A Duke of Her Own

By: Eloisa James

“In that case, it would depend on Oyster’s breed,” Villiers said. “Unless you have a pet poodle, I am fairly sure that I exceed expectations on both counts.”

“I can also assure Lady Eleanor that you never smell like urine, although I gather she is gracious enough to overlook that in a spouse,” the duchess said with a giggle. “Now if you’ll forgive me, I must introduce Mrs. Bouchon to my second cousin’s daughter; the poor dear hardly knows a soul in London. And you must tell me all about your marriage and the wonderfully successful season you’ve had…” She drew Anne’s arm through hers and began leading her away without further farewell.

“It appears that we are both looking for the same thing,” Villiers observed.

“A spouse?” Eleanor still felt so shaken by her conversation with her sister that she could hardly formulate a coherent thought. She had thought of herself as presenting a modest appearance. Demure. Virginal. But Anne made her feel like a balding old maid.

“A spouse of a certain rank,” Villiers qualified.

Eleanor felt a stomach-churning qualm of embarrassment and took recourse in sarcasm. “Now all that is left is to assess each other against such criteria as the weight of a sow, or the brains of a poodle.”

“In truth, I would rather not marry someone with less intelligence than the aforementioned Oyster.”

“I never pee on the floor when irritated,” Eleanor told him.

“You can have no idea how pleased I am to hear that,” Villiers said. Perhaps his eyes weren’t quite as frosty as they first appeared. “In that case, I have no cause to query the intelligence of our future offspring.”

Her sister was wrong. She could talk to men without sniping at them. Absolutely she could. “You play chess, don’t you?” she ventured. It was one of the few things she knew about Villiers: that he was ranked number one in the London Chess Club.

“Yes. Do you?”

“I used to play with my brother when we were young.”

“Viscount Gosset? He’s a decent player.”

Eleanor personally thought that her brother was a terrible player, but she smiled anyway.

“I am more curious about why you set your cap for a duke, to use the vulgar phrase,” Villiers said. “When I first heard of your requirement, I assumed you were driven by pride. But you don’t appear to be quite as high in the instep as a young woman with such stringent ambitions ought to be.”

Anne was right. Her foolish comment had given her the reputation of a turkey cock. She managed a smile. “Ducal marriages are a matter of precedence and fiscal responsibility. Since I am uninterested in forging an alliance based on anything less practical, I decided quite early that I would like to marry a duke.”

“Admirably succinct.”

If quite untrue. Eleanor raised an eyebrow. “And you? Why do you care for the status of your wife, given that you will make her a duchess by marriage?”

He looked her directly in the face. “I have six illegitimate children.”

Eleanor felt her mouth slip open, and snapped her teeth together. Was she supposed to congratulate him? “Oh,” she ventured.

“I wish to marry someone who will not only mother my bastards, but launch them into proper society when the appropriate time comes. The Beaumonts have assured me that no woman below your rank will be able to cow the ton to the extent that I demand. You needn’t look so surprised. I assure you that many men at this ball have a bastard or two being raised in the country.”

There was something extraordinarily annoying about the way he paused after that, as if expecting her to scream and faint. “One or two…versus six,” she said musingly. “I gather you have led a life of rather extraordinary dissipation.”

“I’m not as young as I look.”

“You don’t look very young,” she observed.

“I see you’re not expecting to charm your way into a title.”

“Given your family situation, I think most people would agree that the burden of charm falls on you. Are you planning to legitimize your children?”

“I couldn’t do that without marrying one of their mothers.”

“More than one mother is involved?”

“Dear, dear,” Villiers said. “That was almost a yelp, Lady Eleanor. We seem to be attracting some attention; perhaps we might stroll down a path.”

She glanced to one side, only to meet the avid eyes of Lady Fibblesworth standing with the Earl of Bisselbate. Of course, their meeting would be extraordinarily interesting to most of London, given the rumors about Villiers’s hunt for a wife. She threw the couple a stiff smile and tucked her hand into the duke’s arm.

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