Say No to the Duke – Eloisa James

By her fourteenth birthday, Lady Boadicea Wilde had wished for a best friend on weeks of first stars. She had created a wishing stone by dunking it in milk under a midnight moon. When that didn’t work, she had decided that perhaps fairies preferred adult beverages, so she stole into her father’s study and dunked the stone in a decanter of brandy. She had written down her wish and burned the paper in the nursery hearth so it flew up to heaven. Unfortunately, she’d forgotten to open the flue, so smoke filled the nursery. She had been punished by being confined to bed, where she watched her younger sister Joan and stepsister Viola cuddle on the nursery sofa and whisper secrets to each other. It was all her father’s fault. Dukes’ daughters, especially those who lived in huge castles, had no chance to meet prospective friends. They were kept in the country like potted violets, waiting for the moment when they would be paraded in front of the world and promptly married off. From what Betsy could see, her father was her stepmother’s best friend. Only a girl with eight brothers could sympathize with the revulsion that swept over Betsy at that thought. Friends with a boy. Never. Boys smelled and shouted. They thought nothing of tossing water over one’s head, pulling hair, and passing wind deliberately.

How could a boy possibly understand how she felt about life? She longed for a kindred soul, a girl who would sympathize with the unfairness of having to ride sidesaddle, and not being allowed to shoot a bow and arrow from horseback. A few years ago, when her brothers Alaric and Parth had announced they wanted to visit China, her father’s eyes had lit up, and a whole meal flew by talking of three-masted schooners and mountains of tea. True, the duke had forbidden the voyage until the boys were older, but he’d laughed when he discovered they’d sailed off anyway. If she ran away to sea? The idea was unthinkable. If her wishing stone had worked, she’d be living in a place where girls were allowed to wear breeches and travel wherever they wished. Lying in bed after her fourteenth birthday party—attended by five brothers, since Viola and Joan were recovering from the chickenpox—Betsy realized that if she wanted a girlfriend, she had to take matters into her own hands. She had wished for a friend before blowing out the candle on her birthday cake, but inside, she no longer had faith. Magic had proved ineffective, if not irrelevant. Yet there is more than one way to skin a goat, as the family coachman had it. It took three months of coaxing, pleading, and outright tantrums, but finally Betsy, Joan, and Viola were taken to the very best boarding school in England, an establishment run by Miss Stevenson, who had the distinction of being the daughter of a viscount.

As they walked into the imposing building, Betsy struggled to maintain ladylike comportment. She couldn’t stop the giddy smile that curled her lips. When a maid arrived to escort her to the wing for older girls, she hugged her father and stepmother goodbye and danced out the door, leaving them to mop up her stepsister Viola’s tears. Viola was shy, and afraid to live away from home, but as Betsy heard girls’ laughter from behind a closed door, her heart swelled with pure joy. She was finally—finally!—where she was meant to be. “You will share a parlor suite with Lady Octavia Taymor and Miss Clementine Clarke,” the maid assigned to escort her said. “Each of you has your own chamber, of course, and your maid will attend you morning and evening. You may become acquainted with Lady Octavia and Miss Clarke over tea.” Betsy’s heart was beating so quickly that she felt slightly dizzy. Clementine was such a beautiful name, and hadn’t Octavius been a general? Octavia was named after a warrior, just as she was! The parlor looked like a smaller version of parlors at Lindow Castle, tastefully furnished with a silk rug and rosy velvet curtains.

A table before the fireplace was set with a silver tea service. Betsy’s eyes flew to the two girls who rose and came to meet them. Clementine had yellow ringlets and a pursed mouth like a rosebud; Octavia had low, dark eyebrows and a thin face. “Your name is so pretty,” Betsy told Clementine, after the maid left. “I wish I could say the same for yours,” Clementine said, sitting down with a little smile, as if she were merely jesting. Betsy blinked. “Boadicea is certainly unusual,” she said hastily. “I prefer Betsy.” Clementine’s nose wrinkled. “We have a second housemaid who used to be called Betsy.

My mother changed her name to Perkins.” Betsy couldn’t think what to say. “I see,” she managed, her voice coming out flat and strange. “Please, won’t you sit down, Lady Betsy?” Octavia asked, gesturing toward a chair. Betsy sat. “Have you been at the seminary for some time, Lady Octavia?” she asked. “Clementine and I have been the only parlor boarders since—” Octavia began. “I have every expectation that my mother will fetch me away within the week,” Clementine said, interrupting. “I see,” Betsy repeated, fighting to make her voice cordial. It was ridiculous to feel shaky and a little frightened.

This wasn’t the way she had imagined her first encounter with possible friends, but Clementine was only one person, and there was a whole school of girls to meet. “Do you?” Clementine demanded. “Are you good at maths?” Octavia put in, her voice rather desperate. “No, I am not,” Betsy said. “I am sorry to hear that you are departing, Miss Clarke. Is the parlor too small for three of us?” Clementine snorted. “The meals are frightfully good here,” Octavia said, her voice rising. “My mother will travel from the country to fetch me as soon as she learns of your arrival,” Clementine said, ignoring Octavia. “I sent her a message yesterday.” Betsy had the horrible sense that she’d somehow strayed into a nightmare.

She took a deep breath. “Why are you so impolite, Miss Clarke?” Clementine pursed her lips tighter than nature had made them, and then opened them just wide enough to speak. “No one can blame a child for her mother’s lascivious nature, but it would have been more agreeable if His Grace had thought how unpleasant it was for young ladies of quality to share a chamber with someone who . ” “Who?” Betsy prompted. “Is bound to have inherited her mother’s sinful inclinations,” Clementine said, her eyes shining like greased blueberries. Betsy stared back in horror. Of course Clementine knew that the duke’s second duchess—her mother—had run away with a Prussian count when Betsy was a baby. But no one had ever spoken of her mother so demeaningly—nor implied that she, Betsy, would inherit a penchant for debauchery. “Clementine!” Octavia protested, adding, “You are being frightfully ill-bred!” Clementine turned toward her. “I’m merely repeating what scientists have proved, Octavia.

Strong attributes are always inherited, just as when racehorses are bred for speed. You could call it destiny, but it’s really science.” “I don’t believe it,” Octavia said stoutly. But Betsy’s brother North was fascinated by horse breeding and gave near-nightly disquisitions on which traits were making themselves known in the ducal stables. Betsy knew, better than most ladies, that traits were indeed inherited. A strange tingle coursed through her body, as if a wall had opened, revealing something frightful behind it, something she’d never imagined. Her Aunt Knowe had never allowed the second duchess’s children to become embittered about their mother’s absence. “Your mother didn’t belong in a marriage to your father,” Aunt Knowe often said. “Thank goodness, she recognized it, because it allowed the duke to find Ophelia.” Family lore had it that the ink on the divorce decree wasn’t dry before Aunt Knowe ordered her brother off to London to find a third duchess.

Since Betsy adored her dearest papa, her darling stepmother, and even those annoying brothers, she had never given the matter much thought. Yet it seemed that other people—all of polite society, or so Clementine Clarke was shrilly declaiming—had given her mother’s circumstances a great deal of thought. “There is no need to be rude,” Octavia said. “Everyone thinks it,” Clementine said, her eyes sliding over Betsy, nose still slightly wrinkled, as if Betsy were a piece of spoiled mutton. “Are you saying that every girl in this school will think that I am lascivious because my mother was unfaithful?” Betsy asked, just to be very clear. Octavia turned a hot pink and closed her lips tightly. “Will think?” Clementine retorted. “They do think, and so does everyone else important.” Betsy tried not to hear her harsh breath echoing in her ears. Her father was important, but he must not know, because he never would have left her in a den of lionesses.

She almost jerked up from her chair and ran for the door. Perhaps the ducal coach was still at the curb. Or Miss Stevenson could send a groom to the townhouse and they would return and take her and her sisters away. “Everyone says that the second duchess was never, shall we say, unsullied,” Clementine said. “Your mother gave the duke a son—though my mother says one has to question his bloodlines—and she was dallying with the Prussian well before you were born.” “My brother Leo is not illegitimate,” Betsy said, her voice thick with disbelief and horror. “And neither am I!” Adulterous mother or no, Betsy stemmed from a long line of dukes, and she was named after a great female warrior. She listened to Clementine until she didn’t care to listen any longer. Then she rose to her feet. “You are quite despicable,” she said, controlling her temper as Aunt Knowe had taught her.

“Petty and small-minded. I shall not share a parlor with you.” Clementine laughed shrilly. “You should be grateful to sleep in the attic! You’re no more than a byblow, who will be lucky to marry a squire. It would take a miracle for you to attract a spouse from the peerage.” Betsy snatched up a glass of water from the tea tray and dashed it into Clementine’s face. “I am a duke’s daughter,” she stated, enjoying the way Clementine’s starched curls wilted onto her shoulders like yellow seaweed. “I have never heard of your family. Clarke?” She curled her lip and said the first consciously nasty thing that she’d said in her life. “I gather you had an ancestor who was a clerk? How amusing to meet you.

” Sobbing loudly, Clementine flung herself out of the door. “Are you going to throw water at me as well?” Octavia asked, her eyes rounded. “If you say anything unkind about my mother, I shall dump that pitcher of water over your head,” Betsy said. “In the middle of the night. I am trained in the art of war.” “I shan’t say a word,” Octavia said hastily. “I don’t like cold water.” Betsy stared at her. Octavia’s face wasn’t piggish like Clementine’s. “I apologize for Clementine’s rudeness,” Octavia said.

She glanced at her fingers twisting in her lap and then looked back at Betsy. “She’s frightfully bad-tempered and considers everyone beneath her. She only allowed me to share the parlor because Miss Stevenson said that she would have to leave the school otherwise. I like your name.” “Boadicea was a warrior queen,” Betsy said. She was trembling a little. Octavia bit her lip. “You’ll need that here,” she said slowly. “The girls aren’t always terribly nice.” Betsy sat down.

“We’re supposed to be learning history and the like,” Octavia explained. “But in reality, it’s all about marriage. Sometimes the only conversation at supper is about how many proposals one should get during one’s debut. Clementine’s parents have three houses, but that’s not enough, of course.” “She’s afraid she won’t have any suitors.” Octavia nodded. “If all those girls believe that I won’t have any suitors,” Betsy said, “I shall prove them wrong.” The sick feeling in her stomach was replaced by a red-hot bolt of fury. “I shall have more marriage proposals than anyone.” “I have no doubt,” Octavia said, looking rather awed.

Boadicea had come surprisingly close to winning her rebellion against the Roman invaders, according to the expert on military history the duke had hired to teach all his children, girls included. By June, three years later, when the time came for Betsy to debut . She won. She came, she saw, she conquered. Veni, vidi, vici, to quote another warrior, Caesar. By October 1780, Betsy had received—and refused—proposals chaperoned and unchaperoned, in her father’s study, in a gazebo, in an alcove at Westminster Cathedral. She had turned down four peers and fourteen untitled gentlemen, which said something about the paucity of English titles, or the relatively lenient standards of the gentry compared to the aristocracy. The biggest fish of all—a future duke—had so far eluded her, but she had the feeling that the deficit would soon be mended. She was standing in the midst of a costume ball being thrown at Lindow Castle for the wedding of her brother North when her aunt Knowe loomed up at her shoulder. “Ah, Betsy! I must ask my dear niece to escort Lord Greywick to see the billiard table that just arrived from Paris.

” Betsy looked up—and up. The future Duke of Eversley stared down at her. Did she say that she’d won the battle? Battles are only won when the biggest fish of all is in one’s net. She smiled.

.

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