A Duke of Her Own

By: Eloisa James



“I had assumed that the children were the offspring of your mistress,” she said a moment later, when they were far enough away to be out of earshot.

“Oh, they are,” he said. “Four mistresses. Have you examined the baths yet?”

“The baths are not open to the public until after restoration,” Eleanor said. “I understand that the tiles are in delicate condition.”

“Surely you know that marriage to a duke allows one to flagrantly ignore rules of this sort?” he asked, turning toward the ruined baths at the entrance to the gardens.

“My father is quite punctilious.”

“No breaking the rules constructed for ordinary mortals?” He sounded bored.

“And no illegitimate children,” she said, allowing her voice just a touch of frost.

“Touché!”

The Roman baths were guarded by a phalanx of footmen, but apparently they knew the duke. At any rate, they moved silently to the side as Villiers approached. Eleanor looked about her with some curiosity. The baths had been fully enclosed at some point in the past, of course. But now a wall had fallen in and was replaced by a thick hedge of what seemed to be lilac, though it wasn’t blooming.

The duke led her across cracked tiles scattered higgledy-piggledy on the ground. Eleanor slipped her hand from his arm and stooped to pick one up. It was indigo blue and painted with a silver arabesque.

“How lovely!”

“That deep blue color seems to be rare,” Villiers said. He looked around on the ground. “Pity; I don’t see more of the same.”

Eleanor sighed and bent to put it carefully in its place.

“Don’t you like it?”

“Of course.”

“Take it.”

Eleanor raised an eyebrow. “We’re at a ball to benefit the baths’ restoration. As I recall, the king just described it as one of the nation’s greatest unknown monuments. And you’re telling me to steal part of the floor?” She began walking forward again.

There were fewer torches here, and the sound of a minuet being played by the orchestra grew fainter as they walked among the pillars. Some were broken, but many remained, the starry sky seeming to offer a fanciful roof.

“The actual bath is down here,” the duke said, taking her arm again to steer her down a shallow flight of stairs.

“It’s delightfully warm.” Moist air was rising from below. Eleanor walked down the last step and stopped. “And beautiful. Like a purple sea.”

The bath was a large square basin, surrounded by soft cushions. Its entire surface, every square inch of water, was covered with violets. Their scent rose gently from the warm water.

“I gather that Elijah plans a private celebration this evening,” Villiers said behind her.

She turned her head. “Elijah?”

“The Duke of Beaumont.”

“Of course.”

“I expect you don’t know his personal name since he married years ago and thus wasn’t eligible as a husband.” His voice was silky but annoying.

She cast him a glance. “I don’t know your name either.”

“That seems remarkably careless,” he remarked. “Narrowing your choices to dukes, and then not bothering to investigate their personal details.”

“There aren’t so very many of you,” she observed.

“But I would have expected that fact might make your research on the subject more passionate. After all, you are no debutante, Lady Eleanor.”

Apparently he also shared Anne’s opinion of her advanced age. “I am two-and-twenty. I will be three-and-twenty in a matter of a month or so.”

“And you reached this age without investigating the limited group of men into which you had vowed to marry?”

“Yes.” She walked down the last few steps. Pulling back her skirts, she scooped up a few violets in her hand.

He followed her. “You’re not really interested in marrying a duke, are you, Lady Eleanor?”

“Not particularly.” She pretended to smell the wet blossoms in her hand.

“Why not?”

The words hung in the damp air. She instinctively looked about the baths to see if there was anyone who might be able to hear them.

Villiers descended another step and stopped beside her. “Are you already married?”

She smiled faintly. “No.” She met his eyes. “Quite the opposite.”

“The opposite?” He knit his brow. “Am I to understand that you have announced your intention to marry a duke so as to lower expectations regarding your availability for marriage?”

“Exactly.”

“And yet you are willing to consider matrimony with me? After all, you didn’t turn on your heel, not even after my alarming revelation.”

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