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
ichard felt like a fool. Clearly the fears that Cecil had expressed to him had made him overreact to a simple stranger walking down the beach. Thank God that Renee had noticed nothing unusual about his behavior.
But Miss Shelby had. He had felt a connection between them from the moment they'd met, and it had only intensified. She knew damn well that he'd thought Stephen was in danger. He had kept waiting for her to question him, alerting Renee.
But she'd said nothing. Her face had gone pale, as if she'd understood the danger to Stephen.
She couldn't know anything of the sort.
But she'd gotten that impression from him. How was he supposed to convince her otherwise? He certainly could not have her on her guard, or soon she'd begin to suspect
He and Renee walked their horses back up the cliff path, following Stephen and Miss Shelby. When they reached the summit, he found himself wanting to put Stephen in the saddle with him, but it would be ungentlemanly of him to ride when Miss Shelby had no mount.
So instead he turned to Renee at the top of the cliff. "Let me see Stephen and Miss Shelby home, and then I'll ride with you to Ramsgate."
"You want to
me?" she said, laughing with obvious disbelief.
He wanted to groan at his own stupidity. As if Cecil would ever think about such a thing.
And he noticed Miss Shelby's attention on him once again. Damn.
He grinned and patted Renee's horse on the neck as it nosed him. "Ah, Renee, you make a man want to protect you."
She laughed merrily and put him at ease.
"Cecil, just help me to mount. I'm hardly far from home."
She was still laughing and shaking her head when she wheeled her horse away from them. "Remember to come for tea on Sunday, Miss Shelby!"
"I will!" the governess called.
For a moment, Miss Shelby didn't hide herself behind a governess's stern expression. He watched the smile that warmed her face, made her eyes as carefree as a cloudless summer day. She was younger than he imagined; he saw that at once.
And she was so beautiful that it made him ache.
He had to stop this romantic nonsense. He had one mission here, nothing more. And then it was back to his life in Manchester.
He hefted Stephen into the saddle and led the horse down through the tall grass, walking at Miss Shelby's side. They were quiet for several minutes, and he glanced over his shoulder to see that the boy's head was drooping toward his chest, and his eyes blinked heavily.
Meaning only to alert Miss Shelby to Stephen's behavior, he touched her arm.
And she jumped as if he'd sprung from a hiding place to scare her.
He wanted to apologize, but had to resort to Cecil's grin instead.
Her face flushed red. "Yes, Your Grace?"
He nodded toward Stephen, whose head bobbed with the rhythm of the horse.
Her expression softened. "He's had a tiring day. Do you think he'll fall off?"
He wanted to say that he'd watch over Stephen— but then he remembered who he was supposed to be. "Just wanted you to keep an eye on him."
The warmth in her eyes cooled. "Of course, Your Grace."
He hated feeling like a cad— but that was Cecil. And he sensed that it was best to keep Cecil between the governess and him like a barrier.
"Your Grace," she said, "there are several things I'd like to discuss with you about Stephen. Might I make an appointment to meet with you?"
"Talk with my secretary," he said with forced indifference. "I'm sure there's an hour somewhere in my schedule."
She damn well knew he had the time, and that he was putting her off as if he didn't care about his son.
* * *
The next morning, Stephen and his nurse went to play with his shuttlecock outside, leaving Meriel a free hour for her scheduled meeting with the duke. She went down to his study, but of course he was not there. He was almost fifteen minutes late, and even then he looked surprised to find her waiting for him. There was a frozen moment between them, when she realized that she simply enjoyed looking at him, regardless of his flaws. She was so disappointed with herself.
He stared at her, and his two wolfhounds stood on either side of him, the height of his waist, and stared as well. She didn't get a menacing feeling from the dogs, but they were as large as colts, and therefore intimidating.
"Ah, Miss Shelby," he said.
He started around his desk, then seemed to think better of it and sat in a more comfortable chair near the hearth. The dogs gave him a questioning look.
"Victoria, Albert, lie down."
The dogs merely wagged their long tails, but did not obey him.
Meriel covered her mouth and pretended to cough, or she would have laughed aloud. Until the duke's arrival, the dogs had usually remained at the kennels, and she had never heard anyone speak their names. "You named your dogs after our queen and her husband?"
He shrugged and waved a hand indolently. "The irony appealed to me. And as you can see, they listen to me as well as the queen does."
He repeated the command, pointing to the floor, and both great dogs reluctantly lay down. Then the duke lolled his head back in the chair and looked at her.
She had never before met a man so…casual. His very posture emitted decadence. But then again, her meetings with men had mostly been at formal parties or the opera or museums. Safe ground.
She never felt safe around the duke.
Except yesterday, on the shore. For some strange reason, she had had no doubt that he would have attempted to protect them all— and succeeded.
She was granted a few extra minutes to compose herself when a maid— Beatrice, Meriel thought— brought in a tray with coffee and biscuits. The girl was pretty and blond. Meriel remembered Nurse Weston's comment that the duke hired servants based on attractiveness.
Although Meriel felt certain that Beatrice had passed by just minutes before and seen her in the study, the tray contained only one cup.
The duke didn't notice its absence until after the maid had left, and he was raising his cup to his lips.
He arched a brow. "You did not receive coffee, Miss Shelby?"
She shook her head. "It is of no importance, Your Grace. I came to discuss your son."
She could have sworn his shoulders tensed imperceptibly. Was he worried about something?
She had to stop reading hidden meanings into everything he did.
"Your Grace, I know Lord Ramsgate's mother died at his birth, but little else. What am I permitted to say to him about her?"
"Anything you'd like, Miss Shelby. We were very young when we married, both but nineteen. It was rather freeing to make those kinds of choices for myself."
She frowned. "If you don't mind my asking, then yours was not an arranged marriage, but one of love? Stephen would want to know this, of course," she hastily added.
The duke smiled in such a wicked way that she felt her face heat with a blush.
myself in love," he said.
But later concluded he wasn't? she wondered.
"Marguerite was a gentle soul who relished the opportunity to have a child," he continued. "I am saddened that Stephen will never know a mother's devotion."
Now he sounded like a man who would never marry again. Blast her curiosity, which could never be appeased.
"Thank you for giving me permission to discuss his mother with him," she said. "He is growing older, and is ready for what life can teach him. He is six years old now, Your Grace. It is time for him to begin to learn his manners around his elders. As a future duke, much will be expected of him."
He cocked his head, an amused smile quirking his lips, and she remembered she was speaking to a man raised to be a duke. She flushed and continued to speak.
"Lord Ramsgate eats his meals with me in the nursery, and it is difficult to hold his attention to his manners. I request that he be allowed to begin eating dinner with you in the evening." He opened his mouth, but she rudely hurried on. "Of course, if you're expecting guests, he would remain in the nursery."
"This is not a problem, Miss Shelby. You might have asked me anytime, without making a special appointment."
"But I couldn't risk Lord Ramsgate overhearing, just in case you turned down my request."
He sipped his coffee. "I see."
She hadn't anticipated his easy acquiescence and felt a bit lost in her rehearsed speech.
"Miss Shelby, of course you understand that you will be joining us."
She tensed. "That's not necessary, Your Grace. I'm certain you and your son will do fine without me."
"But who will guide him in his manners? You certainly can't count on me. I eat as I wish, and no one has ever corrected me, because I'm the duke."
"And you're saying you don't wish that to happen to your son?" She spoke hesitantly, not wanting to offend him.
He cocked his head. "Correct. There are times when one wishes to…blend in more."
She didn't know what to say to that except "I understand, Your Grace. Of course I will accompany Lord Ramsgate to dinner."
The duke petted his dogs and drank his coffee, but he still managed to watch her far more than she felt was appropriate. And every look made her self-conscious and flushed. But she could not possibly berate her employer as if he were a student.
Why did he make her feel so nervous?
"Did you have any questions about your son's studies?" she asked awkwardly.
That stopped her. She clasped her hands together and nodded.
"He is making good progress, Your Grace, settling into his first routine well."
"He was rather wild the last time I was home."
"He is a very inquisitive, active child," she assured him.
"And it is your job to tame him?"
He was laughing at her now.
Coolly, she said, "No, Your Grace, but I can teach him to guide his enthusiasm. You saw how he behaved on the shore yesterday. He once would have run off without giving us a thought. He is learning to ask permission."
The subject of their picnic on the shore made the duke's smile fade a bit, and she knew it was time to take a chance.
"Your Grace, yesterday I could not help noticing your tension."
"I was not tense, Miss Shelby," he said mildly.
But as if reacting to something in the room, Victoria the wolfhound lifted her head and looked at her master.
Meriel found herself childishly wanting to point out that even the dog noticed.
"Your Grace, when Mr. Sherlock approached us, you were obviously worried."
He set down his coffee and rose to his feet. She wondered if he was trying to intimidate her, for he came closer and stared down at her.
"Miss Shelby, have you ever been a member of a noble household?"
"No, Your Grace."
He seemed about to say something of a serious nature— and then it was as if a light went out behind his eyes, hiding what she wanted to see there. His irreverent grin was back, along with the leering way he looked at her.
"Then you've not perchance made a study of how a nobleman behaves?"
She blushed again, far too easily of late. "No, Your Grace."
"Then you don't really know what I was thinking, do you?"
"No, Your Grace." She lifted her chin, beginning to grow angry because he was mocking her, and she was unable to stand up to him.
"So you understand that I don't need to explain myself to you, my son's governess."
"Of course, Your Grace," she said stiffly.
He smiled, and she realized with shock that he was no longer staring into her eyes, but at her mouth. She'd allowed herself to be kissed several times, and she knew what that look from a man meant.
Long ago, when she was still the center of attention among her own class in London, she had responded with anticipation— from curiosity's standpoint, of course. She had been kissed, and though it had been pleasant, the experience had been disappointing.
Now, as she looked at the duke, all she could do was be stunned by the pure feeling of anticipation that swept over her, through her, even though she still burned from his mockery. Appalled, she realized she wanted to taste him.
She backed away quickly. She would not let this happen. A man like the duke would take advantage of her and then release her from his employ.
"Will Stephen be joining you for luncheon, Your Grace?" She prided herself on how normal her voice sounded.
"I have an engagement elsewhere," he said.
His lazy smile was gone, and she could not allow herself to be stared at a moment longer.
"Then I wish you a good afternoon," she said, then escaped.
* * *
All afternoon, Meriel was torn between pride that she'd stood up for Stephen, and anger directed at herself for not realizing what having dinner with the duke every night would mean for her. She would have to suffer his attention and devise ways to distract him without jeopardizing her employment.
Dressing for dinner was an exercise in futility— what was she to wear? Her best gowns were far too lovely for a governess to wear— especially a governess who was trying to stay unnoticed. She certainly would not allow the duke to think she was deliberately attracting his attention.
She finally chose a black silk gown that she had worn to her father's funeral and dressed it up with a simple cameo at her throat. From now on, this would be her only evening gown. The few beautiful gowns she hadn't wanted to part with remained concealed at the back of her wardrobe. She wore her hair in the plain, severe style she now favored, pulled back off her face, with not a curl showing.
Beatrice the maid had stopped by earlier to tell Meriel when the duke expected her for dinner. Her attitude had remained cool, and Meriel hadn't bother to ask why. How could the servants be upset that Stephen needed to have dinner with his own father?
When she finally collected Stephen— looking adorable in his miniature frock coat and trousers— and went down to the dining room for dinner, the duke was being waited on by his footmen. The first course was already being taken away. Every click of silverware echoed in the cavernous room that could easily seat fifty. Beatrice the serving maid was bent near the duke, wiping crumbs from the tablecloth. The girl didn't meet Meriel's gaze.
The duke finished chewing and regarded Meriel with amusement. "So punctuality is not one of Stephen's lessons?"
Stephen, uncomprehending, stared between them.
Meriel felt her face redden. "Your Grace, we are five minutes early."
"You are almost a half hour late, Miss Shelby."
He did not seem angry, which was even more frustrating, because
was angry— angry with herself for believing the innocent-looking Beatrice, whose pretty face was flushed with excitement as she hovered near the duke.
Meriel bit her lip. So now was she in some sort of contest with a maid for the duke's attention? Shouldn't Beatrice care that it was
she hurt more?
Stephen gripped her hand tighter, his happy face collapsing slowly into worry. "Father, did I do something wrong?"
"Of course not, Stephen," the duke said. "Miss Shelby did."
"But you have missed only the first course. Come eat with me."
For the first time, Meriel wanted to flee a room because of embarrassment. She'd always prided herself on being punctual and prepared for any situation. She refused to let a jealous maid control her actions.