me, and he knows that won't sit well with the part of the family that is offended by the circumstances of my birth."
Meriel tried to distance herself from her sympathy toward him. She could not allow her thoughts to be muddled by mere emotion. Only her intellect and logic would help Richard.
"You would make a good guardian," she said evenly.
One corner of his mouth lifted. "High praise indeed."
"Better than Sir Charles, at least."
He put a hand to his chest. "You wound me, my lady."
"I am not your lady. Kindly remember that, and go on."
He smiled. "It's simple. I'm here to protect Stephen, should Charles nurture any ideas about controlling the dukedom through the boy."
"But the duke is alive."
Richard nodded, but she saw the grim look in his eyes. "But he didn't look well. He's frightened, Meriel, and that succeeded in swaying me more than anything else. There is a chance that he is holding something back from me." He went on after a sigh. "But I have no way to know. I can only take things as they happen. So far, I would have thought Charles was content to hover out there and take a chance for control if he saw it. I haven't given him that chance— in fact, I've consolidated a bit and eased Cecil's financial problems, at least temporarily. But after today…I just don't know."
She remembered her fright when she'd seen Richard crumpled unconscious in the woods. The thought of him dead, of never seeing his smile, of never again being the recipient of his attention— she couldn't imagine it.
"I knew it wasn't thieves," she said with subtle sarcasm.
"My head was a bit muddled when I came up with that," he admitted. "But…I didn't want to involve you any more than you already were."
"I'm very much involved, Richard. Obviously it can't be a coincidence that Charles arrived at Thanet Court when you were unconscious in the woods." She felt a shock. "Or do you think he meant to kill the duke, not knowing it was you?"
"No. Whoever it was could have done that easily. Charles had succeeded in making me believe he was just sniffing around for any weakness, and so I let my guard down. But now I know he's making his own gambit, and it involves Stephen foremost."
"Charles asked for
when he came to the door," she reminded him.
"Just covering for himself. He wanted to see Stephen."
"Do you think he would have taken the boy?" She hugged herself against a chill, moving even closer to Richard as if he offered a warmth she no longer could feel on her own.
He reached for her hand, and she found she couldn't draw away. It felt natural to touch him.
"Taking Stephen would have exposed his plot to harm me," he said. "No, I think he just wants Stephen to get to know him should there come a time he's able to exert guardianship."
"But then why render you unconscious? Why not just lure you away, so you wouldn't suspect him?"
He grinned at her and rubbed her fingers with his. "Ah, Meriel, you're far too good at this. Yes, that would have been the smart thing. And I have received many invitations of late from friends I have in common with Charles. I've refused them all, which perhaps foiled his plan to get me away from the house. But it's hard to believe he was desperate enough to resort to something so obvious…unless he doesn't care that I know."
She opened her mouth in shock, but could think of no response.
"You see," Richard continued, "Charles might believe he has the upper hand."
"He thinks he's controlling the duke monetarily," she said slowly.
He nodded.
"And that the duke couldn't go against him."
"But I'm not the duke."
His voice was low and dangerous, promising a strong response to Charles's threats. Meriel looked at him and couldn't control a shiver. Without the mask of the duke's arrogant amusement, Richard looked like a man who succeeded at whatever he wanted to do.
She hadn't thought it possible, but she was even more drawn to him now, as if the truth had wiped away the chasm that had once gaped between them. He was looking at her, and she was looking back. She tried to school her features, but wasn't certain she succeeded. The candlelight was low and bathed him in a warmth that made everything intimate. They were alone. No wonder young ladies were always with a chaperone.
She had to distract them both.
"So what do you plan to do next?"
He turned her hand over and stared at her palm.
"Do you see the future there?" she asked, hoping levity would lighten the intensity between them.
But he looked at her from beneath dark brows, and only said, "My future or yours?"
Oh good heavens, why didn't she think before speaking?
"Richard, you know what I meant."
Again, his mouth turned up at one corner, and she began to associate that little half smile with Richard, not the false grin he used to represent his brother.
"I spent this afternoon sending word to men who work for me in Manchester. We need more guards at Thanet Court, and I don't mean gardeners and grooms. I don't want Charles getting through the front gate again without advance warning. I have been content to wait here and see what Charles is up to, but no more. If he can keep an eye on us, we'll keep an eye on him."
Throughout his speech, he let their linked hands drop to his thigh, where he continued to absently massage her fingers. His thigh felt rock hard and warm and far too intimate a thing for her to be touching.
"The police probably can't help us," she said, wincing at how breathless she sounded.
He smiled. "So you've considered them recently?"
"I was forced to," she said primly. "When I had my first suspicions about you, I was worried that you'd killed the duke and taken his place."
"But you believe me now?"
She could only nod and stare at him.
"You're right about the police," he said.
All the while he spoke, she had the sensation that he was watching her mouth.
In a husky voice, he continued, "Charles has done nothing suspicious, and after all, I'm the only one guilty of a crime in the eyes of the law."
For several moments, they just looked at each other in silence, feeling an intimacy that even Meriel couldn't deny. She tried to tell herself that she felt this way only because of the secrets they shared, because they were now working together.
But that would be a lie. She could no longer regard him dispassionately. She saw a man who'd raised himself above a shameful birth and made a success of his life all on his own, though his family had tried to hinder him. He had a brother who used him and called that love. Yet Richard risked everything he'd built to help a nephew he'd never met before. And now he was risking his life.
How could she fight the appeal of that?
She reminded herself that every time she thought she knew the truth, another lie was revealed. The lies of her parents had scarred her, had made her doubt everything about herself.
He tugged on her hand and she moved closer to him, closer to the bed he perched on.
But she wanted to trust him, to put her faith in something again. She didn't remember how to do that anymore.
He pulled her closer by her upper arms until the bed pressed hard against her stomach. She was between his legs, and she didn't know what to do with her hands as he leaned over her. She ended up with them flat on his thighs as he lifted her up against him, so that her toes only brushed the floor.
Each kiss was as wondrous as the first, even more so now that she knew his true identity. His lips moved over hers with ever-increasing urgency, and she found herself caught up in it, all her cares disappearing under the intensity of these raw, rare feelings. She was the one who opened her mouth to explore his. His groan made her feel powerful, aware of what they had between them. With her tongue, she tasted his lips, his mouth, so intent on her exploration, her body pressed willingly to his, that only distantly did she feel his hand slide from her waist to her ribs, then up to cover her breast.
Now it was her turn to moan, to writhe against him as the new, incredible sensation swept through her. There were only two thin garments between their skin, and it might as well have been nothing at all, so much did she feel the imprint of his hand. He kneaded and caressed her, then plucked at her nipple gently until it pressed in a hard point against his hand. The shot of pleasure moved down through her body into an ache between her thighs. There was something more waiting for her, and she wanted to reach for it, to explore everything he could make her feel.
He lifted her up and set her on his lap. She found herself straddling his thighs, her nightdress riding up her legs. Their arms were about each other, and she couldn't get enough of his kisses. She kissed his forehead and into his hair as he moved his lips in a hot line down her neck. She arched backward, letting him tug at her neckline with his teeth. She felt the clasp of her dressing gown come loose under his deft ministrations, and the garment spread wide until only thin silk separated her from his kiss. Openmouthed, he skimmed downward, then met her gaze for a heart-stopping moment as his lips hovered over her breast. Her anticipation built and built until she moaned his name with eagerness and longing. Then his mouth covered her breast, wetting the silk, bringing her nipple between his lips to suckle.
She almost cried out, so intense was her building need, but some distant part of her retained enough will to choke back the sound. She hung in his arms, letting him taste her through her nightdress, and he tugged her hips hard against him. He filled the open vulnerability between her thighs with the hard length of his penis, still trapped within his trousers. She pressed against him, rubbing, trying to find a way to ease her frantic need. With every movement her breath came in gasps, her hips rocked harder and harder.
He suckled and licked one breast, and his fingers found the other to circle and tease. That was when she lost it, let her mind and body carry her away to a place of pleasure she'd never imagined existed. She shuddered in his arms for what seemed like an eternity, spasms rocking her, until she collapsed against his chest.
And in that moment, when her mind was coming back to herself, when she realized she didn't care that the man she'd willingly shared intimacy with was not her husband, she heard a child crying down the corridor.

BOOK: The Duke in Disguise
11.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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