The Ugly Duchess
Warning! In describing relations between characters, I may wreck a book for you by making it clear who someone marries, or the outcome of a book. Please do not read about The Inside Take if you're wary of knowing who is paired with whom!
» The Ugly Duchess is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Ugly Duckling—but that fairy tale wasn't published until several years after the date of this novel. My excuse is that I'm operating in fairy tale time. I may not give my characters magic wands, but I claim the right to weave my own improbable illusions.
» The interior decorator and fashion icon Ms. Iris Apfel was tremendously important when I was shaping Theo's post-duckling life. In particular, I was caught by an article describing Ms. Apfel's fashion rules. While I didn't borrow any of her edicts, such as "Consider the Clergy," Theo's rules are unmistakably patterned on the brilliant original. Here's an interview with the remarkable and creative Ms. Apfel that includes her rules.
» I was also deeply influenced by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux's A Guide to Elegance: For Every Woman Who Wants to be Well and Properly Dressed on all Occasions, a charming book about fashion that was first published in 1964 and remains relevant today. I read it three times, and it was not only helpful in thinking about Theo, but in refashioning my own wardrobe!
» Would you like to see what Theo faced when she walked into Devonshire House and glimpsed Geoffrey Trevelyan in a group of beautiful men ("They had high cheekbones, deep bottom lips, and finely shaped noses. Even worse, they looked abominably clever")? I've hidden a picture of the group of men who inspired my description in Easter Egg #40!
» My Easter Eggs mostly hide visuals that I used while dreaming up the details of a book—so if you'd like to see the exquisite dress that Theo wore when James first returned to England, find Easter Egg #1.
» Theo and Geoffrey's banter about the Princess of Imeretia, who slept in a solid silver bathtub, is drawn from Janet Flanner's "Letters from Paris", written for The New Yorker in the years leading up to World War II, and published as Paris was Yesterday. The book collects her brilliantly hilarious gossip column: I recommend it, whether you are fond of history—or merely gossip. I put myself in the latter category.
» Someone generally asks me of each novel: "But what's it all about?" The Ugly Duchess is, most obviously, about what society considers to be beautiful and how those judgments influence the inner person. Theo is deeply affected throughout her life by the fact that her particular body type and face is not in vogue in Regency England, though I would note that Easter Egg #42 contains a photo of the supermodel I thought of while describing Theo: what is unattractive in the 19th century is supermodel-worth in the 21st century. On the other hand, James's physical beauty is such that his mother drags him before company to perform. By the final acts of The Ugly Duchess, Theo and James have switched places. James has lost his voice and tattooed his face; Theo has given society a whole new idea of what beauty is, in the way that brilliant women such as Coco Chanel and Iris Apfel have done throughout the centuries.
» James's loss of voice was a gift from my daughter, Anna. Our family loves Leonard Cohen's deep voice and his deeply moving love songs: she and I were discussing what might happen to James in the novel, when she shouted: "He should lose his voice and turn into Leonard!" No sooner said than done; James returns home with a voice that "sounded like brandy and sin." My favorite song of his, "Dance Me to the End of Love," served as a blueprint for the love song James sings to Theo at the end of the novel.
» When I finished this novel, I couldn't bear to let the characters go. First I wrote a novella for Griffin, James's cousin and fellow pirate captain (Seduced by a Pirate). Then I decided that one of Griffin's children would surely have fallen in love with one of James's children—after all, they spent every August and every Christmas together. So I write a three-part story, With this Kiss, With this Promise, and With this Ring. The novellas can be read in electronic form or in the paperback called As You Wish, which contains Pirate as well as Kiss, Promise, and Ring.
"James deftly navigates emotionally complex characters and situations with a chronologically long yet fascinating storyline, maintaining interest and clarity in their separate adventures, while managing to intensify the romantic tension through their estrangement. A unique, winning romance that explores universal themes through an uncommon plot and eccentric characters, leading to a hard-won yet satisfying happily-ever-after."
- Kirkus, September 2012 (posted October 1, 2012)
"James sifts a generous dash of wicked wit into the plot of her latest charming romance."
- The Chicago Tribune, September 2012 (posted October 1, 2012)
"James expertly infuses her latest fairy-tale love story with just the right ratio of tart wit and sensuality to create a hopelessly and hopefully romantic tale that will have James' fans swooning with delight."
- Starred Review, Booklist, August 2012 (posted August 6, 2012)
"Exceptionally well-developed characters evolve with flair. Fast-paced, witty dialog, flawless plotting, exquisite sensuality, and a delectable dusting of humor make James’s latest re-imagined fairy tale a joyful work of art that is not to be missed."
- Starred Review, Library Journal, August 2012 (posted August 6, 2012)
"James’s patented clever dialogue and complex characters make the unusual situation completely believable from setup to denouement."
- Starred Review, Publisher's Weekly, August 2012 (posted August 6, 2012)
"...[The Ugly Duchess] is written with intelligence and wit by Ms. James’s incomparable pen."
- Perfect 10, Romance Reviews Today, August 2012 (posted August 6, 2012)
March 18, 1808
“You’ll have to marry her. I don’t care if you think of her as a sister: from now on, she’s the Golden Fleece to you.”
James Ryburn, Earl of Islay, and heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, opened his mouth to say something, but a mixture of fury and disbelief choked the words.
His father turned and walked toward the far wall of the library, acting as if he’d said nothing particularly out of the ordinary. “We need her fortune to repair the Staffordshire estate and pay a few debts, or we’re going to lose it all, this townhouse included.”
“What have you done?” James spat the words. A terrible feeling of dread was spreading through his limbs.
Ashbrook pivoted. “Don’t you dare speak to me in that tone!”
James took a deep breath before answering. One of his resolutions was to master his temper before turning twenty—and that birthday was a mere three weeks away. “Excuse me, Father,” he managed. “Exactly how did the estate come to be in such precarious straits? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“I do mind your asking.” The duke stared back at his only son, his long aquiline nose quivering with anger. James came by his temper naturally: he had inherited it directly from his irascible, reckless father.
“In that case, I will bid you good day,” James said, keeping his tone even.
“Not unless you’re going downstairs to make eyes at that girl. I turned down an offer for her hand this week from Briscott, who’s such a simpleton that I didn’t feel I need tell her mother. But you know damn well her father left the decision over who marries the girl to her mother—”
“I have no knowledge of the contents of Mr. Saxby’s will,” James stated. “And I fail to see why that particular provision should cause you such annoyance.”
“Because we need her damned fortune,” Ashbrook raged, walking to the fireplace and giving the unlit logs a kick. “You must convince Theodora that you’re in love with her, or her mother will never agree to the match. Just last week, Mrs. Saxby inquired about a few of my investments in a manner that I did not appreciate. Doesn’t know a woman’s place.”
“I will do nothing of the sort.”
“You will do exactly as I instruct you.”
“You’re instructing me to woo a young lady whom I’ve been raised to treat as a sister.”
“Hogwash! You may have rubbed noses a few times as children, but that shouldn’t stop you from sleeping with her.”
For the first time the duke looked a trifle sympathetic. “Theodora is no beauty. But all women are the same in the—”
“Do not say that,” James snapped. “I am already appalled; I do not wish to be disgusted as well.”
His father’s eyes narrowed and a rusty color rose in his cheeks, a certain sign of danger. Sure enough, Ashbrook’s voice emerged as a bellow. “I don’t care if the chit is as ugly as sin, you’ll take her. And you’ll make her fall in love with you. Otherwise, you will have no country house to inherit. None!”
“What have you done?” James repeated, through clenched teeth.
“Lost it,” his father shouted back, his eyes bulging a little. “Lost it, and that’s all you need to know!”
“I will not do it.” He stood up.
A china ornament flew past his shoulder and crashed against the wall. James barely flinched. By now he was inured to these violent fits of temper; he had grown up ducking everything from books to marble statues.
“You will, or I’ll bloody well disinherit you and name Pinkler-Ryburn my heir!”
James’s hand dropped and he turned, on the verge of losing his temper. While he’d never had the impulse to throw objects at the wall—or at his family—his ability to fire cutting remarks was equally destructive. He took another deep breath. “While I would hesitate to instruct you on the legal system, Father, I can assure you that it is impossible to disinherit a legitimate son.”
“I’ll tell the House of Lords that you’re no child of mine,” the duke bellowed. Veins bulged on his forehead and his cheeks had ripened from red to purple. “I’ll tell ’em that your mother was a light-heeled wench, and that I’ve discovered you’re nothing but a bastard.”
At the despicable insult to his mother, James’s fragile control snapped altogether. “You may be a craven, dimwitted gamester, but you will not tar my mother with sorry excuses designed to cover up your own idiocy!”
“How dare you!” screamed the duke. His whole face had assumed the color of a cockscomb.
“I say only what every person in this kingdom knows,” James said, the words exploding from his mouth. “You’re an idiot. I have a good idea what happened to the estate; I just wanted to see whether you had the balls to admit it. And you don’t. No surprise there. You mortgaged every piece of non-entailed land attached to the estate, at least those you didn’t sell outright—and pissed all the money away on the Exchange. You invested in one ridiculous scheme after another. The canal you built that wasn’t even a league from another canal? What in God’s name were you thinking?”
“I didn’t know that until it was too late! My associates deceived me. A duke doesn’t go out and inspect the place where a canal is supposed to be built. He has to trust others, and I’ve always had the devil’s own luck.”
“I would have at least visited the proposed canal before I sank thousands of pounds into a waterway with no hope of traffic.”
“You impudent jack-boy! How dare you!” The duke’s hand tightened around a silver candlestick standing on the mantelpiece.
“Throw that, and I’ll leave you in this room to wallow in your own fear. You want me to marry a girl who thinks I’m her brother, in order to get her fortune … so that you—you—can lose it? Do you know what they call you behind your back, Father? Surely you’ve heard it. The Dam’Fool Duke!”
They were both breathing heavily, but his father was puffing like a bull, the purple stain on his cheeks vivid against his white neck cloth.
The duke’s fingers flexed once again around the piece of silver.
“Throw that candlestick and I’ll throw you across the room,” James said, adding, “Your Grace.”
The duke’s hand fell to his side and he turned his shoulder away, staring at the far wall. “And what if I lost it?” he muttered, belligerence underscoring his confession. “The fact is that I did lose it. I lost it all. The canal was one thing, but I thought the vineyards were a sure thing. How could I possibly guess that England is a breeding ground for black rot?”
“You imbecile!” James spat, and turned on his heel to go.
“The Staffordshire estate’s been in our family for six generations. You must save it. Your mother would have been devastated to see the estate sold. And what of her grave … have you thought of that? The graveyard adjoins the chapel, you know.”
James’s heart was beating savagely in his throat. It took him a moment to come up with a response that didn’t include curling his hands around his father’s neck. “That is low, even from you,” he said, finally.
The duke paid no heed to that damning rejoinder. “Are you going to allow your mother’s corpse to be sold?”
“I will consider wooing some other heiress,” James said, finally. “But I will not marry Daisy.” Theodora Saxby—known to James alone as Daisy—was his dearest friend, his childhood companion. “She deserves better than me, better than anyone from this benighted family.”
There was silence behind him. A terrible, warped silence that … James turned. “You didn’t. Even you … couldn’t.”
“I thought I would be able to replace it in a matter of weeks,” his father said quietly, the color leaving his cheeks so suddenly that he looked positively used up.
James’s legs suddenly felt so weak that he had to lean against the door. “How much of her fortune is gone?”
“Enough.” Ashbrook dropped his eyes, at last showing some sign of shame. “If she marries anyone else, I’ll … I’ll face trial. I don’t know if they can put dukes in the dock. The House of Lords, I suppose. But it won’t be pretty.”
“Oh, they can put dukes on trial, all right,” James said heavily. “You embezzled the dowry of a girl entrusted to your care since the time she was a mere infant. Her mother was married to your dearest friend. Saxby asked you on his deathbed to care for his daughter.”
“And I did,” her father replied, but without his usual bluster. “Brought her up as my own.”
“You brought her up as my sister,” James said flatly. He forced himself to cross the room and sit down. “And all the time you were stealing from her.”
“Not all the time,” his father protested. “Just in the last year. Or so. The majority of her fortune is in funds and I couldn’t touch that. I just … I just borrowed from … well, I just borrowed some. I’m deuced unlucky, and that’s a fact. I was absolutely sure it wouldn’t come to this.”
“Unlucky?” James repeated, his voice liquid with disgust.
“Now the girl is getting a proposal or two, I don’t have the time to make it up. You’ve got to take her. It’s not just that the estate and this townhouse will have to go; the name won’t be worth anything either, after the scandal. Even if I pay off what I borrowed from her by selling the estate, the whole wouldn’t cover my debts.”
James didn’t reply. The only words going through his head were flatly blasphemous.
“It was easier when your mother was alive,” the duke said, after a minute or two. “She helped, you know. She had a level head on her shoulders.”
James couldn’t bring himself to answer that, either. His mother had died nine years earlier, and under a decade since his father had managed to impoverish an estate stretching from Scotland to Staffordshire to London. And he had embezzled Daisy’s fortune.
“You’ll make her love you,” his father said encouragingly, dropping into a chair opposite James. “She already adores you; she always has. We’ve been lucky so far in that poor Theodora is as ugly as a stick. The only men who’ve asked for her hand have been such obvious fortune-hunters that her mother wouldn’t even consider them. But that’ll change as the season wears on. She’s a taking little piece, once you get to know her.”
James ground his teeth. “She will never love me in that way. She thinks of me as her brother, as her friend. And she has no resemblance whatsoever to a stick.”
“Don’t be a fool. You’ve got my profile.” A glimmer of vanity underscored his words. “Your mother always said that I was the most handsome man of my generation.”
James bit back a remark that would do nothing to help the situation. He was experiencing an overwhelming wave of nausea. “We could tell Daisy what happened. What you did. She’ll understand.”
His father snorted. “Do you think her mother will understand? My old friend Saxby didn’t know what he was getting into when he married that woman. She’s a termagant, a positive tartar.”
In the seventeen years since Mrs. Saxby and her infant daughter had joined the duke’s household, she and Ashbrook had managed to maintain sufficiently cordial relations—primarily because His Grace had never thrown anything in the widow’s direction. But James knew instantly that his father was right. If Daisy’s mother got even a hint that her daughter’s guardian had misappropriated her inheritance, a fleet of solicitors would be battering on the townhouse door before evening fell. Bile drove James’s stomach into his throat at the thought.
His father, on the other hand, was cheering up. He had the sort of mind that flitted from one subject to another; his rages were ferocious but short-lived. “A few posies, maybe a poem, and Theodora will fall into your hand as sweetly as a ripe plum. After all, it’s not as if the girl gets much flattery. Tell her she’s beautiful, and she’ll be at your feet.”
“I cannot do that,” James stated, not even bothering to imagine himself saying such a thing. It wasn’t a matter of not wishing spout such inanities to Daisy herself; he loathed situations where he found himself fumbling with language and stumbling around the ballroom. The season was three weeks old, but he hadn’t attended a single ball.
His father misinterpreted his refusal. “Of course, you’ll have to lie about it, but that’s the kind of lie a gentleman can’t avoid. She may not be the prettiest girl on the market—and certainly not as delectable as that opera dancer I saw you with the other night—but it wouldn’t get you anywhere to point out the truth.” He actually gave a little chuckle at the thought.
James heard him only dimly; he was concentrating on not throwing up as he tried to think through the dilemma before him.
The duke continued, amusing himself by laying out the distinction between mistresses and wives. “In compensation, you can keep a mistress who’s twice as beautiful as your wife. It’ll provide an interesting contrast.”
It occurred to James, not for the first time, that there was no human being in the world he loathed as much as his father. “If I marry Daisy, I will not take a mistress,” he said, still thinking frantically, trying to come up with a way out. “I would never do that to her.”
“Well, I expect you’ll change your mind about that after a few years of marriage, but to each his own.” The duke’s voice was as strong and cheerful as ever. “Well? Not much to think about, is there? It’s bad luck and all that rot, but I can’t see that either of us have much choice about it. The good thing is that a man can always perform in the bedroom, even if he doesn’t want to.”
The only thing James wanted at that moment was to get out of the room, away from his disgusting excuse for a parent. But he had lost the battle, and he forced himself to lay out the rules for surrender. “I will only do this on one condition.” His voice sounded unfamiliar to his own ears, as if a stranger spoke the words.
“Anything, my boy, anything! I know I’m asking for a sacrifice. As I said, we can admit amongst ourselves that little Theodora is not the beauty of the bunch.”
“The day I marry her, you sign the entire estate over to me—the Staffordshire house and its lands, this townhouse, the island in Scotland.”
The duke’s mouth fell open. “What?”
“The entire estate,” James repeated. “I will pay you an allowance, and no one need know except for the solicitors. But I will not be responsible for you and your harebrained schemes. I will never again take responsibility for any debts you might incur—nor for any theft. The next time around, you’ll go to prison.”
“That’s absurd,” his father spluttered. “I couldn’t—you couldn’t possibly—no!”
“Then make your goodbyes to Staffordshire,” James said. “You might want to pay a special visit to my mother’s grave, if you’re so certain she would have been distressed at the sale of the house, let alone the churchyard.”
His father opened his mouth, but James raised a hand.
“If I were to let you keep the estate, you’d fling Daisy’s inheritance after that which you’ve already lost. There would be nothing left within two years, and I will have betrayed my closest friend for no reason.”
“Your closest friend, eh?” Her father was instantly diverted into another train of thought. “I’ve never had a woman as a friend, but Theodora looks like a man, of course, and—”
The duke harrumphed. “Can’t say I like the way you’ve taken to interrupting me. I suppose if I agree to this ridiculous scheme of yours I’ll can expect forward to daily humiliation.”
It was an implicit concession.
“You see,” his father said, a smile spreading across his face now that the conversation was over, “it all came well. Your mother always said that, you know. ‘All’s well that ends well.’”
James couldn’t stop himself from asking one more thing, though, God knows, he already knew the answer. “Don’t you care in the least about what you’re doing to me—and to Daisy?”
A hint of red crept back into his father’s cheeks. “The girl couldn’t do better than to marry you!”
“Daisy will marry me believing that I’m in love with her, and I’m not. She deserves to be wooed and genuinely adored by her husband.”
“Love and marriage shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath,” his father said dismissively. But his eyes slid away from James’s.
“And you’ve done the same to me. Love and marriage may not come together all that often, but I will have no chance at all. What’s more, I will begin my marriage with a lie that will destroy it if Daisy ever finds out. Do you realize that? If she learns that I betrayed her in such a callous way … not only my marriage, but our friendship, will be over.”
“If you really think she’ll fly into a temper, you’d better get an heir on her in the first few months,” his father said, with the air of someone offering practical advice. “A woman scorned, and all that. If she’s disgruntled enough, I suppose she might run off with another man. But if you already have an heir—and a spare, if you can—you could let her go.”
“My wife will never run off with another man.” That growled out of James’s chest from a place he didn’t even know existed.
His father heaved himself out of his chair. “You as much as called me a fool; well, I’ll do the same for you. No man in his right mind thinks that marriage is a matter of billing and cooing. Your mother and I were married for the right reasons, to do with family obligations and financial negotiations. We did what was necessary to have you, and left it there. Your mother couldn’t face the effort needed for a spare, but we didn’t waste any tears over it. You were always a healthy boy.” Then he added, “Barring that time you almost went blind, of course. We would have tried for another, if worse came to worst.”
James pushed himself to his feet, hearing his father’s voice dimly through a tangle of hideous thoughts that he couldn’t bring himself to spit out.
“Neither of us raised you to have such rubbishing romantic views,” the duke tossed over his shoulder, and left the room.
Having reached the age of nineteen years, James had thought he understood his place in life. He’d learned the most important lessons: how to ride a horse, hold his liquor, and defend himself in a duel.
No one had ever taught him—and he had never imagined the necessity of learning how—to betray the one person whom you truly care for in life. The only person who genuinely loves you. How to break that person’s heart, whether it be tomorrow, or five years, or ten years in the future.
Because Daisy would learn the truth someday. He knew it with a bone-deep certainty: somehow, she would discover that he had pretended to fall in love so that she would marry him … and she would never forgive him.
End of Chapter One. Like it? Order it!
Theodora Saxby, known to James as Daisy, but to herself as Theo, was trying very hard not to think about Lady Corning’s ball, which had been held the night before. But, as is often the case when one tries to avoid a topic, the only thing her mind saw fit to review was a scene from said ball.
The girls she had overheard chattering about her resemblance to a boy weren’t even being particularly unkind. They weren’t saying it to her, after all. And she wouldn’t have minded their comments so much if she didn’t have the distinct impression that the gentlemen at the ball agreed with them.
But what could she possibly do about it? She stared despairingly into her glass. Her mother’s fear of just that assessment—though Mama refused to acknowledge it—had led to Theo’s hair being coerced into curls with a curling iron. The gown she’d worn, like everything else in her wardrobe, was white and frilly and altogether feminine. It was picked out in pearls and touches of pink, a combination that (in her opinion) did nothing but emphasize the decidedly unfeminine cast of her profile.
She loathed her profile almost as much as she loathed the dress. If she didn’t have to worry about people mistaking her for a boy—not that they really did, but they couldn’t stop remarking on the resemblance—at any rate, if she didn’t have to worry about that, she would never again wear pink. Or pearls. There was something dreadfully banal about the way pearls shimmered.
For a moment she distracted herself by mentally ripping her dress apart, stripping it of its ruffles and pearls and tiny sleeves. Given a choice, she would dress in plum-colored corded silk, and sleek her hair away from her face without a single flyaway curl. Her only hair adornment would be an enormous feather—a black one—arching backward so it brushed her shoulder. If her sleeves were elbow-length, she could trim them with a narrow edging of black fur. Or perhaps swansdown, with the same at the neck. Or she could put a feather trim at the neck; the white would look shocking against the plum velvet.
That led to the idea that she could put a ruff at the neck and trim that with a narrow strip of swansdown. It would be even better if the sleeves weren’t opaque fabric, but nearly transparent—like that new Indian silk her friend Lucinda had been wearing the previous night—she would have them quite wide, so they billowed and then gathered tight at the elbow. Or perhaps the wrist would be more dramatic …
She could see herself entering a ballroom in that costume. No one would titter about whether she looked like a girl or a boy. She would pause for a moment on the top of the steps, gathering everyone’s gaze, and then she would snap open her fan … No, fans were tiresomely overdone. She’d have to come up with something new.
The first man who asked her to dance, addressing her as Miss Saxby, would be treated to her slightly weary yet amused smile. “Call me Theo,” she would say, and all the matrons would be so scandalized they would squeak about nothing else the whole night long.
Theo was key: the name played to all those infatuations men formed on each other, the way their closest relationships were with their friends rather than with their wives. She’d seen it with James: when he was thirteen he had positively worshipped the captain of the cricket team at Eton. It stood to reason that if she wore her hair sleeked back, along with a gown that faintly resembled a cricket uniform, all those men who had once adored their captains would be at her feet.
She was so caught up in a vision of herself in a severely tailored jacket resembling the Etonian morning coat that at first she didn’t even hear the pounding on her door. But an insistent “Daisy!” finally broke through her trance, and she pushed herself up from the settee and opened the bedchamber door.
“Oh hello, James,” she said, unable to muster much enthusiasm at the sight of him. The last thing one wants to see when in a melancholic fit is a friend who refuses to attend balls even when he knows perfectly well that all three weeks of her first season had been horrific. He had no idea what it was like. How could he? He was devastatingly handsome, rather charming when he wasn’t being a beast, and a future duke, to boot. This embarrassment of riches really wasn’t fair. “I didn’t realize it was you.”
“How could you not realize it was me?” James demanded, pushing open the door and crowding her backward, now that he knew she was decent. “I’m the only person in the world who calls you Daisy. Let me in, will you?”
Theo sighed and moved back. “Do you suppose you could try harder to call me Theo? I must have asked you a hundred times already. I don’t want to be Theodora, or Dora, or Daisy either.”
James flung himself into a chair and ran a hand through his hair. From the look of it, he’d been in an ill humor all morning, because half his hair was standing straight up. It was lovely hair, heavy and thick. Sometimes it looked black, but when sunlight caught it there were deep mahogany strands too. More reasons to resent James. Her own hair had nothing subtle about it. It was thick, too, but an unfashionable yellowy-brown mixture.
“No,” he said flatly. “You’re Daisy to me, and Daisy suits you.”
“It doesn’t suit me,” she retorted. “Daisies are pretty and fresh, and I’m neither.”
“You are pretty,” he said mechanically, not even bothering to glance at her.
She rolled her eyes, but really, there was no reason to press the point. James never looked at her close enough to notice whether she’d turned out pretty … why should he? Being only two years apart, they’d shared the nursery practically from birth, which meant he had clear memories of her running about in a diaper, being smacked by Nurse Wiggan for being smart.
“How was last night?” he asked abruptly.
“Trevelyan didn’t make an appearance?”
“Geoffrey was indeed there,” Theo said gloomily. “He just never looked at me. He danced twice—twice—with the cow-eyed Claribel. I can’t stand her, and I can’t believe he can either, which means he’s just looking for a fortune. But if he is, then why doesn’t he dance with me? My inheritance must be twice as large as hers. Do you think he doesn’t know? And if so,” she said without stopping for breath, “can you think of some way of bringing it up that wouldn’t be terribly obvious?”
“Absolutely,” James said. “I can hear that conversation now. ‘So, Trevelyan, you flat-footed looby, did you know that Theodora’s inheritance comes to thousands of pounds a year? And by the way, what about those matched grays you just bought?”
“You could think of a more adroit way to bring it up,” Theo said, though she couldn’t imagine it herself. “Geoffrey isn’t flat-footed. He’s as graceful as a leaf. You should have seen him dancing with cretinous Claribel.”
James frowned. “Is she the one who was brought up in India?”
“Yes. I can’t understand why some helpful tiger didn’t gobble her up. All those plump curves … she would have made a lovely Sunday treat.”
“Tsk, tsk,” James said, a glimmer of laughter coming into his eyes for the first time. “Young ladies in search of husbands should be docile and sweet. You keep coming out with these appallingly malicious little remarks. If you don’t behave, all those matrons will declare you unfit and then you’ll be in a pickle.”
“I suppose that’s part of my problem.”
“What’s the other part?”
“I’m not feminine or dainty, nor even deliciously curvy. No one seems to notice me.”
“And you hate that,” James said with a grin.
“Well, I do,” she said. “I don’t mind admitting it. I think I could attract a great many men if I were simply allowed to be myself. But pink ruffles and pearl trim make me look more mannish than ever. And I feel ugly, which is the worst thing of all.”
“I don’t think you look like a man,” James said, finally inspecting her from head to foot.
“You know that opera dancer you’ve been squiring about?”
“You’re not supposed to know about Bella!”
“Why on earth not? Mama and I were in Oxford Street when you passed in an open carriage, so Mama explained everything. She even knew that your mistress is an opera dancer. I have to say, James, I think it’s amazing that you got yourself a mistress whom everyone knows about, even people like my mother.”
“I can’t believe Mrs. Saxby told you that rot.”
“What? She’s not an opera dancer?”
He scowled. “You’re supposed to pretend that women like that don’t exist.”
“Don’t be thick, James. Ladies know all about mistresses. And it isn’t as if you’re married. If you carry on like that once you are married, I’m going to be terrifically nasty to you. I’ll definitely tell your wife. So beware. I don’t approve.”
“Of Bella, or of matrimony?”
“Of married men who run about London with voluptuous women with hair the color of flax and morals that are just as lax.”
She paused for a moment, but James just rolled his eyes. “It’s not easy to rhyme extempore, you know,” she told him.
He obviously didn’t care, so she returned to the subject. “It’s all very well now, but you’ll have to give up Bella when you marry. Or whatever her replacement’s name is by then.”
“I don’t want to get married,” James said. There was a kind of grinding tension in his voice that made Theo look at him more closely.
“You’ve been quarreling with your father, haven’t you?”
“In the library?”
He nodded again.
“Did he try to brain you with that silver candlestick?” she asked. “Cramble told me that he was going to put it away, but I noticed it was still there yesterday.”
“He demolished a porcelain shepherdess.”
“Oh, that’s all right. Cramble bought a whole collection of them in Haymarket and strewed them all around the house in obvious places hoping your father would snatch those as opposed to anything of value. He will be quite pleased to see that his plan is working. So what were you rowing about?”
“He wants me to marry.”
“Really?” Theo felt a not altogether pleasant pang of surprise. Of course James had to marry … someday. But at the moment she rather liked him as he was: hers. Well, hers and Bella’s. “You’re too young,” she said protectively.
“You are only seventeen and you’re looking for a husband.”
“But that’s just the right age for a woman to marry. Mama didn’t let me debut until this year precisely because of that. Men should be far older than nineteen. I expect thirty or one-and-thirty is about right. What’s more, you’re young for your age,” she added.
James narrowed his eyes. “I am not.”
“You are,” she said smugly. “I saw how you were flitting about with Bella, showing her off as if she were a new coat. You probably set her up in some sort of appalling little house draped in blush-colored satin.”
His scowl was truly ferocious, which, rather than alarming her, Theo merely took as confirmation. “At the very least, she could have chosen some shade of blue. Women with yellow hair always think that pink shades will flatter their skin. Whereas a blue, say a cerulean or even violet, would be far more pleasing.”
“I’ll let her know. You do realize, Daisy, that you’re not supposed ever to mention women like Bella in polite company, let alone offer advice on how they should design their nests?”
“When did you become polite company? Do not call me Daisy,” Theo said. “Whom are you thinking of marrying?” She did not like uttering that question. She had something of a possessive bent when it came to James.
“I have no one in mind.” But the corner of his mouth twitched.
“You’re lying!” she cried, pouncing on it. “You do have someone in mind! Who is she?”
He sighed. “There’s no one.”
“Since you haven’t been to a single ball this year, I cannot imagine whom you could have fixed your eye on. Did you go to any balls last year, when I was still confined to the schoolroom? Of course, I should play an important part in choosing your betrothed,” Theo said, getting into the spirit of it. “I know you better than anyone else. She’ll have to be musical, given what a beautiful voice you have.”
“I am not interested in anyone who can sing.” James’s eyes flashed at her in a way that Theo secretly rather liked. Most of the time he was just the funny, wry “brother” she’d had her whole life, but occasionally he turned electric with fury and she saw him in a whole different light. Like a man, she decided. Odd thought.
She waved her hands. “For goodness’ sake, James, calm down. I must have mistaken the sure sign that you were fibbing.” She grinned at him. “Do you think I would tease you about your choice? I, who blurted out my adoration of Geoffrey? At least you don’t have to worry about being entirely overlooked by your beloved. You’re quite good-looking; the girls don’t know you well enough to guess at your faults; you sing like an angel when someone can coax you into it; and you shall have a title someday. They would have fallen about hoping to dance with you last night and I could have watched it from the side.”
“I loathe balls,” James said, but he wasn’t really paying attention. He was trying to puzzle something out; she recognized the look.
“She’s not married, is she?” Theo asked.
“Married? Who’s married?”
“The woman who has fixed your attention!”
“There isn’t anyone.” The edge of his mouth didn’t curl, so he was probably telling the truth.
“Petra Abbot-Sheffield has a lovely singing voice,” Theo said thoughtfully.
“I hate singing.”
Theo knew that, but she thought he would surely grow out of it. When James sang “Lives again our glorious king!” in church she found herself shivering all over at the pure beauty of it, the way his voice swooped up to the rafters and then settled into an angel’s trumpet for “Where, O death, is now thy sting?” Whenever he sang she thought of the bright green leaves in late spring. “Isn’t it interesting that I think in colors,” she asked now, “and you think in music?”
“Not at all, because I do not think about music.”
“Well, you should think in music,” Theo revised. “Given your voice.” But he was obviously in a serious temper, and she had learned over the years that the best tactic was not to engage when he was peevish.
“I wish I had your advantages.” She dropped onto her bed and drew up her knees so she could hug them against her chest. “If I were you, Geoffrey would be at my feet.”
“I doubt it. He wouldn’t want a wife who has to shave twice a day.”
“You know what I meant. All I need is for people to start paying attention to me,” Theo said, rocking back and forth a little bit. “If I just had even the smallest audience, I could be funny. You know I could, James. I could talk circles about Claribel. I just need one proper suitor, someone who’s not a fortune-hunter. Someone who would … ” An idea popped into her head, fully formed and beautiful.
“What?” He raised his head.
For a moment, looking at him, she almost dropped her idea. His eyes were positively tragic, and there were hollows in his cheeks, as if he hadn’t eaten enough lately. He looked exhausted. “Are you all right? What on earth did you do last night? You look like a drunkard who spent a night in a back alley.”
One had to suppose he had spent the previous evening drowning in cognac. Her mother was of the opinion that gentlemen pickled themselves in the stuff by age thirty as a matter of course. “I have an idea,” she said, returning to her point. “But it would mean that you’d have to delay your plan to marry for the immediate present.”
“I have no such plan. I don’t wishto get married, no matter what my father says about it.” James could be maddeningly sullen when he wished. It had gotten better since he was fifteen, but not that much better. “Do you know what I hate most in the world?”
“I’m sure you’ll say your father, but you don’t really mean it.”
“Besides him. I hate feeling guilty.”
“Who on earth makes you feel guilty? You’re the perfect scion of the house of Ashbrook.”
He ran a hand through his hair again. “That’s just what everyone thinks. Sometimes I would kill to go away, where they’ve never heard of earls and noblesse oblige and all the rest of it. Where a man could be judged on who he is, rather than on his title and the rest of that tomfoolery.”
Theo frowned at him. “I don’t see where the guilt comes in.”
“I’ll never be good enough.” He got up and strode to the side of the room and looked out the window.
“You’re being absurd! Everyone loves you, including me, and if that doesn’t mean something, I don’t know what does. I know you better than anyone in the world, and if I say you’re good enough, then you are.”
He turned around and she found to her relief that he had a lopsided smile on his face. “Daisy, do you suppose you’ll try to take over the House of Parliament someday?”
“They should be so lucky!” she retorted. “But seriously, James, will you at least listen to my plan?”
“To conquer the world?”
“To conquer Geoffrey, which is much more important. If you would pretend to woo me, just long enough so that I would be noticed, it would mean the world to me. You never come to balls, and if you began to escort me, then everyone would be asking why, and before we knew it, I would find myself talking to Geoffrey about something … and then I could charm him into overlooking my profile and he would be mine.” She sat back, triumphant. “Isn’t that a brilliant plan?”
James’s eyes narrowed. “It has some advantages.”
“Father would think I was wooing you, and leave me alone for a bit.”
Theo clapped. “Perfect! I’m absolutely certain that Geoffrey will talk to you. Wasn’t he head boy in your last year at Eton?”
“Yes, and because of that I can tell you straight out that Trevelyan would make an uncomfortable husband. He’s far too clever for his own good. And he has a nasty way of making jokes about people.”
“That’s what I like about him.”
“Not to mention the fact that he’s ugly as sin,” James added.
“He isn’t! He’s deliciously tall and his eyes are bronzy-brown colored. They make me think of—”
“Do not tell me,” James said with an expression of utter revulsion. “I don’t want to know.”
“Of morning chocolate,” Theo said, ignoring him. “Or Tib’s eyes when he was a puppy.”
“Tib is a dog,” James said, displaying a talent for the obvious. “You think the love of your life looks like a ten-year-old, obese dog?” He assumed a mockingly thoughtful attitude. “You’re right! Trevelyan does have a doggy look about him! Why didn’t I notice that?”
Demonstrating that she had not spent seventeen years in the Duke of Ashbrook’s household for nothing, Theo threw one of her slippers straight at James’s head. It skimmed his ear, which led to an ungraceful (and rather juvenile) scene in which he chased her around the bedchamber. When he caught her, he snatched her around the waist, bent her forward, and rubbed his knuckles into her skull while she howled in protest.
It was a scene that Theo’s bedroom, and indeed, many other chambers on various Ashbrook estates, had seen many a time.
But even as Theo howled and kicked at his ankles, James had the sudden realization that he was holding a fragrant bundle of woman. That those were breasts against his arm. That Daisy’s rounded bottom was grinding against him and it felt …
His hands flew apart without conscious volition, and she fell to the ground with an audible thud. There was true annoyance in her voice as she rose, rubbing her knee.
“What’s the matter with you?” she scolded. “You’ve never let me fall before.”
“We shouldn’t play such games. We’re—You’re soon to be a married woman, after all.”
Theo narrowed her eyes.
“And my arm is sore,” James added quickly, feeling his cheeks warm. He hated lying. And he particularly hated lying to Daisy.
“You look fine to me,” she said, giving him a sweeping glance. “I don’t see an injury that warrants your dropping me on the floor like a teacup.”
It wasn’t until James practically ran from the room that Theo sank onto the bed and thought about what just what she had seen. Not that any woman could overlook it.
She’d seen that particular bulge in men’s breeches before. It was a shock to see it on James, though. She didn’t think of him in those terms.
But then, all of a sudden, she did.
End of Chapter Two. Like it? Order it!
Eight hours later …
“Theodora, darling, are you ready?” Mrs. Saxby entered Theo’s room in a headlong trot. Theo often thought of her dear mama as being like an ostrich, all neck and long legs in constant motion.
At the moment that neck was much in evidence, as diamonds glittered all over it.
“Tell me how I look,” her mother demanded.
“Like St. Paul’s at Christmas,” Theo said, giving her a kiss. “All twinkly and pretty, as if you wore a necklace of stars.”
Her mother turned a little pink. “I am wearing quite a lot of diamonds, aren’t I? But the countess’s ball comes only once a year. One should definitely put one’s best foot forward.”
“Or best diamonds, as the case may be,” Theo agreed.
“Let me look at you, darling,” her mother said, drawing back. “That dress is quite pretty.”
“I loathe pretty,” Theo said, knowing this opinion carried no weight. “‘Pretty’ is terrible on me, Mama.”
“I think you look absolutely lovely,” her mother replied, honesty shining from her whole face. “Like the prettiest, sweetest girl in the whole of London.”
“You don’t think that you might be the slightest bit blinded by your maternal sensibilities?” Theo asked, submitting to a fragrant hug.
“Not at all. Not a bit.”
“Last night I overheard two girls remarking on how much I look like a boy,” Theo said, probing the memory like a sore tooth. “And let’s not even entertain the idea that I’m sweet, Mama.”
Her mother scowled. “That’s absurd. How can anyone possibly think such a thing? They’re probably blind, like poor Genevieve Heppler. Her mother will not allow her to wear her spectacles, and last night she blundered straight into me.”
“They think it because I do look like a boy,” Theo retorted. But she didn’t expect agreement, and she didn’t get it. “At any rate,” she said, “James and I have hatched a scheme that will get me noticed by the utterly delicious Geoffrey.”
For some reason, Mrs. Saxby did not think that young Lord Geoffrey Trevelyan was as perfect as Theo knew him to be. But, then, she hadn’t spent much of the last three weeks examining him as closely as Theo had—albeit from afar, since they’d exchanged scarcely a word.
“James will pretend to woo me,” Theo explained, turning to the mirror and patting the ringlets that had taken her maid a good hour to concoct.
Mrs. Saxby’s mouth fell inelegantly open. “He will what?”
“Pretend—just pretend, obviously—to woo me. His father has determined it’s time he looked for a wife. But James doesn’t want to. You know how he hates even making an appearance at a ball, let alone engaging in polite conversation with a lady. But if it looks as if he’s squiring me around the ballroom, not only will the duke be appeased, but everyone will take note, because James never comes to events like these. And that means they will notice me.”
“They’ll take note all right,” her mother said, and a rather fascinated expression crossed her face.
“Once they are actually looking at me, I can attract Geoffrey’s attention,” Theo said. The scheme sounded rather foolish once she said it aloud. A man like Lord Geoffrey Trevelyan probably didn’t care to have a horse-faced girl like herself making clever remarks at him.
But her mother looked rather surprisingly amenable. Then a frown crossed her face and she asked, quite sharply, “Whose idea was this?”
“Mine,” Theo admitted. “I don’t think James wanted to, but I didn’t give him the chance to refuse. Besides, it is the perfect solution to the duke’s demand that he marry. He’s far too young, don’t you think, Mama? He’s not even twenty.”
“I don’t know about that,” her mother said. “In terms of maturity, he’s already at least a decade older than his father. And from what I hear, he’d better marry a girl with a fortune so that he can repair the estate once Ashbrook falls over in an apoplectic fit. I expect that’s why the duke is pushing him onto the market.”
“You’re always telling me not to make cutting remarks,” Theo said. “Just listen to yourself, Mama. Do I really have to wear these pearls? I detest pearls.”
“Young ladies wear pearls. What are you doing, darling?”
Theo looked up from her writing desk. “I’m amending my list. Just in case I ever get to dress as I wish.”
“Something about pearls?”
“Yes. I’ve added two rules in the last day or so. Pearls are for swine.”
“And debutantes,” her mother added. “What’s the other one?”
“You won’t like this one,” Theo observed. “Etonians merit consideration.”
“I don’t dislike it. But I think rank is a better judge of a man than education. Besides that, there are schools other than Eton, my dear.”
“Mama! This list has nothing to do with possible husbands; it only addresses how I shall dress when I have the chance to be myself. In short, once I am married. The Etonian morning coat is altogether delicious. I don’t care a bit about the bodies inside it, unless one of them is mine.”
“I hope I don’t live to see you dress like a schoolboy,” her mother said, shuddering visibly. “I don’t like to even imagine it.”
“Don’t you remember the hopeless adoration James had for the captain of the cricket team after his first term? There’s a great deal of glamour to be had by looking like a schoolboy, if I can figure out how to harness it. At least it would stop girls from being so blasted sympathetic about my profile.”
“Here is my advice,” her mother said, turning from the mirror. “Every time you detect even the faintest hint of sympathy from one of those empty-headed little chits, reach up and touch your grandmother’s pearls. You may detest them, Theodora, but they are worth as much as most girls’ dowries. There’s much to be said for unentailed personal property when it come to attractiveness.”
“If I get near Geoffrey, I’ll be sure to direct his attention to them. Maybe I will draw the string through my teeth, just to make sure he sees it.” She came up behind her mother and gave her a hug. “I don’t know why I couldn’t have turned out to be as pretty as you are, Mama.”
Theo interrupted her. “Hush. I have a long nose and chin and I look remarkably mannish. But I can live with it, or at least, I could if I didn’t have to wear so many white ruffles that I look like a pail of foaming milk.”
Her mother smiled at her in the glass. “There isn’t a seventeen-year-old young lady in all London who doesn’t long to wear colors in the evening. It will happen soon enough.”
“Once I’m Lady Geoffrey Trevelyan,” Theo said with a giggle.