Duchesses in Disguise
Part of the Hidden Pleasures series
The Love of His Life by Susanna Ives
Widowed at a young age, Mary Alice, Duchess of Pymworth, devotes her life to her children, friends, and numerous charities. When she was a freckled, chubby, scared debutante, Nathaniel Stratton, London’s premiere rake, turned her first season into a nightmare. Years later, Nathaniel rescues the injured duchess from a carriage wreck. He hopes as he tends her wounds and tries to lift her spirits that she will see he’s a changed man, capable of kindness and caring, and even of falling in love…
How to Ruin a Rogue by Emily Greenwood (working title)
When fate strands sensible Lady Olivia Swift in the company of the most reprehensible rogue in the ton, Kit Stirling, she’s mostly exasperated by the dark charms that have ensnared so many other women. Kit has spent years cultivating a reputation for wickedness, and he’s sure that Lady Olivia is that most boring of women: a prude. But close quarters have a way of tampering with certainties, and soon Lady Olivia becomes a bewitching puzzle to him – one that only love can solve.
Duchess in the Wild by Grace Burrowes (working title)
Sir Greyville Trent accepts a friend’s offer of a quiet respite in the country where Grey can prepare years’ worth of scientific notes for publication. The task goes poorly until Francesca Pomponio and her two friends join the household while they await repairs to their carriage. Francesca doesn’t care much for jungles, but she’s willing to help Grey get his notes organized. Collaboration turns to fascination, and the focus of the investigation from Amazonian flora and fauna to true love.
Enjoy An Excerpt
“Avoid the London Season, you said. Enjoy the peace and quiet of the beautiful dales.” Sir Greyville Trenton fell silent as his gelding slipped then righted itself—again.
“The dales are beautiful,” Colonel Nathanial Stratton replied over the huffing of the horses and slip-slop of hooves on the wet road.
“If you like varying degrees of wet as far as the eye can see,” Kit Stirling added. “Or if you’ve a penchant for cold. I haven’t felt my toes since the first mile out of Lesser Puddlebury.”
Grey brought Zeus to a halt as they crested yet another rise and were smacked in the face with yet another wet, frigid breeze. Early spring in Yorkshire left much to be desired.
“What the devil is that?”
“It’s a coach wheel,” Stratton said, extracting a flask from the folds of his greatcoat.
Twenty yards ahead, the wheel protruded above the grassy swale at the side of the road like a dark flag of surrender. The ruts gouged in the roadway indicated a recent accident.
“Save your brandy, Nathaniel,” Stirling suggested. “The survivors might need it.”
The coach lay on its side, an enormous traveling vehicle that had apparently taken a curve too hastily. The mud-spattered horses were held by a young groom at the head of the leaders. The lad was soaked to the skin, and looked as if the next gust of wind might blow him down the lane.
The door popped open, and a head swathed in a scarf emerged.
“Halloo!” Stratton called. “Have you need of assistance?”
“Ever the gallant soldier,” Grey muttered. “At least we’ll die of exposure in company.”
“Your sunny nature will prevent that tragedy,” Stirling replied.
A long-barreled horse pistol appeared in the hand of the person trapped in the coach. “Stay back.”
“Women,” Grey said. “Worse, we’ve found a damsel in distress—an armed damsel.” The lady had a slight accent, something Continental.
“My favorite kind,” Stirling replied, riding forward. “Madam!” he called. “If you’re in difficulties, we’d like to render aid.”
The lady’s head disappeared like a hedgehog popping down into its burrow. She emerged a moment later, still brandishing her pistol.
“Come no closer.”
“Female logic at its finest,” Grey said. “We’re to render gentlemanly aid by freezing our arses off at gunpoint. This damsel has no notion how to be properly in distress.”
“Who are they?” the lady asked, wiggling her pistol in the direction of Grey and Stirling.
“Those good fellows are my guests at Rose Heath manor, my home.”
“Perhaps the introductions might wait,” Stirling suggested. “We’re two miles from safety, the rain shows no signs of letting up, and it’s getting colder by the moment.”
The lady once again dodged down into her coach-burrow, then emerged sans pistol, a second scarved head beside her.
“Our coachman should return at any moment,” the second lady said. She spoke with great—utterly irrational—certainty regarding the prodigal coachman’s impending arrival.
“That is at least a baroness,” Grey observed. “A woman who expects a man in service to defy the very gods of weather when her comfort is at issue was to the manor born.”
“Then let’s get her and her friend to the manor posthaste,” Stirling said, “before we all freeze for want of somebody to make proper introductions.”
I miss the jungle, where welcome was either an honest threat of death or immediate and genuine hospitality.
The thought went wafting away on a sideways gust of rain. Or possibly sleet.
Stratton rode forth and touched a gloved finger to his hat brim. “Ladies, pleased to meet you. We three gentlemen are at your service. Your good coachman might well return, but that he’d leave you here while a storm howls down from Scotland, does not speak well for his judgment. We offer you a cozy hearth not two miles away and assurances of our gentlemanly conduct.”
Exactly what a trio of highwaymen would say. Grey joined his friends at the lip of the ditch. “Ladies, we’ll all soon succumb to the elements, making your understandable caution an exercise in futility. Take your chances in the ditch or with us. In the ditch you will drown. With us, you will merely endure bad company, but do so in the midst of adequate creature comforts.”
“He makes sense,” said a third woman.
Good God, how many of them were in there?
Grey nodded. “Thank you for that observation.” He wasn’t about to take off his hat in this weather. “Perhaps you’d allow us to make haste as well as sense?”
Some sort of silent conference ensued, with the ladies exchanging glances among themselves. The first one, the pistol-wielding woman, hoisted herself from the vehicle with a nimbleness that surprised, given her voluminous cloak and skirts.
“You,” she said, gesturing at Grey. “I’ll ride with you.”
“If you can contain your enthusiasm for my company,” Grey said, riding as close to the coach as he could, “I shall endeavor to do likewise regarding your own. Sir Greyville Trenton, at your service.”
She was a young woman, and yet, her posture as she stood on her upturned coach was regal, despite the dirty weather pouring down around her. Grey waited—patience was another of his few gifts—until he realized the lady was trying not to smile.
“Madam, you are welcome to enjoy the invigorating weather at your leisure once my horse is safely ensconced in his stall. That objective remains two miles distant, so I must ask you, for the sake of all concerned, to consider getting into this saddle with all due haste.”
She put a hand on his shoulder, adopted an approximate side-saddle perch before him, and tucked her skirts about her.
“You may proceed, sir, and please inform this good beast that one ditch per day is my limit.”
That was an Italian accent. An imperious Italian accent, something of an oxymoron in Grey’s experience.
“Of course, madam. Zeus, take heed.”
Grey’s mount shuffled back onto the muddy road, while Grey—for the first time since returning to England—also tried not to smile.
Francesca Maria Lucia Theresa Amadora Heppledorn Pomponio Pergolesi, dowager Duchess of San Mercato, sat as properly as she could, given that she was in the wrong kind of saddle, on the wrong sort of horse, in the wrong country, in the wrong season.
Also with the wrong man, but the concept of a right man defied definition in any of the languages with which she was familiar.
Her English was in good repair, but she’d forgotten so much about the land of her parents’ birth. The cold, of course, but also how bleak the light was, what little light England had in early spring. How relentless the wind, how cheerless the landscape.
She missed Italy, where being a widow of rank was a fine status; where sunlight, hearty food, excellent wine, and warmth had been hers in abundance.
“Madam will please remain awake,” the gentleman sharing the saddle said. “If you fall asleep, the cold can steal over you and create injuries you’ll never recall receiving. The ensuing infections can end your life.”
His voice would give her a permanent chill before the elements did. “I’m not likely to fall asleep in such charming company, Sir Greyville.”
“I beg your pardon?”
He was a big man, and he moved with his horse easily. When Francesca had spoken, he’d tipped his head down to put his ear nearer her mouth. The fool hadn’t even a scarf to protect those ears.
“I’m awake,” she said more loudly. If nothing else, proximity to Sir Greyville would ensure she remained conscious. With a hand on each rein, he was all but embracing her, and because of the motion of the horse’s walk, she was hard put not to bump against him.
“You will have a more secure seat if you permit yourself to lean against me, and you’ll make Zeus’s job easier as well.”
“You’re very solicitous of your—”
The dratted animal chose that moment to put a foot wrong and slip in the mud. The jostling tossed Francesca against Sir Greyville, who remained relaxed, steady, and calm behind her.
The horse plodded on, and Francesca gave up the battle for dignity in favor of greater safety.
“Take my scarf,” she said. “If I turn up my collar, I’ll stay warm enough.”
“Take the reins.”
Very odd, to converse with a man in imperatives, but for the present situation, expedient. Sir Greyville soon had her scarf wrapped about his neck and ears, while Francesca bundled into his chest and missed Italy.
“What brings three women out to the dales at this time of year?” Sir Greyville asked.
Well, perdition. Englishmen ruled the world—the parts they wanted to plunder—and thus the world was supposed to answer to them.
“A coach, Sir Greyville. A coach brought us out to the dales.”
“If we’re both to impose on Colonel Stratton’s hospitality for the foreseeable future, I had best warn you now. I am a scientist, madam. I study flora and fauna in exotic locations when funds permit. My mind is prone to questioning, to assembling cause and effect from observed data, the way some men must wager or ride to hounds.”
He used the word scientist as if it were a lofty title—cherubim, seraphim, archduke, scientist. Francesca had agreed with Olivia and Mary Alice that none of the ladies should disclose her true identity for the duration of this holiday—the roads were doubly unsafe for women of wealth—and yet, she had the sense Sir Greyville wouldn’t care that he rode with a duchess.
He wasn’t a fortune hunter then. Thank God for small mercies.
“I see neither flora nor fauna to speak of,” Francesca replied. She saw green and wet, wet and green, with a topping of slate-gray clouds. Perhaps the epithet Merry Olde England was intended to be ironic.
“In this environment, my objective is to organize and edit the notes gathered from more than three years’ investigation into the Amazonian jungles. A lack of biological distractions serves that goal. You have yet to explain what brings you to this corner of Yorkshire.”
Weariness brought her here, along with despair, boredom, and—Pietro would laugh heartily at the notion—even some lingering grief, five years after losing her husband.
“Like you, I seek peace and quiet. London at this time of year becomes crowded and pestilentially social.”
Widowhood had allowed Francesca to retreat from the worst of the entertainments for a few years, but she was in England now, where the London Season was an orgy of matchmaking in the guise of a social whirl. Execrable English cuisine didn’t help one bit, and the chilly reserve of the typical Englishman tempted a sane woman to leave the realm. The impecunious English bachelor, by contrast, was the social equivalent of a barnacle.
The horse started up another incline, leaning into the wind, and the weariness that Sir Greyville had warned Francesca of threatened to overtake her. This was her life now, varying degrees of uphill, bad footing, and bleak terrain.
How had this happened? How had a lively, good-humored, young girl, appreciative of all the privileges of her station, become a creature to whom a muddy ditch did not look nearly as perilous as it should?
“That’s our destination,” Sir Greyville said as they topped the rise some moments later. “We’ll be at the gates within a mile, and the going will be easier after that.”
Across the dreary landscape, nestled at the foot of a great hill, sat a manor house. From this distance, details were obscured by rain and mist. Lamps lit on the front terrace and along the drive gave the edifice a fairy-tale quality in the afternoon’s deepening gloom.
“I have it on the best authority that we admire the view at the risk of imperiling your dear horse,” she said. “Onward, Sir Greyville.”
He sent the horse forward without comment. Perhaps Sir Greyville was the kind of man who made a mistress of his work. The Italians understood passion, whether aimed at a vocation, a pastime, or another person. No cold reserve for them.
Sometimes not much sense either, though.
Francesca had plenty of sense, which was why, purely for the sake of conserving warmth, she tucked nearer to Sir Greyville and closed her eyes.
What sort of woman brought the scent of jasmine with her even in the midst of a pounding deluge?
The lady’s hair tickled Grey’s chin, the same way her scent tickled his awareness. Pleasing, soothing, enticing—jasmine had a mischief all its own when a man had lived in the tropics for years at a time.
The lady nestled closer, and purely to secure her more safely in the saddle, Grey switched his reins to one hand and wrapped an arm about her middle.
Somewhere in the jungles, he’d been freed of the bothersome longing for female company. Other biologists on the expedition had taken pleasure with the local women, but how was a fellow to explain that the relationship was one of mutual convenience rather than something more permanent when that fellow spoke very little of the lady’s language?
And then there was the matter of children. A man who’d leave his own progeny behind was no sort of gentleman, in Grey’s opinion, and thus he’d earned all manner of nicknames.
Deprivation had come to his rescue just as the taunts, in combination with the heat, bugs, poisonous plants, jungle predators, and bickering biologists, had plucked his last nerve. Somebody had made off with all of the expedition’s rations and two of their boats. The simple challenge of preserving his life had taken precedence over the urge to procreate, an observation Grey would document for the greater scientific community, just as soon as he could deposit—
Who the devil was this woman, anyhow?
“I don’t know your name, madam.”
“Francesca… Heppledorn… Pomponio.”
She spoke as if selecting names from a list, and it occurred to Grey he might have a courtesan in his arms, or a thief, or one of those Italian wives given to poisoning inconvenient husbands.
He took another surreptitious whiff of jasmine before launching his investigation. “My guess is Amalfi Coast, or thereabouts, but you’re either not native to Italy, or you were educated at a very young age by people not native to Italy.”
She lifted her head from his shoulder. “You can tell that simply by listening to me?”
“I am a scientist, and well-traveled, and have met many of your countrymen in pursuit of my investigations.” Intrepid lot, the Italians, if prone to contention.
“My father was an English diplomat in an Italian court. I was born and raised in Italy, and Papa thought it prudent to educate me in keeping with the local culture. My mother demanded that I have some exposure to England, so I was sent here occasionally for summers with my grandparents and for a year of finishing school where I met the other ladies in our party. What’s your excuse?”
Her story was plausible. Italy was a collection of courts, states, duchies, and shifting alliances—enough to provide employment for an army of Englishmen who preferred good wine and ample sunshine with their diplomatic intrigue and exotic mistresses.
“For abandoning the shores of Merry Olde England? You are not a Captain Sir Greyville, or a Colonel Sir Greyville, so you chose to turn your back on your homeland and go larking about in the tropics.”
“I wanted to explore the world beyond Kent and Mayfair, of which there is more than most English boys can dream.”
Not the whole truth—he’d wanted to get free of his father’s expectations and get on with the thankless business of being an earl’s spare.
“You don’t think English girls dream, Sir Greyville?”
Contentious, indeed, though she wasn’t strictly Italian. “It’s adequately documented that female children of many nationalities dream, but in the normal course, one expects they dream of a home of their own, some babies, a good tisane for a megrim, or a safe lying in. I haven’t gathered data on the subject of an English girl’s dreams, so I ought not to speculate.”
“Perhaps you have noted in your vast observations that the normal course is typically the course that benefits men.”
“Benefits men? If it does, that’s because to the male falls the duty of providing and protecting,” Grey countered. “Without his good efforts, which society justifiably supports, the female, given her weaker physical attributes and burdened by the duty to produce young, would soon find herself at the mercy of predators and unkind elements.”
Let her argue with that from the comfort of his saddle.
“If the blighted male could keep his breeches buttoned, the burden of producing young would not become one of the most regular threats to the lady’s life. Moreover, the reckless incompetence of a male coachman must be considered when assigning responsibility for my current predicament. Then too, I have yet to see women take up arms for twenty years and leave a continent in ruins.”
Her arguments were not without a scintilla of logic, but that was the trouble with amateurs playing at science. They could concoct fancies from anecdotes, casual reasoning, and passionate convictions that bore only a passing relation to logical discourse.
The gates of Rose Heath manor house came into view, and because Stratton ran a proper establishment, the gatehouse was occupied, and a welcome light shone from its windows. As the horses descended the final declivity, a signal light also appeared on the roof of the gatehouse.
“Well?” the lady demanded. “Do you admit that ordering the universe to suit the whims of men rests not on a scientific foundation but a selfish one?”
“Mrs. Pomponio, a gentleman does not argue with a lady.”
“He who refuses to fight cannot lose the battle, though he can lose the war.” In perfect Latin. “Who said that?”
“I did, and I can say it in six other languages.”
She had Grey by two languages, and that included the native dialect he’d picked up in the jungle.
He would not ask her how many of her instructors had been men. “The manor house has been alerted to our arrival. You’ll have a hot bath, sustenance, and a warm bed within the hour.”
The household would not know to heat enough water for six baths, so the gentlemen—coach-wrecking, rutting, war-mongering incompetents though they might be—would have to wait for their comforts until the ladies had been accommodated.
“I am not normally so combative,” Mrs. Pomponio said. “I apologize for my lack of graciousness. You are being most gallant.”
“Gallant? That’s doing it a bit brown, don’t you think? It wasn’t my decision to rescue you, but rather our mutual host’s, and we haven’t gone so much as ten yards out of our way to bring you to safety.”
Though Stratton and his lady had turned off at some point. Stirling was bringing up the rear with his sodden damsel, who looked none too pleased to be in the company of a notorious London rakehell.
Mrs. Pomponio shifted, tucking her scarf more securely about Grey’s neck. This inflicted another whiff of jasmine on him, as well as the novel experience of being fussed.
“I would rather you were full of manly drivel and flirtation, Sir Greyville. If you continue being so blunt and honest, I might begin to like you.”
“Can’t have that, can we?” For then Grey might find himself liking her, with her odd notions, lively mind, imperious speech, and sweet scents.
“I am a Continental widow of comfortable means, Sir Greyville. For the most part, I can have whoever and whatever I please. Consider yourself warned.” Mrs. Pomponio settled into his arms and closed her eyes, as if napping the last few hundred yards was what she pleased at that moment, and bedamned to sleet, logic, cold, and Grey himself.
Grey let her have the last word, despite all temptation to the contrary.
He hadn’t held a woman in years, and her last assertion—that a Continental widow of means was free to dally at will—was true enough, provided the parties were discreet. Fortunately, his own inclination to dally—his potential, possible, hypothetical inclination to dally after three endless years of abstinence—would be entirely subsumed by the burning need to get his notes into publishable form.
Thank the everlasting powers for science, yet again.