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
eriel wanted to give Richard and Stephen more time alone, so she ate dinner with Mrs. Theobald in the housekeeper's private sitting room. Her conversation with Mrs. Theobald remained friendly and relaxed, and it was a relief not to think about dangerous plots. But later, Meriel's fears returned. She could still hear that gunshot, could still feel her terror when Richard had gone into the woods to face down a killer.
That night, Meriel stayed with Stephen until he fell asleep, with the dogs on either side of his bed. Nurse Weston gave her a curious look, but asked no questions. Meriel hoped she would just assume that the gunshot had rattled the boy.
At midnight, Meriel ran down the private staircase, and when she didn't see Richard immediately, she almost panicked.
"Your Grace?" she called, in case Richard's valet was still in attendance.
"I'm in here, Meriel," Richard called from the washroom.
She skidded to a halt, seeing him once again neck-deep in steaming water, the tub sunken beneath the level of the floor.
He studied her face. "I was going to come up and talk to you. I've devised a plan to rout Charles once and for all."
She didn't want to hear about plans and intrigue. He could have been killed today. She could have lost…everything she'd experienced with him, everything he made her feel. She'd gone through the day almost numb, unable to think about it without feeling terrified for him.
Now he had a plan, and it would surely be dangerous.
However their affair ended up, she couldn't waste a moment of it.
She loosened the sash of her dressing gown and let the garment slide to the floor. Richard stopped moving. His eyes were locked on her nakedness as she walked toward him.
She felt fluttery and nervous— and alive and full of passion for him. Could she be falling in love with him?
She stood at the edge of the tub, standing right next to him, her feet on the cool tile, on level with his face. He looked up her legs slowly, lingering at her hips, then up to her breasts— and stopped there.
Then he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around her thighs, lifting her off her feet. Gasping, she clutched at his head even as he put his face between her thighs. She was held against him, her lower legs dangling in the water, with no purchase to hold on to but him. She found herself arching back, spreading her legs as much as she was able to, and let him do as he willed.
She could feel his mouth against her now, parting her. She groaned and writhed as she realized the hot wetness was his tongue probing her, licking her, tasting her. She shuddered, gasping, already so aroused that it was nearly painful.
She gasped his name and desperately tried to lift one leg so he could reach her more fully. Her toes found the bottom of the tub, and then he lifted her leg high. He was free to explore her everywhere, and she even felt his tongue inside her. As he swept up again and sucked her inside his mouth, her body convulsed in an explosion that made her shudder and groan.
He pulled her down to straddle his lap, kissing her as he thrust up inside. She tasted herself on him, tasted his need and his lack of restraint, and she reveled in it. He arched her away from him, so that he could reach her breasts, even as he pushed into her over and over again. With his mouth and hands on her breasts, his penis inside her, she climaxed once more, and only then did he give himself over to her, falling back to the edge of the tub, arching up into her in a climactic shudder.
Then he sank under the surface of the water, and she laughed and gave his hair a pull. He came up sputtering and put his arms around her, nuzzling her neck, sighing into her ear.
"This was a lovely surprise," he murmured.
She kissed the side of his face and held him. "I've been so frightened for you all day."
"I shall have to be in danger more often if I'm going to get this kind of reaction from you."
She laughed softly, then sighed her disappointment as he drew out of her. But then he helped her turn around so that she was sitting between his legs, lying back against his chest. Closing her eyes, she let the warm water and his safe embrace relax her.
"How was Stephen when you left him?" he asked.
She tilted her head to look back at him. "Subdued. Sad. But I get the impression he thinks he's
to be sad, more than he actually is. I stayed with him until he fell asleep."
Richard nodded. "He can hardly claim to know his father well. Maybe that will help him heal in the end."
After several minutes, he spoke with a hesitation she wasn't used to from him.
"Did you hear me when I was talking to the guards out in the garden?"
She shook her head. "I was too far away."
"I was so angry," he said in a low voice. "I had thought that they would be able to keep Stephen safe. When I yelled at them, it was like I heard my father coming out in my own voice— his disdain for the servants, the way he let a person know he was beneath a duke."
She glanced at him again, but he was staring away from her, his gaze unfocused, seeing other things. She squeezed his arms where they surrounded her. "Richard, you're
the duke. And your nephew was almost killed. Anyone would react in that situation."
"I thought it would be more difficult to be like my father and brother. Sadly, it's not at all. I'm beginning to wonder if I…misjudged them all these years."
"What do you mean?"
"People treat me differently now, Meriel, just like people treated them. It…corrupts a person, changes them. I watched it happen to Cecil, and I blamed him all these years, just like I blamed my father. But this morning, for just one moment, I thought remaining the duke would answer all my problems."
She held her breath in surprise.
"And then I realized I was becoming them."
"No, hear me out. Yes, we all make our own choices, but Cecil was influenced by how he was raised, as was my father. How could they help but be little gods, when that's how they were treated?" He inhaled swiftly, then continued in a low voice. "There's a part of me that
it, Meriel. And I realized today that I have resented them all these years, when I really should have forgiven them long ago. Maybe that's why my life has seemed so empty before now. But it's so difficult to let go of past hurt."
Tears blurred her eyes, and she lifted his hand to kiss his palm. "How, Richard, how can one forgive? I've never been able to. I'm still so angry at him."
Richard couldn't waste the opportunity she'd just presented him. He needed to know everything about her. "Since you can't mean Cecil, who are you still angry at?"
But she hesitated so long, he thought she was going to ignore his question. He waited patiently, stroking her sides.
"My father killed himself," she said suddenly.
Stunned, he couldn't think of an immediate reply.
She let out a deep breath. "I can't believe I just told you that. I swore to my mother and sisters that I would never divulge that to anyone."
"So no one knows how he died?"
She shook her head. "We found him where he'd hanged himself in the stables behind our house."
"Meriel," he murmured against her neck, imagining her grief and fright— and the courage it took to do something about it.
"My mother was hysterical— she wanted him buried in the church graveyard. And she didn't want anyone to know what desperation had done to him. Me, I thought he was only motivated by cowardice." Bitterness etched her voice. "He was a banker, and he'd become rich from his investments, but somehow it had all gotten away from him. In the end, he killed himself rather than live penniless. He sentenced
"So that's why you were forced to seek employment."
She nodded. "We only had ten months until the return of the cousin who'd purchased the mortgage on our house. So Victoria stayed with Mama— "
"This is the sister who just married?"
"Yes. Louisa was a companion to a bedridden old woman, and me— "
"And you're a governess. That took much bravery to place yourself in an unfamiliar household."
"Many gentlewomen are forced to do it, Richard. And they fare far worse than I have. But it's Victoria who truly saved Mama. Me, I could have made things worse."
"What do you mean?"
She tried to sit up. "Richard, the water's getting cold. Perhaps we should— "
He pulled her back against him. "You are a brilliant woman. How could you have made things worse?"
"Because I failed," she said quietly, her body stiff against him.
"It seems like your father failed, not you."
"No, I should have seen it! I've always been the smart one, the one they all counted on— and I let my love for my parents cloud my judgment. They kept their financial problems from us, but there were clues, and I didn't follow up on them."
"Meriel, why would you think to do that? You trusted your father— you shouldn't have been expected to look for plots and secrets."
"But Richard— "
She gave a sob and turned in his embrace to hold on to him. He thought she was going to say something else, but instead she just shook her head and trembled.
Finally she wiped the last tear from her face and pushed herself up to sit beside him.
She gave a small, embarrassed laugh. "Sorry for practically using you as a handkerchief."
He smiled. "I didn't mind."
Her sudden shiver made her breasts tremble. He wanted to admire the sight a bit longer, but instead rose up and reached for two towels. He wrapped one around his waist, then gathered her into the other and scooped her into his arms.
"Richard!" she said, beginning to smile. "I think I can get out of the tub myself."
"And risk a fall? Never."
He set her down in the middle of his bedroom and dried her off as if she were the finest piece of china. Then he stepped back to look at her.
She blushed. "I'm not a statue, you know."
"Better than one. You've come to life."
She held up a hand as he advanced on her. "I'd better fetch my dressing gown. I want to hear all about this plan to rout Charles."
He groaned. "I was hoping you'd forgotten."
She darted around him back to the washroom, and when she emerged, she was safely covered from neck to ankles. He finished drying himself off, and liked that she watched him, her chin lifted defiantly.
"Should I stay like this?" he asked.
"If you'd like."
Nude, he went to sit down in a chair.
She covered her face. "Oh all right, put on your robe. You're terribly difficult to resist."
They tried to sit in opposite chairs to talk, but Richard couldn't bear to be separated from her. He drew her to the bed, fluffed pillows for them both, and encouraged her to sit beside him. She folded her legs beneath her and waited, her playfulness fading away.
He sighed. "Back to the world, I guess. With today's close call, I've realized we can no longer sit back and wait for Charles to make the next move. Knowing that my six-year-old nephew could have been killed changes everything. I'm going to host the annual Thanet masquerade ball this Saturday night."
"A ball? How will that help against Charles?"
"We'll invite him, and of course he won't be able to resist coming. He'll wonder what we have planned. He's arrogant enough to think he can master us whatever the situation. Hopefully this will keep him from another attempt on Stephen's life during the week."
"But what about Stephen during the ball?"
"We'll have him taken to the old hunting lodge, close enough but out of the way. There will be guards with him. I don't want him anywhere near Charles. All of the surrounding gentry will attend— including the constables."
She started to smile. "So you're going to give yourself up?"
"I haven't quite figured out how that will work yet," he admitted. "The most important thing is to eliminate the threat to Stephen. Charles, as usual, will not be able to resist gloating when he's alone with me. I'll get him talking, while you keep the constable within earshot of us. I'm sure you can manage to lure him anywhere you wish."
"I met several constables in town," Meriel began suspiciously. "Aren't they married, and therefore resistant to my allure?"
He grinned. "Two of them are, but not the third. Maybe you can target him."
"And here I was, the mistress of the duke, about to offer myself to the married ones. After all, I'll certainly need another 'protector' in three weeks or so."
"So cynical." Richard shook his head. "But you won't be the mistress of a duke much longer."
She tilted her head quizzically.
"Because I won't be the duke much longer."
"I see," she said with a nod.
She continued to study him, and there was a very awkward pause, as they each considered life after this masquerade was over.
Richard wondered if she'd stay with him. Would she want to be married to the illegitimate son of a duke? Maybe if she loved him, none of that would matter. Could he make her fall in love with him? Or was she still too afraid to trust herself?
"We only have five days, Richard," she said, getting out of bed and walking to his writing desk. She found paper and a pencil and came back. "Are you certain everyone will come with such short notice?"
He arched a brow at her. "I'm the duke."
She smiled. "There's so much to do!"
"Put invitations at the top of your list," he said, watching as she started writing. "Those have to be delivered tomorrow."
"I feel sorry for your secretary."
He let her complete the list with food and decorations and everything else a woman managed for a party. She discussed consulting Mrs. Theobald, and even planning her own costume.
But his mind was already turning back to the problem of Charles, and what Richard could say to antagonize the man so much that he would freely talk about his plot to kill a child.
eriel was so busy for the next several days that she could have gladly given Stephen the week as a holiday. But she was too worried to give him time to think on his father's death, or the fact that people were shooting at him. So each morning they had lessons, and each afternoon he completed assignments with Nurse Weston while Meriel worked on the masquerade ball with Mrs. Theobald.
The ballroom at the far end of the conservatory was thrown open for the first time in a year, the chandeliers were lowered and restocked with candles, the walls were washed and decorated. They settled on an Oriental theme and had Chinese lanterns and painted screens sent by train from London. Potted ferns and palms from the conservatory were moved in, as well as chairs and chaises to give rest to weary dancers.
And each night, Meriel welcomed Richard to her bed, or came to his. She no longer questioned this impropriety, only accepted it as something she could never deny herself again. The future— along with its dangers— did not exist. She had only these precious hours with him, for during the day he was far too busy. She sensed him finishing his business as the duke, in preparation for relinquishing the role to Stephen. She wondered how the staff would feel when they knew the truth— or if it would even be necessary to tell them.
But of course when the duke's body was returned, it would be obvious that Richard was not Cecil.
The day of the masquerade finally arrived, and the household was like a hive of well-organized bees. Mrs. Theobald oversaw everything and sent Meriel off to bathe and don her costume. Meriel had had little time to prepare, and had settled on dressing as a bouquet of roses. A green gown was sewn with hundreds of artificial red roses across her bodice and shoulders. Her headpiece and mask were festooned with live roses, put together by Beatrice, who was proving surprisingly helpful since she now assumed that the duke was halfway through with his current mistress.
Meriel had earlier said good-bye to Stephen as Richard and several armed men led him out into the darkness to travel by stealth into the woods. Tonight she was no longer the governess. She was playing her part as mistress to the hilt, the better to lure the constable into doing her bidding. Because if the man refused to follow her, then the entire plan was for naught.
Boldly she met Richard in the corridor outside the ballroom. Servants lined the walls, ready to do any guests' bidding. Meriel knew that she and Richard were the center of attention, and she struck a pose as he stalked around her.
"Hold still so I can smell the roses," he said, his voice taut with the seriousness of the evening, yet still having to appear amused.
He was the duke after all, and the duke enjoyed the challenge of a chase, especially during the masquerade ball.
She tilted her head toward him, then slyly backed away, glancing at him sideways through her mask. In his usual evening wear, Richard was dressed all in black, but for his waistcoat, cravat, and gloves. He wore a plain black mask that hid the upper half of his face, and left his sensuous lips bare and emphasized.
"I thought you would come as yourself," she whispered. "What a disguise
He grinned without amusement, obviously focused on the night ahead. Putting his arm around her, he pulled her close as if against her will and whispered in her ear, "Are you ready?"
"I'm ready. I won't let you down."
He kissed her hard then, his tongue in her mouth. She gasped and spurned him, as if such a public display was yet too much for the governess.
He laughed and led her into the ballroom to begin greeting his guests.
As the evening progressed, never once did he introduce her as "the governess." Many people seemed to think that Miss Shelby was a friend come down from London, and Meriel let them believe what they wanted. She needed to remain mysterious to lure the constable.
When Richard finally introduced her to the policemen, she was glad to see that the three constables had arrived together, two with their wives, and the third, Constable Leighton, clearly available. She smiled at him mysteriously and swept into a deep curtsy that highlighted her cleavage, left bare amid the roses.
Constable Leighton choked a little bit, staring down at her, wide-eyed. His red hair was slicked back against his scalp, and he wore the mask and flowing cape of a highwayman.
"Pretending to be on the opposite side of the law for the evening, Constable?" she asked.
He reddened and glanced apologetically at his fellow officers.
Meriel leaned near him, saying far too softly for the others to hear, "Would you care to smell the roses? They're very real."
"And r-ripe for the picking?" Constable Leighton stuttered, then went as red as his hair as if shocked by his own boldness.
"Only for a highwayman daring enough," she said, then turned and threaded her way across the crowded floor.
She cruised the perimeter of the room, drinking, laughing, and never remaining with one group for long. Always she managed to meet Constable Leighton's wide eyes over her fluttering fan.
When Sir Charles Irving arrived, the evening grew serious. She watched as Richard greeted Charles at the high, wide double doors that opened into the ballroom. The two men looked at each other, both smiling, both about the same height and coloring, though Charles was several years older. Charles, too, wore a simple black mask.
There was a tension between them, even though Charles must wish he could pretend otherwise. The man was too excited for a mere masquerade ball, his grin too wide, his superior air far too apparent.
Meriel hoped it would be his downfall.
For a half hour, she flitted about the ballroom, occasionally catching the constable's eye. When Richard and Charles finally met up again and began to talk, Meriel's insides grew a little tighter. She turned to look for the constable and found him almost immediately, standing alone with a drink in his hand, watching her.
She gave him a slow, secretive smile, and he stiffened. She pantomimed drinking, and he lifted a wineglass from a tray and brought it to her.
"Miss Shelby," he said, bowing low. "I'd be honored if— after you drink, of course— if you'd do me the honor of dancing the— "
"Constable Leighton," she interrupted, sipping her wine and batting her lashes at him, "I would love to dance with you, but first I have a slight problem. Would you speak with me in private?"
His eyes widened within the mask and he followed her dutifully, only to look disappointed when she stepped behind another potted palm.
She lowered her voice to a throaty whisper. "Constable, when I saw you, I knew you were the answer to our problems."
"Our?" he repeated, sounding wary.
"The duke would be outraged if he knew I came to you. He's a very proud man. But he could use your help."
The constable's chest swelled with importance, and he stood a little taller. "Of course, Miss Shelby. What is the problem?"
"Do you see him with his cousin, Sir Charles Irving?" She pointed between two palm fronds. "Sir Charles is…threatening His Grace."
He frowned. "Threatening? Why?"
She smiled as if nervous— which really wasn't a lie. "Sir Charles is next in line for the dukedom after Lord Ramsgate. He insists on being named the child's guardian, should anything happen to the duke. His Grace insists that Sir Charles means nothing by it, but I disagree." She sighed melodramatically. "If you could just come with me to follow them, and see how Sir Charles
to the duke, the threat in his voice. I am quite frightened of him."
When he looked unconvinced, she gritted her teeth and played the silly female. "Oh, Constable, I know you can help me put my mind at rest. Then I'll be able to relax and enjoy the evening with you."
Again his face went scarlet, and he kept sneaking a glance at her breasts. She took a deep breath to bring them into better view.
Constable Leighton held out his arm. "Shall we move a little closer to the duke, then?"
Relieved, she led him through the crowd. When they got close to Richard, Meriel turned her back and smiled up at Constable Leighton.
He looked over her shoulder briefly, then resumed his cleavage watch. "I can just hear them. They're talking about horses."
"Well, of course. They're right where everyone can hear them."
"And now they're moving off," the constable said.
Meriel grabbed his arm and followed. At the last moment, Charles waved to someone and left Richard.
Though Meriel was disappointed, the constable didn't seem to mind. He asked her to dance, and she had no choice but to agree. It was another dance before Richard and Charles were talking, and then Charles wandered away again.
Meriel stomped her foot, but Constable Leighton only shook his head.
"Miss Shelby, Sir Charles doesn't seem to have much to say to the duke. And I have a card game that's beginning right now in the library."
"But Constable Leighton, the duke really needs your help!"
No amount of eyelash batting, lip trembling, or bosom thrusting mattered. The constable bowed and left her.
She gave a little start as Renee, dressed as a medieval queen, called her name.
"I've been trying to get your attention," Renee said, pressing her cheek to Meriel's. "Ouch, thorns!"
"But there aren't any thorns in my— "
"Just teasing! I so love the roses. A bouquet is an excellent costume. But now the treasure hunt is beginning," Renee said excitedly. "What a wonderful idea Cecil had for this year's entertainment! Come with me! I saw the torches leading all through the gardens. It will be a magical night."
"Renee, you'll have to go without me. I promised Stephen I would visit and tell him about the ball. And he so wanted to see my costume."
"Well, then I'll come with you."
"But you'll miss the hunt! And to be honest, I helped organize it, so I already know where the prize is." The treasure hunt had been her idea to keep their guests distracted from the true purpose of the ball.
"I should have expected you would be the one behind the hunt," Renee said. "Oh well, I have my first clue. I'll tell you all about it when I get back!"
The ballroom crowd was slowly thinning out, and Meriel was able to catch sight of Richard again. He and Charles were at the far end of the ballroom, going out a door into the house. She picked up her skirts and practically ran, dodging servants and guests. She hoped that the men would walk past the library, where she could grab Constable Leighton.
But instead they went out into the night under the half moon, away from the torches lighting the treasure hunt. Charles picked up a torch from the path and lifted it ahead of them. It was still difficult for Meriel to see, and only because she knew the grounds so well was she able to follow them without turning an ankle.
They were headed for the old castle ruins, and she didn't have the constable with her. She was failing Richard, thwarting their plan. Her only hope was overhearing what they said, so she could testify on Richard's behalf herself.
"Enough of this!" she overheard Richard say. "We could have talked in the house."
Oh God, Charles was the one leading Richard out into the dark grounds. She remained behind a clump of trees and caught her breath when Charles finally stopped and faced Richard. The eerie sight of the ruins behind them made the scene look like something from a novel.
Charles smiled. "I'm so glad you gave me another opportunity to see you, Richard. Perchance did you think you could kill me? Though murder isn't your style— you don't have the courage for it— I did plan ahead just in case. I'm sure you believe that Stephen is safe out there in the hunting lodge."
Meriel covered her mouth with her hand. Oh God, how could he have known where Stephen was? She wanted to run straight to the lodge, but she remained frozen in horror. Was Stephen alive or dead?
Richard moved closer to Charles, his hands fisted.
Charles laughed. "I've always been one step ahead of you, Richard. Your brother's steward has been in my employ for many years."
Meriel thought, even as Richard said the name aloud.
"Don't be so surprised," Charles continued. "Cecil treated him abominably— hardly paid him what he was worth. I rectified that, and since then, he's been loyal to me. Cecil was too foolish to figure out how all his money was slowly being siphoned away. Jasper tells me he's been quite worried since you arrived, because you seemed suspicious of the account books almost immediately. Yet you allowed yourself to be distracted— by the pretty governess, perhaps?"
"Have you killed Stephen?" Richard ground out.
"Good heavens, no," Charles said. "I wanted to assess the situation first. Maybe, if he's a good boy, I'll let him live. For a while."
Meriel thought of the threat to Stephen, and realized the little boy was now her only priority. She would trust Richard to deal with Charles. All that mattered was bringing the constable to rescue Stephen.