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 (9 page)

BOOK: The Duke in Disguise
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Chapter 9

T
o stay true to Cecil, Richard made the poor nurse wait an extra half hour before he met them in the garden just behind the conservatory. After dismissing Nurse Weston, Richard allowed Stephen to lead him down the paths toward the stables. Stephen assured him that the stable boys would lend them poles.
It was a rare day of blue skies and warm temperatures, a kind of day Richard hadn't let himself enjoy in a long time. He'd always been too busy improving himself— proving himself. If only he didn't have the cloud of doubt about Stephen hanging over him.
When the head groom looked shocked to see the duke in his domain, Richard shrugged and said he was avoiding a tenant meeting. Stephen began collecting things for their fishing expedition. Soon, besides poles with string and hooks attached, they had a shovel to dig for worms, a couple of bottles of cider donated by the head coachman, and some biscuits from a stable boy, who promised rather forcefully that he hadn't stolen them from the kitchen.
There were many offers to go along and help, but Richard refused them all. He needed to be alone with Stephen. The two of them walked a long time before they left the formal gardens and entered the woods that bordered a stream.
"I used to play in here all the time," Richard said, following a well-worn path.
The temperature cooled as the sun winked at them from behind a bower of tree branches.
Stephen was literally skipping, his pole over his shoulder. "I'm not allowed to play in here by myself."
"I wasn't, either," Richard lied.
They reached the stream and followed it south for a dozen yards until the current slowed as it widened into a pool. Richard helped Stephen find worms and bait his pole, and soon the two of them were leaning against the broad trunk of a tree, their legs dangling between its roots where the water had washed away the earth.
The silence was peaceful, and Richard hadn't felt so at ease in at least a month— maybe not in years. He closed his eyes, ready to doze and wait for a fish to jerk his pole.
"My father would never take me fishing," Stephen said matter-of-factly.
Richard opened his eyes and looked down at the boy. "I'm taking you fishing right now," he said carefully.
"But you're not my father."
That proclamation shocked Richard, but Stephen seemed unperturbed as he dangled his legs over the tree roots and searched the water for hungry fish.
"Why would you say such a thing?" Richard asked.
"Because it's true. My father doesn't fish, and he doesn't like apple tarts, and he doesn't care what I study like you do."
Richard opened his mouth, but nothing came out. All his careful plans to protect the boy during Cecil's absence were crashing around him.
"Stephen— "
"Oh, it's all right, Father. See, I can still call you that, if you want. Why
are
you pretending to be my father?"
Richard sighed. "Because your father is still very ill. He doesn't want anyone to know that he's getting better very slowly."
"Why?"
"Why am I here?"
"Why is he getting better slowly?"
"Some illnesses are like that, Stephen. They take a long time to recover from."
"I bet he doesn't want me to catch it from him."
"I'm certain he thought that." Richard hesitated, trying to find the right words. "Your father is a very powerful man, and if he looks weak, unable to take care of himself, there are some bad men who would try to take what is his, or maybe damage what is his."
Or hurt his son.
"So you took his place," Stephen said brightly.
"Yes."
"Are you the uncle he told me about?"
Richard felt a tightening in his chest, an ache for family that slumbered, but never quite went away.
"You look just like my father," Stephen continued. "I didn't even know you weren't him at first, until you started wanting to be with me."
"Stephen, your father is a busy, important man," Richard said softly, putting his hand on the boy's shoulder. "He trusts your nurse to take care of you, and he did hire Miss Shelby to teach you."
"But are you my uncle?"
"Yes."
"What's your name? I know he told me, but I can't remember," he added sheepishly.
Richard smiled and rubbed his warm back. "If I tell you, will you promise not to tell anyone else, not even your nurse or Miss Shelby?"
"I promise," he said solemnly.
"I'm Richard."
"Uncle Richard."
A bug must have flown into Richard's eye, because he found himself blinking at the unaccustomed sting of tears. He had forgotten he still had family who needed him. Richard was a bastard, whose parents had been dead almost ten years. His only brother had been more of a burden than a brother. But now there was Stephen.
"I can help you," Stephen said. His pole gave a shudder, distracting him. "I got a fish!"
They spent several minutes bringing in the trout, and Stephen insisted that Cook would serve it for dinner. Richard baited the hook again.
When they were settled back against the tree, Stephen said, "I really can help you, Uncle Richard."
"How would you do that?"
"Well I won't tell anyone who you are, of course."
"I would appreciate that."
"And I can tell you when you're doing something wrong, like with the apple tart."
"Ah yes," Richard said, smiling. "That's important."
"And with Miss Shelby."
"What about Miss Shelby?"
"My father doesn't talk to the servants much, but I can tell you like to talk to Miss Shelby."
Even a little boy knew that Richard couldn't stay away from Meriel. What must the other servants be thinking?
"I don't need help with Miss Shelby, Stephen, but thank you."
"How long can you stay?"
Richard shrugged and closed his eyes. "Until your father returns."
"Where is he?"
"Stephen, I can't tell you everything. Your father made me promise to keep his secrets. Just like you're going to keep mine, right?"
The little boy contemplated the water with a frown. "For as long as you need me, Father."
Richard closed his eyes, but he knew that dozing was no longer an option. How was a six-year-old going to keep this kind of a secret?

* * *

Two days later, Meriel returned to Thanet Court in time for dinner, and to her surprise the duke sent word that she join Stephen and him. She wanted to do nothing more than collapse in exhaustion from the dusty, loud train trip, but she dutifully washed and dressed. Stephen was waiting in the corridor when she left her room, and to her surprise, he hugged her about the waist.
She tilted his head back so she could see into his face. "And what were you up to while I was gone, my lord?"
He grinned to reveal a new gap.
"Why, you lost another tooth."
He nodded. "I did my 'signments, too, and I learned how to fish."
"That's something I always wanted to learn when I was young. Who taught you?"
"My father."
Meriel kept the surprise from her face. "How thoughtful of him. We'd better go so we don't keep him waiting."
As they went down the grand staircase to the dining room, Meriel knew she was nervous. She had been gone four days, and all she'd been able to think about was the duke. She hoped he'd turned his attentions to another servant, but when they entered the dining room, he lounged back in his chair and gave her a smile that made her heart pick up speed.
Oh God, she'd missed him. She'd missed how he made her feel like his sole focus with just a glance. She told herself he had lascivious reasons for looking at her so unprofessionally, but it didn't seem to matter to her traitorous emotions.
He made her feel…alive.
He was dangerous to her, and for the first time, she wondered if she'd be able to resist him should he pursue her. She hadn't even been able to speak of him to her sisters. He was a dark, guilty secret she carried within her.
"Did your sister's wedding go well?" the duke asked as she took a seat beside Stephen.
She would simply have to avoid the duke as much as possible. "Yes, Your Grace."
"You liked the bridegroom?"
She couldn't help stiffening. "That remains to be seen. As long as he continues to treat Victoria well, he will earn my blessing."
"He has to earn it, does he?"
She glanced at the duke, and that was a mistake. He was watching her with knowing eyes, as if he knew her misgivings, knew even that Victoria's husband had already lied to her once. Did all men mislead women?
"Your Grace, any spouse must prove his worth before earning a family's trust."
"It sounds like your sister trusts him more than you do."
Meriel shrugged. "I am not the one marrying him." She was not going to discuss her family with the duke. She had to trust that Victoria knew what she was doing. At least Mama would be safe, and perhaps the grief of Father's death would ease. Lord Thurlow seemed like a nice enough man; their marriage could become more than just pleasant someday.
Meriel had thought for certain that "pleasant" was all she'd ever need in a marriage, but since she'd met the duke, she'd begun to realize that there were emotions she might miss if she settled for just "pleasant."
The duke interrupted her thoughts. "London was as you'd left it?"
She frowned but kept her eyes on her own plate. "Yes, Your Grace."
There was an awkward silence.
Stephen looked between them. "Miss Shelby, why don't you want to talk to my father?"
She could feel the duke's eyes on her as he waited to hear her answer.
"I
am
talking, my lord," she said to the little boy. "But you will learn that sometimes one must keep to one's place. A governess and a duke are not social equals. You and I have had this discussion before, my lord."
The little boy continued to frown. "So I can't talk to some people, like Bill the stable boy, or Mrs. Theobald?"
Meriel winced and risked an irritated glance at the duke. This was all his fault, but he wore the most innocent expression.
"My lord, of course you may speak to any of the servants," she said. "But they cannot be your closest friends, because it could be awkward for them. You shall be their employer someday."
To her surprise, the duke said in a low voice, "It is noble to want to befriend everyone, Stephen. But we are in a position where sometimes we don't know who our true friends are. And it is easy to get hurt if you're not very careful."
Meriel stared at the duke, who looked away as if he regretted speaking. What man hid behind the shallow, vain façade of the duke? Why did she catch glimpses, only to see him disappear? Sometimes he could be so thoughtful, and other times, as with his female servants, he could be…selfish.
"Father, no one pushes me down or hits me. They love me."
"Not that kind of hurt, Stephen," the duke said. "I mean when your feelings get hurt."
Stephen was watching everything his father did with a new hero worship. And it worried Meriel, because the duke could hurt Stephen the most. Did he cheat at cards as the rumor suggested, and maybe at other things, too? Would he blatantly have a mistress in his house, right in front of his son? She couldn't keep quiet any longer. She had to tell the duke how he affected Stephen, how the boy was old enough to understand a mistress for what she was— a woman to be used and discarded. If a father was going to be worshipped, he needed to be worthy of it.
After dinner, Meriel escorted Stephen up to bed and left him in the capable hands of Nurse Weston. Before Meriel could change her mind, she turned and went back down to the ground floor to confront the duke.

Chapter 10

R
ichard was contemplating another evening alone. He'd turned down a dinner invitation, but knew he was not going to be able to do that for much longer. He strolled into the library and looked at the thousands of books. In his old life, when he'd had an evening free from business meetings or social events— which were also all about business— he'd enjoyed the occasional novel.
But now he looked about the room, and all he could feel was exhausted. He had spent the entire dinner willing poor little Stephen to keep his secret. Every time the boy had opened his mouth, Richard's stomach had clenched in worry. He would have to get used to this feeling, because Stephen would be spending every day with Meriel Shelby, a woman who could probably
sense
a lie.
As if thinking about her had magically conjured her, she appeared in the doorway, hesitating, one hand on the frame. He stopped his pacing and stared at her. She'd been gone four days. He was dismayed by how gladdened he'd been to see her again. Now it took him a moment to raise the façade of Cecil's smiling leer. Slouching into a chair seemed so difficult.
"Why, Miss Shelby. Did I call for a pianist?"
"No, Your Grace," she said solemnly. "I need to speak with you."
With a languid hand, he waved her in. He wanted to stand, to offer her a chair of her own, but he held fast to his masquerade.
"We need to discuss Stephen, Your Grace."
Richard crossed his feet on a low table, trying to act as if he didn't fear the worst. "Did we do something inappropriate while you were gone?"
"Of course not."
She bit her lip, and that gesture betrayed her femininity as no other way could. He found it intoxicating, arousing, and he was glad he'd kept his coat buttoned.
Lifting her chin and speaking in a firm voice, she said, "Might I speak freely, Your Grace?"
His interest only increased. "Of course."
"I'm worried about the effect that your mistress will have on Stephen."
He wanted to gape at her, but he settled for a raised eyebrow.
"Oh, I know you have not chosen one yet," she continued quickly. "But the servants assure me that it's only a matter of time, that you're usually as regular as a ticking clock. Surely you can see how frantically the women are preening for you."
Richard continued to smile, but inside everything began to fall into place: all the lovely servings girls, the maids fighting over the chance to be near him, Metcalfe at the assembly asking if Meriel was the one he'd chosen.
Good God, did Cecil choose mistresses from within his own household?
He shouldn't be surprised, he thought bitterly. Richard's own father, the last duke, had gotten his Irish maid pregnant, and Richard had been the result. The ducal power to abuse the helpless staff sickened him. Though the old duke had set his mother up in her own household, Richard remembered her loneliness and isolation. He had lived at Thanet Court, the only child for five years, and had not realized how his mother had felt, especially with the duchess's cruelty toward her. She had died when he was in his teens, still far too young.
And Cecil continued to contribute to this cycle?
What was Richard to do? He had to convince everyone that he was Cecil. By delaying in taking a mistress, had he already contributed to his own downfall?
"This is an unusual situation we find ourselves in," he said to Meriel. "I've never discussed a mistress with a lady."
"I am your son's governess, Your Grace. I am in charge of his well-being. How do you think it would affect him to see you treating so casually a woman that you do not plan to marry? You, who've already discussed not mixing too freely with the servants?"
"I would hardly flaunt my private life, Miss Shelby."
"From what I understand, you have no problem doing that very thing! Your mistresses are given generous gifts and money, and treated very well during the month you…require them. Then you release one woman— admittedly giving her a generous reward— and devote the next month to another woman. How could Stephen not notice this?"
A monthly rotation of mistresses?
Richard thought in shock. However was he going to keep up the fiction that he was the duke, when he certainly would not
sleep
with his staff?
But maybe he could pretend to be indecisive. Maybe for once there were too many beautiful women for the duke to choose from. At least for a while.
"You need not worry, Miss Shelby," he said, rising to his feet and walking toward her. "I find I'm having a very difficult time choosing from among all the lovely maids."
"Then perhaps your conscience is trying to tell you that you should find a suitable woman— perhaps a widow— elsewhere."
Her skin took on a rosy blush the closer he got to her.
And inside him a little devil started whispering about how easy it was to tease Meriel. He felt like Cecil more and more, but he couldn't stop himself.
He wanted to touch her. She was breathing rapidly as he closed the distance between them. He could see the rise and fall of her breasts, and the way a little pulse beat at the hollow of her throat. He wanted to know the taste of her moist lips, to finally satisfy his curiosity about her passionate nature. He slowly lifted his hand, just meaning to touch her cheek with his fingers…
But that was something his father would do— what Cecil would do.
And Richard couldn't allow himself to go that far, to be what they were.
"I'll take your words under advisement, Miss Shelby," he said, bothered by how hoarse his voice sounded. "Go enjoy the rest of your evening."
She escaped from him so quickly that he was sickened by his own behavior. Had he frightened her? Did she feel that she would have no choice but to please him however he wanted?
Not Meriel Shelby, not that strong woman who confronted a duke about his misdeeds rather than risk harming her pupil. She would keep her distance and keep herself safe from him.
But he could still smell the scent of her skin after she'd gone.
"Your Grace?" said a voice from the doorway.
He shook himself out of his musings, and found Hargraves and Mrs. Theobald. They waited calmly, but he sensed an underlying tension.
"Come in," he said, going to fix himself a brandy.
"Allow me to do that, young sir," Mrs. Theobald said, hurrying toward him.
He froze with a decanter lifted in the air. That's what she'd called him his whole life. What she'd called Richard, not Cecil.
He stared at her, but she wouldn't meet his eyes as she poured him a brandy. When she held out the glass to him, she lifted her gaze, and he searched it. Hargraves, seeming embarrassed, went back and closed the door.
"How long have you known?" Richard asked softly.
Mrs. Theobald sighed. "Not at first, young— Your Grace. You were very convincing, even with the reasons for your sudden concern about young Lord Ramsgate. But though the maids flung themselves across your path, you didn't care. And then…fishing? The duke was too concerned with his clothing even as a child to allow himself to get that close to dirt."
"Yes, you're right," Richard mused. "But I had to get Stephen alone, to confirm my suspicions. He already knew the truth."
"He's a perceptive lad," Hargraves said. "But what we need to know is why?" He lowered his voice. "And where is the duke?"
"Then you don't think I'm here for nefarious reasons?" Richard asked dryly.
"Mr. O'Neill, I could never believe such a thing!" Mrs. Theobald said with outrage.
"It's strange to hear my own name again, but thank you. Cecil is still very ill. His doctors prescribed complete rest and silence for recovery. Our cousin Charles is pushing Cecil to be named Stephen's guardian, and Cecil was worried that if he looked too ill, Charles would try to exert even more control. He is the next in line for the dukedom after Stephen."
"Has he made threats?" Hargraves asked.
Mrs. Theobald wrung her hands with worry.
"No, not yet. But at the assembly the other night, someone spread a rumor that the duke cheated at cards. I can't imagine Cecil would stoop so low."
"Of course not!" Mrs. Theobald said, aghast. "You think Sir Charles could gain something by doing such a thing?"
"He wants control of Stephen— and Stephen's inheritance," Richard said grimly. "What better way than by making the duke look incompetent? Already, the finances are in a shaky state, and I can't tell yet if it's Cecil's ignorance or something more sinister."
Mrs. Theobald put her hand on his arm. "It is good of you to help your brother."
Richard covered her hand with his own. "I could not abandon him. I've done a decent job so far as the duke, but Miss Shelby just told me about Cecil's mistresses."
"Miss Shelby told you such a thing?" Hargraves asked in shock.
Mrs. Theobald shrugged her shoulders. "
I
told her. The other maids are quite jealous of her, so I finally had to tell her the truth."
Richard smiled. "She's worried that my unsavory life could harm Stephen. I was even asked at the assembly if I'd chosen a mistress. But I simply cannot do such a thing."
Mrs. Theobald looked at him with sympathetic kindness. "Of course not, young sir."
"I've decided to pretend to be indecisive. Mrs. Theobald, maybe you can explain to the maids that they're all so beautiful, I can't make up my mind."
"You'll have to tease them a bit, sir," Hargraves said awkwardly. "They won't understand if you continue to ignore them. They know the duke's usual habits, of course."
Mrs. Theobald hesitated. "Miss Shelby already thinks you pay too much attention to her."
"I know. And I'll have to continue it, I suppose." He wasn't truly reluctant, not with Meriel. He enjoyed her reactions too much. It was a dangerous game he played with her, because he sensed she was capable of making him forget his mission, forget his masquerade, forget everything but how she made him feel.
Richard looked between the two servants, people he'd known his whole life. "I'm glad you both know. It's been hell trying to keep it from you. But please, we must never talk about this, not unless we're certain we're alone. And even then, we should do so infrequently."
"Of course, Your Grace," Mrs. Theobald said, taking a step back. "Is there anything else you need before I retire for the evening?"
"No, go off to bed, both of you. Thank you for your help— and your friendship."
When he was alone, he gave careful thought to how best to flirt with the maids, without leading any to think she'd been chosen. He would do his best not to be alone with any of them; group flirting would suit his purposes.
He told himself that Meriel would always be with Stephen, who could act as a buffer between them. But deep inside, Richard knew that if he wasn't careful, he would find a way to be very alone with the governess.

BOOK: The Duke in Disguise
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