The Ugly Duchess

By: Eloisa James

Part One

Before





One



March 18, 1809

45 Berkeley Square

The London residence of the Duke of Ashbrook

“You’ll have to marry her. I don’t care if you think of her as a sister: from now on, she’s the Golden Fleece to you.”

James Ryburn, Earl of Islay, and heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, opened his mouth to say something, but a mixture of fury and disbelief choked the words.

His father turned and walked toward the far wall of the library, acting as if he’d said nothing particularly out of the ordinary. “We need her fortune to repair the Staffordshire estate and pay a few debts, or we’re going to lose it all, this town house included.”

“What have you done?” James spat the words. A terrible feeling of dread was spreading through his limbs.

Ashbrook pivoted. “Don’t you dare speak to me in that tone!”

James took a deep breath before answering. One of his resolutions was to master his temper before turning twenty—and that birthday was a mere three weeks away. “Excuse me, Father,” he managed. “Exactly how did the estate come to be in such precarious straits? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“I do mind your asking.” The duke stared back at his only son, his long, aquiline nose quivering with anger. James came by his temper naturally: he had inherited it directly from his irascible, reckless father.

“In that case, I will bid you good day,” James said, keeping his tone even.

“Not unless you’re going downstairs to make eyes at that girl. I turned down an offer for her hand this week from Briscott, who’s such a simpleton that I didn’t feel I need tell her mother. But you know damn well her father left the decision over who marries the girl to her mother—”

“I have no knowledge of the contents of Mr. Saxby’s will,” James stated. “And I fail to see why that particular provision should cause you such annoyance.”

“Because we need her damned fortune,” Ashbrook raged, walking to the fireplace and giving the unlit logs a kick. “You must convince Theodora that you’re in love with her, or her mother will never agree to the match. Just last week, Mrs. Saxby inquired about a few of my investments in a manner that I did not appreciate. Doesn’t know a woman’s place.”

“I will do nothing of the sort.”

“You will do exactly as I instruct you.”

“You’re instructing me to woo a young lady whom I’ve been raised to treat as a sister.”

“Hogwash! You may have rubbed noses a few times as children, but that shouldn’t stop you from sleeping with her.”

“I cannot.”

For the first time the duke looked a trifle sympathetic. “Theodora is no beauty. But all women are the same in the—”

“Do not say that,” James snapped. “I am already appalled; I do not wish to be disgusted as well.”

His father’s eyes narrowed and a rusty color rose in his cheeks, a certain sign of danger. Sure enough, Ashbrook’s voice emerged as a bellow. “I don’t care if the chit is as ugly as sin, you’ll take her. And you’ll make her fall in love with you. Otherwise, you will have no country house to inherit. None!”

“What have you done?” James repeated through clenched teeth.

“Lost it,” his father shouted back, his eyes bulging a little. “Lost it, and that’s all you need to know!”

“I will not do it.” James stood up.

A china ornament flew past his shoulder and crashed against the wall. James barely flinched. By now he was inured to these violent fits of temper; he had grown up ducking everything from books to marble statues.

“You will, or I’ll bloody well disinherit you and name Pinkler-Ryburn my heir!”

James’s hand dropped and he turned, on the verge of losing his temper. While he’d never had the impulse to throw objects at the wall—or at his family—his ability to fire cutting remarks was equally destructive. He took another deep breath. “While I would hesitate to instruct you on the legal system, Father, I can assure you that it is impossible to disinherit a legitimate son.”

“I’ll tell the House of Lords that you’re no child of mine,” the duke bellowed. Veins bulged on his forehead and his cheeks had ripened from red to purple. “I’ll tell ’em that your mother was a light-heeled wench and that I’ve discovered you’re nothing but a bastard.”

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