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 (2 page)

BOOK: The Duke in Disguise
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everything
."
A blush swept from her chest up to her face as Stephen's praise caused the duke to look up at her. Under his regard, she tried to remind herself of his poor reputation, of his preference to look at pretty servants. But his black eyes, fringed with more lashes than a man had a right to, trapped her within his gaze. She couldn't look away, couldn't remember to feel affronted by his regard.
"Miss Shelby is an accomplished teacher," the duke said softly.
He got to his feet and moved away, and she breathed a sigh of relief. He looked out the window with a restlessness that made her feel more at ease.
Stephen followed him and began to talk about their studies, his reading and writing and the simple history she'd begun to interest him with. He had a good mind, and she knew she could teach him much, if only he could focus better. He'd spent so much of his young life in the outdoors that she tried to set at least one lesson outside each day.
But although his father looked out the window as if the grounds interested him more than his son, they spoke together for several minutes, both of them used to doing the speaking. They each gestured with their hands. Meriel found herself backing away to sit in a corner of the room, not wanting to disturb this small amount of time Stephen had with his father.
To her dismay, there was a part of her that knew when the duke was looking at her. Never before had she met a man who could captivate her attention, who could make her know deep inside that he was man.
She had thought she was learning to conquer her traitorous emotions. Her heart had betrayed her where her parents were concerned— she hadn't seen the truth until it was too late. She'd vowed that only sound logic would rule her life. But her reaction to the duke confirmed her worst fears. She was once again leading with her emotions, rather than her intellect. It was a weakness she could not afford. She would conquer it.

Chapter 2

I
t was difficult to keep Stephen interested in addition and subtraction that afternoon when Thanet Court seemed to be coming alive with the duke's homecoming. The servants bustled everywhere, as if preparing for a party instead of just one man. Stephen sat at his desk, his head cocked toward the corridor, listening for the next interruption, until finally Meriel agreed to take him for a walk about the house, as long as he promised to behave himself.
He led her to his favorite place, the kitchens, where he was allowed to taste all the evening's confections. Servants bustled from the pantry to the washroom to the cellars, and all had a kind word for him.
Meriel stopped the housekeeper, Mrs. Theobald, when she was hurrying through. Though constantly busy with the immense household, the older woman always made one feel just as important as the master. It made her beloved by the servants, and had set Meriel at ease from the first. Mrs. Theobald kept her white hair tidy under a neat lace cap, and her ever-present apron over her black uniform was always spotless, although she worked as hard as anyone else.
"I don't have much time, Miss Shelby," the housekeeper warned her apologetically.
"I only want to know if I should prepare Stephen for dinner with his father."
"No, His Grace never eats with his son. It just wouldn't do."
"But the boy is six now. Surely he needs to learn what is proper behavior in a formal situation. He can't learn that nearly as well by eating with me in the nursery."
But Mrs. Theobald could only apologize and move on to her next task. When Meriel took Stephen upstairs for his meal, she resolved that she would have to speak to the duke herself.
Once again, speaking with her employer seemed like an intimidating task. She didn't want to be alone with him. Many of the nobility seemed to think that they could behave as they wished. She had heard stories over the years of abused governesses who could say nothing against their employer because they feared losing their position.
And now she was one of them.
Yesterday, she'd walked to the post office to send money home— a pitiful sum it had been, too. She had thought herself capable of helping her mother— she could not afford to lose a
second
job.

* * *

Two days passed, and the duke remained elusive. Meriel watched Stephen grow more dejected. She kept reminding the boy that his father's recovery would be slow, but inside she was working up the anger to insist on a meeting with the duke.
That night, dinner was a lonely affair as usual. Nurse Weston went down to the servants' hall, but Meriel was never invited to join in the camaraderie. She ate her meals with Stephen, and though he was a good-hearted boy, she missed adult conversation. She missed intelligent conversation— she missed her sisters.
Her heart gave a painful lurch, and she put down her fork as her appetite faded away. They had spent their whole lives together. Meriel had always thought that even when they all married, they'd be together in London much of the time.
But Ramsgate seemed like the end of the world, situated as it was on the southeastern edge of England. Meriel walked to the window and looked out at the sea. Home was many miles in the opposite direction. She had already cleared a few days' holiday with Mrs. Theobald to attend her sister's wedding. But for now, letters would have to do. She kept them in her desk, treated them gently so they wouldn't tear, and read them over and over again until she knew them by heart.
She turned to retrieve her letters from her desk, and saw that Stephen's chair was empty, his food half eaten.
"My lord?" she called to the empty room, wondering if he was hiding again.
She searched the cupboards, then walked down to his room. "Stephen?" she called outside the washroom.
He was gone.
She should have known that he would not be able to quiet his curiosity, now that his father had shown a small interest in him. He was a boy full of questions about his parents, from his absent father to his deceased mother. Meriel could answer few of them, so she should have known that Stephen would take the first opportunity. Standing at the head of the private staircase that led to the master suite below, she prayed Stephen had not dared to use it. She had heard Nurse Weston reminding him over and over that it was for his father only.
Meriel walked down the grand staircase to the dining room first. The large double doors were open, and several footmen were clearing away the dishes from the head of the table. The duke had eaten alone and was thankfully gone.
The two footmen, so identical in height and build, stopped what they were doing to look at her suspiciously.
"Robert," she said to the one whose name she remembered, "have you seen Lord Ramsgate?"
"No, Miss Shelby."
He was polite, but she sensed an underlying suspicion, as if he silently accused her of losing the boy.
It wouldn't be the first time. She'd spent much of the first week looking for Stephen everywhere, and she thought she knew all his hiding places. Thank goodness it was night— or she'd be looking for him near the fake castle ruins in the garden where he often pretended to be a ghost.
She left the dining room and searched the conservatory, especially in the back, where high ferns blocked her view. She tried the music room beneath the piano, and the library beneath both globes. She managed to avoid most of the servants, especially Mrs. Theobald, who would understand immediately what Meriel was doing.
How could she have allowed the boy to escape so soon after the duke's arrival?
Finally, she had no choice but to head to the drawing rooms. She assumed the duke had not yet gone to bed, so Stephen was probably following him about.
She heard the murmur of voices as she crept softly along the marble-floored corridor, using the carpets when she could. With her head bent, she strained to listen, but all she heard was the clink of a glass being set down. How could she just walk in and ask the duke if he'd seen his son?
She froze when a footman left the blue drawing room. He saw her at once and paused, but she put a finger to her lips and begged with her eyes. He turned away from her down the corridor. She sighed with relief.
"Miss Shelby, is that you?"
The duke's deep voice made her jump, as if she was doing something wrong. She lifted her chin and stepped into the doorway. He was leaning a shoulder against the carved white mantel, the empty hearth beside him. Two Irish wolfhounds lay at his feet. The duke's waistcoat was checked red and gold, standing out in a room decorated mostly in blues and whites. Even the paintings clustered on the walls seemed to be landscapes dominated by variations of blue skies.
"Good evening, Your Grace," she said.
He straightened and lifted his glass from the mantel. "Are you looking for Stephen?" He glanced toward the windows. "Stephen, perhaps you should show yourself now."
Meriel held her breath for an endless moment, but it didn't take the little marquess long. He stepped out from behind the draperies near the tall windows. The boy was disheveled, and there was a tear in his coat, but he was doing his best to look contrite.
"Forgive me, Your Grace," Meriel said. "I'll take Lord Ramsgate back to the nursery."
The duke laughed. "When he's gone to all this trouble? Stephen, I surely can't be interesting enough to spy upon."
Stephen's head lifted a bit. "I-I've never seen your dogs pay so much attention to you."
Meriel frowned, wondering what the boy meant.
The duke smiled as he looked down at his pets, who watched him with adoration, their heads cocked, their ears perked. "I think they missed me. Did you miss me, Stephen?"
The little boy stared at his father, his dark brows lowered in puzzlement. "Father, I can't remember how many months have passed since I saw you, so I can't really miss you."
Meriel's stomach flipped over with dread. She was obviously failing to teach the boy proper courtesy.
But the duke only laughed again and took a sip of his drink. "Then we'll have to get to know one another all over again. Miss Shelby, do come in and make yourself comfortable."
She tried to retreat to her usual window seat, but the duke would have none of it. He bade her sit on the sofa beside Stephen, and he took a chair opposite them. The dogs settled on either side of the duke, then put their heads down again. Only their eyes continued to stare, as if they couldn't let their master out of their sight.
Stephen swung his feet together in rhythmic bumps. "You don't look sick, Father."
Meriel silently agreed, chastising herself again for noticing far too many other things about the duke's appearance.
"I'm getting better, my boy, but I find myself still tired though my long journey was several days ago. If I were truly recovered, even exhaustion would not stop me from finding a party to attend tonight."
"You're with Miss Shelby and me."
The duke smiled, and his gaze caught Meriel. She noticed the whiteness of his teeth and the darkness of his eyes. The first time she'd met him, he'd made her feel her place as his inferior. But now there seemed to be no distance between them except the width of a low table. She felt uncomfortable— vulnerable.
"But you don't mean people like us," the boy continued. "You want to be with ladies."
The duke's toes tapped on the floor, and Meriel understood from whom Stephen had inherited his restlessness.
Again the duke laughed. "Ladies make a party amusing," he agreed, "but as long as I'm not alone, I enjoy the company."
"Miss Shelby is a lady," Stephen said.
Meriel wanted to close her eyes and groan. They were both looking at her now, Stephen with innocence, the duke with knowing amusement. She wished she could tell him not to look at her that way, that she was in his employ. He was crossing the line into a dangerous sort of flirting— at least it seemed so to her.
But to a man fond of ladies, perhaps just looking at a woman seemed tame. She would tolerate it as much as she could for her family's sake.
"I agree that Miss Shelby is a lady," the duke said. "Ladies are raised to be so accomplished."
She stiffened warily.
"Miss Shelby, surely you can entertain us at the piano to alleviate our boredom."
That
was something she could do. She almost hurried to the grand piano that took up a corner of the room. She left behind the sound of Stephen chattering on about the music lessons she was giving him. She simply put her fingers on the keys, closed her eyes, and tried to be swept up in the music. Her sister Victoria was the true musician of the family. Victoria had concentrated on her musical studies with the same fascination that Meriel had had for mathematics. But a lady learned music, and Meriel had always learned whatever she was supposed to.
When she heard a third voice, she stopped playing and opened her eyes.
Nurse Weston stood in the doorway. "Your Grace, shall I take Stephen to his bed? The evening is growing late."
Meriel rose to her feet with relief.
"Of course," the duke said. "But Miss Shelby, do continue your playing. I find it quite soothing."
Nurse Weston shot her a worried look that could have shouted,
I told you so
.
Meriel sank back onto the bench.
"Good night, Miss Shelby!" Stephen called, giving her a wave from the doorway.
"Sleep well, my lord." She was a little annoyed with him— after all, it was his fault she was trapped "entertaining" his father.
"Are we still going down to the shore tomorrow?" Stephen asked.
"Of course," Meriel said. "I have several special lessons planned for the afternoon."
When the sound of Stephen's chattering voice had faded down the corridor, the room became very silent. Meriel did not look at the duke, but simply began to play again. She was concentrating hard and did not realize that the duke had moved until he spoke right at her side.
"Excellent technique," he said.
She jumped and hit the wrong note.
"Forgive me for startling you." He leaned his elbows on the piano, drink in hand, a smile in his voice, but not on his face. "Can you play and converse at the same time?"
"Perhaps."
He was far too close for comfort. It wasn't right to be alone like this with him— but she was only a woman in his employ, not someone he need worry about compromising.
"So you're taking Stephen to the shore," he said.
"Your son enjoys biology and geology, Your Grace."
"No need to be defensive, Miss Shelby. I know you would not neglect his studies." He looked toward the window, now closed by draperies for the night, as if he could see the sea beyond. "My own governess thought that learning from books was enough."
"That is a shame, Your Grace." She kept her eyes on the sheet music, not wanting him to see the twinge of sympathy in her eyes. She would have thought the childhood of a duke's heir to be perfect.
"Where are you from, Miss Shelby?"
She wasn't surprised that he'd forgotten, though she'd informed him of that when he'd first interviewed her. "London, Your Grace."
"Did you always want to be a governess?"
She couldn't stop her wry smile, but she didn't dare look at him to see if he noticed. "No. After my father's death, we had financial troubles."
"Forced to a life of servitude, then," he said.
She stiffened. "I consider myself a teacher, Your Grace. Since I was taught well, I enjoy being able to share a love of learning with my pupil— your son."
"But what had you wanted for your life?"
His voice was soft with an intimacy that made her uncomfortable. He was between her and the door. Did he realize what he did? Or was he just a bored man who occupied himself with whomever was at hand?
She stopped playing and gave him a cool look. "Do you require such intimate knowledge of every woman in your employ, Your Grace?"
He stared at her for a moment, and behind that playful look she sensed…what? His eyes were black, and could hide many secrets. But he suddenly straightened and stepped away from the piano.
"Forgive me, Miss Shelby. I have attended so many gatherings that for a moment, I forgot I was not at another one."
"We certainly did not move within the same social circles, Your Grace. You would never have met me."
He nodded, and again his gaze became unfocused and distracted, as if he was thinking of something else.
Or forcing himself to think of something else.
"Your Grace, might I retire for the night? Your son and I begin our lessons at eight o'clock."
He smiled. "There are people awake at such an unseemly hour?"
"Little boys," she said, almost tempted to return his smile.
"Then I shan't keep you any longer. Good night, Miss Shelby."
She walked sedately to the corridor, not knowing if he watched her, but feeling as if he did. Only when she was out of eyesight did she lengthen her strides.
She would make sure Stephen never came upon his father alone again.

BOOK: The Duke in Disguise
10.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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