Four Nights With the Duke

By: Eloisa James

If Dante had conceived of a tenth circle of hell, this was it. Francis Oakenrott was a boy as rotten as his name implied. She had met him twice, at house parties her father dragged her along to. It was a case of mutual loathing-at-first-sight.

“A love poem,” he shouted, clearly delighted. “Don’t tell me that you’ve taken up with an opera dancer with a literary bent. The headmaster will have your guts for garters.”

“Give me that,” Vander snarled.

But Oakenrott apparently evaded capture. “Blazing hell, this is utter rubbish!” He broke into an escalating, barking laugh. Another thump followed. “Oh, for God’s sake, back off and let me read it. It’s too late to keep your little secret now. You’d think you were ashamed.”

Mia pulled a sofa pillow over her face with a silent groan. She wanted to die, to fall into a crack in the floor.

“I am mad with love,” Oakenrott recited, in a squeaky falsetto. “You know, I could see this on the stage. Have you been hanging about the back door of Drury Lane?”

“She’s definitely cracked,” Thorn said. “Who could fancy a smelly, sweaty bloke like you?”

“You’re just jealous,” Vander retorted. “She’d have to be barmy to look in your direction. Or Rotter’s.”

“So who’s the madwoman?” Oakenrott said, paper rustling as he turned it over. “Emilia Carrington? You mean the daughter of your mother’s—”

“Don’t,” Vander warned, his voice suddenly dangerous.

There was a telling moment of silence. “Right. I’ll just go back to this literary masterpiece. No one understands my plight,” he read, his voice squealing even higher. “I like this part about the moonbeam kissing the sea. Obviously, you have the moonbeam, and she’s the sea.” He went into another barking cascade of guffaws. A sob rose up Mia’s chest, pressing so hard that pain shot through her breastbone.

“You’re such an ass,” Thorn said. “How old is that girl, anyway?”

“The same as me,” Vander replied. “Fifteen.”

“In my dreams, you married me,” Oakenrott said, reading from the beginning of the next stanza. A tear slid down Mia’s neck. “Your beauty makes me drunk.”

Oakenrott hooted. Vander groaned.

She heard a hearty slap and then Thorn said, “Look at it this way, at least you’ve managed to charm a girl who knows a thing or two about brandy.”

“Not as much as you do, after last night!” Vander retorted.

Likely they were all drunken sots. Mia’s governess had told her that boys pretending to be men drank far too much.

Oakenrott was relentless; he just wouldn’t shut up. “My room is full of moonlight, and your eyes are like pearls.” Do you suppose you’re being invited to take your pearly eyes into her moonlit room?”

“I’d have to grope my way,” Vander said, and Mia could hear the laughter in his voice. “Nobody could see through pearly eyes.”

Mia’s lips involuntarily shaped a curse word that she would never dare say aloud.

Oakenrott whistled. “Pearls? You know what kind of pearls she’s really talking about, right? Pearl drops! Pearly potions, like we used to call it back in first form. No—wasn’t it pearly passion potions? Something like that. Anyway, this is the first poem I’ve ever read that talked about love custard!”

Suddenly all three boys were laughing hysterically.

“Love custard”? Mia hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant, but she knew instinctively that it was something disgusting. Boys were disgusting by nature; she’d temporarily forgotten that while pining for Vander. When she thought he was godlike.

In reality he was a heartless pig.

“You haven’t gotten under her skirts, have you?” Oakenrott sounded gleeful at the prospect. “Her father could take this line about being lost in your sweetness and pressure you to make an offer.”

“Never!” Vander sounded so appalled that the word slid over Mia’s skin like a snake. “It’s a little odd to think that she’s been lusting after me. What sort of fifteen-year-old girl thinks in these terms? Though I suppose she is her father’s daughter.”

Mia could hardly breathe because she was trying to sob without noise. He made her sound repulsive, saying that she was lusting after him. It wasn’t like that. She wasn’t like that.

“Have you ever noticed her staring at you from the side of the room?” Thorn asked. “Because here it says, Like the bird that gazes all night at the moon, I gaze at you.”

“Like a bird, or a Bird of Paradise?” Oakenrott put in. “Maybe she can set herself up as a literary light-skirt. One sovereign for a poem and two for a you-know-what.”

“All I can say is she’s a God-awful poet,” Vander said. “Even I know that poems are supposed to rhyme.”

What an idiot. Mia took a shuddering breath. She had to escape. She simply could not stand any more of this.

“I think you should frame it,” Thorn said, “because I can tell you right now that no one else will think you’re pretty enough to rhapsodize about. Especially given the size of your moonbeam.”

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