Blame It on the Duke(8)

By: Lenora Bell


“I’m sure the rumors of insanity have been greatly exaggerated,” her mother said. “One day Lord Hatherly will be a duke. A duke.” Her mouth trembled with the grandeur of the thought. “What matter a few skeletons in the family closet when you shall be a duchess? We shall assume our proper place in society, no matter what Fred has done, isn’t that right, Sir Alfred?”

Sir Alfred’s face grew thunderous again. “Damned disgrace of a boy.”

Apparently there was no more time for subtle persuasion.

Alice drew herself up to her full height, nearly a head taller than her mother, and spoke in a calm, authoritative voice. “Papa, remember that box of grandfather’s Indian books and papers I saved you from burning? I’ve been corresponding with the Sanskrit scholars at Fort William College and one of the manuscripts could be the missing chapters from an important ancient text. I want to travel to Calcutta with Fred in—”

“Alice Perpetua Felicity Tombs!” said Mama.

Alice flinched. She’d been named for two holy Church of England martyrs. Her mother invoked their long-suffering names only when she was thoroughly fed up with Alice’s foibles.

“However could you have fixed upon such a nonsensical scheme?” The ribbons streaming from her mother’s white lace cap quivered indignantly. “Have I not taught you your proper place is at the center of the circle of domestic bliss? A female must never stray from hearth and home. Your duty is to marry well. Even doubly so now that Fred has . . . done what he has done.”

Oh yes. Alice had been taught her proper place very thoroughly.

Hearth and home. Housekeeping and homilies.

The muscles in Alice’s jaw began to ache. She turned to her father. “I’m not asking for a Grand Tour, Papa. Only a very modest and scholarly one. Grant me this one favor and I’ll be the most dutiful daughter in the world when I return. I’ll marry immediately, and to great advantage.”

Her two best friends had found worthy gentlemen to love. Perhaps Alice might find a kind, gentle, scholarly sort of gentleman. Maybe even one who cared for her, instead of only her father’s fortune.

Papa averted his gaze, rearranging the papers on his desk. “Out of the question.”

“But—”

“Beg your pardon, Sir Alfred,” interrupted Ellen, one of the upstairs maids, entering the room with saucer eyes and bobbing a quick curtsy. “There’s a carriage arrived. Danvers sent me to warn you, sir, as I was closest at hand.”

“Well?” Sir Alfred said irritably. “Who is it?”

“It’s . . . it’s the M-Marquess of Hatherly, if you please, sir.”

Sir Alfred frowned. “Are you quite sure?”

“Oh yes. There’s no mistaking him, sir. I saw him leave the carriage with my own eyes. So very imposing, he is. And just as handsome as the papers say.”

“Do you hear that, Alice?” her father said. “Your intended is quite a handsome fellow.”

“Lord Hatherly is here?” Lady Tombs’s hand flew to her lace cap. “Oh dear me. I must do something about my appearance. I’m not fit to be seen.”

Why must every female flutter so about the man?

Ellen’s cheeks were flushed, her bosom heaved, and her eyes had an unhealthy brilliance.

Sure symptoms of a Hatherly sighting.

Alice crossed the room to the maid. “You’re not about to swoon, are you?” she asked in a clipped undertone.

“I don’t think so, miss. Only those eyes of his. Like twice-polished silver, they are. They quite take one’s breath away.”

“Calm yourself, please. He’s only a man.”

“Yes, miss. Only . . .”

“Yes? What is it?”

Ellen twisted her apron in her hands. “You might feel breathless when you see him. Truly you might.”

Breathing was essential to life. Alice was never breathless. And wouldn’t be until she expired at a ripe old age.

“Inform Danvers I’ll be down shortly,” Papa said.

“You mean to keep the marquess waiting?” Ellen’s eyes widened. “Oh, Sir Alfred, are you sure that’s the best—”

A forceful, arrogant blur of black silk and stark white linen strode into the library.

“Oh!” Ellen squeaked, jumping behind Alice and using her as a shield.

Poor Danvers, the butler, followed close behind, breathing heavily.

“His Lordship, the Marquess . . . of . . . Hatherly,” Danvers gasped.





Chapter 2




It is notorious that men who have given themselves up to pleasure alone have been ruined along with their families and relations.

The Kama Sutra of Vātsyāyana



Alice studied the gentleman who made parlor maids squeak and debutantes swoon, as if he were a map, plotting out the best route to cross him.

Thick, dark brown hair.

Long, lean nose; long, lean body.

Ruby-red silk waistcoat and indecently fitted buckskin breeches that sent a clear message: Here stands a man who rides hard. Batten the hatches. Lock up the ladies.

Alice shivered slightly.

Here stood a gentleman who must have an intimate knowledge of all sixty-four varieties of pleasure. She was quite sure of it.