Dancing in the Duke’s Arms
Why Do Dukes Fall in Love?
Every summer the cream of society gathers at the Dukeries, named for the ducal estates concentrated in one small corner of Nottinghamshire. While the entertainments include parties, balls, and a famous boat race, the ducal hosts and their guests find adventure, passion, and happy ever afters.
May I Have This Duke?
by Grace Burrowes
The trouble with houseparties…
Gerard Hammersley, Duke of Hardcastle, is dragooned by an old friend into attending a house party, though Hardcastle refuses to fall prey to the matchmakers who relish such gatherings. He recruits his nephew’s prim, prickly governess, Miss Ellen MacHugh, to preserve him from being compromised by the conniving debutantes, and offers in exchange to deflect the drunken viscounts who plague Ellen.
Is that they must end.
Ellen agrees to Hardcastle’s scheme for two reasons. First, she’s been attracted to His Grace since the day she laid eyes on him, and knows that behind Hardcastle’s lack of charm lies a ferociously loyal and faithful heart. Second, she’s departing from Hardcastle’s household at the conclusion of the house party, and two weeks safeguarding His Grace’s bachelorhood is as much pleasure—and as much torment—as she can endure before she leaves him.
Duchess of Scandal
by Miranda Neville
After months of marriage, the Duke of Linton agreed to live apart from his wife. Thrown together due to a scheduling error, Linton finds Althea still has the power to make his heart race. Linton seems different from the critical, indifferent man she married. But though she burns for him as a lover, can she trust him to be the husband she needs?
Waiting for a Duke Like You
by Shana Galen
Nathan Cauley, tenth Duke of Wyndover, is so handsome ladies swoon—literally swoon. His blond hair and blue eyes certainly draw attention at the Duke of Sedgemere’s house party, but Nathan doesn’t want a fawning young miss for his duchess. He stumbles upon a bedraggled woman sleeping under Sedgemere’s bridge, and his protective instincts stir. When he recognizes her as the princess he fell in love with eight years before, he’s determined to win not only her affections but her heart.
An Unsuitable Duchess
by Carolyn Jewel
The duke of Stoke Teversault has well earned his reputation for bloodless calculation. Indeed, recently widowed Georgina Lark has no idea he’s loved her since before her late husband swept her off her feet. Stoke Teversault means to keep it that way. The cold and forbidding duke and the blithe and open Georgina could not be less suited in any capacity. And yet, when Georgina and her sister arrive at his home, his ice-bound heart may melt away.
Enjoy An Excerpt
“You wished to see me, Your Grace?”
Gerard Juvenal René Beaumarchand Hammersley, Eighth Duke of Hardcastle, pretended for one more moment to study his list of tenants, because he emphatically did not wish to see Miss Ellen MacHugh. The woman destroyed his focus simply by entering a room, and when she spoke, whatever remained of Hardcastle’s mental processes came to an indecorous, gaping halt.
An indecorous, gaping, sniffing halt, because Miss MacHugh had the great temerity to carry about her person the scents of lavender and lilacs.
The duke rose, for Miss MacHugh was a lady, albeit a lady in his employ. “Please have a seat, Miss MacHugh. I trust you’re well?”
They’d perfected a system, such that they could dwell in the same house for much of the year, but go for days without speaking. Weeks even. Hardcastle’s record was thirty-three days straight, though admittedly, he’d been ill for part of that time.
She, by contrast, had the constitution of a plough horse. She never lost her poise either, while he fumbled for words in her presence or prosed on about the weather.
Or some other inanity.
“I am well, Your Grace. Thank you for inquiring. Christopher is well too.”
“If he were unwell, and you had failed to notify me, you’d be without a post, madam.”
She dipped her chin, a rather stubborn little chin. Her hair was dark russet, and her height was sadly wanting, but that chin could be very expressive.
Miss MacHugh was not willowy, she was not blond, she was not subservient, she was not—oh, her faults were endless. She wasn’t even entirely English, her mother hailing from the Scottish region of Peeblesshire.
“Did you summon me for a reason, sir?”
Hardcastle clasped his hands behind his back, marched to the library window, and attempted to recall what lapse of sense had prompted him to summon—ah, yes.
“I’m to attend to a house party up in Nottinghamshire,” he said. “Christopher will accompany me, and you will accompany the boy.”
“When do we leave, Your Grace?”
“We leave Tuesday. Please ensure Christopher has everything he might require for a two-week stay in the country. You and he will share the traveling coach, and I will go on horseback. Thank you, that will be all.”
She rose to her inconsequential height, and yet, such was Ellen MacHugh’s presence that Hardcastle remained by the window, yielding the rest of the library to her.
“Has Your Grace considered tutors to take over Christopher’s education?” she asked.
What queer start was this? “He’s barely six years old, Miss MacHugh. Unless I mistake the matter, the boy is learning what he needs to learn from you. I hadn’t any tutors until I was eight.”
She flicked a gaze over him that nearly shouted: And look how well that turned out. “Christopher is exceedingly bright, Your Grace, and eager to learn.”
“As was I. Unless you believe a six-year-old boy’s education to be beyond you, this conversation has reached its conclusion.”
More and more often, when Hardcastle spoke, his grandfather’s voice emerged, condescending, gruff, and arrogant. Had Robin lived, he’d have laughed himself silly at his older brother’s metamorphosis into a curmudgeon-in-training.
“I’ll take my leave of you then, sir. I’d like to call one other item to Your Grace’s attention, though.”
Hardcastle knew that tone and knew what it portended. Miss MacHugh was preparing to scold her employer.
The woman excelled at scolding her employer. She’d been in the nursery for nearly three months before Hardcastle had realized what her gentle, polite, well-reasoned discourses were. He’d been slow to catch on, because a duke of mature years had little to no experience being scolded.
“Unburden yourself, Miss MacHugh. What item remains for us to discuss?”
She had the most beautiful complexion. All roses and cream, with a few faint, delicate freckles across her cheeks. Hardcastle knew better than to stand within freckle-counting range, because when he got that close to her, his thumbs ached to brush over her features.
Aching thumbs on a duke were the outside of absurd.
“I’m giving notice, Your Grace, of my intention to quit my post. I thought you might like some warning. If we leave on Tuesday, and the house party lasts two weeks, you should expect my departure from your household at the end of the house party. I leave it to you to explain the situation to Christopher at the time and place of your choosing. Good day, sir.”
She offered him a graceful curtsey and bustled off toward the door.
Hardcastle strode to the door as well, and because his legs were significantly longer, and his resolve every bit a match for Miss MacHugh’s, he was first to reach their destination.
“Miss MacHugh, after living under my roof for three years, caring for my heir, and otherwise functioning as a member of this household day in and day out, you simply announce an intention to leave?”
Of course she’d want to leave him. He was a demanding, ill-tempered, patently unfriendly employer. Hardcastle could not fathom how she’d leave the boy, though.
“This is how it’s done, Your Grace. The employee gives notice, the employer writes a glowing character. You wish me well, and I thank you for all you’ve done for me.”
She peered at him encouragingly, as if willing him to repeat that sequence of disasters back to her.
“All I have done is pay the modest wages you tirelessly earn, madam, but this giving of notice will not answer. In Nottinghamshire, I’ll be expected to socialize morning, noon, and night. The entire region is infested with dukes, thus its unfortunate style, the Dukeries. Because I myself am a duke—lest you forget that detail—I am obligated to exchange courtesy visits with half the shire.”
He kept his hand on the door latch, in case she took a notion to flee before he’d made his point. “How can I find a replacement for you if I’m dodging the hopeful young ladies?” Hardcastle went on. “Shall I interview your successor when I’m playing cards until all hours with the fellows? When I’m rising at dawn to ruin good boots tramping about in the fog, shooting at pheasants, drunken viscounts, or other low-flying game?”
Miss MacHugh turned her smile on Hardcastle, proving once again that she had no conscience. Her smile would make small boys confess to felonies and large boys long for privacy, preferably with her, a freshly made bed, and a few bottles of excellent spirits.
“Your Grace is an eminently resourceful fellow,” she said. “If you turn your mind to locating a successor for me, then I’m sure a parade of candidates will materialize in the servants’ parlor in an instant.”
Ellen MacHugh was a temple to mendacity, pretending to compliment him, while instead mocking his consequence.
“My agenda for this house party, Miss MacHugh, is to locate a candidate for the position of Duchess of Hardcastle. Her Grace, my grandmother, claims I have forgotten to tend to this task and must address the oversight before I’m a pathetic, graying embarrassment, falling asleep over the port and importuning the housemaids. I’m to parade myself before the debutantes and matchmakers, sacrifice myself once again on the altar of duty, and for good measure, be a good sport about surrendering my bachelorhood.”
And in the depths of the ducal heart, Hardcastle suppressed a plea as honest as it was dismaying: Don’t let them take me. Ellen MacHugh wouldn’t deride him for that sentiment either, for she was a woman who treasured her independence fiercely.
The corners of her serene smile faltered. “Her Grace is a formidable woman. I can understand why you’d make her request a priority. But tell me, sir, how does one forget to get married?”
One became a ducal heir at age seven, a duke at thirteen, and arrived to the age of three-and-thirty with one freedom, and one freedom only, still intact.
“I expect, Miss MacHugh, I neglected to marry the same way you did. I occupied myself with other, less disagreeable matters. Doubtless, you will now admit that your departure from the household would be most inconsiderate, particularly at this juncture. I will regard the topic as closed until further notice.”
Russet brows twitched, a gratifying hint of consternation from a woman who was the soul of self-possession.
“You have my leave to return to the nursery, madam.” They stood near the door, within freckle-counting range. The fragrance of lilacs and lavender, like a brisk, sunny morning, provoked Hardcastle into opening the door for his nephew’s governess, as if he were a common footman.
“Your Grace, I do apologize for the timing of my decision, but this once, I cannot change my plans for your convenience. I have reason to believe another situation awaits me. You have just shy of a month to replace me, sir. If you do find a lady willing to be your duchess, she will certainly take an interest in choosing Christopher’s next governess.”
Then Miss MacHigh-and-Mighty was gone, gently pulling the door closed behind her.
The voice of the previous duke nattered on in Hardcastle’s head, about good riddance to a woman who’d never known her place, and governesses being thick on the ground, and small boys of excellent station needing to learn early not to grow attached to their inferiors.
The seventh duke had been an arrogant old windbag. With a couple of bottles of port in him, he’d had the verbal stamina of a Presbyterian preacher amid a flock of adulterers.
The eighth duke didn’t care for port. He liked Ellen MacHugh’s self-possession, her good opinion of herself, her boldness before her betters, and her infernally alluring freckles.
Hardcastle had never admired or desired a woman more than he did Miss Ellen MacHugh. She had no use for him, though, so perhaps he’d best find a replacement for her after all.
“He’s growing worse,” Ellen said, hems whipping about her boots in the confines of the housekeeper’s sitting room. Two days after her interview with the duke, she was still upset with him. “I didn’t think Hardcastle could grow worse. He informed me that accepting a post in the north would not suit his convenience. ‘Doubtless,’ sayeth the duke, ‘you will now admit that your departure from the household would be most inconsiderate.’ God help the poor woman who must conceive children with him. She’ll suffer frostbite in a delicate location.”
“Ellen, that is unkind and unladylike.”
Dorcas Snelling had been housekeeper to the Duke of Hardcastle since the present titleholder had been in dresses. She was the closest thing Ellen had to a friend, but when it came to ducal infallibility, Dorcas might as well have been a papist discussing an especially virtuous pope. Dorcas was at that moment embroidering golden flowers on the hem of a curtain that would hang in the ducal dressing closet, for pity’s sake.
“I barely exaggerate Hardcastle’s sangfroid,” Ellen rejoined. “He can’t even bring himself to look down his nose at me, and he has a deal of nose to look down.”
On the coal man such a nose might have been unfortunate; on Hardcastle, it was splendidly ducal. Shoulders broad enough to do a Yorkshire ploughman proud were also ducal on Hardcastle. Dark eyebrows that put Ellen in mind of a pirate prince were—on Hardcastle—ducal.
His stern mouth was ducal, and his silences were nearly regal. The only feature that defied the title was Hardcastle’s hair, which was as curly and unruly as Christopher’s, albeit much darker.
“You’re determined to leave?” Mrs. Snelling asked, knotting off a gold thread.
“I never meant to stay this long, but Christopher has wrapped his grubby paws around my heart. Now His Grace is determined to marry, and Christopher will have an aunt to look after his welfare.”
To be fair, Hardcastle was a conscientious guardian. Christopher’s material needs were met in every particular, and when the head footman had raised his voice to the boy for sliding down the front banister, His Grace had sent the man to a lesser estate in East Anglia.
Christopher had been denied any outings on his pony for a week. Only a duke would fail to see that the governess was the one punished by such a scheme. Christopher’s abuse of the banister had happened on Ellen’s half day, but she’d made sure his unruly behavior hadn’t reoccurred.
“Miss MacHugh!” The boy himself came charging into the housekeeper’s sitting room. “I’ve found you. Nurse says I mightn’t have to come in if you’re willing to walk with me in the garden, but I had to come in to ask you. I found a grasshopper, and eleven ants, and four butterflies. That’s a lot.”
“It’s a pretty day,” Ellen said, extending a hand to Christopher. “A walk in the garden will help us settle to our French when we come in. How many insects did you see in all, Christopher?’
“Let’s count, shall we?”
While Ellen walked the child through a basic exercise in addition, she also tried to memorize the garden where she’d spent many peaceful hours over the past three years. The roses were beyond their glory, but the perennials—daisies, hollyhocks, foxglove, salvia, verbena, lavender—were still in good form.
Come Tuesday, Ellen would leave this place, despite His Grace’s fuming and pouting.
She’d miss Hardway Hall, miss the routine and orderliness of it, miss the child she’d come to love ferociously, and even miss the duke. He was predictable in his severe demeanor, he paid punctually, and he didn’t intrude into the nursery. Without intending it, Hardcastle had provided Ellen a place to heal her wounds and mourn her dreams.
Many women hadn’t even those luxuries.
“Why do roses have thorns?” Christopher asked, sniffing a rose without touching it anywhere. He was a careful boy, but not a worried boy. Ellen would miss him until her dying day.
“Thorns protect the roses from being grabbed carelessly,” Ellen said, “from being eaten by passing bears, from being handled without respect.”
Would to God young ladies were given a few thorns before the young men came sniffing about.
“I like daisies better,” Christopher said. “They aren’t the color of blood, and they don’t make you bleed if you touch them. Daisies are happy.”
Christopher was happy, curious, and full of energy. He ran down the length of the rose border, made a turn past the end of the laburnum alley, and was pelting back in Ellen’s direction when he came to an abrupt stop.
Where an exuberant little boy had stood, a ducal heir appeared, suggesting His Grace was approaching from the stables. Christopher drew his shoulders back, swiped a hand over his hair, and drained all animation from his features in the time it took for a breeze to set the laburnum leaves dancing.
In other words, Christopher was trying to be good.
“Christopher, greetings,” said the duke, striding along the crushed-shell walk. “Shouldn’t you be at your studies?”
Christopher shot Ellen a look, a plea for intervention. Soon enough, she would be unable to intercede for the boy. Perhaps the new duchess would be kind, though. Ellen could hope for that.
“We are at our lessons, Your Grace,” Ellen said. “What better place to learn botany than in a garden?”
The duke treated her to one of those reserved, slightly annoyed perusals, as if from one day to the next, he forgot who Ellen was and how she’d come to be in his household.
“Miss MacHugh, good day.”
“We’re taking a walk,” Christopher said, making a grab for the duke’s glove, but stopping short and tucking his own little hand behind his back, much as his uncle often did. “I’m counting bugs, and Miss MacHugh was explaining about thorns.”
“Who better to discourse on the topic of thorns? Perhaps I’ll walk with you.”
Christopher was so enthralled with this prospect, he spun in a circle. “Please, sir! I know lots of flowers, and birds, and how each bird sings differently so his friends and family will hear him. I know I must never, ever, ever touch the laburnum, anywhere, and don’t let anybody or anything eat any part of it.”
“My garden is apparently full of hazards,” Hardcastle remarked.
Was the duke waiting for Ellen to invite him to join them? And why was he going on about thorns and hazards?
“Your garden is beautiful, sir,” Ellen said. “Please share it with us.”
He stared at the laburnum as if it too, were some sort of interloper he didn’t recall hiring. “I knew the laburnum was poisonous. I got the same lectures as a boy Christopher did, but I’d forgotten.”
The duke winged his arm, a courtesy he’d rarely shown Ellen before. She took it, because that was what a lady did when a gentleman was on his manners.
“Many other plants are equally dangerous,” she said, “but we admire them, carefully, for their beauty or other properties. Then there’s foxglove, which can help at the proper dose and kill at an improper one.”
“You are not a governess,” Hardcastle said. “You are a professor in disguise. How am I to replace you?”
“Please don’t wheedle, Your Grace. My nerves couldn’t bear it.”
“Nor mine, alas,” he said, in perfect seriousness.
Christopher had galloped off toward the heartsease, which enjoyed a shady bed near the fountain. Even in high summer, they were doing well, for temperatures in recent weeks had remained moderate.
“I have a rehearsed apology,” the duke said, leading Ellen to a wooden bench. “I can’t seem to recall it now that the moment to recite has presented itself. I planned to summon you to the library so I could express my remorse for our last conversation.”
“No such expression is needed, Your Grace.” Though even for him, he’d been high-handed—or nervous? “I will leave my post at the end of this house party, nonetheless. I suggest you explain the situation to Christopher so he’ll have time to adjust.”
“He won’t adjust,” Hardcastle said, taking off his gloves and using them to bat imaginary dust from the bench. “Will you sit with me, Miss MacHugh?”
Ellen wanted to refuse Hardcastle, for the simple, contrary novelty of thwarting him, but also because a duke in an apologetic mood upset the balance between them. She was not, however, a recalcitrant schoolgirl overdue for an outing, so she took a seat.
“I was seven when my parents died,” Hardcastle said, coming down beside Ellen, and stuffing his gloves in a pocket. “My grandfather had been traveling on the Continent, and it took him some months to return to England. He came swooping into our lives like the wrath of King George, and nothing was ever the same.”
“Losing our loved ones is hard.” Losing just this pretty, peaceful garden would break Ellen’s heart.
“I was managing,” Hardcastle said, “as was Lord Robin, mostly because we had a fine governess. Miss Henckel maintained order and routine for us, let us have our tantrums and sulks as we adjusted to the loss of our parents. She knew when to discipline and when to look the other way. Miss Henckel alone took on the burden of explaining to us what was afoot when Papa’s coach overturned. I was… attached to her.”
Ellen suspected the duke’s disclosure was a revelation even to him, but she couldn’t afford to waver.
“Not fair, Your Grace. Christopher’s parents died three years ago, and he’s a happy little boy. He has the staff wrapped around his finger, he has every comfort, and you will not make me responsible for his happiness and well-being. He has you for that.”
“I hardly know the boy.”
His Grace regretted this state of affairs, apparently, but for the first time, Ellen realized why the duke had kept his distance from Christopher, another orphan thrust into the role of ducal heir at a tender age.
“What happened to Miss Henckel?” Ellen asked.
“She was replaced with tutors, of course, and then public school and university. Grandfather and the trustees he chose for me did not believe in coddling a ducal heir.”
“I’m sorry,” Ellen said, though offering condolences to Hardcastle was an odd turn in their dealings. “The one adult you loved should not have been taken from you when the rest of your life was in chaos. Christopher’s life is not in chaos.”
At the other end of the fountain, Christopher experimented with passing a stick through the spray and momentarily re-directing the flow of the water. A green maple came drifting down to land on the duke’s muscular thigh, a bright contrast to his fawn riding breeches.
He took the leaf in his fingers, twirling it by the stem. “I was fond of Miss Henckel. In any case, I acknowledge that you have the right to abandon your post with proper notice. I do not like it, but I could have turned you off without a character at any point, and you would not have liked that.”
“Your Grace is a scrupulously fair man,” Ellen said. “You would not have treated me thus.” He wouldn’t treat anybody with such disregard for common decency, though his version of the civilities and fair play was frosty, at best.
“I want to treat you badly,” he said, tossing the leaf into the fountain. “I’m quite wroth with you, madam.” He didn’t sound angry. He sounded rueful, like a small boy who must abandon the garden for his French lessons.
In the quiet end of the fountain’s pool, the leaf spun slowly this way and that as the breezes and currents shifted.
“We have, from time to time, been out of charity with each other,” Ellen said. “I’m sure we’ll muddle through this as well. I’ll help look for a replacement.” She could not say more, not with the boy at the other end of the fountain.
She patted the duke’s hand—his bare hand—and abruptly was hit with a faint, cool mist across her cheek.
“Sorry!” Christopher bellowed, chortling merrily. “I’m trying to water the flowers!”
“Trying to get a birching,” the duke muttered, rising and extending a hand to Ellen. “He’s nearly as bad as I was at his age. Have I apologized for my brusque demeanor adequately, Miss MacHugh?”
He’d explained more than apologized, but the explanation was the greater gift. Ellen put her hand in his.
“Your apology is accepted, sir.”
He stood for a moment peering down at her, their hands joined. They hadn’t touched like this before, bare-handed, casually. Or rather, Ellen hadn’t touched His Grace. Had he been waiting for that overture before presuming himself?
“My objective is accomplished then. Find a way to accidentally knock the boy into the fountain. He’ll love you for it.” The duke bowed and marched off through the laburnum alley, while Christopher shrieked something about having found a great, brown warty toad.
Pride, even ducal pride, could carry a man only so far.
Hardcastle’s pride had carried him three miles beyond the coaching inn, three miles of wet verge, muddy road, and relentless rain. Three miles of cold trickling down the back of his neck no matter the angle of his sodden top hat and no matter how many times he adjusted the collar of his great coat.
Ajax bore it all stoically—he was the personal mount of a duke, after all—but when thunder rumbled to the north, and lightning joined the affray, Ajax’s equine dignity threatened to desert him.
Hardcastle signaled John Coachman to pull up, tied Ajax to the back of the coach, and climbed inside.
“Uncle! We’re playing the color game. You’re very wet!”
“Miss MacHugh, your charge is a prodigy.” Where did one sit when one was a large, sodden duke who reeked of wet horse, muddy boots, and disgust with this entire outing? Hardcastle shrugged out of his great coat and hung it on a peg on the back of the coach door.
“Christopher is a bright boy, Your Grace,” her governess-ship replied. “I tell him that frequently.”
Miss MacHugh sat on the forward-facing seat beside Christopher, both of them dry and cozy, the boy having the audacity to smile.
Nothing for it then.
A gentleman did not drip indiscriminately on a lady or on a child. Hardcastle took the backward-facing seat and silently cursed all house parties.
“My grandmother will answer for this,” he muttered, taking off his hat and getting a brimful of frigid rain water across his lap for his efforts. “If it’s not the blazing heat, the flies and the dust, it’s the mud, the rain, and the cold.”
“I’m not cold,” Christopher said. “Would you like to play our game with us, sir?”
Hardcastle would rather have throttled his dear grandmama. “A duke, as a rule, hasn’t time for games.”
The child’s face fell, which was durance vile for the uncle sitting across from him. Christopher wasn’t to blame for the weather, or for the queasiness that had already begun to plague Hardcastle. Worse, Miss MacHugh’s expression had gone carefully blank, as if once again, Mr. Higginbotham had arrived at Sunday services tipsy.
Farmer Higginbotham was probably still tipsy on a Wednesday afternoon, also warm and dry by his own hearth.
“I find,” Hardcastle said, “that the luxury of time has been afforded me by the foul weather, the execrable roads, and the boon of present company. What is this color game?’
“Does that mean he’ll play?” the boy asked his governess.
“Not everybody has the skill to play the color game, Christopher,” Miss MacHugh said, brushing her hand over the child’s golden curls. “We’ve had plenty of practice, while His Grace will be a complete beginner.”
“You are no great respecter of dukes, are you, Miss MacHugh?” Hardcastle asked.
“I respect you greatly, sir, but the color game requires imagination and quickness, and Christopher is very good at it.”
“Alas, then I am doomed to defeat, being a slow, dull fellow. How does one play this game?”
The coach swayed and jostled along, Hardcastle’s belly rebelled strenuously against traveling on a backward-facing bench, and across from him, governess and prodigy exchanged a smile that was diabolically sweet. For a moment, they were a single entity of impish glee, delighted with each other and their circumstances.
For that same moment, Hardcastle forgot he was cold, wet, and queasy, and nearly forgot he was a duke.
“It’s simple, sir,” Christopher said. “One person picks out an object, then we take turns naming as many colors as we can that describe the object. The person with the most colors wins. I’ll give you an example,” the boy went on, his manner as patient and thorough as any duke’s. “Your breeches are brown, gray near your boots, and buckskin. Also… sort of umbrage where the mud has splashed on them.”
“Umber,” Miss MacHugh corrected gently—smirkingly. “Umbrage refers to indignation. Umber is a rusty, sienna, orange-y dark brown.”
“The game seems simple enough,” Hardcastle said. Also tedious and pointless, but not entirely without possibilities. “Let’s describe the colors in Miss MacHugh’s hair.”
“Keen!” Christopher chortled. “Miss MacHugh’s hair is ever so pretty, but she’s wearing her bonnet.”
“She might be willing to part with her bonnet,” the duke replied, stretching out his legs and taking care not to let his boots come near her pristine hems. “For the sake of my education regarding the pressing topic of colors, of course.”
Sitting backward did not agree with Hardcastle, being damp and cold did not agree with him. Ruffling Miss MacHugh’s feathers was unworthy of him, but agreed with him rather well.
“The difficulty,” Miss MacHugh said, “is that I cannot assess my own hair as thoroughly as the other players in the game. I will oblige by removing my bonnet, but cannot participate in this round.”
She managed to get her bonnet off without disturbing a single tidy hair on her head, then looked about for a place to stash her millinery. Hardcastle took the hat from her and put it on the seat beside him. A hopelessly plain, straw bonnet, but also a prize surrendered into his keeping.
“I’ll go first,” Christopher offered, turning a serious expression to his governess. “This is a good opening round, sir.”
Miss MacHugh smoothed a hand over her skirts. No rings, not even a touch of lace at her cuffs, and yet she did have very pretty hair. Casual observation would call it red, and thick, and plagued by an unladylike tendency to wave and shine.
Hardcastle put a hand over his belly, for the horses were managing a good pace, despite the ruts, and his digestion was suffering accordingly.
“I’d say Miss MacHugh’s hair is auburn,” Christopher announced, “but I don’t know the words for the colors the coach lamps put in it. Fire-colored and the color of laughter.”
“Thank you, Christopher,” Miss MacHugh said, beaming at the boy. “You pay me such compliments, my bonnet will never fit on my head again.”
They shared another moment of complete accord, while the ale and cheese Hardcastle had partaken of miles ago intruded on his awareness most disagreeably.
“Miss MacHugh’s hair is auburn,” he said, “also red, russet, gold, blond, and sienna and the color of having the right answers even when not asked for them.”
Christopher’s brows twitched down. “You’ve won, sir. I’d forgot sienna even when Miss reminded me of it. We must play again, or it’s not sporting of you.”
What did a six-year-old know of sporting behavior? Miss MacHugh’s arched eyebrow—Titian, with a hint of amused chastisement—suggested Christopher knew a good deal.
“Very well,” Hardcastle said. “My turn to choose, and in the spirit of the opening round, I choose Miss MacHugh’s lips.”
“You must go first because you won the description of her hair,” Christopher said, as earnestly as if the rules of fair play had been devised by Wellington and Napoleon on the eve of Waterloo. The child was very dear in his good sportsmanship. Hardcastle peeled off his damp gloves and tousled Christopher’s hair.
“I have set myself up for failure,” the duke said. “For I gaze upon the challenge before me, and all I can think is Miss MacHugh’s lips are… pinkish.”
“They are pinkish,” Christopher allowed, “but if they’re pinkish, they’re also reddish, and maybe with a hint of… well, pinkish and reddish. Do I win?”
Hardcastle made a production of studying Miss MacHugh, who bore his scrutiny with patient indifference. By the light of the coach lamps, he could not quite count her freckles, thank heavens, but he could admire the clean line of her jaw, follow the swoop of dark brows, and mentally trace the shape of a mouth more full than ought to grace a governess’s physiognomy.
“I concede, Christopher,” Hardcastle said. “My descriptions are apparently in want of color. Shall you play the next round, Miss MacHugh?”
Fourteen thousand rounds later—Hardcastle’s muddy boots, Christopher’s storybook, Miss MacHugh’s beaded reticule—Christopher was yawning hugely and the duke was ready to cast up his accounts. The prospect of riding Ajax in the contining downpour guaranteed an ague, but that was preferable to a loss of dignity.
“Perhaps I’ll ride a few more miles,” Hardcastle said, peering out the window at a sopping, green expanse of central England. “Or perhaps we should put up at the next coaching inn, rather than risk the horses in this mud.”
His teams were prime cattle, and they’d negotiate any footing handily. His bellyache had been joined by a throbbing head, though.
“Christopher, time to rest your eyes,” Miss MacHugh said. “We must ask His Grace to switch seats with you, so you can stretch out on the cushions.”
“The boy can sleep in the coach?”
“So I arrive fresh and on my manners,” Christopher explained, extricating himself from Miss MacHugh’s side. “Miss sometimes rests her eyes too.”
The child pulled off his boots as if napping in the coach was simply part of his routine.
Hardcastle shifted to the forward-facing seat, and immediately his head thanked him and his belly quit threatening outright rebellion.
Miss MacHugh folded the opposite bench out, so the boy had the width of a trundle bed to sleep on—they were in a ducal traveling coach, after all—but this left not as much room for Hardcastle’s legs.
“I don’t bite, Your Grace,” Miss MacHugh said, when she’d tucked a wool blanket around Christopher and settled back on the forward-facing seat. “Conditions in even your coach will be crowded when three of us are in here.”
Hardcastle abruptly had nowhere to put his arms, his legs, his muddy boots, his anything. He wasn’t facing backward, but tumult of another variety assaulted him. He smelled of wet horse, even miles later, while Miss MacHugh smelled of… governess. Lilacs and lavender, sunny gardens, and… happy memories.
They rocked along for another mile, the child falling into a relaxed slumber. The movement of the coach swayed him gently amid the blankets, while Hardcastle felt his own eyes growing heavy.
“You were very kind to let Christopher win half the rounds,” Miss MacHugh said, nudging her bonnet way from the boy’s feet. “He’s sensitive and wants badly to have your approval, though he also has an excellent appreciation for sportsmanship.”
“Which he must have acquired from you,” Hardcastle concluded. “I certainly haven’t spent enough time around the boy to be much of an influence.”
Not something to be proud of. He and Christopher were the last surviving Hardcastle males, after all.
“Christopher will recall today fondly,” Miss MacHugh said, patting Hardcastle’s hand. She’d done that once before, in the garden by the fountain. Very few people presumed to touch a duke, and yet, when Miss MacHugh took liberties, she was relaxed and confident about it.
“You will recall today less than fondly,” Hardcastle observed. “I had no idea how tedious traveling with a small child could be.”
Miss MacHugh twitched the blanket up over Christopher’s shoulders. The boy had to be exhausted to be sleeping so soundly, but then, children did sleep soundly, while dukes rarely did.
“You will recall today miserably,” she said, settling back. “If I’d been asked to describe your complexion, sir, I would have started with green, followed up with bilious, and concluded with shroudly pale.”
Shroudly wasn’t a word, suggesting the governess was teasing the duke.
“Why thank you, Miss MacHugh.” Had she suggested Christopher’s nap out of consideration for her employer? “If I had to describe the color of your lips, I’d say they were the vermilion glory of sunset at the end of a beautiful summer day spent in the company of good friends whom one has longed to see for ages. They bear the rosy tint of the tender mallow flowers at the height of their bloom, the fresh hue of ripe strawberries glistening with morning dew, and the tantalizing delicacy of raspberries nestled in their thorny, green hedges.”
Those vermilion, rosy, strawberry, raspberry lips curved up. “Very good, Your Grace. I know where Christopher gets his aptitude for the game. Very good indeed.”
She didn’t pat his hand again.
Hardcastle put an arm around the lady’s shoulders to steady her against the jostle and sway of the coach.
“Rest your eyes, Miss MacHugh. We’ve miles to go before we reach an inn up to my standards of accommodation, and the boy will waken all too soon.”
She startled minutely at Hardcastle’s forwardness, a reaction he detected only because they were in close proximity. An instant later, she eased against his side, tentatively, then more heavily as sleep claimed her. Hardcastle’s belly had quieted entirely, and his headache had departed, but his mind went at a dead gallop down a muddy road indeed.
He did not want to go duchess hunting amid the great houses of the Dukeries, neither did he want to allow Ellen MacHugh to leave his household. He was a duke, however, and those wretches were doomed to a lifetime of marching out smartly, intent on accomplishing tasks they truly did not care to complete.
Hardcastle was damned sick and tired of being a good duke. Perhaps the naughty boy in him should be allowed some long overdue attention.
Only as sleep stole over his mind did Hardcastle admit to himself that he would always strive to be a good duke, and Ellen MacHugh would have little interest in a naughty boy—but perhaps she’d spare a lonely man a bit of company, under the right circumstances.
“Uncle likes you,” Christopher said, passing his pencil to Ellen for a sharper one.
“I respect His Grace greatly,” Ellen replied, accepting the dull pencil and passing over a fresh one. Something in Christopher’s observation was not entirely innocent. He was six, and children at his age matured rapidly and in unexpected directions.
“No, I mean Uncle likes you,” Christopher said again.
They’d settled in at Sedgemere House late the previous night, among the last of the guests to arrive.
After being confined in the coach for three eternities—one of them with His Grace—Ellen was happy to be out of doors, sketching on a blanket in the Duke of Sedgemere’s sunken garden. The morning was spectacularly beautiful, and the governess responsible for Sedgemere’s three boys had suggested this quiet retreat.
“I like His Grace as well,” Ellen said, fishing a penknife from the sketching box and getting to work on the pencil.
She did not like Hardcastle. Her situation was worse than that. She could have liked him and was only now realizing it. He cared for Christopher mightily, had a sense of humor, was kind in a gruff avuncular fashion, and was…
Lonely. That insight had devastated her.
Hardcastle had tucked his arm around her as if daring her to protest, and she should have, but hadn’t been able to. He knew exactly how to wrap a woman in his embrace, so she was protected without being confined, and without implying the least impropriety.
Ellen had slept deeply against his side and awoken feeling safe, warm, and content—also resentful, for the duke had offered her a comfort she would not know again.
He couldn’t understand that, of course. When Ellen had touched Hardcastle, he’d looked a little bewildered, as if a hummingbird or a butterfly had lit on his sleeve. He couldn’t know that his touch, so casually offered, bewildered her the same way.
“Uncle kissed you,” Christopher said, his tongue peeking out of the side of his mouth. “When we were in the coach.”
The penknife slipped, and Ellen came within a whisker of cutting herself.
“Christopher, you must not say such things. His Grace conducted himself with utmost propriety at all times, given the situation.”
Christopher looked up from the owl he was drawing. In the fashion of small boys, he was fascinated with owls lately, a welcome change from the frogs and toads of earlier in the summer.
“You say I mustn’t tell lies,” he replied. “Uncle kissed your hair. That’s not a lie. You were asleep and I was too, mostly, but I opened my eyes and saw him. He kissed your hair. You kiss my hair sometimes.”
The child was asking a question Ellen hardly knew how to answer. “Lies always get us in trouble, but in this case, the truth could also get the duke in trouble. If he kissed my hair, I’m sure it was simply the same sort of gesture of affection as I’ve shown you. Or perhaps my hair was tickling his nose.”
The truth if misconstrued could get Ellen ruined—again. A woman permitting her employer kisses while a child looked on was a sorry creature.
Ellen would rather have been an awake sorry creature, though.
“I won’t say anything,” Christopher allowed, getting to work on the complicated task of drawing feathers on his owl. “Uncle is very dignified. Unless you want me to tell him not to do it again?”
The offer was so gentlemanly, tears threatened.
Ellen put the penknife back in the box, the pencil being adequately sharpened. “What would you say to him, Christopher?”
“I’d say to him that when a gentleman likes a lady, he should tell her that, so she knows, not sneak kisses to her hair. Ladies like fellows who are honest. You say that.”
“I’m a font of useful notions. That is a very handsome owl, Christopher.” A very knowing sort of owl.
“His names is Xerxes. I wish I had a real owl.”
“When you are grown, you can have a mews, a real mews, with falcons in it.” Ellen would not see him learn to fly his falcons, though. The realization nearly had her weeping outright.
Why had she allowed herself to grow so attached to this boy? Not well done of her at all.
“Who’s that lady?” Christopher asked, sitting up. “She looks worried.”
No less a personage than their hostess, the Duchess of Sedgemere was crossing the grass. She was a pretty woman perhaps five years Ellen’s senior. The same governess who’d told Ellen about the sunken garden had confided that Her Grace had been the daughter of a banker and was quite approachable when the Quality weren’t looking.
“Good morning, Your Grace,” Ellen said, rising to curtsey. Beside her, Christopher scrambled to his feet and bowed.
“Miss MacHugh, good day, and hello to you, young sir. Christopher, isn’t it? May I borrow your governess for a moment?”
Ellen’s first thought was that the duchess had somehow learned of the kiss in the traveling coach and had come to see Ellen escorted to the foot of the drive, bag and baggage. Hardcastle would never have allowed that—if he’d kissed her—and as Christopher had noted, the duchess looked a trifle anxious.
“May I be of assistance, Your Grace?” Ellen asked.
“Let’s admire the dratted roses, shall we?” Her Grace suggested, moving briskly along the crushed-shell walk, while Christopher went blithely back to feathering his owl. “Sedgemere’s gardener was in a taking because the roses were blooming too early. Imagine the effrontery of roses blooming on their own schedule. I’m babbling.”
Ellen liked this woman already. “You’re worried about something.”
“I’m almost too tired to worry, Miss MacHugh. I’m not very good at this duchessing business. Think of me what you will, but I need your help.”
The roses were passing their prime, alas, though a few late bloomers were yet in bud. “What can I do to help, Your Grace?”
“Lady Amelia Marchman has decided not to attend my gathering. It’s my first house party as the Duchess of Sedgemere, and she has one scheduled for later this summer. I do believe she’s trying to sabotage my Come Out, so to speak, by making the numbers on my roster uneven.”
“Ah.” The warfare of women. Ellen had skirmished on these fields at finishing school, and her aunt had attempted to equip her for the greater battles to come during a London social Season.
“Miss MacHugh, I am in danger of becoming silly,” the duchess went on, “and His Grace is nearly out of patience with me. I don’t know many women whose consequence would make them appropriate guests at a duke’s house party, and I certainly can’t call on the few I do know to cover Lady Amelia’s defection. I will become the first duchess in the history of duchesses to hold a house party at which the numbers do not balance.”
Ellen sank onto a bench, because this request—did a duchess issue requests?—was enormous.
“You might dissuade one of the gentlemen from attending,” Ellen suggested as the duchess took a seat beside her. The bench faced a small pond, in which a half-dozen serene white ducks drifted on the water.
“Brilliant notion, Miss MacHugh, but His Grace refused to countenance it. These are his school chums, his cronies from the House of Lords or their sons and younger brothers. They’ve already started placing bets on the Dukeries Cup race, which event is the main reason the men were willing to come. Some guests will decamp early, when they’ve played too deeply or grown bored, but I must at least start with an even number of ladies and gentlemen on the roster I circulate before dinner.”
Such was friendship among the aristocracy that one could not ask for a favor?
“I hardly have suitable attire, Your Grace.” Ellen had the manners though, as well as the French, the literature, the pianoforte. Mama and Papa had had high hopes for her, despite the costs.
“I’ve inquired of my housekeeper, Mrs. Bolkers, who knows everybody in the Midlands. She claims you come from an old Derbyshire family, and your uncle is an earl,” the duchess replied. “I asked Hardcastle after breakfast this morning, and he left it up to you: If you’d like to be a guest at the house party, then he won’t object. Nobody saw you arrive last night because you came in so late, and my sons’ governess can easily handle one more little fellow.”
If Hardcastle had already capitulated, there went Ellen’s last, best defense against this folly.
“I should refuse you, Your Grace. Ellen MacHugh left Derbyshire under a cloud of gossip, and now she turns up five years later at your house party?”
Her Grace was not classically beautiful. Her hair was dark rather than fair, her features dramatic rather than pretty. She gazed out across the pond, just as the lead duck tipped down into the water, his tail pointing skyward. Several other ducks followed suit. The prospect was utterly undignified, but thus did ducks find sustenance.
“I’ll be the duchess who returns you to the place in society you should never have abandoned,” Her Grace said. “Don’t steal a fellow from any of the other young ladies, don’t be too witty, don’t drink too much, and if you can manage to plead a headache for half the waltzes, we’ll both get through this, Miss MacHugh. I will be ever in your debt, and you might even enjoy yourself.”
Oh, right. Moving in society—even rural society—had gone so well the last time Ellen had attempted it.
“Are you enjoying yourself, Your Grace?”
“Endlessly, Miss MacHugh. Was the gossip serious?”
“I was seen kissing a fellow I was not engaged to.” A lie, but such an old, necessary lie that it no longer felt like one.
“What a shameless wanton you are. I was seen kissing a duke I was not engaged to, and look what a miserable fate has befallen me. Let’s get you upstairs, then. I have enough clothes for eighteen women, though my gowns will at least need to be hemmed if they’re to fit you.”
The duchess rose, while across the garden Christopher had taken to watching the ducks.
“I must report my decision to Hardcastle,” Ellen said, “and gain his permission to entrust Christopher to your staff.”
“Stroll with him after luncheon then. No fewer than five young ladies were eyeing him at breakfast as if they’d love to end up accidentally napping in his bed. His Grace is in for a long two weeks, as am I.”
One of those young ladies would likely conclude the gathering as a prospective duchess.
“I’m in for a long two weeks as well, ma’am. A very long two weeks.”