|An Abridged Excerpt From |
THE DUKE'S DESIRE
"Well, cousin," she observed with a maternal frown, "I must say the Italian air seems to agree with you, although you are quite brown."
She hit Galen's arm with her delicate ivory fan at each word. "Really..." Tap. "Quite..." Tap. "Brown."
Fortunately, her thin limbs were no more disturbing to him than a piece of goose down.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Deighton's notoriously sensual lips curved up into a smile and his hazel eyes, twinkling with wry humor, calmly returned her perusal.
Eloise was as ornately decorated as the large room that had originally been part of a medieval abbey. Her family had gained possession of the abbey during the reign of Henry the Eighth and had been renovating it ever since, some with better taste than others.
He sighed as he turned his attention to Eliose's many guests, the usual collection of friends and sycophants who enjoyed his cousin's generous hospitality. Not unexpectedly, a few of them suddenly flushed and abruptly turned their attention elsewhere.
If only his reputation had died with his departure!
Unfortunately, it had not, something brought home to him the moment he entered Almack's upon his return. The unctuous smiles, the knowing smirks, the jests about locking away wives and sisters...."
"I confess I cannot understand why you have lived abroad for the past ten years," Eloise declared.
Galen was extremely tempted to say it was because he preferred Italian peasants to his family and the British aristocracy in general, but he did not. After all, he was Eloise's guest, and no one was holding a gun to his head to force him to stay. "Because I like it."
Obviously offended by his cavalier response, Eloise said, "Perhaps you should have stayed there, then."
"I would have, if my father had not died."
Eloise reddened, and to lessen her embarrassment, he continued in the same casual tone. "So I have returned. However, dear cousin, you have not asked me why I have stayed."
"You have to run the estate," Eloise replied. "Or there is a woman, I suppose."
"No, I do not have to run the estate. Jasper can do that without my personal interference," Galen answered, naming the estate steward.
He moved closer to Eloise and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "But you are right. There is a woman."
Eloise's eyes widened with avid curiosity as he hesitated melodramatically. "I have decided to find a bride."
Eloise stared in amazement. "A...a what?"
"A bride. A wife. A spouse with whom to share the remainder of my days, and incidentally provide an heir. I have come home to get married."
"I don't believe...I cannot comprehend..."
His brow furrowed with grave concern. "Shall I call a footman for a glass of water or smellings salts, Eloise? You seem on the verge of a fainting spell."
"No! No! I am not ill. I am shocked! Surprised! Delighted! Married! You!"
Although she ostensibly addressed him, her gaze eagerly searched the room.
"I was not planning on making a selection today."
Eloise frowned. "It's not as if you are young, you know, Galen. You're over thirty."
"I know I have wasted quite enough time, Eloise, but I had my reasons."
Eloise's frown deepened. "Oh."
"I do stand in serious need of your superior knowledge of the ton, however," Galen said, not only because he did, but to placate her wounded feelings. "I wouldn't want to be carried away by a pretty face or charming manner."
Appeased, Eloise smiled. "I shall be delighted to be of assistance, Galen, delighted!" Then she frowned again.
"What is it? Is there someone unsuitable here possessing a pretty face and charming manner?"
"As a matter of fact, yes - not for the reasons you might think, or reasons you might hear from other people."
"My dear cousin, you have me all agog with curiosity," Galen replied, only slightly exaggerating.
"She's a very dear friend of mine from my school days."
Galen could remember the younger Eloise. What a giggly creature she had been, and if her "very dear friend" was similar, Eloise's warning was quite unnecessary.
"She's a widow. Her husband passed away years ago and she's been practically a hermit every since."
"I don't see any women wearing black," he observed after a quick scan of the bevy of silk-and-satin-clad ladies.
"She isn't here yet," Eloise replied. "She should be down shortly, unless her daughter has made some sort of fuss. She simply dotes on the child and will spoil her completely if she's not careful."
Galen's smile tightened. "I trust you have given her the benefit of your advice," he remarked. Eloise's opinions were very decided for a woman who had never been a mother.
"Naturally, but I doubt she will pay any heed. She was always stubborn."
"Then relax anew, cousin. I make it a policy to avoid stubborn women, and stubborn widows with children fill me with horror."
"Please don't talk like that around my friend! You'll scandalize her, I'm sure."
"We wouldn't want any of your guests scandalized," Galen agreed, thinking how much it would take to truly scandalize most of them. "So, once we are introduced, I will ignore her," he said.
His slight sarcasm was utterly lost on Eloise. "I know I can't expect that. Everybody knows you can't leave a pretty woman alone. Just don't flirt with her, or I'm sure that will send her scurrying back to Jefford as quick as a wink. She has heard about you, you know. Indeed, I fear..." Eloise flushed. "Well, I may have painted a rather...vivid...portrait of you."
Galen could easily imagine how Eloise had described him. The widow would likely expect him to have horns and a tail. "If you'll excuse me."
Before Eloise could protest, Galen turned and strode out onto the terrace. A swift glance over his shoulder told him Eloise had not followed, and he sighed with relief.
He should have known better that to take Eloise up on her invitation to stay at Potterton Abbey any time he found it convenient. He had forgotten that she would consider her house empty if she had anything less than twenty guests.
And now that he had told his voluble cousin his plan, he felt as if he might as well have set himself up for auction. Somebody should hang a placard around his neck reading, "For Sale, One Duke, in slightly used condition."
He paused a moment and slowly surveyed Eloise's garden. She was a gossiping, usually harmless busybody, but she did have beautiful gardens.
With another sigh, he headed toward the shrubbery. In theory, the bushes were supposed to represent untrammeled nature. Eloise, however, would no more allow nature to run wild within her domain than she would allow her husband to get a word in edgewise during a game of whist.
Alerted by the warning cry, Galen ducked as some kind of missile flew past his head. "What in -!"
"I'm sorry!" a little girl called as she ran toward him from the shrubbery. She picked up her ball and paused awkwardly, blushing and regarding him with brilliantly blue eyes beneath a riot of dark curls. "I didn't know anybody was nearby when I kicked it," she continued in soft and sorry tones.
She could have been any age from eight, if she were tall for her age, to twelve, if she were short. She was well dressed in a dark garment devoid of ornamentation, which bespoke mourning, and made of fine enough fabric that he guessed she was the child of one of Eloise's guests.
His heart went out to a child who had cause to wear mourning clothes, especially this sprite of a girl whose bright eyes made him think she really ought to be wearing something pastel and decorated with flowers.
Then he wondered if this was the daughter of Eloise's bereaved friend, the stubborn widow.
"That's quite all right," he assured the child, giving her a smile. Galen Bromney's smiles were not particularly rare; however, a sincere smile on his face was. "I"m glad to know I was not under attack."
The girl's eyes widened as she clutched her ball close. "Have you ever been under attack?"
"Once or twice," Galen replied ruefully.
The girl's mouth formed an awestruck circle.
"At the risk to my reputation, and to be completely honest," Galen confessed, "the weapon was words, not a sword."
The child's face fell and quite suddenly Galen felt the most outrageous sense of loss. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Duke of Deighton," he said formally, making his very best bow.
He was absurdly pleased to see the awe return to her blue eyes as she made a graceful little curtsy. "I am Miss Jocelyn Davis-Jones," she replied gravely.
"How do you do, Miss Davis-Jones?"
"Very well, thank you, Your Grace."
He was impressed she knew the proper form of address. "Are you all by yourself?" he asked, looking around for other children.
"Yes," she said in a tone that was both hurt and defiant.
She must have seen the puzzlement in his face. "They didn't want to come outside, so I came by myself. I don't mind being alone."
"Admirable independence, Miss Davis-Jones."
"I would rather be at home. I don't like it here."
"I am sorry to hear that."
The child flushed. "Lady Bodenham is very nice, and her house is wonderful, and her cook makes lovely puddings, but I miss my own house."
"I do, too," Galen confessed. "My house is in Italy."
"Are you Italian?"
He shook his head. "No, but I have lived in Italy for the past ten years, and I think of it as my home."
Indeed, his villa was more of a home than his family's seat had ever been, even if it could be just as lonely.
Galen nodded at the ball in her hands. "I haven't played football for a very long time. Wouldn't you like to play a game?"
Jocelyn Davis-Jones tilted her head and scrutinized him skeptically. As she did, he realized he wanted this child to like him, although he couldn't say why.
"You might get your clothes messy."
Galen suspected this warning had been given to her many times. "I am willing to accept the consequences," he declared.
He was rewarded with a smile before the girl put the ball on the ground. While Galen wondered if her bountiful curls were natural, she suddenly - and without a word of warning - kicked the ball directly at him.
With a desterous leap, he eluded it, then scrambled to catch the ball with his foot. He kicked it back toward Jocelyn while he crouched down in anticipation of the next kick, regardless of the crease of his trousers or what his valet might say.
The little girl was fast, and soon had the ball between her feet. In another instant, it came flying along the ground toward Galen, who threw out his leg in a wild and foolish attempt to stop it.
With a roar of dismay and not a little pain, he fell to the ground.
"Are you hurt?" Jocelyn cried.
"No," Galen muttered as he grabbed the ball and got back on his feet as fast as his thirty-year-old legs and one slightly pulled muscle would let him.
He held the ball out, dropped it and caught it midair with a kick. With a bleat like a lamb, she was after it and Galen took a moment to brush bits of greenery from his trousers.
At the sound of a foot colliding with the ball, he looked up, then dashed across the open space to intercept. He gave a cry of triumph as he returned the ball without having to bring the rolling object to a complete stop.
The child ran the other way to catch it, but before she could, it disappeared under a particularly bushy shrub. Bending over, she peered under it. "I can't see where it went!"
Galen hurried to help her look for it.
They were both bent over and scanning the thick trunks and branches of the smoothly pruned bushes when they heard a woman calling Jocelyn's name.
His companion straightened. "That's my mama. It must be time for tea." She glanced worriedly at the bushes that had apparently swallowed up her toy. "She'll be upset if I've lost my ball."
"Then I shall stay and look for it," Galen offered. "I'm sure it can't be far - although I did give it a prodigious kick."
Galen and his little friend turned to find a young woman looking at them quizzically.
At the sight of her instantly recognized face, a host of emotions shot through Galen - joy, dismay, anger and excitement.
He took a step forward, then caught himself.
He had never wanted to see her again. During these past ten years, he had hoped he would never see her again. Good God, why did he have to see her again?
It had been ten years, yet Verity Escombe was much the same, with those questioning blue eyes that her daughter had inherited and her lips parted as if about to ask a question, or in anticipation of his kiss.
He looked at her left hand and saw the wedding ring.
"Mama, this is the Duke of Deighton," Jocelyn announced, hurrying forward and taking her mother by the hand to lead her toward him. "We've been playing."
He glanced at the child. No matter how he felt about Verity, he wouldn't hurt her little girl by being rude, so he bowed elegantly and spoke as if he had never met Verity Escombe before.
As if, ten years ago, she had not seduced and abandoned him.