A Duke of Her Own

By: Eloisa James

“Whereupon you made a deathbed vow to marry?”

His eyelashes flickered. They were very long eyelashes.

“No,” she guessed. “You made a deathbed vow to rear your own children.”

“That was it,” he confirmed. “The damnable thing about it was that I turned out to be not entirely sure where those children were.”

“Beyond carelessness,” she said. “That’s disgraceful.”

“I had been paying for them.” He abruptly stooped down and snatched up a handful of flowers, sending a small wave across the pool. “When I demanded their addresses, my solicitor handed me a partial list and disappeared, along with many hundreds of pounds, I might add.”

“How very odd.”

“It seems that he had gradually removed the children from their lodgings and placed them elsewhere, pocketing the money I provided for their upkeep.” Villiers threw the blossoms back toward the pool. They rained down into the blanket of violets.

“Not the workhouse!”

“Less scrupulous places,” he said evenly. “A workhouse might have explored parentage, after all. To this point I have located my son Tobias, who was working as a mudlark, gathering valuables from the bottom of the River Thames.”

“Damn,” she said. Quietly, but she said it.

“A lady who swears?” He had that mocking tone in his voice again.

She ignored him. “How old is Tobias?”

“Thirteen. I recently found Violet, who is six, living in a brothel. I believe she is too young to know what lay in wait for her. She is untouched.”

Eleanor shuddered. “Horrible.”

“Colin is eleven years old, and had been apprenticed to a weaver.”

“That’s three…where are the others? And where are their mothers?”

“Well, you see,” he said grimly, “I offered to take the children away from their mothers at birth. I thought that they would be better off under my care than they might be under the care of a courtesan.”

“The irony is rather distressing.”

“One of those mothers refused; Genevieve lives with her mother in Surrey.”

“So Genevieve is well.”

“Yes. My solicitor had ceased to pay support for the child, but her mother managed to scrape by.”

“In her former employment?”

He shook his head. “Taking in washing.”

There was something quite hard about his voice, the kind of hardness that concealed deep shame, she guessed. Since he deserved every ounce of that shame, she didn’t bother with soothing pleasantries.

“So that’s Tobias, Genevieve, Colin, and Violet. What fanciful names. There are two more? Why haven’t you fetched them?” Which was a tactful way of asking why he was at the ball at all, under the circumstances.

“They are twin girls. And I’ve been looking.”

“You can’t find them?”

“I have Bow Street Runners searching for them. They did find the woman who originally cared for them, but she has no idea where they were taken. She was merely told they were being sent to an orphanage. It turns out there are a great many orphanages in England, and a surprising number of twins.”

“Surely…their surnames, their parentage?”

“My solicitor, Templeton, never shared information as to their parentage. Apparently that is common practice, as it does not allow the nurse to appeal directly to the father, who prefers to ignore the child’s existence.”

She sighed and walked back up the stairs. The air was too moist, and the last thing she needed was for her inadequately powdered hair to start curling in all directions.

Villiers kept pace with her, his long legs sending him effortlessly upward. “I heard just this morning that twins of approximately the right age are living in an orphanage in the village of Sevenoaks, in Kent.”

“Lady Lisette Elys, daughter of the Duke of Gilner, lives nearby and might be able to help you. She does a great deal of work with the poor.”

“How…” He paused. “How odd. I had considered paying a visit to the duke.”

She said the obvious. “Lisette is the only other eligible duke’s daughter of whom I’m aware, given that my sister Elizabeth is only fourteen. Ducal progeny is quite rare, and when one is shopping for a wife, one ought to inspect all the available merchandise.”

“Are you encouraging me to pay a visit to the Gilner estate?” he asked curiously.

She looked up at him. He wasn’t beautiful. He was the opposite of Gideon, the man whom she loved with all her heart. Gideon had golden ringlets that curled at his neck like angel kisses. In fact, Gideon wasn’t like any other man she knew, more like a true angel, with his ethical heart and his serious blue eyes.

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