Authors: Arabella Sheraton
An Imprint of
The Dangerous Duke, Copyright © Arabella Sheraton, 2011
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This e-Book is a work of fiction. While references may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are from the author’s imagination and are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental.
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First Published by Aurora Regency/AMP, July, 2010
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Published in the United States of America
Editor: Celina Summers
Cover Design: Kelly Shorten
Interior Book Design: Coreen Montagna
London, March 1818
The pages of the newspaper shook in Fenella Hawke’s trembling hands. The advertisement seemed like a gift from heaven and the answer to all her prayers, but would she be suitable?
“Read it out loud, dear.” Her aunt’s voice was calm and reassuring.
Wanted: refined and respectable gentlewoman to act as companion to a lady. Must be educated with good speaking voice. Reply with references to the following address.
Fenella looked up at her aunt, who was knitting placidly by the fire. “It’s an address in Surrey!”
Amber, her aunt’s aging spaniel, lifted her glossy russet head and wagged her tail in approval.
“How delightful,” said her aunt. “You’ve always liked the country air.”
“But Aunt Preston, how can you even think that I will obtain the position? I have no formal education; I have no friends who can vouch for my character and—worst of all —what if they question me about…my family?” Her lips quivered and she broke into a small sob, which she hastily stifled. “After the shame of what happened to Papa, I could not even tell them my real name.” She dropped the newspaper and buried her face in her hands.
“You won’t have to do anything of the sort.”
Fenella looked up at her aunt through the tears that threatened to drown her huge violet eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Come. Sit here and I will explain.”
Hastily dabbing at her nose with a rather soggy, crumpled handkerchief, Fenella gave a few more sniffs and then sank down on a small embroidered footstool. She fondled Amber’s silky ears as she looked questioningly at her aunt. Aunt Preston rolled up her knitting and stabbed the needles through the ball of wool. The ribbons on her widow’s cap waggled alarmingly as she shook her head in mock disapprobation.
Aunt Preston’s round, cheery face resembled a red, wrinkled apple. She smiled at her forlorn niece. “You’ll certainly do and I shall tell you why.” She put her finger under Fenella’s chin and turned her face from one side to the other. “Have you ever taken a good look at yourself in the mirror, my dear?”
“No, ma’am, not really. Papa was very against vanity. I wasn’t encouraged to admire myself although he did say once or twice that I am pretty.”
“I’m not surprised at your Papa’s behaviour,” her aunt said grimly. “Otherwise you might have noticed how many men admire you. Moreover, the word is
, not just pretty. Your dear Papa was a fool with money and made a foolish marriage, but he knew what a jewel he had as a daughter.” She sighed, picked up her knitting again, and shook out the wool. “He never gave you the life befitting a well-bred young girl. You should have had a home and proper schooling, with friends your own age. It wasn’t right, making you and your Mama lead a life of following the drum.” She clicked the needles as if to emphasise her point.
“Aunt!” Fenella jumped up in a flurry of petticoats and flounced over to the window, stumbling over a surprised Amber. “Please don’t speak a word against Papa.”
“Fenella, I am not a blind idiot when it comes to my brother.” Her aunt’s tone was sharp. “What sort of man goes off to the wars, marries a foreign woman, and then doesn’t even have the decency to set her up in a proper establishment safely back home in London? No, he had to drag her and a babe around on his Peninsula campaigns until your poor Mama died of fever.”
“It wasn’t his fault!” Fenella’s small hands clenched into fists. The tears she had managed to keep at bay finally won. Hot streams of anguish poured down her cheeks, turning her usually creamy complexion into a pink flush. “They loved each other. They would not be parted. Papa taught me history and languages and everything I need to know.”
“My dear, he may have taught you to read and write Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish, but nothing about needlework and painting, let alone the pianoforte.
accomplishments would have served you better,” Aunt Preston remarked tartly. “Not discussing the classics and philosophy.”
She gazed at her niece. Her expression softened as she patted the sofa. “Come, Fenella, my dear, let us not quarrel. I loved my younger brother and you need not be ashamed of him, despite his actions. He was a very brave man. He was decorated more than a few times and his men adored him, including my dear departed Cedric. I’m just angry that your Papa did not provide for you properly. He lost what little money he had when he should have secured your future. Now, because of his fecklessness, you have to seek employment.”
“I’m not afraid of working,” Fenella declared, tossing her head in defiance. She stared out the window, a mutinous expression marring her beauty as she thrust out a stubborn lower lip. Then, relenting, she returned to the sofa and sat down next to her aunt.
“But of course I need a position like this one advertised. I certainly don’t want to be a governess or a maidservant.” She wrinkled her dainty nose in distaste at the very thought. “Although I believe that a dresser to a lady of fashion can command a much higher wage than a governess and such a position is also considered to be one of consequence.”
“You shan’t have to be any kind of servant,” laughed her aunt, “so let’s have no more of the sullens. Being a lady’s companion is much more desirable. Nevertheless, we have somehow diverted from the original thread of the conversation. I was about to say that with your beauty and figure…”
Fenella put her hands up to her face and flushed at her aunt’s remark. Aunt Preston tapped her on the cheek. “Now don’t be coy, dear. Your face and figure would do you justice in any Society salon.”
Fenella smoothed down her skirts and gazed pensively at the fire. Her thoughts drifted back to her father. Although her dear Papa had indeed discouraged any admiration of herself, she had always had the faint suspicion it was in fact to put off the attentions of anyone else. Fenella’s budding beauty had become too glorious to conceal once she turned sixteen—it was with great relief that Colonel James Hawke sent his beloved daughter back to England, to live with, and be reared by her widowed aunt. Now, at just twenty, Fenella was beautiful. Not even the dowdy dress she had outgrown could conceal her tiny waist and swelling breasts. Her face was surrounded by masses of shiny dark curls that hinted at deep auburn glints when caught by sunlight. Her dewy complexion, cheeks delicately touched with rose, was perfect; full red lips that owed none of their ruby tint to artifice completed the picture.
The firelight flickered, lighting up Fenella’s fine profile and casting a warm glow in the cosy room.
“As I was saying,” Aunt Preston resumed, picking up a stitch she had dropped in her contemplation of Fenella’s future. “I am more than confident that this lady will find you the perfect choice as a companion.”
“Thank you, Aunt. You are too kind, but that’s only because we are related. Pray tell me; how you deduce that I am the perfect choice?”
Aunt Preston was prone to amateur detective work and enjoyed rather fanciful speculations about people and possible motives for their behaviour. The intrigue surrounding Napoleon’s spies and the scandalous sale of some of England’s military secrets during the war had afforded her hours of pleasurable cogitations. Alas, all the persons she had condemned as out-and-out conspirators had proven to be no more than ordinary citizens going about their daily lives. Her failed assessments in no way diminished her enthusiasm for conjecture. She picked up the newspaper.
“It seems to me, from the wording of this advertisement, that the lady is of advanced years or is ailing, has poor eyesight and wants an educated and refined companion to read aloud to her,” Aunt Preston said, peering myopically at the page. “That is why you are the perfect choice. Not only do you read and write well, you also speak beautifully. There’s no mention of needlework or musical skills so we can assume that those talents are happily not required.”
“But what about references?” Fenella’s nervous fingers plucked at the fragile fabric of her handkerchief, betraying her agitation. “Aren’t they bound to ask about my family? I can hardly confess that my Papa dragged me about with him on all his campaigns, teaching me my letters by candlelight in a tent. And what if the truth about Papa’s…er…weakness should ever come out, not to mention the scandal of his death?”
Fenella could never reveal the true circumstances of her family situation. Her father, worn down by the rigours of war, grief-stricken at having to send away his beloved daughter, had fallen prey to loneliness and depression, and then to gambling. This tendency developed into an obsession until he lost all his money and was deeply in debt. When finally the broken man realised what he had done, the Colonel had committed suicide rather than face the consequences of his actions.
“Of course it won’t!” Aunt Preston exclaimed matter-of-factly. “I have devised the whole thing. You cannot use your father’s name Hawke. You will adopt my married name Preston—’tis but a small deception to say Cedric Preston had a brother, now dead, instead of a brother-in-law—and as for the rest of your history, we’ll stick as closely to the truth as possible. That is quite the best mode to adopt when telling a story. Not that I advocate deceit but needs must when the devil drives, and this is an occasion that calls for desperate measures. It will be like a family secret.”
Aunt Preston sat back against the cushions, rolled her eyes upward in rapt contemplation of the ceiling and hummed to herself. Then she gazed conspiratorially at her niece. “Point one: Your parents are dead, which they are, and there is no need to disclose that your silly Papa blew his brains out in a foreign place. Point two: You have been living with me for a number of years. Well, we’ll have to exaggerate that number a little. We’ll say nearly all your life. Point three: You are home educated—rollicking around in tents is not quite what I call home, so we shall have to change that part to mean my home. We can say that Mr. Murgatroyd assisted in your education. Why, he must have lent you hundreds of books.”
Mr. Murgatroyd was the local schoolmaster, a shy man dedicated to his profession. Delighted to find both intelligence and a burning desire to learn combined in an eager pupil, he had happily supplied Fenella with all the books she could devour.
“The rest will be easy since you have charm, appeal and excellent manners, as well as looks. That’ll carry you a long way, my girl.” She glanced at her niece, whose mouth hung open in surprise, and added, “Please don’t gape at me, Fenella. It’s most unladylike.”
“But Aunt, that’s lying.”
?” Aunt Preston proclaimed in sombre tones of horror. Her eyebrows came together in a frown and her button nose wrinkled slightly as if the very word itself was unspeakable.
“Dear me, that’s quite a harsh word. I hardly think one should go that far. Well, my dear, if I read the advertisement, I can see nothing in this life history of yours that is in any way at odds with what this lady requires. We have just changed the details of the…er…timing of events in your life. I shall write you a charming reference as to your good character. Moreover, Mr. Murgatroyd will be quite happy to attest to your reading, writing and suchlike. Then we shall wait and see.”
“If you say so, Aunt,” Fenella said weakly. She gave a wan smile and fondled Amber’s ears.
“You’ll see,” her aunt said. “Now, isn’t it just about time for tea?”
* * * *
“What on earth do you want with a companion, Mama?” Devlin Deverell, Duke of Wyndlesham, wore the coat and buckskin breeches that were the correct attire for any gentleman of quality sojourning in the countryside. However, the cut of his garment and the arrangement of his neck cloth proclaimed him to be no country squire, but a man of singular substance and elevated social position. The Duke was largely indifferent to style or fashion, leaving such matters to his exceptional valet and his gifted tailor, but this careless attitude in no way detracted from his somehow innate instinct for excellent taste and a much-envied talent for tying the most intricate of neck cloths. Black hair sprang back from a wide forehead and curled into a style called Windswept, one that was slavishly copied by eager young dandies to whom the Duke was a very icon of fashion.
At that particular moment, the Duke lounged on one of the several spindly chairs in his mother’s lavender and violet-hued bedroom, one gleaming top boot hanging over the arm of the chair.
He wriggled uncomfortably and shifted position. “This dratted furniture, Mama! Why don’t you send for some decent armchairs one could actually sit on? These pesky things you have are like dolls’ furniture.”
“My dear Dev, this is a lady’s boudoir, not your London club, that’s why,” came the Dowager’s testy reply. A once beautiful but now lined face gazed back at her son from the confines of a large four-poster bed hung with embroidered curtains. Marks of fatigue on her face betokened a recent illness. Soft grey curls peeped out from under the old lady’s lacy cap.
“And as to having a companion, why not?”
The Dowager stroked a white Persian cat lying next to her on the lavender satin counterpane. The animal purred with pleasure and arched her back with languid ease. She opened her mouth in a delicate yawn, showing a tiny red tongue and numerous sharp white teeth.
“What do you think, Scheherazade, my pet?”
Devlin eyed the cat with distaste. “Dash it, Mama, you have plenty of company about to entertain you.”
He gave up the fight with the chair and stood, stretching to his full height of six feet and four inches. His stylish attire could not conceal the muscled physique that was the outcome of regular boxing bouts with some of London’s finest pugilists; in addition, hours of fencing had made him one of the top swordsmen in the country. As a result, his broad shoulders were the despair of his tailor, despite the fact that his coat fitted without a single crease.
“I’m here; you have Cousin Eugenia and the Reverend Havergill to visit regularly and Harbottle’s always hanging about. We don’t need a stranger amongst us, least of all a plain bluestocking.”
“My dear Devlin, you are thirty-two; I am sixty. Whenever you feel so inclined, you go up to London for entertainment and stay as long as you please. I am practically bed-ridden after this recent bout of pneumonia. Harbottle is a very good personal maid, but hardly what one could term a companion. If truth be told, I can’t bear Cousin Eugenia’s prosy talk and as for the Reverend…well, his religious tracts are so deadly dull that after reading one of those, I almost feel as if I’m at the pearly gates.”