ebook

The Duchess of Love

Sally MacKenzie

ISBN 9781420123203
Publish Date 4/24/2012
Format ePub
Categories E-only, Romance Historical, E-Shortz

A Duke In Disguise…

The day was as hot as the pond was inviting. It’s not as if anyone in Little Huffington was going to happen upon a secluded vale on the Duke of Greycliffe’s lands. And Venus Collingswood didn’t want to get her shift all wet. It was the perfect setting in which to plan her lovely bookworm of a sister’s betrothal to the mysterious new duke arriving seven days hence. If only she had a suitable accomplice…

Andrew Valentine, Duke of Greycliffe, never thought arriving at his own household a week early would cause so much trouble. The housekeeper thinks he’s his own cousin. Actually, the chance to not be the duke for a while is a pleasant opportunity indeed. It might even help him interrogate the delectable little nymph he’s discovered swimming in his pond—if he can manage to get a word in edgewise…

Praise for the Novels of Sally MacKenzie

“Naked, noble and irresistible!” —Eloisa James

“The romance equivalent of chocolate cake...every page is an irresistible delight!” —Lisa Kleypas

“A perfect night’s read.”—Romantic Times

“Great fun.” —Publishers Weekly

Chapter One

A man’s pride needs careful handling. —Venus’s Love Notes

Miss Eleanor Bowman stood in the Duchess of Love’s pink guest bedroom and stared at the scrap of red silk spilling out of her valise, her heart stuttering in horror. That wasn’t—

Her brows snapped down. Of course it wasn’t. She was letting her imagination run away with her. The red fabric was merely her Norwich shawl. She distinctly remembered packing it, as she did every year. It was far too fine to wear to darn socks or mind her sisters’ children, but it was just the thing for the duchess’s annual Valentine party. It was her one nod to fashion, the small bit of elegance she still allowed herself.

She snatched the red silk up again, shook it out—and dropped it as if it were a poisonous snake.

Damn it, it wasn’t her shawl. It was those cursed red drawers.

She closed her eyes as the familiar wave of self-loathing crashed over her. She’d made these and a matching red dress to wear to Lord Edward’s betrothal ball five years ago, desperately hoping Ned would see her—really see her— and realize it was she he wanted to marry, not her best friend, Cicely Headley. But Mama had seen her first, when she’d come downstairs to get into the carriage, and had sent her straight back to her room.

She glared down at the red cloth. Thank God Mama had stopped her. If she’d gone to the ball in that dreadful dress, everyone would know she wasn’t any better than a Jezebel.

It was no surprise Ned had chosen Cicely. She’d been everything Ellie wasn’t: small, blonde, blue-eyed— beautiful—with a gentle disposition. And then when Cicely and the baby had died in childbirth . . .

Ellie squeezed her eyes shut again, the mingle-mangle of shame and yearning twisting her gut. She’d mourned with everyone else—sincerely mourned—but she’d also hoped that Ned would turn to her and their friendship would grow into something more.

It hadn’t.

She snapped her eyes open. Poor Cicely had died four years ago; if Ned were ever going to propose he would have done so by now. She’d faced that fact squarely when she’d turned twenty-six last month. It was time to move on. She wanted babies, and dreams of Ned wouldn’t give her those.

She picked up the drawers. She’d dispose of this ridiculous reminder of—

“Ah, here you are, Ellie.”

“Ack!” She jumped and spun around. Ned’s mother, the Duchess of Love—or, more properly, the Duchess of Greycliffe—stood in the doorway, looking at her with warm brown eyes so like Ned’s.

“Oh, dear, I’m sorry.” Her grace’s smile collapsed into a frown. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Ellie took a deep breath and hoped the duchess couldn’t see her heart banging around in her chest. “You didn’t s-startle me.” If she looked calm, she’d be calm. She’d been practicing that trick ever since her red silk disgrace.

And what was there to be anxious about after all? The duchess’s house parties were always pleasant.

Ha! They were torture.

“I was going to look for you later.” Ellie tried to smile.

“Then I’ve saved you the trouble.” The duchess had an impish gleam in her eye. “I thought we might have a comfortable coze before everyone else arrives.”

Ellie’s stomach clenched, and all her carefully cultivated calm evaporated. There was no such thing as a “comfortable coze” with the Duchess of Love. “That would be, ah”—deep breath—“lovely.”

“Splendid! Come have a seat and I’ll ring for tea.” Her grace grasped the tasseled bell-pull and paused, her gaze dropping to Ellie’s hands. “But what have you there?”

“W-what?” Ellie glanced down. Oh, blast. “Nothing.” She dropped the embarrassing silk undergarment on the night table; it promptly slithered to the floor. Good, it would be less noticeable there. “I was unpacking when you came in.”

The duchess frowned again. “Should I come back later then?”

“No, of course not.” There was no point in putting this interview off. The sooner she knew the woman’s plans, the sooner she could plan evasive—

She clenched her teeth. No, not this year.

“You’re certain?”

“Yes.” Ellie moved away from the incriminating red fabric.

“Excellent.” Her grace tugged on the bell-pull and sat in the pink upholstered chair, her back to the puddle of silk. “I told Mrs. Dalton to have Cook send up some of her special macaroons. It will be a while until dinner, and we need to keep up our strength, don’t we?”

“I’m afraid I’m not hungry.” Ellie would almost rather dance on the castle’s parapets naked—or wearing only those damn red drawers—than put anything in her mouth at the moment. She perched on a chair across from Ned’s mother.

“Oh.” The duchess’s face fell.

“But, please, don’t let me keep you from having something.” It was a wonder the woman stayed so slim; she had a prodigious sweet tooth.

Her grace smiled hopefully. “Perhaps you’ll feel hungrier when you see Cook’s macaroons.”

“Perhaps.” And perhaps pigs would fly. Ellie cleared her throat. “You had something of a particular nature you wished to discuss, your grace?”

“Yes.”

Damn.

No, good. Very good. Excellent.

The ton hadn’t christened Ned’s mother the Duchess of Love for nothing; she’d been matchmaking for as long as Ellie could remember, usually with great success. Ellie was one of her few failures, but this year would be different. This year Ellie was determined to cooperate.

“I was chatting with your mama the other day,” the duchess was saying, her eyes rather too direct. “She’s quite concerned about your future, you know.”

Ellie shifted on her chair. Of course she knew—Mama never missed an opportunity to remind her that her future looked very bleak indeed. She’d been going on and on about it while Ellie packed, telling her how, if she allowed herself to dwindle into an old maid, she’d be forced to rely on the charity of her younger sisters, forever shuttled between their homes, always an aunt, never a mother.

Perhaps that’s why she’d brought those damn drawers instead of her shawl; she’d been so distracted, she could probably have packed the chamber pot and not noticed. “I believe Mama likes to worry.”

The duchess laughed. “Well, that’s what mothers do— worry—as I’m sure you’ll learn yourself someday.”

“Ah.” Ellie swallowed.

Her grace leaned forward to touch her knee. “You do want to be a mother, don’t you?”

Ellie swallowed again. “Y-yes.” She wanted children so badly she was giving up her dream of Ned—her ridiculous, pointless, foolish dream. “Of course. Eventually.”

The duchess gave her a pointed look. “My dear, you are twenty-six years old. Eventually is now.”

Ellie pressed her lips together. Very true. Hadn’t she just reached the same conclusion?

“And to be a mother, you must first be a wife.” Her grace sat back. “To be a wife, you need to attach some gentleman’s—some eligible gentleman’s—regard. I believe you spent a little too much time with Ash last year. That will never do.”

“I like Ash.” The Marquis of Ashton, the duchess’s oldest son, was intelligent and witty . . . and safe.

“Of course you like Ash, dear, but I must tell you more than one person remarked to me how often you were in his company.”

Ellie narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Only that you appeared to be ignoring all the other gentlemen.”

She’d been trying so hard to ignore Ned—to hide how much she longed for him—that she hadn’t noticed the other gentlemen. “Certainly you aren’t insinuating . . . no one thought . . .” She shook her head. “Ash is married.”

The duchess sighed. “Yes, he is, at least according to church and state.”

“And according to his heart.” Ellie met the duchess’s gaze directly. “You mustn’t think he encouraged any kind of impropriety. He still loves Jess; I’m sure they’ll reconcile.”

The duchess grunted. “I hope I live to see it. But in any event, I don’t believe anyone truly thought there was something of a romantic nature between you—”

“I should hope not!”

“However people are so small-minded, you know, and they love to gossip, especially about Ash’s awkward situation.”

“I know.” Ellie hated how the marriageable girls and their mamas clearly hoped Jess would magically vanish and thus cease to be an impediment to Ash’s remarriage. Some had actually said they doubted Jess existed. “It makes me so angry.”

Her grace waved Ellie’s anger away. “Yes, well, Ash can take care of himself. What really matters is the fact you were ignoring the other gentlemen, Ellie. It quite discourages the poor dears.”

Ellie snorted.

Her grace gave her a speaking look. “I assure you most men . . . well, I wouldn’t call them timid, precisely, but they hate to be rejected. If you wish a gentleman to court you, you must give him some encouragement—a smile, a look, something to let him know you would welcome his attentions. You cannot be forever scowling and dodging.”

“I don’t scowl or dodge.”

The duchess’s brows rose. “No? What about Mr. Bridgeton last year? I was certain you two would be extremely compatible and made every effort to throw you together, but whenever I looked to see how things were progressing, you were chatting with Ash, and Mr. Bridgeton was crying on Miss Albert’s shoulder.”

Which one had been Mr. Bridgeton? The sandy-haired man with the receding chin or the tall, thin fellow with the enormous Adam’s apple? “There was no one crying on anyone’s shoulder.”

“Figuratively speaking, of course.” The duchess shrugged. “I confess Miss Albert was my other choice for him. I do usually have more than one match up my sleeve, you know, since I’ve found young people can be somewhat unpredictable.” She smiled rather blandly. “They married last summer, by the by, and are expecting an interesting event this spring.”

Ellie felt a momentary twinge of envy. Mr. Bridgeton— she was almost certain he was the sandy-haired one—had been pleasant. His only fault was he hadn’t been Ned.

Well, whomever she ultimately married wouldn’t be Ned, either. “Whom have you invited . . . I mean, have you invited any gentlemen that I might . . . er, men who might . . .” Oh, blast, her face felt as if it was as red as those damn silk drawers. “You know.”

Her grace beamed at her. “Of course I’ve invited some gentlemen who might be suitable matches for you.”

Ellie willed herself to keep smiling. It would get easier with time . . . it had to. She cleared her throat. Her mouth was infernally dry. “Who?”

The duchess leaned forward. “First, there’s Mr. Humphrey. He’s a little younger than you and very, ah . . . earnest. He’s just inherited a small estate from his great aunt; rumor has it he wishes to start his nursery immediately.”

“Ah.” Mr. Humphrey sounded terribly dull . . . but dullness was fine. She wanted babies, not conversation. And he apparently wanted babies, too. Excellent.

“And then there’s Mr. Cox. He’s one of the Earl of Bollant’s brood, the fourth—or perhaps the fifth—son. He’s very popular with the ladies and a trifle wild, but he’s shown some signs of being ready to settle down. He’s to go into the church, so you could be very helpful to him, your papa being a vicar.”

About Sally MacKenzie:

Sally MacKenzie decided to become a writer in grade school when she read one of her stories to the class. Her classmates laughed and she was hooked. She sat down immediately to pen her first novel.

Well, not exactly.

The hooked part is right--cursed might be a better description--but the sitting down and writing part came later. Much later.

Sally eventually went on to college, majoring in English, and, upon graduation, did what many English majors do--she went to law school. But she still couldn’t shake her dream of writing fiction. Midway through law school, she faced the fact that she really did not want to be a lawyer. She took a permanent leave of absence, came home to the Washington, D.C. area, and sat down to type her first novel.

Well, not exactly.

She did come home and write, but mostly she wrote regulations for the United States government’s school nutrition programs. (Ketchup as a vegetable, anyone?) When her law school sweetheart graduated, he moved to D.C. and they got married. A couple years later, the first of their four sons was born, and Sally “retired” to manage their family. She wrote a story or two and some picture book texts, all now stored away in a filing cabinet, but she spent most of her energies on baby tending which rapidly evolved into carpool driving. She became an extremely skilled scheduler, getting all four boys to soccer, basketball, baseball, track, swimming, piano, scouts, and birthday parties without ever losing one. (Okay, she did lose the youngest for a few minutes, but she found him before he’d toddled into the parking lot.) And she did more writing--school newsletters, auction programs, class plays, swim league guidance, and the acclaimed annual MacKenzie family newsletter--but no fiction.

Finally, the boys started driving (Eek!) and leaving for college. The nest was emptying and she wasn't getting any younger. The time had come to chase the dream or let it go for good, so she sat down at the computer and wrote. And rewrote. And rewrote again until she had a polished manuscript. She joined the Romance Writers of America, and when the plea went out for Regency manuscripts for the 2004 Golden Heart contest, she sent in The Naked Duke. The stars aligned. She made the final round, and one of the judging editors liked the manuscript and offered to buy it.

Yee haw!!

When not writing or obsessing over the various mysteries of book promotion, Sally can be found at the gym, working hard to age gracefully, or on a pool deck, timing at her youngest son’s swim meets. 


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