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
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.
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
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
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.
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
She picked up the drawers. She’d dispose of this ridiculous
“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,
“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
The duchess frowned again. “Should I come back later
“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.
“Yes.” Ellie moved away from the incriminating red
“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?”
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
Ellie narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Only that you appeared to be ignoring all the other
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
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.”
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
“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
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.”