Excerpt from The Duchess Diaries
Gideon doubted that he had made a good impression on Miss Charlotte Boscastle the day she had seen him in the emporium. For one thing he’d drunk too much the night before and his head had felt like Hephaestus’s workshop. For another he was dressed for practice at the fencing school, and there were two whores attached to him like handcuffs, which they may or may not have used on each other the night before. He couldn’t remember.
He knew he looked disreputable the day he stepped into Sir Godfrey Maitland’s emporium. Godfrey, a former student at Fenton’s fencing salon, had stared at him in reproach across the counter. “We have many ladies in the shop, Your Grace,” he had said in a meaningful voice.
And that was when Gideon first noticed Charlotte, who glanced at his two companions and lifted her nose in the air as if she’d caught the scent of a noxious threat that might contaminate the young ladies huddled around her.
He inclined his head at her, to no effect. And then he had kissed one of the harlots on her neck, hoping to elicit some reaction from the golden-haired lady in the straw bonnet. He had, too.
She had gasped and moved back to stand like a shield in front of her charges. Gideon had responded with a slow, roguish smile that brought a blush to her porcelain complexion.
“Fancy that,” he murmured to the woman at his right. “I didn’t know there were any ladies left in London who could still blush.”
“Do not behave like a rake, Your Grace,” Sir Godfrey whispered from behind the counter. “This is Miss Charlotte Boscastle. You know how indebted the maestro is to her family.”
“Who isn’t?” the duke mused.
“She is also the headmistress at the Scarfield Academy for Young Ladies.”
“God forbid,” Gideon said, straightening in alarm. “A lady with an operative brain in her head. Who’s going to protect me?”
The tart clinging to one of his arms giggled. “As if anyone could threaten a man of your largesse.”
He glanced down at her in amusement. “I suspect the word you just used doesn’t mean what you think it does. At any rate let’s not discuss my ‘largesse’ in public.”
He had laughed off that afternoon; he had forgotten it until tonight. He had been busy practicing at Fenton’s academy, and while it was true that the blushing headmistress had momentarily caught his eye, Gideon was in the market for a different sort of mistress. Not one who obeyed rules in bed, but one who broke them and made up a few along the way. He wouldn’t object if she had a brain, though.
Therefore it surprised him that he had recognized Charlotte the moment he’d entered the ballroom. There were young women everywhere. He couldn’t even recall the names of the ladybirds who had accompanied him to the emporium, and he had been far more intimate with that pair than with the frost maiden.
Charlotte Boscastle. He looked directly at her once. She returned the courtesy with a scowl that could have curdled milk. He should have known better than to attend a party given for a group of finishing-school girls. He’d be better off wandering into the conservatory and talking to the Greek statues. At least that way he was fulfilling his function as a guest at the party—all eligible young men of high lineage having been invited—and he wasn’t likely to cause any trouble.
But no sooner had he made the decision to sneak off than trouble in another form appeared. Lord Devon Boscastle detached himself from his throng of friends and stepped into Gideon’s path. “You can’t leave yet, Wynfield. We haven’t talked once. I hope you aren’t avoiding me. I didn’t mean to stab you at practice the other day.”
“Are you trying to lure me into a dark corner?”
Devon’s blue eyes brimmed with devilish intent. “Sorry, but I’m a married man. As you should be at your age.”
Gideon hesitated. “I was married.”
“I— Oh, God. Yes, I did know that. Sorry.” Devon said awkwardly, “I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s fine, Devon. It’s been almost five years. I didn’t even know you then.”
Devon lowered his voice. He was the playful brother in the Boscastle family, the prankster and amusing friend, who had become a devoted husband and father of a little girl. But as a reformed sinner he still liked to stir up mischief whenever he could, and Gideon, along with Devon’s other friends, had come to expect the unexpected from him.
“What do you have planned for the night, Gideon?” he asked, his voice benign.
“An escape. From this party.”
“Why? Look around you. We are outnumbered by innocents, up to our shoulders in educated virgins, who, from a bachelor’s point of view, are the most dangerous entity in London.”
“I was looking at it the other way around,” Devon said. “A libertine could easily lead one of the innocents down the primrose path of dalliance. All he’d have to do is follow the footsteps Grayson wore through the carpets before he walked down the aisle.”
“I’m not in the mood for a maiden. Anyway, you’re married, a fact that renders any advice you offer null and void.”
“Do me a favor, Wynfield.”
Gideon’s first instinct was to refuse outright. “I know what you’re going to say.”
“Yes. You want me to stay away from Miss Boscastle. She must have told you that I paraded a pair of strumpets in front of her. It wasn’t as if I did it to provoke her.”
Devon arched a dark brow. “Where on earth did this happen?”
“It was at the emporium.”
Devon pondered this for a moment. “She never mentioned a word of it to me. You couldn’t have made much of an impression on her.”
“I think I did, but it wasn’t a good one,” Gideon said. “If you’re going to forbid me to flirt with your cousin, you needn’t worry. I’m not even remotely tempted.”
“That’s a little insulting,” Devon retorted.
Gideon laughed. “Would you rather I told you that I’m lusting after her?”
“No. I’d probably feel compelled to stay at your side. Grayson asked me to keep an eye on anyone who seemed suspicious.”
“In that case he should have given you a mirror.”
“The woman you have not been lusting after isn’t married, but she does have three older brothers who are plotting to end her unhappy spinsterhood any day now.”
“Are they here tonight?” Gideon inquired.
“The two older ones are traveling to London from Sussex. Jane expects them in a week. I think the plan is to find a husband for Charlotte as quickly as possible. I’ll be honest with you; she won’t make it easy on them. I doubt she’ll ever incite anyone’s lust.”
Both men glanced at Charlotte, then looked away.
“And this worries you?” Gideon said, wondering what Devon’s point was, or whether he even had one.
Devon nodded. “Yes.”
“Well, don’t look at me. I was married once and I have a daughter, too.”
“Eventually you’ll have to remarry if you want an heir.” Devon cleared his throat. “Do me a favor, Wynfield?”
Gideon didn’t respond. Here it came. Again Gideon’s instincts warned him to proceed with caution, while his reason argued that Devon was mischievous but not malicious. “I’m meeting my soon-to-be mistress at Mrs. Watson’s tonight.”
“Then this will be your last night of freedom.”
“A mistress can be more demanding than a wife, especially if she’s good at her job. The precious hours of your freedom are slipping like sand through your fingers as we speak.”
“That’s a good point. It makes me wonder why I’m wasting those golden moments talking to you.”
“Will you do it?”
“Will I do what?” Gideon demanded.
“Ask my cousin Charlotte to dance.”
A dance? Was that all? “Why would a lady with a pristine reputation want to dance with me?” he asked slowly.
“I don’t know that she would,” Devon replied. “But, you see, everyone else in the family would like to see her dance.”
Gideon could have sworn an invisible hand tightened his neck cloth and that a candle in one of the corner girandoles writhed and died. “There are several eligible gentlemen here tonight. Why me?”
“Because you’re a duke, for one thing, and my friend for another. If you could give the other guests the impression that she intrigues a man like you, a few decent gentlemen might begin to see her in a different light.”
“I am not offering to court her. And I think you just insulted me.”
Devon shook his head. “I’m not asking you to court her.”
“I don’t trust you, Devon. I think you’re the devil looking for an instrument, and I can find my own evil without your interference.”
“All I really want you to do is to pay a little attention to our lonely wallflower.”
“I think the wallflower just made a face at me.”
“No,” Devon said. “That was at me. She knows we’re standing here talking about her.”
Gideon balked. “Then she might have meant it for both of us. Perhaps you should find another strategy—and by that I am suggesting another gentleman. Someone else to melt her—”
“To what?” Devon asked, one brow lifting.
“She reminds me of a frost maiden. I prefer my ladies warm and willing.”
“Well, she does have a cold heart when it comes to letting gentlemen visitors into the academy. But I can’t blame her for that. I think she’s shy. Come and meet her for yourself.”
Gideon didn’t move.
“I know it doesn’t make much sense—”
“That is an understatement.”
“—but no other gentleman is brave enough to approach her.”
“I shouldn’t wonder, if you go about haranguing them for admiring her from halfway across a room.”
Devon smiled. “Then you admit that you were admiring her?”
Gideon stared at him in stone-faced silence.
“Please ask her to dance.”
“Why don’t you?”
“I’m her cousin, and if I ask her to dance, everyone will know it’s because no one else has asked her.”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to dance.”
“Of course she does.”
Gideon hesitated. “Why do I have the feeling that I’m about to walk into a trap? And why don’t you ask any of the bachelors present to do the honors? Of all the other male guests I’ve undoubtedly earned the worst reputation. Present company and his kin excluded, that is.”
“Exactly,” Devon said, as if Gideon had just grasped the alchemical formula of the philosopher’s stone. “Most of the other male guests are outstanding examples of gentlemanly conduct.”
“—not. You are, however, a person who draws attention. Give in, Gideon. Chat with her until the eligible start to notice. I’ll cheer you from the corner.”
“Is this a sporting event?”
“In our world every time a man and woman meet it is liable to turn into a contest.”
The party’s hostess, Jane, the Marchioness of Sedgecroft, admired the assembly from the gallery above the ballroom. Beside her, an ominous feeling overshadowing her usual bright spirits, stood Harriet, the Duchess of Glenmorgan, a former student and once a schoolmistress at the academy. Harriet had been the first charity case to be admitted to and to graduate from the elite school. During the course of her education, which quite frankly couldn’t hold a candle to what she’d learned on the streets, Harriet and Charlotte had unexpectedly formed a bond of friendship.
Charlotte had been born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth. She had never been caught uttering a profanity. Until the academy had rescued Harriet from the gutter, she had stolen silver for a living. She knew the curses that she spewed when provoked would make a Billingsgate fishwife faint. Charlotte had taught Harriet the virtue of submitting to her betters. Harriet had taught Charlotte the value of shocking them senseless.
Harriet knew most of Charlotte’s secrets. Harriet hadn’t told Charlotte half of hers.
“Why is she always left standing alone at every ball?” Jane lamented as she studied Charlotte in chagrin. “Could her gown be less flattering? Was it her grandmother’s bedsheet?”
“It reminds me of the sail on Grayson’s yacht.”
“Well, the girls are about to launch. . . .” Jane sighed. “I wish I could find a way to coax her out of her shell. Or at least to discourage her from scraping her beautiful hair into that knot and putting all her efforts into marrying off her students and not herself. And, my stars . . .” Jane shuddered. “Those sandals.”
“She couldn’t find her evening slippers at the last moment and had to make do with those,” Harriet said defensively. “She has big feet, you know. No one else’s shoes would fit.”
“That is no excuse for unappealing footwear. I’ve offered my Italian shoemaker to her innumerable times. How does she expect to attract a suitor looking like a . . . a—”
“—a goddess,” Harriet said with a loyal smile. “She’s tall and strong limbed, and there aren’t many gentlemen who have the confidence to approach someone like her.”
Jane smiled and put her hand over Harriet’s. “What a supporter she has in you. There must be one man who is perfect. Her brothers have threatened to bring her old beau to London if she isn’t engaged before the end of the season. No one wants to watch her slip into a lonely life.”
“Charlotte won’t marry her old beau.”
Jane stared at Harriet’s profile. “How do you know?”
Harriet shrugged a white shoulder. “Just a guess.”
“Has she ever mentioned anyone else?” Jane asked thoughtfully.
“No, Harriet, to Napoleon Bonaparte. Do not pretend coyness.”
Harriet shrugged. “Fine.”
“If she has mentioned anyone, I don’t remember who it was.”
“Ah.” Jane’s lips curved with satisfaction. “You can trust me, Harriet. However, I do not wish you to betray a secret.”
Harriet leaned over the wrought-iron railing. “Who’s that handsome fellow talking to Devon down by the hall to the conservatory?”
Jane raised her brow. “Should I care?”
“You might. Or might not.”
Jane peered through the glittering brightness of the chandeliers to the two darkly clad men engrossed in conversation. “I think— Oh, dear. That’s the Duke of Wynfield. He and Devon are Kit’s fencing students. Do you suppose . . . ?”
Harriet pressed her lips together. It was a good thing she hadn’t taken another glass of champagne. She was dying to tell Jane about Charlotte’s secret attraction to the duke. But she’d promised that she wouldn’t, which was a shame. Jane was a powerful ally, and she would do anything for family.
“He’s a widow,” Jane mused, caressing the diamond pendant at her throat. “His wife died of cancer a year or so after she had a child. At least, I believe that’s what happened.”
Harriet’s brow creased in thought. “His father died two years ago. The duke apparently went into a moral decline after he inherited.”
Jane sighed. “I suppose that is how some men grieve.”
“It’s also how some men celebrate,” Harriet said. “He doesn’t look especially mournful tonight, does he?”
“No.” Jane straightened her shoulders as if to shake off the mantle of sadness that had enshrouded them. “Still, we cannot see into his heart. No one in London has ever seen his child, either, though if he has a daughter who’s been introduced at court, I haven’t read about it in the papers. How long ago did his wife die?”
“Perhaps four or five years. But that’s only a guess.”
“His daughter would be too young for social introductions. I can only hope that— Well, it isn’t my place to wonder. The duke was young to have married and lost his wife.”
“Is he the rake that everyone thinks he is?”
Jane narrowed her eyes in contemplation. “I rely on Weed for all my fashion news and gossip. And he said—” Jane broke off, leaving Harriet in suspense. Weed was the senior footman in the house and the most beloved if formidable servant in the family. “I think he told me that the duke was about to enter negotiations for a mistress from Mrs. Watson’s. I don’t think this is mere speculation.”
“I hoped it was only a rumor,” Harriet said. “Who invited him?”
“Grayson, of course,” Jane replied.
“Charlotte would be appalled if she knew.”
Harriet felt Jane staring at her. “Yes. I’m sure she would.”
“It’s amazing to me, Harriet, to look at you and remember what a colorful life you lived.”
“But nothing that compares to yours,” Harriet said glibly.
“I’m not sure about that,” Jane said. “I have always stayed inside aristocratic circles. No, that isn’t true. I strayed a few times into the half-world on my husband’s account. But you have moved through every segment of society.”
Harriet glanced down at the throng of guests. She had already said far more than she meant to, and Jane was anything but dense. In fact, Jane’s mind tended to devious schemes, the most wicked of which had ended with her marrying the marquess. If Harriet wasn’t careful, Jane would soon charm her into confessing that Charlotte had been admiring the duke for a year now.
“I suppose as long as the duke behaves himself at the party,” Jane said, “there is nothing to fear. Charlotte won’t let him near the girls, and after your husband’s niece was abducted last year, Grayson has retained Sir Daniel’s services to patrol our residences during times when a malefactor might hope to take advan—”
Jane stopped, taking a long breath. Harriet knew from experience that she could have gone on for minutes at such an energetic pace, but not when her audience wasn’t listening to a thing she’d said. Indeed, Harriet found it impossible to stop staring at Charlotte and the duke. Then at the duke and Charlotte. Devon seemed to be forgotten in the middle.
Jane turned to her unexpectedly. “I think the duke should be watched, if not investigated.”
“But you just said that you felt sorry for him.”
“Yes, Harriet, but what you didn’t say told me that I ought to feel more concerned about Charlotte than sorry for the duke. Her virtue is still a valuable commodity. A graduate accepting a marriage proposal tonight is one thing. A good thing. A baby born in nine months due to an indiscretion in an alcove is another. I won’t have it. This duke must be watched. And so must Charlotte. She is so intent on guarding her girls that she seems to have forgotten that she is vulnerable herself.”
“I doubt she is in any danger of being seduced while we stand here watching her every move,” Harriet said. “And I don’t think that as a result of carrying on a conversation with the duke that she will have his child by the end of the year.”
Jane started to respond but paused as a tall, liveried manservant arrived from the other side of the balcony. “Weed! You must have read my mind. I was just remembering our conversation the other day about Wynfield.”
Weed bowed, darting a wry glance toward Harriet. He would never let her forget that he’d once caught her robbing Jane’s room, a crime that had ultimately led to Harriet’s salvation. She had been transformed from a young monster into a civilized noblewoman.
Weed, however, remained the pompous frog that he had always been. He was not only a footman, but also Jane’s confidant, fashion adviser, and partner in her matchmaking ventures.
“How can I be of service, madam?” he asked in the pinched voice that made it sound as if he were talking through his nostrils.
“I am going downstairs to mingle. Kindly remind Mrs. O’Brien to keep a closer eye on Rowan tonight. My son has still not outgrown his habit of waylaying our guests with his sword.”
“Oh, and, Weed, there is one more thing. About our conversation. Have you heard any other rumors about Wynfield?”
“He has an appointment later tonight on Bruton Street with the courtesan he appears to have chosen as his next mistress. Her name is Gabrielle Something-or-other, and she is known to be beautiful and completely immoral. She has ruined several marriages without the least remorse.”
“Thank you, Weed.” She turned to Harriet as he left. “Confirmed—he is a duke. He is widowed and wealthy.”
“He’s a wicked devil,” Harriet interjected.
Jane’s green eyes glinted. “And he seems devoted to leading the sinful and shallow life of an utter scoundrel.”
“We will have to keep him in our sights. Agreed?”
“Yes, but if you let Charlotte know anything about this discussion, I will deny everything.”
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