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A Duke Deceived excerpt

Chapter One

 "So now you know why I cannot let Mama throw me on the marriage mart, why I can nev-never marry," whimpered Emily, burying her tear-streaked face in her hands.

It pained Bonny Barbara Allan to watch Emily's shoulders bent over the dressing table, heaving in wave after wave of fresh sobs. What hurt even more was Bonny's own powerlessness to help the only two people she cared about. She could no more ease her cousin's acute suffering than she could heal her own beloved mother of the destructive disease ravaging her body.

Bonny's lashes swooped down, clearing tears from her own eyes. "If you shan't marry," she began in a soothing voice, "what will you do? What is it you want from life, Em?"

The question had the effect of renewing Emily's sobbing. "All that I ever w-w-w-wanted has been taken from me." Emily blotted her face with a fresh handkerchief before a new assault of tears gushed forth.

Bonny crossed the carpeted bedroom and stood beside Emily, gently patting her shoulders. Presently, she suggested, "I think you should tell your parents everything."

Emily straightened up, her hands dropping to her lap, her knuckles whitening as she twisted the handkerchief. She turned frightened eyes on Bonny. "Never! Promise me you'll never tell them–you'll never tell anybody."

"I would never tell anyone," Bonny said reassuringly.

"Especially my mother. You know what she's like. I'm terrified of her."

If the truth be known, Aunt Lucille fairly terrified Bonny, too. "But surely," Bonny said, thinking of the close relationship she enjoyed with her own mother, "you could talk to her at a time like this."

"You're the only one I can turn to since Aunt Camille's gone. I hated to ask you for the money from your grandmother, but there was no one else I could go to. I vow I'll repay you when I get my portion from Aunt Camille's estate."

Bonny waved off her cousin's gratitude. "Pooh, it's nothing. I owe you and your father for coaxing your mother into letting me come to visit here in London." She took a silver-handled brush from Emily's dressing table and lovingly ran it through her cousin's blond tresses.

"Don't pretend that coming here was what you wanted," Emily said, sniffing. "I know you too well, Bonny. You always do everything for everybody else. The only reason you wanted a season in London was to ease your mother's worry."

Seized with a growing sense of grief, Bonny swallowed hard. "I do want Mama to be able to die happy, knowing I'll be taken care of."

Emily, her eyes lowered ruefully, turned from her dressing table to take Bonny's hands. "I've been so selfish talking about my problems, when you've had to watch your mother's life slip away day by day."

"Mama's illness does seem to have devastated me far more than it has her. She continues to say she has had a long, happy life, that all she wants is for me to make a decent match."

"Only decent? With your beauty? Everybody talks of how lovely you are." A feeble smile crept across Emily's somber face and an impish twinkling sparked her reddened eyes. "Which, of course, makes Mama seething mad, but even Mama would have to admit that you could have any man you choose."

Bonny made no attempt to deny her own beauty. That she was extraordinarily beautiful was as much a fact as knowledge that the sun would rise on the morrow. But where nature had been overly generous, circumstances had failed her. "I'm prepared for disappointment since I have no dowry," she said simply.

"With your face, it won't matter."

"Perhaps not to the man, but it will to his family."

"Then you'll simply have to pick one who's already come into his majority."

"I may not have the luxury of selecting a prospective husband."

Emily put aside her drenched handkerchief. "Do you mean you'll take the first one who asks?"

"I may have to. My mother's consumption worsens by the day, and I must assure her that my future is secure."

"Would it not upset you terribly to have a loveless marriage?"

Of course it would cause her a great deal of anguish. How horrid it must be to lie naked with any man, to have him probe one's body, but to lie with a man one didn't love, she thought, must be God's punishment for betraying the sacred bonds of matrimony. Instead of sharing these thoughts with Emily, though, Bonny calmly said, "Haven't your parents had a loveless marriage these last thirty years?"

"I'm quite sure they haven't slept together since I was born eighteen years ago," Emily said matter-of-factly.

"But Alfred's twenty-nine. They must have slept together during the eleven years between your birth and your brother's."

"There would be more than the two of us if they had. What I believe is that they became estranged after Alfred was born. Then I think Papa probably lost himself one night when he was in his cups and made love to Mama nineteen years ago." She giggled. "I believe that's why he no longer imbibes."

If he no longer imbibed, Bonny thought affectionately, it certainly was not because he regretted begetting Emily. She was so much the image of her father–skin the color of butterscotch, small bones, wide blue eyes, blond hair– and only Emily's presence could soften a face hardened by thirty years with a faithless wife. "If you didn't look so much like your father," Bonny said, "I would think..." She hesitated.

"You'd think I was sired by one of Mama's lovers?"

"Then you know about them?"

Emily nodded.

"My mother doesn't approve. I don't think I do, either," Bonny said. "If I should have a loveless marriage, I shouldn't wish to take a lover."

"But lovers can be quite satisfactory. Look at Lady Lavinia Heffington. She has the Duke of Radcliff for her lover, and there's not a woman alive who wouldn't swoon over him."

Bonny could understand–understand, not necessarily approve of–lying with a man one was attracted to. "I've heard that the Duke of Radcliff is not nearly as handsome as his heir, Stanley Moncrief."

Emily took a long sniff, patted her eyes one last time with a dry corner of her handkerchief and tossed it on top of her dressing table. "That is true, but there's something about the duke. He's so terribly serious looking. And there's a strength about him. You could picture him slaying dragons with his bare hands for the woman he loves."

Bonny's eyebrows shot up. Such a man held interest for her. "If he loves this Lady Heffington, why doesn't he marry her? Didn't old Lord Heffington pass away some three years ago?"

"Why buy the cow," Emily suggested, "when you can get the milk for free?" As the words fell from her own lips, Emily gasped, and her crying recommenced. "But Harold really was going to m-m-m-marry me."

At precisely this moment, Lady Landis walked into her daughter's room and threw up her arms in indignation. "I simply cannot abide this infernal crybaby business of yours, Emily. Just look at you! That face is much too pretty to go ruining, making it all red."

With a swish of silk, Lady Landis glided across the floor and stood over her seated daughter, glancing at her own face in the looking glass hanging over Emily's dressing table. Tendrils of hair, a subtle mixture of red and gray, curled about her still-pretty face. Her neck had thickened, like her waist, but because of her huge, cat green eyes, her face remained something out of the ordinary. She blinked into the mirror, opened her eyes even wider, gave her reflection a satisfied smile, then spun round to face Bonny, narrowing her eyes.

"My daughter needs to rest for tonight's fete. Please remove yourself from this room, Barbara." Her long fingers raked through her hair. "I refuse to call you that odious name from that terrible ballad. Bonny Barbara Allan, indeed! Your father must have been half-mad to have named you that. And the earl's sister, too, for allowing her baby to be called such a silly, common name."

Emily grasped Bonny's hand and held it tight, her eyes beseeching her cousin to stay. "But, Mama, I can't go tonight. I'm too distraught over...over Aunt Camille's death. We–you and I both–should be in mourning."

"After all the money I've spent on your gowns–" Lady Landis glared at Bonny "–and gowns for your penniless cousin, I can ill afford to allow you to go into mourning. You'd surely be a different size next year."

"We could have them cut down later," Emily proposed. "I do seem to be getting thinner."

The earl's eyes narrowed again. "It's no wonder, the way you hardly touch your food. You have been so changed ever since you came back from Spain. At first I was so pleased. You'd turned into such a lovely woman. Your breasts were so full. I fancied you beautiful enough to become a duchess." She glared at her slender daughter and spoke with contempt. "But now you're withering away, making yourself a disgusting watering pot."

Emily squared her shoulders and faced her mother, pleading, "Think of Aunt Camille–your only sister."

Lady Landis's artificially darkened lashes lowered, a look of pain sweeping across her face. "Need I remind you," she said, her voice shaking, "how much I miss Camille? And truly I am mourning her even though I'm not wearing black. Remember, almost no one is leaving the Peninsula in the thick of all this dreadful war business. No one in London has heard of her death yet."

"But you can't expect me to smile and be pleasant to any gentlemen in my state of grief?"

Lady Landis crept toward her daughter like a tiger toward its prey. "I can, and you will."

Emily threw a panicked glance at her cousin as Bonny slipped quietly from the room.

 * * *

 Lady Lavinia Heffington looked into the distracted face of Richard Moncrief, the fifth Duke of Radcliff, and followed his gaze ten feet across the wooden ballroom floor. There stood perhaps the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, a raven-haired beauty who was surrounded by men. Even from this distance the young woman's long eyelashes and perfectly white teeth could be observed. Though Lady Heffington did not at all like what she saw, she managed a smile, thrust out her ample bosom a bit farther and said in the sweetest of tones, "Will you escort me to dinner tonight, Radcliff?"

The duke did not respond. His eyes were riveted on the lovely creature while his mind absorbed every aspect of her. Her woman's body in the soft white dress. Thick black hair swept back loosely from the smooth perfection of her china-doll face. Eyes that were neither blue nor green but a curious mixture of the two. And a smile that erased all the world's pain. God's eyes, but she was gorgeous, he thought.

And to think, he would not have been here at all had the hostess not been one of his late mother's dearest friends. He had grown so bloody tired of the balls and routs, the gaming hells, the heavy drinking, the excesses he and the other bloods had enjoyed these past fifteen years.

It was time he settled down. He thought of how happy his parents had been in their marriage. A sadness nearly overcame him as he pictured them sitting before a fire, reading by candlelight, utterly content with only each other's presence. That is what he had come to long for.

But, of course, he was not likely to find his life's mate in one of these chits just out of the schoolroom who could talk of nothing but the weather and the latest fashions.

"Radcliff?" Lady Heffington tapped her foot impatiently.

He turned to the copper-headed woman, lifting a single eyebrow. Perhaps he should marry a more mature woman. A widow. He eyed the lovely widow at his side. It was certain that she wouldn't do at all back within the comforting walls of Hedley Hall. Lady Heffington gained her sustenance from elaborate ball gowns and admiring glances.

"I asked if you would escort me to dinner later." Her voice was smooth and rich, like good cognac.

"I'm not sure I'll be here."

She pouted. "You will claim me for a waltz?"

His eyes sparkled. "But, my dear Lavinia, if I am to hold you that close, I'd infinitely prefer to be in the horizontal position."

Lady Heffington slithered closer. "You're so naughty, Radcliff."

"I endeavor to please, madam."

She slapped her fan against his velvet sleeve.

"Thank you for standing up with me," he said with finality, moving away from her and across the crowded ballroom toward the card room. After taking but half a dozen steps, he was stopped short of his destination.

"There you are," said James Edward Twìckingham, who had answered to the name Twigs since his Eton days. "I say, Radcliff, everyone here tells me the horse you bought at Tatt's today went for four hundred guineas. Why would a horse fetch so much?"

"Because it's the most perfect piece of horseflesh ever to set foot on English soil."

"You rode it here tonight?" Twigs asked hopefully.

"No, my friend, but I'll show it to you tomorrow."

Smiling, Twigs pulled his lanky body face-to-face with the duke and lowered his voice. "Devilishly dull here, old boy. Interest you in a game of whist?"

The duke's gaze once again darted to the dark-haired beauty. "I don't think it's dull at all, Twigs. It looks to be a most interesting night." He leaned closer to Twigs and spoke in low tones. "Do you know who that beautiful woman over there is?"

"Beautiful woman?" Twigs's head bobbed from one point of the ballroom to the other. "Where?"

"Where are all the men gathered?"

"In the card room, naturally."

"In this room, you idiot." Since Twigs was not only his best friend but also his oldest friend, Radcliff could take liberties in his address. "Where do you see most of the men flocked?"

Twigs pondered this for a moment, then ventured, "Over there by Alfred Wickham's cousin."

"Do you mean to say that black-haired lady is Wickham's cousin?"

Twigs's eyes shot to the woman in question. "Hair is black, I do believe. Yep, that's Wickham's cousin. Name's Bonny Barbara Allan. Like the song."

The duke recited the first stanza of "Barbara Allan" to himself.

In Scarlet Town where I was born
there was a fair maid dwelling.
Made every youth cry Well-a-way!
Her name was Barbara Allan.

"Barbara Allan." The words fell off his tongue like precious poetry. "Could you introduce me?" He moved toward Bonny.

"Would if I knew her. Fact is, I don't."

They were within five feet of her now, and the duke noticed that his own cousin, Stanley Moncrief, had found his way to the beauty's side. What a good-looking pair they made, he thought. Stanley, with his coloring like hers and his almost-too-handsome face, was nearly as exceptional as she.

A sudden longing to hear the Incomparable's voice, to shut out all the noises of merriment in the crowded room overwhelmed the duke, and he moved closer to her.

"Miss Allan," he heard Stanley say, "may I have the honor of calling on you at home tomorrow?"

The Beauty gave him a mischievous look. "You may, but I will not be there, sir."

The men circling her chuckled at her flippant reply.

Radcliff's eyes twinkled. This was no simpering miss, throwing herself at Stanley's feet as all the other women did. The duke's hand stopped Twigs from advancing, and the two of them stood a few feet from Miss Allan, watching as Stanley maintained his perfect smile and exited the group, his face flaming.

Stanley's gaze swung up to meet the duke's. "Richard, I had no idea you were here. I thought you were still at Hedley Hall. Is all well there?"

"Yes. I'm taking very good care of Hedley Hall, but don't depend upon it just because you're next in line. I plan to outlive you."

Stanley smiled graciously, a dimple creasing one handsome cheek. "I'm sure you will. After all, you're only my senior by a mere five years."

The duke glanced at Miss Allan. "And I may still marry and produce an heir."

Stanley looked from Radcliff to Bonny. "Do you know the lovely Bonny Barbara Allan?"

"Not yet."

"But I'm sure you will, cousin. You have such an infamous appreciation for beautiful things." Stanley looked at Lady Heffington and took his leave to dance with her.

"I've got just the ticket!" Twigs announced to Radcliff.

"For what?" the duke inquired.

"To meet the Bonny gel. Get Wickham to introduce you."

"I regret that I haven't seen Wickham tonight."

"Pity. Neither have I. Oh well, shall we go to the card room?"

 * * *

 Emily moved to Bonny's side and whispered, "If you'll look straight ahead at the two men walking from the card room, you will see the Duke of Radcliff. He wears a royal blue velvet coat."

Bonny turned to watch him. He stood under six feet in height and at first seemed nothing but ordinary. Average height, build only a little more muscular than average, wavy hair the color of honeyed toast. But there was something in his craggy face that suggested an inner strength that knew no equal. Perhaps it was the way the corners of his firmly set mouth tugged downward that gave him a sense of omniscience. Bonny studied his face as he politely listened to whatever it was his friend was saying, his eyes holding a hint of insolence.

A Lord Something-or-Other came to claim Bonny for the next dance. Bonny learned the young gentleman's name was Reginald Keating, but the quadrille offered no further opportunity to converse. As they danced, she felt the eyes of the Duke of Radcliff on her, but she avoided his pensive gaze. Though she felt uncomfortable knowing he watched her, she wanted to perform her dance steps flawlessly. She wanted the duke to find no fault with her.

When the dance ended and Keating escorted Bonny from the dance floor, the Duke of Radcliff approached them.

Her heart hammering, Bonny still avoided the duke's gaze. Why did the man have such an effect on her?

"Keating," the duke said, eyeing Bonny, "might I commend you on your selection of dance partners? Pray, make me known to this lovely lady."

Keating, his cheeks turning red, stammered, "C-certainly, your grace." He stepped away from Bonny and presented her. "Your grace, the Duke of Radcliff, I should like to present to you Miss Bonny Barbara Allan." With a half bow and the utterance of "Your very obedient servant," Keating took his leave.

Radcliff peered into Bonny's eyes. "Bonny doesn't suit you. You were born to be a Barbara."

She cocked her head and said challengingly, "Why doesn't Bonny suit, your grace?" She hoped her response concealed the tremors within.

"Because it implies a lovely, rosy-cheeked child. Not a woman with regal bearing."

She could feel the sweep of his gaze, and she could not have felt more undressed had he removed her gown. Color flooded her face.

"Would I be too much the fool to hope you could save one dance for me tonight, Miss Allan?"

The only dances still open were waltzes. Aunt Lucille had told Bonny she was not to dance the waltz until the patronesses at Almack's accorded her permission. But she had been waltzing back at Milford for the past two years, and she was quite good at it. "I have promised every dance, save for the waltzes, your grace."

"A waltz will do very well."

* * * 

While the duke and the beauty engaged in discourse, Stanley Moncrief eyed the pair from beneath lowered brows. It was not the first time he had studied Bonny Barbara Allan. Since first laying eyes on her a week before, he had contrived to reacquaint himself with Alfred Wickham, to learn where Wickham's lovely cousin would be each night, to dance the maximum two dances with her on each occasion and, simply, to join her court of admirers.

Did she not realize how fortunate she was to receive such homage from one whose blood was far more blue? From one to whom any number of women in this very room would readily surrender their virtue? To think he had relaxed his own rule of courting only heiresses in order to pay such marked attentions to this country miss, who had returned the privilege with the utmost discourtesy.

Only steam shooting from his ears could have accurately portrayed his thunderous mood as he watched Bonny treat his cousin with such civility. Did she not know Richard could not ride nearly so well as he could? And did she not observe that the duke's dress was not of the latest order of fashion, as was his own? Why, just look at Richard's cravat! Had his own man created so simple an effect he would have turned him out without a reference! And Richard's address was not as generally commended as his own. He was the one who had patiently cultivated Bonny's acquaintance, yet Richard–not following the proper, if unwritten, rules of the ton–had blatantly introduced himself to the unworthy chit and now enjoyed the fruits of what Stanley could only perceive as the advantage of his cousin's rank.

Well, he was not going to let the chit make a cake of him. Stanley strode across the room to an assemblage of young women, with a flicker of his eyes detected the loveliest one and begged the pretty thing to stand up with him.

The girl's widened eyes sparkled when the handsome Stanley distinguished her with his notice, and she floated with him to the dance floor on a cloud of her own self-importance.

 

 

When the duke claimed Bonny for a waltz, he slipped an arm around her, finding her size much to his liking. She was neither short nor tall but just right. "Is this your first journey to London, Miss Allan?"

"Yes, your grace."

"And how do you like it?"

"I know I'm supposed to say I'm in raptures, but actually I find myself quite uncomfortable."

The duke's step slowed, and he shot her a concerned gaze. "How so, Miss Allan?"

"Being country bred, I find so many rules a bit stifling."

"Well put!" he exclaimed. "I confess to such feelings myself." The girl must be referring to Almack's, he thought. "Tell me, have you been to Almack's?"

"Not yet, your grace."

He made a mental note to get Lady Jersey to send a voucher to the remarkable Barbara Allan. But, of course, others in her party would have to be included. "You stay with your family, Miss Allan?"

"With my uncle, David Wickham, Earl of Landis. I am to be presented along with his daughter, Emily."

Two vouchers, he thought. "Where, then, are your parents?"

"I'm from the North Country, your grace." She hesitated. "My father, who has been dead six years now, was a country vicar and something of a scholar."

He liked her even better for her honesty. Most maidens avoided mentioning vicar fathers–and hence a lack of dowry. In no way did the lovely Bonny Barbara Allan act like a girl straight from the schoolroom, as he knew she must be. Even her full, rich voice sounded like a woman's.

"Did your father's sons inherit his interest in scholarly interests?" the duke asked.

She lowered her head. "Unfortunately for him, your grace, he had no sons. In fact, he and Mama were married some twenty years before they had a child, and they had to settle for one disappointing girl, whom I fear my father raised very much like a boy."

"I find it very hard to believe they were disappointed in you and even harder to believe you are anything like a boy." His eyes whisked over her entire body. "Did you inherit the scholarly pursuits?"

"I regret to say I wasn't a very good student, though Papa did try."

"Then you've read the classics?" he asked.

"Yes, your grace," she said shyly.

This beautiful creature he held in his arms must know a great deal more than all the other silly girls, he thought with appreciation. "Funny that you should say your parents had no children for twenty years. It was the same with my parents."

"Then you are an only child, too?"

"Yes. In fact, now I'm the only Moncrief left–save my second cousin, Stanley."

"I am so sorry for you, your grace." In a hoarse whisper, she added, "I will soon be the same."

"Your mother is ill?"

"Gravely."

By God, that's why the girl was in London. Soon to be orphaned with not two guineas to rub together, she would probably accept the first offer she received. The thought was like a blow to his windpipe. A surge of protective tenderness toward her washed over him.

And–against all logic–he vowed to be the first to make her an offer.

 


 

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