A Duke of Her Own

By: Eloisa James

She let one of the flowers drift from her fingers, watching it rather than meeting his eyes. “I was young and impetuous when I announced my ambition to marry a duke.”

“Surely you knew that the chance of a nobleman of the correct rank declaring himself was slim.”

“Of course.”

“You declared that you would marry a duke or no one, knowing full well that no one was likely to propose, since there are so few of us. I see.”

“You do?”

“As you reminded me, I’m not young. I have seen a great deal and I certainly understand desire.”

“Oh.” Eleanor was a bit uncertain about what had happened to the subject of their conversation. “Are you saying that you understand my desire?”

“You should not throw your life away, Lady Eleanor, simply because you love elsewhere.”

“How did you know that?” She looked up at him.

“You just told me.”

“I did?” He had remarkably heavy-lidded eyes, lazy and seemingly uninterested, and yet apparently they saw everything.

“I am not a conventional man,” Villiers stated.

With a start, Eleanor realized that if she did decide to marry the duke, she’d have to discuss the question of virginity or, specifically, her lack thereof. “Given your promiscuous progeny, I agree that you have no claim to conventionality.”

One corner of his mouth quirked up. It had a remarkably beautiful shape, actually. “Oh, you’d be surprised. Men do the most interesting things in their private time and yet disparage women who commit even a tenth of the follies they enjoy.”

“That’s true.” Gideon was the only man she knew who was punctilious as a Puritan when it came to virtue, as passionate about his honor as he had been about her.

“My point is that I am not a prude when it comes to human desire. I know how inconvenient it can be.”

Inconvenient was an odd word for the way love for Gideon had shaped her life, but she saw his point.

Villiers tipped up her chin. “If you help me with my children, rear them, be kind to them, and fight society’s belief that they are unworthy of the huge settlements I intend to give them, I will be lenient with regard to your personal life.”

“You mean—”

“I would ask you to tolerate me only long enough to produce an heir.”

“In fact, I want children,” she said. She did want children. And for all Villiers’s tolerance, she had no intention of straying from her marital vows, once she made them. After all, Gideon showed no interest. He had barely met her eyes these last three years. She knew he was at the ball tonight only because Anne told her. He hadn’t searched her out, and of course she hadn’t looked for him.

And more to the point, if she took vows, she would keep to them. Just as she had tried to keep to the vows she and Gideon had said to each other, private though they were.

Villiers smiled and the shape of his mouth caught her eye again. “I appreciate your saying so.”

“You appreciate it?”

He nodded. “Like any other duke, I need an heir. But other than that, I must say that I have no deep desire for children.”

“And yet you have so many,” she observed.

“Carelessness,” he said.

“Stupidity,” she said, before she could bite her tongue.

“That too,” he agreed. “I need an heir, but I would be perfectly happy to live an amicable existence with a wife who had no interest in my charms, such as they are. Although I would ask that you be discreet.”

Without question this was the most shocking conversation she had ever had. Her mother would have fainted a good five minutes ago. “Will you do the same?”

“Will I add even more miscellaneous children to the household?” And, when she nodded, “Absolutely not. I am keenly aware of the idiocy of my imprudent attitude toward conception.” He paused. “You might not be aware of this, but there are ways to prevent conception; as a young man, I simply didn’t care to employ those methods.”

She nodded again. She knew them.

His eyes narrowed. “What an interesting young lady you are, Lady Eleanor.”

“Why have you decided to house your own children?”

“I nearly died last year of a wound sustained in a duel.” His voice was flat, uncommunicative. “I fought that duel for the honor of my fiancée, and lost.”

“Apparently, you lost the fiancée as well,” she put in dryly, trying to avoid any sort of melodramatic revelation.

Sure enough, his mouth eased. “True. The Duchess of Beaumont’s brother, the Earl of Gryffyn, won the girl and the duel, leaving me with a wound that nearly carried me off.”

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