Excerpt from The Duchess Diaries
It was the best of balls; it was the worst of balls. It was the annual graduation ball honoring the Scarfield Academy for Young Ladies in London. It was an evening of hope, which Miss Charlotte Boscastle had resolved would not end in disgrace. It was an evening of beginnings and farewells.
As the academy’s head schoolmistress, Charlotte would receive accolades for her efforts in training another class of young ladies to enter society. She would be praised for any marriage proposals offered to her students as a result of their elite schooling.
She would also be blamed for any scandals she allowed to besmirch the academy’s name. Her archenemy, Lady Clipstone, the owner of a competitive although lesser school, had predicted to the newspapers that some social misfortune was bound to occur during the event. Charlotte could take little comfort in the knowledge that she was surrounded by members of her own family—everyone in the ton knew how controversy tended to follow the Boscastles. It was said that whenever more than two Boscastles were gathered in one place, the devil came into active play.
Still, she was grateful that her cousin, the Marquess of Sedgecroft, had agreed to host the affair at his Park Lane mansion. She appreciated the fact that he had invited his battalion of friends to fill the ballroom and impress the girls.
The social futures of this group of young ladies were in Charlotte’s hands for one last evening. It fell upon her to put out any flames of attraction to the opposite sex before they could blaze into an impropriety.
“Miss Boscastle, may I go out into the garden?”
“No, Amy, you may not, as I have told you a thousand and one times. Not without an approved escort.”
“But it’s stifling in here.”
“Drink another lemonade.”
“Verity drank champagne.”
“Verity,” Charlotte said, searching the room for her most trouble-prone pupil, “will be restricted to her room tomorrow. I knew I shouldn’t have allowed the younger girls to attend. How will they concentrate on class tomorrow? Miss Peppertree was right. Only the graduates should be invited to the ball.”
“Miss Boscastle, I broke my slipper. What should I do? May I ask the marchioness if I could borrow a pair of hers?”
Charlotte frowned. “If you can find her—without leaving the room.”
“Verity is standing on the terrace, miss.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she muttered. “Where is the Duchess of Glenmorgan? She promised she would stay close enough for me to call.”
Perhaps, after tonight, Charlotte might be able to draw a breath. For good or for evil, the graduates would venture forth into the world and assume the responsibility of their reputations upon their own shoulders. If it were possible she would have drawn out a complete map of pitfalls that a young lady might encounter after she left the academy. It would depict a narrow road intersected with various pathways marked, Avenues of Forbidden Affairs, Dark Forays into Decadence—or Ruined Reputations. Until dawn broke over the occasion, however, she was obligated to stand guard against any rogues who thought to take advantage of an inexperienced girl. She had her eye on one rogue in particular. He had looked at her only once. The Duke of Wynfield was without question the most elegant and hard-edged guest at the ball, and Charlotte wasn’t about to let him tempt one of her graduates or detract her from her duty.
She wondered whether he even remembered the last time they had seen each other, at the emporium in the Strand. They hadn’t exchanged a single word. Charlotte had been shopping for the academy that day. He had been shopping for a pair of strumpets, one draped over either elbow.
He had kissed one of the tarts on the neck—and merely smiled when Charlotte, at the opposite end of the counter, had gasped in shock.
She had returned to the academy hours later to record the incident in her diary, as was her wont, changing a detail here and there until, en fin, the actual event bore little resemblance to her fabricated but far more satisfying version. She had been keeping a journal ever since she could hold a pen and she enjoyed the art of exaggerating commonplace events.
When her Boscastle cousins had first invited her to London five years ago, she had been so enthralled by their amorous exploits that she had undertaken the task of recording the family history in her diary. Soon the pages needed no enhancement. It was a challenge to follow the family’s constant scandals. It seemed that every one in the brood had led a secret life as a spy or someone’s lover. She had to face a painful fact -- as much as she admired her relatives, it was obvious that she led a dreary life in comparison.
It took her a month to overcome her inhibitions and let her pen wander where it would. Soon her diaries simmered with illicit truths and vicarious pleasures. In the pages of her intimate musings the duke not only adored her, but he had been pursuing her for months. In actual life he was domineering, indecent, and inexcusably taken with disgraceful women. In his fictional encounters with Charlotte he was domineering, indecent, and inexplicably taken with her alone.
In Charlotte’s version of the incident in the emporium, the duke had noticed her across the counter and had immediately dismissed the other women. He had walked straight up to Charlotte and, without a word, grasped her hand.
“My carriage is outside,” he said, his sinful smile mesmerizing her. “May I take you away?”
His face receded. Another voice, breathy and excited, was whispering in her ear. “That’s the Duke of Wynfield you’re staring at, Miss Boscastle. Do be careful. Everyone is saying that he’s in the market for a mistress.”
Charlotte gripped her fan and turned to regard her favorite student in dismay. “Lydia Butterfield, reassure me that he has not found one in you.”
Lydia gave her a wistful grin. “Dear Miss Boscastle, I shall miss you with all my heart.”
“You shall miss my guidance; that is clear.”
“I won’t need it any longer,” Lydia said in regret. “But I will miss your history lessons.”
“All the battles and beheadings?” Charlotte asked, stepping to the side to stop Lydia from staring at the duke. Or him from noticing her. “But don’t be so melodramatic or I shall start to cry. Your family still lives in London. You may visit the academy whenever you wish.”
“My family—well, my betrothed family’s lives in Dorset, and he is eager to start a family—”
“Your betrothed?” Charlotte said faintly.
Lydia bit her lip, nodding toward the short gentleman standing a few feet behind her. “Sir Adam Richardson, the architect.”
“Lydia, I am so—”
Envious? Yes, to her shame, she envied Lydia a little. But she was also filled with happiness for a girl whose sweetness Charlotte had feared would render her vulnerable or undesirable on the marriage mart. “I am proud,” she said firmly. “He appears to be a fine gentleman.”
Lydia laughed, her gaze drifting to the duke, who was not known to be a gentleman at all. “I was told that he is a wildly jealous lover.”
“The duke,” Lydia said, laughing again. “He has a reputation for being a possessive suitor.”
“Lydia.” Charlotte attempted to look shocked, although the same rumors had not escaped her attention. Such gossip should have stamped the duke as an unacceptable person instead of engendering wicked daydreams about him in Charlotte’s imagination. Why did it feel so pleasant to picture him tearing off his long-tailed evening coat to defend her from . . . Oh, since it was her flight of fancy, the other man might as well be Phillip Moreland, the cad who had broken her heart years ago.
She could picture it so clearly. The ballroom would be cleared for a duel; the duke studied sword fighting at Fenton’s School of Arms. Charlotte had watched him perform at a benefit ball in this very mansion. She’d had nothing to do with him on that past night, and it was doubtful that she would capture his interest in the future.
“I don’t think that either of us need worry about the duke’s amorous proclivities,” she assured Lydia, thus uttering the fateful words that would come back to mock her before morning came. . . .
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