Say Yes to the Duke – Eloisa James

Miss Viola Astley, the stepdaughter of Hugo Wilde, Duke of Lindow, considered it the greatest misfortune of her life that she was the complete opposite of a Wilde. She had realized as a child that she had no more in common with His Grace’s offspring than a donkey to a dragon. As her mother, Ophelia, had married the duke when Viola was only two years old, her earliest memories were defined by feeling not Wilde. Her half sister Artemisia, for example, was beautiful, bold, and audacious. At the age of six! Whereas Viola was timid, tongue-tied, and fairly useless. Her older stepsister Betsy was famous in the family for being able to shoot arrows from horseback; Viola was afraid of horses, and didn’t care for arrows either. Fear itself marked her as not a real Wilde. Courage was a hallmark of the duke’s other children. The oldest Wilde, Alaric, was a writer who wandered about foreign countries with his wife and children, fearlessly doing fearless things. Joan, whom Viola loved most of all, relished being in public, to the point of pining for a career on the London stage. And after Betsy put aside her bow and arrows, she triumphed in London society, rejecting nineteen suitors before marrying a future marquess. Whereas Viola went to her first ball at the age of fifteen and disgraced herself by throwing up just outside the ballroom. Even worse, after that she lost what little courage she had. These days she could scarcely sit beside a strange gentleman without her stomach twisting into a knot. No matter how many times her family reassured her that there was nothing to worry about, she didn’t seem to be able to overcome the memory of her first ball, the Lindow ball of 1778.

Viola had been nervous, but Joan had floated down the stairs with a huge smile, thrilled to be old enough to join the festivities. “Don’t worry,” she told Viola, with the supreme confidence of a Wilde. “We will be besieged by men begging us for dances.” Sure enough, they no sooner entered the ballroom than a friend of Alaric’s—Lord Poplar, known at Eton as Poppy—bowed before them. “Viola will dance with you, Poppy,” Joan declared. Lord Poplar burst out laughing and said, “I haven’t heard that nickname in years. No one dares use it.” Joan rolled her eyes, and a minute later Poppy was leading Viola onto the dance floor. Viola concentrated on getting the steps right. The pattern of the dance ensured that she didn’t exchange more than five words with Poppy, which was fine with her.

When the music drew to a close, Viola smiled at His Lordship, proud that she hadn’t missed a step. She danced with one of her brothers, and after that, an uncle on her mother’s side. If the experience wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t unbearable. Then one of her partners erupted into an uncontrollable fit of hiccups and reeled toward the door, leaving her marooned against a wall, peering through the shifting bodies of dancers for her family. Where had everyone gone? Aunt Knowe appeared at her side. “Didn’t I see you dancing with Finrope?” Lord Finrope was a sixty-year-old neighbor, a kindly soul. “He started hiccupping, and had to retire.” “Drinks too much,” Aunt Knowe said, wrinkling her nose. “He’s doing his belly no favor with all that whiskey.” Viola put a hand on her stomacher and whispered, “I feel ill.

” She had once retched before a maths examination at school, and she had a terrible fear it might happen again. “Just give your nerves time to settle. Oh, rats, there’s Lady Prunner arriving. Stay right here, Viola, and I’ll be back.” Viola had no intention of going anywhere. Her hands were growing disgustingly clammy inside her gloves. She was breathing quickly too, and her gown wasn’t helping; the point of her stomacher dug into her waist. The dance drew to a close. People drifted past, glancing at her and looking away. It was humiliating to be standing alone by the wall.

Yet in the press of over one hundred bodies, many of whom were wearing wide panniers, she couldn’t see anyone she knew. Stealthily, she began edging along the wall to the right. There was a curtained alcove not far away, where the castle butler, Prism, stowed extra chairs when the ballroom wasn’t in use. A matron paused before her, and she forced herself to smile. The woman frowned slightly, likely thinking she ought to recognize her, and moved on. Another way that Viola was different from her half siblings? She was short and nondescript, and people often forgot who she was. No one forgot a Wilde. Viola’s heart had begun to pound so hard that she could hear it in her ears. Somehow she managed to get herself into the alcove, but that didn’t help. It was swelteringly hot in the tiny enclosure.

On the other side of the velvet curtain, the musicians began a rollicking country dance. The floor of the ballroom actually shuddered under Viola’s slippers from the pounding of feet. The alcove had been a terrible idea. It was hot and smelled of varnish. It would smell of vomit in a moment, Viola thought wildly. She had to leave, and quickly, before the worst happened. She pulled back the curtain and hurried out, brushing shoulders with a gentleman and ignoring his startled exclamation. One violin was playing out of tune, and a woman’s high laughter echoed in her ears. In her panic, she had turned away from the ballroom entrance, but thankfully a servants’ door not far away offered access to a corridor connecting the back of the castle with the public areas. She hurtled through that door, never considering that someone might be on the other side.

Let alone two people. Chapter Two Viola rebounded off a gentleman who stood with his back to her. He rocked forward but withstood the blow. She fell back a step, an apology withering on her lips. He was huge, wide-shouldered, bewigged, with one arm braced against the wall and the other wound around someone she couldn’t see. Her eyes skittered over his back, registering yellow slippers that incongruously stuck out on either side of his waist. The slippers disappeared, followed by a whoosh of skirts falling to the ground before she realized what they implied. The man glanced over his shoulder for a second, and then turned back to his . what was the word? Paramour? “You arranged for a witness?” His voice was raw and hoarse—not with disbelief, but with a scalding anger that jolted Viola’s whole body. Her stomach twisted tighter.

“No, indeed,” the woman said, out of breath. “It’s merely a servant.” “Contrary to all expectation, a lady has invaded the servants’ corridor. Your witness seems to have been afraid she might be late for the performance,” he retorted, his voice cutting like a blade. “She’s panting like a set of bellows. I gather you plan to use her testimony to force me to marry you?” Viola was shaking all over. The servants’ corridor was narrow, and he was blocking the way. She took a sobbing breath. “Excuse me.” He didn’t turn.

“What sort of marriage do you think we’ll have?” The woman murmured something. Viola edged to the side. Given that her panniers made her nearly the width of the corridor, she couldn’t push past him. “Do you imagine yourself a duchess, parading about town in a high wig and my mother’s diamonds? I live in the country; I never attend Parliament; and I loathe polite society. My wife will, of course, be at my side. You might want to keep that in mind before you and your damned witness blurt out what happened.” “Excuse me,” Viola said, her voice wavering. “I need to—” She saw a flash of a strong jaw and bitter eyes before he slammed past her into the ballroom, revealing a woman in a mustard-colored dress who screamed, “You cow, you miserable bloody cow, why in the bloody hell did you come in?” Viola stared aghast, unable to say a word. “You’ve ruined everything!” the woman added, savage fury punctuating her sentence. The door behind Viola opened, and another surge of panic flooded her body.

He was back. She spun about and found a matron staring at her in bewilderment. “You’re too late,” the woman in yellow snarled. “This fool interrupted, and he left in a fury.” Viola bent over and emptied her stomach, in the process splashing the woman in yellow and her witness. She fled the shrieks that followed, ran to her bedchamber, summoned her maid, and huddled in a hot bath, trying to understand what she’d seen. The act bore no relation to the placid marital relations her headmistress had described in hushed tones. To the best of Viola’s recollection, Miss Peters had said that a lady relaxed on her back and allowed “relations” to happen in the dark. The event she had described was respectful, if uncomfortable. The details magnified in Viola’s brain, even as she tried to forget them: the breadth of his shoulders, the rasp of his breath, the way the woman’s body thudded against the wall as Viola bumped into him, his sheer force.

The next morning, when no scandal broke, she realized that if she confessed what she’d witnessed, the man—apparently a duke—would be forced to marry the woman in yellow. Even if she was a widow, the woman’s reputation would be ruined by gossip. Viola’s stepfather, the Duke of Lindow, would be explosively angry to learn what his young stepdaughter had witnessed. There would be recriminations and the news would spread. Secrets were never private in a castle brimming with people. An injustice would follow, and even though she loathed the man who would pay the price, Viola considered that she’d had a salutary glimpse into the darkness that gentlemen conceal with exquisite manners and elegant clothing. He was a beast of a man, but he didn’t deserve to be tricked into marriage. She’d heard her stepbrothers joking about schemes intended to trap them, but there was an edge in their voices. They wanted to choose their own brides. That man had sounded furious—and betrayed.

So Viola never told a soul what had happened at the ball. She did her best to forget it, never attempting to find out the names of the woman in yellow or the duke in question. The following year she allowed her mother to talk her into coming downstairs to a musicale, and narrowly avoided vomiting on a young man, lunging toward a potted lemon tree instead. Her brothers teased her that the poor tree never bore fruit again. Since then, her shyness had become uncontrollable. She couldn’t stop thinking that she wasn’t a real Wilde. The very idea of marital intimacies made her shudder with revulsion, and she was terrified of finding herself married off to a gentleman who would consider her second-rate, and possibly confine her to the country, or even to a garret. Never mind how unlikely that scenario was; it had taken hold of her imagination and she couldn’t seem to fight it off. She felt nauseated at the idea of flirtation, let alone marriage. Marriage was inconceivable.

In the three years that followed, she became an onlooker to polite society, sitting quietly in the corner as the duchess welcomed guests, or in the back row while an opera singer entertained their visitors. She rarely joined the evening meal, but somehow she always managed to see enough of their guests to amuse the family with her observations—but only in private. Unfortunately, private occasions were rare at Lindow. The powerful duke avoided Parliament, so ruling members of England came to him. The castle was often bursting at the seams with peers and politicians. When the duke instituted a family dinner once a week, everyone knew it was so that Viola wouldn’t have to retire to her chamber with a tray while everyone else entertained guests. Viola adored those nights, when Joan would leap up from the table and perform impromptu reenactments of scenes Viola had witnessed, until the whole family convulsed with laughter. She was happy living in the country. She helped their elderly vicar, Father Duddleston, with his parish duties and spent time with the castle’s beloved animals: Fitzy the peacock; her pet crow, Barty; and her two cows, Daisy and Cleopatra. As a young girl, Viola had realized to her horror that the two adorable calves in the castle cowshed were being fattened for Easter dinner.

She had begged her stepfather not to turn Cleo and Daisy into prime beefsteak. The cowshed became her favorite refuge, the one place where beloved, brilliant, shining Wilde siblings came only if they were searching for her. She spent hours there, sitting on a stool, reading a book, and listening to the soft mooing of animals never forced into wigs and corsets and made to dance the quadrille. When Father Duddleston passed away in his sleep, Viola gave up her dream of the vicar begging the duke to allow his stepdaughter to stay in Cheshire, and reconciled herself to the truth. She would have to debut. Viola’s mother, Ophelia, put her foot down when Viola suggested that perhaps she could stay in the castle. In the long run, according to Ophelia, ballrooms didn’t matter. However, a lady’s presentation to polite society was not a choice, but a necessity. Aunt Knowe, the duke’s twin sister, agreed: The only way to surmount Viola’s nerves was to put them to the test. Consequently, the 1782 Season would open with the Lindow ball in honor of Viola and Joan, to be held at the duke’s townhouse in Mayfair.

“If you must throw up, darling, run toward a potted plant,” Aunt Knowe advised. “I’ll have Prism remove the lemon trees; they’re too finicky.” The mere idea of the ball made Viola feel queasy, even though their debut had been delayed a year in hopes that her stomach would settle. From a distance of three years, she couldn’t remember the lovers’ features, but she still felt a wave of horror at the memory of the man’s scathing voice and his brutal strength. “I can get through it,” Viola said to Cleo, stroking her smudgy, soft nose. “I can survive the Season.” Cleo didn’t bother to moo. Likely she knew as well as Viola that while survival was probable, success was unlikely. Even Aunt Knowe had a tight look around her eyes when the subject came up. She had taken to dosing the footmen with dandelion potions and asking them if they felt capable of serving dinner without breaking plates.

Unfortunately, when Viola tried a dose, she slept away the entire afternoon. “It’s only a few months,” Viola told Daisy, who blinked her long eyelashes and chewed meditatively. Viola hitched her stool a bit closer and leaned her cheek against the cow’s bristly, warm side. Inside she heard mysterious gurgling sounds. “But I’m a coward.” Acknowledging the fact didn’t change anything. Her pet crow, Barty, had been dozing on Daisy’s back, but he woke up and gave a little squawk. She was doomed, and even Barty agreed. That night at their family-only supper, the duke announced that he’d found a new vicar. “His name is Mr.

Marlowe,” His Grace said. “He comes highly recommended by the Bishop of London. He’ll have the living on a year’s trial, as he’s both inexperienced and unmarried.” “Is he handsome?” Joan asked, and squealed when ten-year-old Erik elbowed her. “Children,” Ophelia said placidly. “It was merely a question. I don’t want to marry a vicar,” Joan said. “Viola could marry him,” Erik suggested. “No, thank you,” Viola said. Her grand life plan involved surviving the Season and gratefully lapsing into life as a spinster.

“Mr. Marlowe is betrothed,” Aunt Knowe put in. “He took an excellent first at Cambridge,” the duke said. “He’s young, though. Comes to us with only a few years as a curate.” “His entrée is his fiancée,” Aunt Knowe added. She kept a close eye on polite society, by way of voluminous correspondence. “Miss Pettigrew is the granddaughter of an archbishop, daughter of a bishop, and reading between the lines, she means to push the man into a bishopric before he turns thirty.” A few days later, Viola and Joan were sitting in the drawing room when Aunt Knowe trotted in and announced that Mrs. Pettigrew, Miss Pettigrew, and Mr.

Marlowe had unexpectedly come to pay a visit. Viola and Joan sprang to their feet. They had spent the morning making paper flowers, and bright scraps of paper were scattered all over the carpet. Barty had been seated on the back of the settee, overseeing their work, but he startled, instinctively tried to fly, and flopped over the back of the settee instead. “Barty!” Viola cried, peering over. Her crow managed to land on his feet and looked up at her crossly. From experience she knew that he would now spend an hour or two grooming each of his wing feathers into shiny perfection. Barty was a pragmatic bird, as the duke pointed out: Having discovered that his wings didn’t function, he focused on beauty. “Join us whenever you wish,” she told him, and got to her feet. When Barty wasn’t embarrassed— as he was now—he was a sociable fellow who added companionable squawks to any conversation.

Aunt Knowe was greeting their guests at the drawing room door. Viola walked over to join her, leaving Barty to sulk behind the settee. Miss Pettigrew was tall, with a superb bosom that curved like the prow of a ship. But nothing else about her resembled those jolly wooden women who plunge into the waves, breasts leading the way. She wore a navy gown whose only ornament was a row of shiny buttons, a style that labeled the gown three to four years old. Viola had the strong feeling that Miss Pettigrew did not pay attention to frivolities of fashion. The pious look in her eyes suggested she considered herself above such earthly concerns.

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