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 then he took his hands away. Before she could even react, he moved over her body, sliding between her thighs. She lifted her knees, trying to fit herself against him, even as he held himself up so as not to crush her.
And then he pushed inside. The pain she'd heard whispers of was only a minor irritation, quickly forgotten in the pleasure of him so hard and deep. He withdrew and surged inside her again, and then she understood it. The pressure of his body against her very womanhood aroused her quickly once again. She held him and moved with the rhythm he taught without words.
And then the sharp stab of pleasure-pain engulfed her again, and she shook with the ever-decreasing tremors. Only then did she watch his face, see his concentration as he joined her in climax.
Richard barely kept himself from collapsing on top of Meriel. His mind was numb, his muscles trembled, but he was aware enough to know that never had he felt so joined to a woman before Meriel.
He didn't want to leave her body, didn't want to imagine the repercussions of this passion they'd shared. He knew he could not even think of losing her, of losing this rare closeness.
Coming up on his elbows, he smoothed the hair from her face. She was studying him, and he smiled.
"Ah, Meriel, you have to examine everything, don't you."
"No, I— " She shook her head, then shrugged. "I don't know what to think. I never thought I would…give in to this temptation."
He rocked against her gently, still feeling the tremors of completion. "Do you regret what we did?"
He was grateful that she didn't hesitate.
"Although I don't know what to think about it, either," she continued. "But no, never think I blame you, not when I wanted this."
"Don't you think I wanted this just as much?"
She smiled then, squeezing his hips with her thighs. "I can tell."
With a sigh, he slid off her to the side. He wanted to cuddle her close, but instead she sat up and tried to gather the blankets about her.
"I know this is foolish," she said, obviously embarrassed. "You've seen…all of me. But— "
"No, please, a woman's modesty is not a trivial thing. Shall I fetch your dressing gown from your room?"
"No, I can just slide my dress back on. I should go."
He took one of her hands, while the other held a blanket to her chest. "This was something we didn't plan. I don't expect more than you're ready to give to me."
She smiled and closed your eyes. "Your problem is that you're too good to me, Richard. It makes it hard to keep my distance."
"Then don't," he whispered, leaning in to kiss her cheek.
He could feel her hesitancy, yet she remained still beneath his gentle kiss, almost like a delicate bird caught between fleeing and staying.
"I must go." She met his gaze. "But what is our next move in regard to Charles?"
"We can't move against him, so we remain on guard and wait. He could be playing with me, hoping I might panic and do something foolish."
"What if he goes to the police about your brother's death?"
"That would be too awkward for him, even though I look like the criminal. And besides, he's getting a sick amusement out of his games. We'll give him a chance to make a mistake."
She looked into his eyes. "That's such a risk you're taking."
"I have more guards now. I'll keep Stephen safe. Are you worried about me?" he asked softly.
"Of course." She glanced away. "But right now I have to go. Stephen can't find me here."
"Would you stay otherwise?"
She smiled. "Probably not, even though I've become your mistress in fact now. I can't lie to myself about that."
She let the covers drop and went to pick up her garments.
"Let me help you," he said.
"No." She held up a hand. "I don't trust myself."
Richard pulled the blanket over his hips and just watched, unable to play the gentleman and turn away. Seeing that beautiful body covered was almost a crime.
When she had the gown on, it was obvious she usually had a maid's help with all the buttons. She hesitated, and he waited. Finally she walked to him and turned her back, saying nothing.
He grinned and buttoned her up. She gathered all her undergarments over her arm, and after giving him a small smile, she fled up the staircase.
He knew it would be a long time before he was able to sleep. He couldn't stop thinking about her last comment, that she couldn't trust herself. He knew she wasn't talking about his desirability. What had given a competent, intelligent woman such an opinion about herself?
She seemed to trust
more than herself, even though he'd lied to her. Did it have something to do with why a prosperous London family would be forced to send its daughters out for employment?
Unlike Meriel, he was a man who'd only ever had himself to rely on. He'd made his own way in the world, trusted no one
Masquerading as the duke, a position he once would have thought very solitary, had made him learn to depend on so many people: the silence of servants, the worship of his nephew, and the intelligence of Meriel Shelby. He had more help than he was used to, and he felt humbled by it.
Now he had to help his brother one last time. Richard would have justice, so that Cecil could rest in peace.
hrough the night, part of Meriel berated her weakness where Richard was concerned, while another part of her longed for his touch. The rest of the time, she was just confused.
She had breakfast with Stephen in the schoolroom as usual, and to her surprise, Mrs. Theobald herself came up to clear away the tray of dishes. Meriel stared at her, wondering if Richard had found the time yet to tell the duke's loyal servants that their master was dead. Something of her worry must have shown in her eyes, because after Stephen ran off to play with his nurse, Mrs. Theobald sat down beside her.
Meriel sighed, giving the older woman an assessing look. "You don't usually come to clean up the nursery, Mrs. Theobald."
The housekeeper only shrugged.
Meriel touched the woman's hand. "Please don't worry about me. I know what I'm doing. I'm helping Stephen."
"It is far too kind of you not to care about your reputation for the boy's sake."
Meriel felt a twinge of guilt— and though she knew she had to keep Richard's counsel about the duke's death, she could not lie to the housekeeper about anything else. "Mrs. Theobald, although you will think less of me, I must tell you that I'm no longer playacting the part of the mistress."
Mrs. Theobald nodded silently, and the condemnation that Meriel expected didn't happen. Meriel sighed as some of her tension seeped away.
Mrs. Theobald gave a small smile. "It is a relief to say such a thing?"
"To someone I trust, yes. And you know Richard, so perhaps you can understand why I…why I'm drawn to him."
"He is a good man."
"Yes, oh yes," she whispered, then her excitement grew as her thoughts coalesced. "I've spent so much time berating myself for those feelings that have been growing within me, but maybe for once I should have been listening to my own intuition."
"For once?" Mrs. Theobald echoed with obvious curiosity.
But Meriel didn't want to talk about her past. "Did you know who he was from the beginning?"
"No, although I knew
"And I did as well! Because I was so attracted to him, almost from the first. And I hadn't felt that way when I interviewed with the real duke. I should have trusted myself then; instead I was appalled by my poor judgment. But don't you see, I was right!"
Mrs. Theobald smiled indulgently, and Meriel blushed at how she must sound.
"He's not the duke," Meriel continued. "He's not an arrogant man who seduces the women of his household on a routine basis. Richard is nothing like his brother, Mrs. Theobald."
"You don't need to convince me of that, my dear."
"Of course, of course, but this is such a revelation to me. I was never attracted to the duke, but to Richard, not a nobleman, but a noble man who is trying to protect his nephew. Am I wrong to finally trust that my emotions can guide me down the right path?"
Mrs. Theobald rose to her feet and lifted the tray. "Miss Shelby, it sounds to me like you already know the answer to your own question. Why such a smart girl as yourself should ever doubt her own capabilities— well, it makes no sense to me."
Meriel knew she continued to grin foolishly long after the housekeeper had left the room.
* * *
As she did almost every day, Meriel allowed Stephen to choose which lesson they'd have outside. She enjoyed taking advantage of the rare string of beautiful weather, and she'd already had assurances from Richard that men were patrolling the grounds. And besides, even she needed to be distracted from the thought that Stephen's real father was probably dead. She wasn't sure that Richard should tell the boy if they weren't absolutely certain it was true.
Stephen chose his painting lesson, and together they carried out the watercolors and easel. They didn't go far from the house; she felt safe enough, being so near all the grooms and gardeners who worked about them. Victoria and Albert lounged in the shade nearby and snuffled in their sleep.
She was just speaking with Stephen about the various colors of green in the trees he'd chosen to paint, when she saw the boy's face light up at someone behind her.
Knowing who it had to be, she turned and watched Richard walk toward them. She felt uncomfortably warm and knew she was blushing; why was she so surprised by the same reaction she'd been having since the first moment they'd met?
Maybe because now she knew that he was just as drawn to her. She watched the way he looked at her, the way he tried to disguise his thoughts, but couldn't quite.
inspired that in him, and the feeling was…wonderful. She felt special, not like a man's mistress, but something more, something she was afraid to hope for.
But how could she think about herself when there was a man out there who wanted to harm Richard?
Stephen rushed to Richard, who put a hand on his head fondly. The dogs joined the reunion with barking excitement. Only she saw the wince of sadness Richard didn't try to hide from her as he looked down on his nephew.
"Father, we're painting trees. Do you want to help?"
"That's what I came out here for. I'm excellent at giving my opinion."
"Not at painting?"
"Never had the talent, Stephen. You must get that from your mother."
The little boy brightened, and Meriel realized it wasn't often anyone brought up his mother. And at this age, he was beginning to realize that other children had one, but he didn't.
Meriel gazed at Richard, probably showing all her silly feelings right there in her eyes.
She was hopeless at romance. She'd never imagined herself a part of one, and once thought she'd be satisfied marrying a man who was only a friend.
A friend! Preposterous thought, now that she understood how Richard could make her feel.
She busied herself laying out paints for Stephen and tried not to be aware that Richard was watching her from where he sat on a bench. For a half hour, she instructed the boy as his water-color took form.
"Father," Stephen finally called, "pretend it's hanging on a wall in the gallery. How does it look from back there?"
"Like perfect trees," Richard said.
Stephen rolled his eyes. "Miss Shelby, go stand next to him. You'll be honest, won't you?"
Meriel bit her lip to cover a smile as she walked back to the bench.
"Stephen, you don't trust me?" Richard said, pretending shock.
"Father, you love me too much to tell me the truth."
Meriel's throat felt tight, and she wanted to put her hand on Richard's shoulder in sympathy. What a difficult situation.
Stephen pointed with his paintbrush to one of the green blobs on his canvas. "Miss Shelby, can you tell which tree this is? I want to get them right."
Meriel deliberated on how to respond, and was granted a reprieve when Stephen accidentally dropped his brush. He bent down to retrieve it— and a gunshot rent the air. A bullet ripped through the canvas where Stephen had just been standing.
Meriel jumped, Richard came to his feet along with the dogs, and Stephen straightened in bewilderment.
Richard forced him to the ground, then grabbed Meriel by the arm, dragging her there, too. She collapsed on her stomach at Stephen's side and put her arm over him. Richard was on the other side, but he had his head lifted, scanning the direction the shot had come from.
"That couldn't have been aimed at me," he said in a low, furious voice.
Meriel understood: Stephen had become the target. Charles didn't just want to control the dukedom; he wanted it for himself.
"Father, it wasn't aimed at us," Stephen said, trying to lift his head. Richard held him down as he squirmed. "There must have been hunters in the woods. They'll come to apologize."
Richard didn't answer, but Meriel could read his eyes: where were the men he had patrolling in the woods?
There were shouts from the gardeners and grooms and stable boys, all of whom seemed to be running this way and that. Meriel could see that some of the men were entering the woods to search, others were heading up to the house, probably to spread a warning.
Richard rose to his knees, and she wanted to yank him down. Her heart pounded loudly all the way into her throat, choking her. But there was no other gunshot. All they could hear was the servants' shouting.
Once on his feet, Richard looked down at them. "I'm going into the woods. Both of you stay on the ground, and don't get up until you see me wave that all's clear."
"Father, the hunters— "
"Stephen, that wasn't a hunter."
She could see Richard regretting the harsh tone of his voice already. But it was far too dangerous for Stephen not to know some of the truth. Even though the boy hadn't run off to hide recently, there was no guarantee he wouldn't— unless he was warned.
Stephen stared up at his uncle, wide eyes uncertain. But he remained silent and allowed Meriel to hold him as Richard strode away. When the dogs tried to follow him, Richard ordered them to stay behind. They sat down next to Stephen and whined softly, as if they were missing all the fun.
"Father's worried about us," Stephen whispered.
"He's the duke. It's his job to worry about everyone here."
How would Richard tell Stephen that
was the duke now?
Surely a half hour had to have gone by before Richard emerged from the woods and gave them a brief wave. The knot in her stomach lessened, but did not go away, not with the proof that the little boy in her arms, so young and innocent, was the target of a murderer. Slowly she sat up, drawing Stephen with her, holding him tightly. Nothing happened. She rose to her feet and kept him pressed to her skirts.
Some of his spirit returned. "Miss Shelby, let go!"
Richard heard Stephen's protest, but he left Meriel to deal with the little boy. He turned to watch six of his guards emerge from the woods, some looking stonily at the ground, others looking worried or sheepish.
Stephen's words kept ringing in Richard's head:
Father, you love me too much to tell me the truth
. Stephen had been talking to his Uncle Richard, not his father. And Richard had failed him.
The anger inside him raged out of control, and he heard himself speaking like Cecil— no, like his own father. Cecil had been too carefree to dress down the servants, but their father was a man who brooked no mistakes. And for once, Richard wanted to be seen as that kind of man.
"None of you has a good explanation for how this incursion happened," he said in a severe voice. "My son could have
. If something happens due to your incompetence, I'll hold you all responsible, and my retribution won't involve a prison sentence!"
He was shaking with rage, but even he recognized that this was no way to motivate men into working harder. What was wrong with him?
He wanted to apologize, but he couldn't— to them he was the duke. He tried to speak more calmly as they gathered around him. "The angle of the shot could only have been aimed at my son. We need to triple the patrols in these woods and along the cliffs, the most penetrable areas of the estate. But for now, our explanation for today's disaster is that someone was illegally hunting in the woods, and they escaped."
Richard found Meriel and Stephen in the conservatory, telling Mrs. Theobald and Hargraves what had happened. Stephen slumped nearby on a bench, but he brightened when he saw Richard and came running. The dogs lifted their heads, but remained lounging on their sides.
Richard knelt down to hug the boy, keeping his arms around him so long that Stephen began to squirm.
"Father!" he said, laughing.
Did the boy think of Richard as his father now? He had to be told the truth. He had to understand why he was in danger. And he had to mourn his real father.
"Stephen, remain here on the bench for a moment, while I speak to the servants."
Stephen obeyed, kicking his legs and pulling a flower closer to study. Richard went to the huddle of three adults, all of whom looked at him anxiously.
"I'd like for the rest of the household to believe this was a hunting accident," Richard said quietly. "But I'm going to tell Stephen the truth."
"Are you certain that's wise?" Meriel asked. "He's so young."
"But we can't allow him to put himself at risk out of ignorance. And he has to know about his father. It explains why he's in danger."
"Have you heard from the duke?" Mrs. Theobald whispered, looking around for eavesdroppers.
"According to Charles, he's dead," Richard said grimly.
Mrs. Theobald gasped, and Hargraves bowed his head.
"Charles had Cecil's terrified valet as proof," Richard continued. "I'm just not certain if he died from illness or if he was murdered. I'm going to assume the latter, because Charles is now shooting at Stephen, the only one who stands between him and the title." He looked at Meriel. "Stephen is no longer to go outside."
"Of course," she said quietly.
But she wouldn't meet his eyes, and he worried about what she might be thinking. She took on so much, and always held herself too accountable. He would insist on talking about it again when they were alone. But first, he had to speak with Stephen. He turned to look at the boy, now on his knees looking behind a fern. Only his backside showed.
Meriel must have seen something on his face, because she touched his arm. "Would you like me to be with you when you tell Stephen?"
"No, it should come from me." He put his hand on hers and smiled down at her. "But thank you."
He saw Mrs. Theobald look between them. He would have to be more careful showing his feelings for Meriel— but did it matter? The entire household knew she was his mistress! His life was a public display.
He led Stephen and the dogs into his study and closed the door. He and Stephen sat down in big chairs before the bare hearth.
Stephen frowned. "Father, who tried to shoot you? Are you sure it wasn't hunters?"
"It wasn't a hunter, Stephen. Some very important things are happening right now. Since they involve you, I feel that you're old enough to know the truth." He tried to stare into the patient eyes of the little boy, but he found himself choking up. Instead, he looked at their joined hands, the little one so trusting in his. "Stephen, I've just found out that your father has died."
Taking a deep breath, he looked again into Stephen's face.
Solemnly, the boy said, "He was very sick, wasn't he?"
Richard couldn't tell him that his father might have been murdered, not without proof. "Yes, Stephen, he was more ill than he let on. I guess he didn't want us to worry."
"Where is he?"
That was far too perceptive a question, and one Richard couldn't answer. "We'll bring him home to be buried, I promise, but we can't just now."
Stephen gripped his hand even tighter. "Does that mean you're my father now?"
Good God. The little boy's eyes shone with tears. Richard imagined how Stephen was feeling, with no parents left to shield him from the harsh realities of life. Even Richard hadn't truly known how alone he himself had been at this age.
"I'll always be your uncle, Stephen, and if I'm allowed, you could live with me forever."
"But can't you do anything you want?"
"You're a duke now, son. The queen or the courts might have a say in who your guardian is."
"But I want to be your guardian, Stephen," he said, pulling the boy onto his lap. "I'll fight in court to try to make it happen."
"What if I don't want to be the duke? Then can I live with you?"
"It's not that easy, Stephen." He hugged him tightly. "Right now we have a danger to worry about first."
"The person who shot at you?"
"Yes. We have to be very careful. Until we catch this bad man, you'll have to remain in the house and keep Victoria and Albert with you at all times."
"Does everyone else know my father is dead?"
"No. They still believe I'm the duke, and we have to keep it that way for a little while longer."
"Until we catch the bad man."
"Right. Stephen, I'm going to tell you who the bad man is, just so he can't try to take you away. He's my cousin, Sir Charles Irving."
"The one who tried to visit me when you were gone?"
"But if he's your cousin, why does he want to hurt us?"
Richard hesitated. "Because if something happened to you, Charles would be the next duke."
Stephen stared at him, a frown spreading across his face.
"But I'm not going to let him hurt you," Richard vowed.
"I know that, Uncle Richard. Can't I just let him be the duke?"
"You deserve the title, not him. He deserves to be in jail."
Richard looked into the innocent eyes of his nephew, and for a moment he debated going to the police with the whole story.
But if they didn't believe him, Stephen would immediately be placed in Charles's care. Richard couldn't let that happen.
For a moment, a dark thought made him pause. If Richard remained the duke, no one would challenge his right to protect Stephen. He could resurrect the pride of the title, be a better duke than Cecil ever was.
A chill went through him. Surely Cecil had once thought the same thing, that he could be a better duke than their father. But something had corrupted Cecil, as it corrupted everyone born into this power as they were treated like infallible gods. Even Richard, wielding power as a fraud, was not immune to it.
He had to finish this right now, capture Charles and end this masquerade. Or he, who'd always trusted himself, would lose faith in his own judgment.