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 (7 page)

BOOK: The Duke in Disguise
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Chapter 7

wo days later, Meriel used her free time during the afternoon to lay out her evening clothes for the assembly that night. The sedate gown of deep purple, with a respectable neckline, had been crushed during the move, and she hadn't bothered to have it ironed.
To prevent more unrest, Meriel was trying to keep quiet the news that she was attending, so she could hardly ask Beatrice or Clover to take the gown to the laundry. She would just have to ask the laundress herself. Surely the woman would not refuse her request.
It was a several minutes' journey back to the servants' wing of the house, where the corridors were narrower and darker. She passed the occasional footman or scullery girl, but no one questioned her. She had to cross the entrance to the servants' hall on her way, and she held her breath, hoping that luncheon was long finished.
A woman's voice called, "Miss Shelby?"
Meriel closed her eyes and came to a stop. It was not Mrs. Theobald. She turned about and looked into the hall.
There were several long tables with benches on either side. The ceiling rose high above, and on either end were massive hearths that would fit in as well with the decor in her own father's drawing room. Beatrice, Clover, and two other women that Meriel couldn't place were just rising from the table with plates in their hands.
"Did you wish to speak to me?" Meriel asked, not knowing to whom she was directing her question.
Beatrice coldly eyed the gown Meriel was carrying. "Back to the laundry again, are you?"
Clover snickered behind her hand.
Meriel simply nodded.
"What do you need such a fancy dress for?" Beatrice demanded.
This was the question she'd been dreading. "I'm to accompany young Lord Ramsgate."
Beatrice reddened with obvious anger, Clover's mouth dropped open, and the two other women fell to whispering to each other.
attending the assembly?" Clover demanded.
"There is a children's reception in the next room. I will be overseeing Lord Ramsgate there."
"But you're attending the assembly," Clover said again.
"I will be working," Meriel pointed out.
Beatrice strode toward her, leaving her dishes forgotten on the table. "But you'll be escorted by His Grace."
"He is my employer, the same as he is yours," she said patiently.
"But you'll be escorted by His Grace!" Beatrice fairly shouted it like an accusation.
"It's not fair!" Clover said to the other two women.
"It is not my wish to attend," Meriel said, wondering if she could turn her back and walk away.
"He can't have chosen her!" Beatrice said to the others. "He's been in London so long he hasn't picked one of us in ages!"
Meriel was stunned that the woman was near tears. "He has not chosen me for anything other than as governess to his son."
"And she's stupid, too!" Clover cried, aghast. "Everything's going wrong. He's never waited this long to choose one of us!"
Meriel stared uncomprehending between them, and was relieved when the voice of sanity in the person of Mrs. Theobald spoke from the doorway.
"Girls, what is going on here?"
"Has he chosen
, Mrs. Theobald?" Beatrice demanded as spokesman for the group.
The housekeeper's lips formed a thin line as she glanced at Meriel with a surprising amount of guilt. "He has not chosen anyone, girls. I am always the first to know."
This seemed to mollify them. With their noses in the air, they marched past Meriel without saying another word.
Meriel stared at the housekeeper in the silence that followed, waiting for an explanation. When none came, she said, "Mrs. Theobald, what do they worry I've been chosen for?"
The older woman sighed. "Come to my office for tea, Miss Shelby."
Meriel didn't want tea. But she wanted answers, so she accompanied the housekeeper across the corridor to her sitting room. Mrs. Theobald closed the door behind her and poured them each a cup of tea from a tray on her desk. The account books of her station were lined behind her on shelves. A table and several chairs were grouped on the far side of the room, where Meriel knew she often hosted the upper servants for dessert. Meriel had never been invited.
Oh, she knew Mrs. Theobald would not deliberately hurt her. The woman was only thinking about Meriel's position as governess, one above the other servants. But Meriel would have enjoyed having an occasional conversation that was not about Stephen.
Mrs. Theobald sat back in a cushioned chair next to Meriel and released a deep sigh. "Miss Shelby, His Grace has certain…peculiarities, all of which are tolerated because he is a duke."
Meriel nodded, feeling worry begin to seep in to squeeze her chest.
"Have you noticed how lovely most of the female staff are?" the housekeeper asked.
"How could I not?" Meriel said dryly. "Nurse Weston said I was hired for the same reason, although I find that very doubtful. I am well qualified to be a governess— "
Mrs. Theobald interrupted. "I have no doubt that you are, Miss Shelby. But it is true, His Grace prefers to look upon beauty in his household. There is a purpose to this of course, one that is morally reprehensible. But he is so generous about it that none of the girls mind. In fact they almost…compete."
"Compete for what?" Meriel demanded, losing her patience.
"Every month or so, the duke chooses a new mistress from among the staff, either here or in another of his homes."
Meriel stiffened and simply stared at the housekeeper, who watched her closely.
"Are you saying…he deliberately chooses a member of his own household and demands that she…satisfy his needs?" She felt sick to her stomach that she had not suspected the duke of such depravity. While she'd been trying not to fantasize about him, he'd been sizing her up as a potential conquest.
"There is no
involved," Mrs. Theobald said. "The maids understand very well what will happen. When the duke chooses a woman, she is treated like a queen for that month, showered with gifts, and in the end, given a sum of money that she could not hope to earn in her lifetime. Of course, she is then released from the household, but none of the women have minded."
"Are you saying that it's acceptable because he pays them like they are prostitutes?" Meriel said, aghast.
The old woman put her face in her hands for a moment. "His father the old duke was the same. I regret that I take it for granted, but there is nothing I can do to change it. If His Grace treated the girls cruelly, I would stand up to him. But he doesn't. They experience more kindness from him than most have ever seen. Do you know how they'd react should I try to stop the practice? You've seen Beatrice's and Clover's reaction to
Meriel sat back and tried to rationally examine her own disappointment. Masters seducing their servants was nothing new— the fact that these women
to be seduced was something she couldn't imagine. She knew she'd been partly chosen for her features, but it seemed worse now that she knew he might act upon his baser needs.
She finally realized that she had thought this behavior beneath him. Had she expected him to be noble, when he'd shown her no such inclination? Why did she want him to be different from other sinful men?
Because she was attracted to him. Because the feelings she couldn't control told her he was worth her admiration.
And she'd been lying to herself, letting her emotions sway her judgment. He had shown her the kind of man he was over and over— forgetting about his son for months on end, maneuvering to get her alone, talking to her like she was an equal to ease her suspicion of him.
He was looking for a woman easily seduced. And the way she'd been behaving, he could have kissed her and she might have believed she was special to him. She was the worst kind of fool.
"Miss Shelby?" Mrs. Theobald spoke in a hesitant voice. "Are you well?"
"I am." Her voice was back under her control, and she would make sure her silly emotions followed. "Thank you for explaining everything to me."
"Are you going to leave your position here?"
Meriel thought of Stephen, who'd seemed to blossom under her discipline and tutelage. How could she leave him with his father, a man who might very well hire the next governess because of her
, not her intellect!
Then she remembered the duke's strange behavior on the beach, when he'd acted as if Stephen was in danger. What if the boy truly was? She could not abandon Stephen.
"Mrs. Theobald, if he…chooses me, can I refuse?"
"It happened once before, Miss Shelby, and the duke accepted rejection with good grace. After all, there are so many eager young women to choose from," she added sadly.
"Did the woman lose her position?"
"No. Although I will admit that within the year, she found work at another grand household of her own free will."
"Very well then. I will not leave Thanet Court— except for my sister's wedding, of course."
Mrs. Theobald glanced at the wrinkled gown Meriel had laid across a chair. "I assure you that I had a conversation with the laundress— "
"This is a gown I haven't worn yet," Meriel interrupted. "I was wondering if the laundress wouldn't mind ironing it before tonight."
"Of course," the housekeeper said with a smile. "Allow me to take it to her."
"Thank you." Meriel hesitated, but it had to be said. "Mrs. Theobald, if the subject of me as a potential mistress comes up with His Grace— "
"We don't speak of such things, Miss Shelby."
"But if it does, make sure he understands that I will never be one of his household conquests."
"A governess is a lady above the rest of the household servants. Perhaps he would not consider such a liaison."
But Meriel saw how the duke looked at her, like a man who was…interested. She would not return that interest, even if her traitorous body wished otherwise.

* * *

Richard waited alone in the entrance hall, pacing beneath the vaulted ceiling and threading between marble columns. He found himself anticipating watching Meriel Shelby walk down the grand staircase to meet him. He wondered what she'd wear— certainly not a simple day dress.
As the minutes passed, he restlessly continued pacing, and the two footmen pretended not to notice. Finally, Hargraves entered and came up short.
"Your Grace, the carriage was brought around for you twenty minutes ago."
"I'm waiting for Miss Shelby and my son."
Hargraves hesitated. "I was given to understand that Miss Shelby and Lord Ramsgate are already in the carriage."
Richard frowned. "They didn't come through here."
"The carriage picked them up at the servants' entrance, Your Grace."
Richard felt like a fool, as if he were waiting on his escort for the evening. But all he did was grin. "Then that explains it. And I was trying so hard to be punctual, too."
The enclosed carriage was waiting in the great circular drive beneath the portico. Richard climbed up inside and found Miss Shelby and Stephen already seated with their backs to the front of the carriage, leaving him the best seat. That irritated him.
Stephen was almost bouncing on the bench. "Father, Miss Shelby said we were supposed to be gone already."
Richard glanced with amusement at Miss Shelby, who closed her eyes briefly.
"Your Grace, I was not implying that you were late," she began.
Stephen joined in. "I told her that the duke always has the right time. Isn't that right, Father?"
Richard relaxed back in his seat as the carriage departed. He was childishly glad the embarrassment had been handed off to Miss Shelby. He wouldn't even bring up the fact that he'd been waiting for her.
"Yes, Stephen, a clock has no meaning for a duke."
Miss Shelby looked out the window, and he thought her jaw muscles had clenched. She must know he was teasing, but she did not seem in a receptive mood.
"Stephen, I don't think Miss Shelby understood my joke," Richard said. "Certainly a duke needs to be concerned about the time. There are always so many meetings to attend, and I could never do business if I left people constantly waiting for me."
That was Richard speaking rather than Cecil, but Miss Shelby kept her silence and ignored him. Leisurely, he took the opportunity to study her. She was wearing a dark cloak that hid her from her neck to her toes. He was disappointed that she still wore her hair in the usual plain, severe chignon, but he could hardly command she style it another way. Of course,
would have…
"Miss Shelby," he said, "no elaborate hairstyle for the evening?"
She coolly glanced at him. "Are the guests going to object to my appearance?"
"No, but perhaps I might."
Her tone became even more frosty. "Your Grace, if you plan to dictate my hairstyle from now on, we will have a meeting to discuss my response."
Where she would point out a corner of hell for him to reside in, he thought, not bothering to hide his grin.
It was less than a half hour's ride into town, and except for answering Stephen's questions about the fishing fleet and the royal harbor, Miss Shelby said nothing. Richard was getting the distinct impression that she was angry with him, but he wasn't certain why. There could be so many reasons, due to the way he was behaving. He found himself wishing he could be himself around her— but that would mean telling her the truth, and he would trust no one with that, certainly not a woman he'd met just days ago.
The assembly was being held in the public rooms above the Bull and Bear Tavern. The view overlooked the harbor, and Richard studied the fishing boats, their masts rocking gently in the twilight. Usually landlocked in Manchester, since he'd been home he'd found himself enjoying the sea air. Maybe he could just stay out here and avoid the crowds, all of whom knew Cecil. Or he could pretend that his illness had returned, instead of the true reason: that his nerves were telling him he'd never be able to fool so many people.
But these were locals more than Londoners, whose company Cecil usually preferred. Richard told himself that if Cecil's own servants didn't recognize the truth, why would mere acquaintances?
So he led Miss Shelby and Stephen through the public room of the tavern, nodding at the various greetings thrown at him by the men at the bar. Cecil was a popular man even with the locals. He felt himself begin to relax.
They ascended the stairs and were met at the top by a line of four matriarchs, forbidding women all, who presided over town events. Richard could not remember their names, but he thought he might once have been afraid of them when they'd visited his father long ago.
Now they were older, more stooped than he remembered, and still they peered at him from behind monocles and over fans. He found himself tensely waiting for the inevitable cry of "You're an impostor!"
"Looking healthy, I daresay, Your Grace," said one old woman with enough feathers in her hair to take flight.
He grinned. "Just being in your presence makes a man feel invincible, Your Ladyship."
He wanted her to titter with laughter, but the four of them regarded him sourly.
"Who's that cowering behind you?" said another woman, garbed in black like a perpetual widow.
Richard stepped aside, and Miss Shelby was put on display. Stephen held her hand. To her credit, she swept into a graceful curtsy.
"This is my son's governess, Miss Shelby," Richard said. "Miss Shelby, these are the great ladies who control all the social aspects of Ramsgate."
After that, they ignored Miss Shelby and peered at Stephen, who stared up at them wearing an eager smile.
"You've never brought your son before," said the woman in feathers.
"I didn't think him old enough before."
"Well, the children's assembly is through those doors."
Miss Shelby put a hand on Stephen's shoulder to guide him away. Richard wanted to follow, but how would it look for Cecil to care about a children's party, when he'd brought along a governess for that purpose? Instead, he wandered into the room beneath thousands of candles in the chandeliers, and found himself besieged by eligible young ladies and their mothers. Since they'd all been introduced to Cecil, they felt free to approach him. Luckily, they reintroduced themselves. He thanked God that everyone knew of his brother's forgetfulness.
He took turns dancing with them all, but he couldn't help thinking how insipid and silly they were compared to Miss Shelby. None of them spoke of anything more interesting than the weather, or gossip about the other assembly guests. He found himself glancing often through the open double doors to the children's party. There were flowers and streamers and the happy sound of children's laughter. Once he glimpsed Miss Shelby herself, and he almost stepped on his partner's toes, before he whirled her away from the door. Miss Shelby wore a gown of deep purple, like the sky an hour before sunrise. She didn't belong in that room. To her credit, she watched over Stephen while wearing a smile, when many of the other governesses strained to see into the main assembly.
When he felt he'd done his duty as a dancing partner, he discovered a card game in a third room. Just as he was about to enter, a man intercepted him.
Sir Lambert Metcalfe, a landowner from nearby Broadstairs, flashed him a friendly grin. "Thanet, how good to see you up and about. Come tell me what you're up to here in the country."
To Richard's surprise, Metcalfe took his arm and tried to steer him away. He eyed the man, showing none of his suspicions. "I'm feeling well enough for a card game. You still play, don't you, Metcalfe?"
Perspiration seemed to break out on the man's forehead as Richard watched. Metcalfe was actually
not to look into the card room.
"It's crowded, Thanet. Let's have a drink together instead."
Richard forced a grin. "No, I'm in the mood for cards. Why don't you want me to go in there, Metcalfe? Worried I might win too much?"
The man's face reddened, and with a reluctant sigh, he pulled Richard into a corner of the room, where a tall column partially obscured them from the rest of the guests.
Metcalfe blotted his bald head with a handkerchief. "I didn't want to be the one who told you— good gracious, I certainly don't
Richard leaned back against the wall, trying for Cecil's languor, even though every nerve in his body seemed on fire with tension. "Just say it, Metcalfe. Whatever it is, I probably won't care all that much."
"Oh, you'll care, my boy— uh, I mean, Your Grace. Thanet."
He leaned in close enough so that Richard could smell the brandy on his breath.
"Thanet, there's a nasty rumor circulating that you cheat at cards."
Richard never let his pleasant smile die. In fact he started to laugh, causing more than one head to peer around the column at them. But he didn't feel any amusement as he wondered if this was a deliberate attempt to discredit Cecil. "Damn, Metcalfe, as if anyone could believe such a ridiculous thing. Why would I need to cheat at cards, when I'm already so good?"
And in his worry, he'd made a critical mistake; Cecil
good at cards. He didn't have the patience or the discipline for it. But
Metcalfe eyed him, looking as worried as if Richard had confirmed the suspicions. "You might not want to be showing the lads that, Thanet."
Richard wanted to take this lightly, but he couldn't. An accusation of cheating could be a serious blow to the dukedom— no one would ever trust Cecil again. Even young Stephen would carry the stain on his honor.
"So a man can't practice to improve his skills?" Richard asked lightly.
"I never thought you
to improve," Metcalfe said. "You always said what fun was money unless you were practically giving it away."
Cecil could be such a fool, Richard thought tiredly. Once again, he was going to have to take care of his brother's problems.
"Metcalfe, I can't be having my honor questioned— what I've got of it, anyway. Let's go."
"But Thanet— "
Richard swaggered into the card room, and he noticed that Metcalfe hung back. So the man could warn Richard, but not associate with him in too obvious a manner. Things were bad indeed. Cecil was not a man people hated— he didn't have enough principles to take a stand. Therefore, someone had to be deliberately making the duke look suspect.
Would their cousin Charles feel that this helped him somehow in obtaining Stephen's guardianship? Was this the initial salvo of a war?
First things first. There were several different card games going on at various tables. Richard made a decision on his plan of attack.
"Gentlemen, could I have your attention?" he bellowed, cutting through the raised voices. His grin was genial, his posture relaxed.
Several men gave him their immediate attention; he
a duke, after all. It rather annoyed him that a local baron didn't even turn his head.
Richard headed for the baron's table first, "accidentally" stumbling over the man's chair to distract him. The baron looked up, and his grimace faded when the Duke of Thanet peered down at him.
"Do I have everyone's attention now?" Richard asked.
The sound of voices finally faded away. Some expressions were friendly, others wary, some cunning, and more than a few looked disappointed.
"Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that someone has decided to spread a rumor that I cheat at cards."
There were looks of surprise, even approval. Several heads came together as a low buzz hummed throughout the room.
Richard spread his arms wide, his drink in one hand. "I have come to protest my innocence. I am available to play any who wish to attempt to prove me false. You can all watch me for signs of cheating. I am simply a man who decided to improve his card skills, because a duke should play better than his six-year-old son."
Several men laughed. One called out, "So the ladies aren't as distracting as they used to be, Thanet?"
Richard grinned. "I didn't say
. But you don't see any here now, do you?"
A whist player asked if he'd like to partner, and Richard was in business. He won in whist, broke even in vingt-et-un, and in commerce his choices proved correct more often than not. The tension in the room eased, and Richard risked a glance at Metcalfe, who wiped his brow and nodded his approval. Crisis averted.
Metcalfe escorted him out of the room as news of Richard's triumph at cards spread. Richard was feeling a little cocky, a little too in control of the situation, so he thought nothing of seeing Miss Shelby on their side of the assembly. She stood demurely near the children's party, far too short to see much. He thought she might be standing on her toes, and he realized she must be looking for him.
There could be no good reason that she'd invade this room, much as he had fantasized about taking her in his arms for a waltz.
Richard started toward her.
"Who's that?" Metcalfe asked.
Richard hadn't realized that Metcalfe was still with him. The man was ogling Miss Shelby like she was fresh meat on market day.
"My governess."
Metcalfe yanked on his elbow, pulling Richard to a halt. "So she's the one you've chosen? I can see why."
Richard wanted to frown his confusion. Chosen for what? Instead he gave Cecil's usual disarming grin and hoped for the best. "I chose her to be my son's governess, yes."
Metcalfe elbowed him in the ribs. "You know what I mean. So you haven't chosen her? Then why's she here?"
"Because my son is here?" Richard elbowed him in return. "I don't see him with her. I'll be back."
Metcalfe leered in Miss Shelby's direction. "Take your time."
As Richard crossed the crowded room, he could perfectly see the effect that Miss Shelby's presence caused, as if a pebble had been thrown into a pond, and ripples spread outward. Men watched her with interest, while the women's dismay was palpable. Richard felt a sense of possession he wasn't entitled to, and he was relieved when Renee Barome stepped in front of Miss Shelby and began to talk to her.
When he joined them, Renee was looking about, trying to hide a frown. Richard's feeling of well-being vanished.

BOOK: The Duke in Disguise
4.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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