My Own True Duchess
Book 5 in the True Gentlemen series
Jonathan Tresham, heir to the Duke of Quimbey, needs a discreet ally to help him choose a wife from among the army of young ladies eager to become his duchess. When proper widow Theodosia Haviland rescues him from a compromising situation, he knows he’s found an advisor he can trust. Theo’s first marriage taught her the folly of indulging in romantic notions, and she’s determined that Mr. Tresham’s intended be an ideal dynastic match for him, not some smitten ninnyhammer.
When Jonathan decides that Theo should be the only name on his list of possible duchesses, she protests, though she knows that Jonathan is kind and honorable despite his gruff exterior. Theo is guarding secrets, and a ducal heir is the last person she can marry, even if she does harbor an entirely inappropriate attraction to him.
Enjoy An Excerpt
“Anselm, why the hell didn’t you warn me?” Jonathan Tresham spoke quietly, lest his ire be detected over the string quartet in the minstrel’s gallery.
Anselm—as in the Duke of Anselm—lifted his glass of punch in discreet greeting to his duchess, who was wafting down the ballroom’s main staircase. Dancers swirled and glided between duke and duchess, as if all of polite society were honoring the late-arriving lady.
“Warn you of what, Tresham? You are whiling away an evening in the most genteel of surrounds in the very best company—my own.”
The duchess paused on the next-to-last step and flourished a lacy pink fan, which caused Anselm to set down his drink. This was the bow-and-curtsey opening to an intricate quadrille. Her Grace of Anselm would greet friends, kiss cheeks, and appear to wander about the vast game preserve where matchmakers stalked spouses for the unmarried and unwary.
Anselm would prowl in Her Grace’s wake, making debutantes nervous, acknowledging acquaintances, indulging some dowager’s need to hold forth about the weather. At the end of five minutes, Their Graces of Anselm would meet behind a potted palm, and Tresham’s sworn ally would become utterly useless.
“You failed to warn me,” Jonathan said, “that I’m a hunted man. Your duchess has probably been colluding with the coven at Almack’s, reading tea leaves and forecasting my doom.”
Anselm came as close to smiling as he ever did. “Your bachelorhood was doomed from the day you were born, Tresham. Ducal heirs marry as surely as mud puddles follow rain. An intelligent man would enjoy the benefits of such a fate, while you fume and pout.”
Pout? Pout? “You liken my plight to a mud puddle? Marriage has destroyed the once formidable citadel of your reason, Anselm. Go pant at your duchess’s heels like a good duke.”
Anselm was a dark brute, every bit as tall as Jonathan and some years older. At public school, Anselm had been the bigger boy who’d occasionally intervened when Jonathan had been tempted to cross the line separating schoolyard justice from gratuitous—and gratifying—violence.
The duke arranged the lace at his cuffs and fluffed his cravat. “Tresham, you ridicule what you do not comprehend, and your ignorance alone excuses me from calling you out. My duchess has promised me her supper waltz.”
Anselm bowed, eyes dancing, and prowled off to the land of unapologetic marital bliss.
For now. Sooner or later, that land would turn to a battleground or, worse, an expanse of boredom so endless and airless as to suffocate both reason and dignity.
On that gloomy thought, Jonathan sidled behind a gaggle of matrons watching the dancers and ducked into a servants’ passage. He knew the Earl of Bellefonte’s town house well enough to take cover when necessary, and with the supper break approaching, a respite from the ballroom was imperative.
His lordship had a decent library, and connected to that library was a lovely little study. Jonathan was halfway to safety when a footman with a tray of clean glasses winked at him as if a ducal heir lurking under the stairs was a common sight.
Jonathan emerged from the passage, looked both ways, then listened for approaching footfalls over the muted strains of Mozart. He looked both ways again and crossed the corridor to the library. A sense of guilty triumph filled him as he softly, softly closed the library door and surveyed a treasury of books and a crackling fire.
Half a dozen sconces sent shadows dancing across the cherub-bedecked clouds painted on the ceiling. The peace of the room settled over him, easing his temper, calming him physically. He could not ignore every invitation, but he could limit himself to accepting invitations from peers with quiet libraries, cozy studies, and deserted parlors.
He considered locking the door, but no. Any other bachelor seeking asylum would conclude the worst—a tryst in progress—which would start exactly the wrong sort of talk.
“How did Uncle endure all those years of being an unmarried duke?” Jonathan asked the angels dancing above him.
A head popped up from the sofa facing the hearth. “Mr. Tresham, I knew you’d come!” This exclamation came from a female, which Jonathan deduced despite the gloom by virtue of the mad profusion of ringlets, braids, and wildlife passing for the woman’s coiffure.
Or the girl’s. Jonathan would not have put her age above seventeen, while the ambition in her eyes was ancient.
“Excuse me, miss. I did not know the room was occupied. I’ll leave you to enjoy his lordship’s books.” He bowed when he wanted to bolt for the door, though showing any hint of panic would hand the blighted female her victory.
“The other girls told me I was daft,” the medusa said, advancing on Jonathan, “but I’ve paid attention. You take to the cardroom, pretend to smoke on the terrace, or find the library when the supper waltz comes around.”
She manacled her fingers around Jonathan’s arm. “I knew if I was patient, I could make this happen.”
No. No, no, a thousand times no. History would not repeat itself, and Jonathan would not become a victim of twisted propriety.
“You mistake the matter,” Jonathan said. “You mistake me, in fact. I don’t know you and I have not behaved inappropriately with you, but I will leave you ruined if you so much as intimate that—”
The violins had gone silent to a soft smattering of applause. Voices sounded out in the corridor.
“Kiss me!” the young lady said, puckering her lips like a mackerel. “You must kiss me this instant.”
Jonathan extricated himself from her grasp. “You are making a very great mistake.”
A door opened, and fury gripped Jonathan. He would not be dragged to the altar, would not be forced to wed a stranger, would not be forced to conceive children with her, even if the presuming little baggage turned out to be Wellington’s long-lost daughter.
“Mr. Tresham, has the supper waltz come around already?”
A brunette stood in the doorway to the study, a brandy glass in her hand. She looked to be about Jonathan’s age—approaching thirty—and she exuded a subtle, worldly amusement.
“Madam,” Jonathan said, bowing, though he’d never seen this woman before. “I was unavoidably detained by another lady’s mistaken ambitions. The young miss and I have not been introduced.”
The woman in the doorway took a sip of her drink. “Naughty, naughty, Dora Louise. Run along before I tell your mama what you’re about. She would disapprove of such a desperate scheme, and you would end up back in Dorset for at least the next two years.”
Dora Louise stamped her foot, making her ringlets writhe. “Mama would never chastise me for wedding a ducal heir! Nobody would!”
“I would,” Jonathan said. “You’d be miserable married to me, and no amount of consequence or jewels is worth being unhappy for the rest of your life. You’ve had a timely rescue, I assure you.”
As have I.
Dora Louise turned a quivering chin on him, and he had the damnedest, most abominable urge to pat her shoulder and pass her his handkerchief. Jonathan laid that absurd impulse at Lady Della Haddonfield’s feet.
“Dora Louise,” the lady with the brandy said, “you’d best not be missing when the introduction begins for the supper waltz. Be off with you. I understand your ambition, but Mr. Tresham is right. You deserve a spouse who finds you irresistible, not a fellow who objects to the whole undertaking.”
Dora’s gaze slewed from the lady to Jonathan, then she picked up her skirts and quit the library amid a righteous swish of embroidered hems.
“If that is not the definition of to flounce, I don’t know what is,” the woman said, leaving the doorway to pass Jonathan the brandy. “For your nerves, Mr. Tresham.” She’d dropped the air of sophisticated amusement and become a disgruntled governess.
“My thanks,” he replied, “for your intervention and for the medicinal brandy. Jonathan Tresham, at your service.”
She inspected him, her gaze traveling from his dancing slippers, up his legs, then taking in his evening coat, pausing at his cravat—a simple mathematical anchored with a small gold and sapphire stickpin. Her expression said she was critical of whatever she saw, rather than pleased or impressed.
“Did you mean what you said, sir?”
What had he said? “Might we repair somewhere less likely to attract the notice of an aspiring duchess?”
The woman returned to the study. She moved like a governess as well. No mincing or swishing, but rather, an economical stride intended to cover ground. She was attired fashionably in deep blue velvet rather than virginal white, and her dark hair was done up in a smooth twist. A single strand of pearls wound about her chignon, and that simple adornment held Jonathan’s attention more effectively than all of Dora Louise’s curls and nightingales put together.
Jonathan joined his rescuer in the smaller room and closed the door behind them. The study had its own entrance to a corridor, though few guests would know how to locate the side passage.
“You have closeted yourself alone with a female of marriageable age,” the lady said. “Should I be insulted or flattered?”
In other words, was Jonathan immune to her charms or interested in them? “Neither. I accord you the good faith I’d attribute to any generous Samaritan. Would you like to finish your brandy?” He passed her the glass and poured a fresh portion for himself.
“It’s too good to waste,” the lady said. “I am Mrs. Theodosia Haviland.”
The brandy was an appropriate tonic for the aftershocks of alarm running through Jonathan. He could even now be at the center of a domestic drama involving a weeping Dora Louise and her indignant papa, with Lord Bellefonte and his countess in the role of judge and jury.
“May I have a seat?” Jonathan asked as the quartet launched into a lively introduction.
“Of course.” Mrs. Haviland took the chair behind Bellefonte’s desk, which left Jonathan a wing chair near the fire.
“Are you often accosted by ambitious debutantes?” she asked.
“Dora Louise is the boldest of the lot thus far, but the Season is only half over. I’ve been kissed twice without my consent, my dance partners are prone to tripping straight into my manly embrace, and any number of fathers have approached me, singing the praises of their ‘little fillies,’ as if Tatts were having a mare’s auction on Tuesday next. I’m told the ladies grow even more determined as the end of the Season approaches.”
Why hadn’t he seen this coming? Why hadn’t he prepared himself to be the quarry in a hunt where the hounds wore muslin and the hunt staff stood smiling on the edge of the dance floor?
A soft tap sounded on the door to the corridor, and Jonathan nearly spilled his brandy. Rescued from one ambush only to be laid low by another?
“Mrs. Haviland,” he said, “I hope you haven’t presumed upon the trust—”
The look she sent him was complicated—humorous, disgusted, incredulous, and, most of all, exasperated. Jonathan fell silent.
She went to the door and opened it only wide enough to accept a tray. “Others must dodge unwanted attentions too, Mr. Tresham. Care to join me?”
Jonathan was hungry. He was tired. He was irritable, which was not only a function of fatigue and lack of sustenance, but also his general nature since returning to England. By day, his schedule was littered with business meetings, by night he dodged medusas and matchmakers.
“I’m sorry for my earlier comment,” he said. “My trust in the fairer sex lately has been tarnished by unfortunate experience.”
“Eat,” Mrs. Haviland replied, resuming her seat. “Life isn’t half so daunting when we’re rested and well fed.”
Who was she? Jonathan’s commercial endeavors had kept him mostly away from England for the past ten years, as had a hearty disgust for so-called polite society. Lady Della had instructed him on the list of Diamonds of the First Dew, or whatever the term was, and other men’s wives were absolutely incapable of capturing Jonathan’s intimate interest for any reason.
He was at a loss with Mrs. Haviland. “Have we been introduced?”
She speared a bite of peach. “No, we have not. I’m the lady who makes up the numbers or chaperones the daughters of friends when the friend has more interesting things to do. I’m not of your ilk.”
“I beg to differ,” Jonathan said, helping himself to a cheese-laden pastry. “You don’t put on airs, you don’t hold with coerced marriages, and you know how to procure good food and privacy when a man’s much in need of same. Mr. Haviland is a very lucky fellow.”
“Mr. Haviland was a lucky fellow, from some perspectives,” she replied, passing Jonathan the next forkful of peach. “His luck ran out five years ago, when he ignored a lung fever despite all warnings to the contrary. Try that fruit. It’s exquisite. I don’t even know what it is.”
The gesture was friendly—take a bite of this, why don’t you?—but nobody wore gloves to eat, and thus a brush of hands was involved. The brush of hands should have been awkward, as the entire exchange should have been awkward.
Though it wasn’t.
“This is a peach,” Jonathan said. “The Americans have taken to them, because the southern climes are suited to their cultivation. Peaches come from the Orient, and Bellefonte’s older brother has found that they do well in walled gardens and sheltered arbors even here in England.”
Not only were peaches generally good fruit, this peach in particular was luscious. Sweet, subtly spicy, juicy without being messy.
Jonathan passed the fork back empty. “Tell me about Dora Louise.”
“Don’t judge her,” Mrs. Haviland said. “She’s been raised to believe that she has no consequence, no value at all, beyond the status of the husband she can attach. These young women are fighting for their lives, Mr. Tresham. You spoke to her of happiness, but happiness is a luxury she cannot afford.”
Mrs. Haviland tore one of the cheese pastries in half, letting the steam rise before she took a nibble.
“You speak from experience,” Jonathan said. “You were Dora Louise once upon a time.” She wasn’t Dora Louise now. Now she was a woman of supreme self-possession, but then, she was a widow. The only female in all of English Society who lived with a modicum of independence was the financially secure widow.
“They are all Dora Louise,” Mrs. Haviland said, glowering at her pastry. “They are taught that they are lucky—lucky—to be relegated to the status of brood mares and ornaments. A milk maid has a skill, a trade, however humble, and she need not be pretty or risk having anybody’s babies to be compensated for her trade. Let her marry, though, and her wages belong to her spouse, even if he beats her, drinks himself into a stupor, gambles, and otherwise disgraces—”
She set down the uneaten portion of her pastry. “I apologize. The Season takes a toll on us all.”
Jonathan offered her the last of the peach. “I trust people whose anger is in plain view, Mrs. Haviland, and I removed myself from English society precisely because the hypocrisy of the peerage was beyond my tolerance. I gather Mr. Haviland was irresponsible with your settlements.”
She accepted the slice of peach and bit off one corner. “Nobody is supposed to gather that. I work very, very hard to maintain the appearance of a widow of comfortable means. What you and I do not eat, for example, will come home with me.”
The simple elegance of her dress and the single strand of pearls were apparently poverty disguised as good taste. How many other widows, matrons, and dowagers were engaged in the same fiction, and when would the reasons to detest polite society stop piling up?
Jonathan set down the last of the pastries without taking a bite. “You socialize to augment your larders?” A clever plan, if desperate.
“I socialize to keep my hand in. A widow who is perceived to have fallen upon hard times soon finds herself besieged with offers, many of which are dishonorable. I live a precarious life, Mr. Tresham, and the Countess of Bellefonte sets out a wonderful supper.”
She finished the peach, nibble by bite, and set down the silver fork.
“You could charge me for your silence regarding Dora Louise,” Jonathan said.
Mrs. Haviland’s hand paused mid-reach for her brandy. “Blackmail is a crime.”
Which apparently decided the matter for her. Alas, not so with the Parisian authorities.
“Letting girls fresh from the schoolroom have at bachelors such as myself should be a crime. Dora Louise is taking risks she can’t fathom.”
A shadow passed across Mrs. Haviland’s eyes. She was blue-eyed and had doubtless chosen the color of her dress to emphasize that feature. More than the color, Jonathan noticed the intelligence of her gaze and a banked longing. She was eyeing the sweets on the plate, though cheese, ham, and spiced pears had yet to be consumed.
“I don’t fancy chocolates,” Jonathan said. “The French are wild for them, but I’ve never acquired the taste.” Two small chocolates sat on the tray, satiny brown in the candlelight. “I’ll leave you to finish this meal in private. I’m off to find Dora Louise.”
Mrs. Haviland held one of the chocolates beneath her nose. “Why?”
“Because if I show her some favor, then the other fellows will take notice of her, and her desperation might drop from view long enough for some dashing swain to turn her head.”
“A sound strategy.” Mrs. Haviland set down the chocolate. “A pleasure meeting you, Mr. Tresham. Best of luck with the rest of the Season.”
She offered him a smile, not a governess-smile or a widow-smile, but a friendly smile that suggested that a timely rescue could be viewed as a lark rather than a brush with disaster.
Jonathan’s thespian skills weren’t equal to perpetuating such a miscarriage of truth. Dora Louise would have made him a terrible duchess, and he’d have made her a terrible husband.
He’d promised his uncle he’d find a wife this Season, though, so he bowed to Mrs. Haviland, listened for footsteps in the corridor, and withdrew.
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End of Excerpt
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June 19, 2018
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