The Ugly Duchess

Book 4 in the Fairy Tales series

How can she dare to imagine he loves her…when all London calls her The Ugly Duchess?

Theodora Saxby is the last woman anyone expects the gorgeous James Ryburn, heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, to marry. But after a romantic proposal before the prince himself, even practical Theo finds herself convinced of her soon-to-be duke’s passion.
Still, the tabloids give the marriage six months.

Theo would have given it a lifetime…until she discovers that James desired not her heart, and certainly not her countenance, but her dowry. Society was shocked by their wedding; it’s scandalized by their separation.

Now James faces the battle of his lifetime, convincing Theo that he loved the duckling who blossomed into the swan.

And Theo will quickly find that for a man with the soul of a pirate, All’s Fair in Love—or War.

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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")? 
  • 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. 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 KissWith 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’s patented clever dialogue and complex characters make the unusual situation completely believable from setup to denouement.”

~ Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“…[The Ugly Duchess] is written with intelligence and wit by Ms. James’s incomparable pen.”

~ Romance Reviews Today (Perfect 10)

Enjoy an Excerpt

Chapter One

 “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.”

“I cannot.”

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—”

“Father!”

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 Excerpt

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The Ugly Duchess is available in the following formats:

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ISBN: 978-0062021731
August 28, 2012