Secret Confessions of the Enticing Duchess – Olivia Bennet

Lady Martha Stanley sat in the sun room, embroidering a cushion when the butler, Forbes, brought in Lady Rosaline Hoskins’ calling card. She smiled with pleasure, expecting her visit, and bade Forbes to send her in. Lady Rosaline swayed into the room, leaning in to touch her cheek to Martha’s. “Your ladyship,” she murmured, straightening up and seating herself in the armchair next to Martha’s. Martha put her sewing aside. “My dear Lady Rosaline, how pleased I am to see you. It has been too long.” “Indeed it has. I am recently returned from the country where we spent the Christmas holidays. My father sends his most sincere regards.” Martha inclined her head in acknowledgment of the greetings, her face coloring slightly. “Thank him for remembering me. Now tell me how you have been faring, my child. It is so nice to have another woman around to speak to again. Henry and His Grace are quite hopeless at civilized conversation.

” She gave a small laugh to indicate she was joking and Lady Rosaline smiled back at her. “And how is His Grace?” Martha smiled, noting the high color on Lady Rosaline’s cheeks and the way her hands fidgeted. Her tendresse for Martha’s nephew was no secret and Martha was trying to do all in her power to make him step up to the mark—so far with no luck. She reached out, patting Lady Rosaline’s thigh. “No need to fret, my dear. We shall get what we want sooner or later.” Lady Rosaline sighed, “I do hope so. The Duke is everything I ever dreamed.” Lady Stanley smiled to see her so enamored. “And you are exactly what my nephew needs, as well.

” Percival Montagu, Duke of Northcott, found reviewing accounts exceedingly tiresome. It was, however, better than sitting in the parlor and enduring his aunt’s endless entreaties. There was only so much a person could be expected to suffer because of the hysterics of a former guardian, before they declared themselves wearied. He flicked through the ledger, looking over the profits from the Northcott dukedom, sighing occasionally with fatigue, and wished all his relatives to the devil. His mind drifted toward Lady Rosaline Hoskins, daughter of the Earl of Huntington and the woman his aunt would have him wed. She was fair of face and comported herself well, Percival could concede. He did not know much about her but his aunt did assure him that she would make an excellent wife. He saw no reason why his aunt would lie about that. There was nothing to be gained by it. His only other option for finding a wife would be to participate in the Season and that he was strongly disinclined to do.

Not only did he find it a supreme waste of his time but the prospect of suffocation by various simpering, overly-scented debutantes made him nauseous. His aunt was right about him wanting a family and he gave her credit for being attentive to his needs; he would not have thought it of her if asked. So perhaps he would allow her to invite the Earl and his daughter for dinner and see if a match was possible. The Duke went back to his accounts, his mind clear and free from worry. “Ouch!” Abigail exclaimed as she pricked her finger on the sewing needle. She was quite good at sewing, if she did say so herself, but today for some reason she was distracted. It might have had something to do with her mother being out of humor, her pathos spreading about the shop like noxious fumes. Abigail was on tenterhooks, waiting for the other shoe to drop. She tried to concentrate on the intricate gown she was making for Lady Dorothea Gray, who was very particular about her wardrobe and trusted Abigail and her mother to have her at the very pink of fashion. Abigail did not want to let her down.

She sighed, putting the muslin aside and getting to her feet. She could hear her mother huffing and puffing at the back of the shop, probably ruining fabrics as she tossed them about. Abigail knew she should go in there and ask her what the matter was but Joan Thorne was not to be trifled with when she was prickly. She was wont to jump down one’s throat and Abigail did not see what good that would do anyone. Instead, she sent a ticket porter with a note to Philip Sinclair, entreating him to save Abigail from his beau’s foul temper. Only he knew the secret to lifting Joan’s spirits. Just as she reentered the shop from summoning a ticket porter, she was besieged by a bevy of aristocratic ladies, all buzzing discreetly with excitement at the prospect of the first assembly of the Season to be held two days hence at Almack’s. They were mainly after ribbons and other fripperies to enhance the beauty of their gowns. Abigail put her mother to the back of her mind as she tried to cater to all of their needs. Looking up in the midst of fitting Lady Drake, with her mouth full of pins, she saw that her mother had emerged from the back room and was, with a strained smile, serving their customers.

She sighed inwardly and turned her attention back to her own customers, fitting them with ribbons that looked well on their skin and suggesting new styles that would enable them to stand out and attract just the eye they were angling for. Abigail had been helping her mother in the shop since she was in leading strings. At the time, they were living in Brighton but for some reason Abigail did not quite understand, they were run out of town. She looked up as Philip stepped into the shop, elegant in a top hat and riding breeches, his black Hessians gleaming even in the dim light of the shop. His silver-tipped sideburns simply added to his distinguished air and Abigail felt her own spirits lift just to see him. He favored her with a smile before stepping up to her mother, his hand gentle on her arm. He leaned over and whispered something in her ear that made her blush prettily. The ladies in the shop looked on from behind the shelter of their fans, whispering to each other about this blatant display. Abigail manfully refrained from rolling her eyes. Oh dear, there they go again.

She had learned long ago to ignore the scandalized talk of the ton. Her mother was happy with her beau and that was all that mattered. Every woman in their shop would give their right arm for such an attentive and refined gentleman. The only thing he was missing was a title. Her eyes softened as she regarded him fondly. And who needs a title when you are better than any gentleman I have ever met? Philip had been their protector and provider for as long as she could remember. Abigail considered him to be as close to a father as she was ever going to get. She had tried to ask her mother about her sire, but Joan had been reticent with her information and eventually, Abigail had just left it alone. Once the ladies had left the shop, Philip entreated them to close up and allow him to treat them to ices at Gunter’s. “You have been working hard and deserve a reward,” he said.

Joan frowned, “Oh, Philip, you know I do not like to mingle with the Quality. They do love to talk so.” “Well, it shall give you plenty to write about in La Belle Assemblée. Were you not saying how you could use some new material?” Philip lifted his eyebrows, his eyes wide with inquiry. Abigail smiled so wide her dimples showed, struck once again by how well Philip knew her mother. Joan wagged her finger playfully at Philip, trying to hide her delight, “Do not make a cake of me, you knave.” Philip’s hand went to his chest as he gestured dramatically, “I would never!” he declared. He held out both arms for both Abigail and her mother to take, after making a leg, “Allow me to the honor of escorting you to Gunter’s to partake of some ice on this warm spring day.” Abigail looped her arm with his, “Well, I for one could do with some ice.” They both looked expectantly at Joan, who gave a put-upon sigh before taking Philip’s other arm, “All right,” she said, “Let us get some ice.

” Abigail gave a discreet whoop of joy as Philip led them out to his barouche that would take them swiftly to Berkeley Square. She was excited to try the desserts she’d heard so much about but hadn’t dared to venture close enough to partake of. Even though the ton frequented their shop, they were not at all welcome to socialize with them. Many of the ladies considered Abigail and her mother beneath their touch, not worthy of acknowledgment outside the confines of their establishment. Abigail generally did not mind it, but that did not mean she liked to put herself in a position to be subjected to the cut direct by her high in the instep customers. Still, it was nice to sit in the Square and have someone else rush around on her behalf for a change. The waiters took their orders, Liqueur Glacées for her mother, Fromage Glacés for Philip, and for Abigail, soft green Neige de Pistachio which was an ice spooned directly from the Seau à Glaces into the Tasses à Glaces – the little serving cups. Despite her earlier objections, her mother took note of all the fashions on display for her article in the women’s magazine. It was an engaging side project for her which also raised the profile of their modiste shop among the ton. She watched the lords and ladies saunter about the Square in their riding habits, walking gowns, or carriage dresses, no doubt having taken a turn down Ladies’ Mile or a carriage ride around the ring at Hyde Park during the Fashionable Hour.

Abigail sometimes wondered what it might be like to be one of these ladies. She made their clothes and supplied them with hose and corsets, stays and ribbons, but she was always the outsider, looking in. She huffed a breath, thinking what Claudette, her faithful companion of many years, would make of such a thought. Claudette had recently become the mistress of the Earl of Wallingside. He had been much taken with her performance in a play on Drury Lane and had sent a bouquet of flowers to her dressing room with his compliments. Claudette had been quick to see the advantage of such a liaison and last they had spoken, she was to move into a cottage on St. John’s Wood, courtesy of the Earl. Abigail had been pleased for her friend, if worried at the precariousness of her position. Abigail wondered if she, too, would consent to such an arrangement one day or perhaps, she would set her cap at a scholar or solicitor. Even though she was two-and-twenty, her mother had made no overtures toward her on matrimony or any prospective groom.

In any case, the shop kept them very busy and she was very far from on the shelf. Besides, I don’t have time for all of that now. Dinner was a tedious affair with the Earl of Huntington droning on and on about business affairs while Percival’s aunt and Lady Rosaline discussed fripperies and on-dits. The Earl’s wife, Lady Mary, sat quietly, not saying much. Percival’s cousin, Henry, sat listening like some moon-eyed chaw bacon, his gaze rarely leaving Lady Rosaline’s face. It was an embarrassing display and Percival cleared his throat to attract his cousin’s attention to no avail as the goosecap paid him no mind. Percival sighed, taking another gulp of his port, attempting to muster the energy to be sociable, and set his ears to listen to Lord Huntington’s conversation. Instead, he felt more and more tempted to take French leave, retire to White’s, and spend the evening in the midst of cheroot smoke and beefsteak. He was quite sure his particular friends, Lord Wallingside and Lord Weston, were in residence already, no doubt already a trifle disguised. He repressed a resigned sigh, realizing that he really had no reason not to extend a proposal to Lady Rosaline aside from his own stubborn notions.

Straightening up in his seat, Percival regarded the Earl in all seriousness. “My Lord, may I call upon you in the morn to discuss a matter of import to us both?” The Earl’s eyes gleamed with satisfaction as he nodded his head, “Indeed, Your Grace. What time am I to expect you?” Lady Rosaline rewarded her Friday-faced bloodhound with a slice of beef off her own plate. Her father had bestowed the dog upon her after she had cried at the conclusion of a hunt, when she realized that the hounds would be staying on Sir Lowry’s estate and not, in fact, coming home with them. Having spent the weekend frolicking with the dogs, she was quite heartbroken to leave them behind. A newly weaned Perseus had been brought to her the next day, as stout as you please. While other ladies preferred their pugs and terriers, Lady Rosaline was enamored of her bloodhound. Dear Lord Huntington, I would like to formally announce my intention to call upon you and your family this early March to enter into negotiations on the subject of my engagement to your daughter, Lady Rosaline Hoskins. Sincerely, Percival, Duke of Northcott It had been written in a large, spiky hand with a slight slant to the right and thick down strokes. She ran her hand over the letters, noting the modest flourish he had added to his name.

She looked at her name. Seeing his intent written out in his own handwriting made her heart beat a little faster. She had wanted this for so long and now it seemed that the dream was becoming a reality rather quickly. She had planned, schemed, and pestered her father to make this happen. She wanted the Duke a lot more than she wanted her bloodhound and now, finally, it was going to happen. He would be hers and she would be a duchess. Her dreams were coming true. “Why, Your Grace, this is ever so sudden,” Lady Rosaline breathed, clutching her pearls as Percival got on one knee before her. He very nearly rolled his eyes as according to his aunt, Lady Rosaline had been dangling after him for years now. Still, he would allow her her moment of the vapors if that is what she required of a marriage proposal.

Getting back up to his feet as she finally said yes, he leaned over her delicately gloved fingers, placing a kiss in the air an inch above them, all propriety observed. She sighed with happiness and the deed was done. He stepped back, eager to leave as soon as possible but the Earl insisted they all sit down to tea, to celebrate and plan the announcements. “I must have a new gown for the party,” Lady Rosaline exclaimed, fluttering her eyelashes at Percival, “Won’t you come with me, Your Grace, and pick out the color that pleases you the most?” Percival most certainly did not want to pick out any colors but he did not want to start off his marriage by declining such a simple request from his bride-to-be. He inclined his head, smiling stiffly and then immediately closed his eyes as she went into transports of delight. It was hard to be pleased about spending his day among bombazine and muslin, surrounded by a bevy of twittering ladies. The thought of it was enough to make him want to recant his proposal. I shall be sure to make an urgent appointment on the day so that my visit is cut short. He nodded, pleased with himself for having thought of a way out of spending the entire afternoon looking at fabrics. He was aware that he would have to accompany her to the establishment so she could show off ‘her Duke’.

No doubt that was the purpose of the invitation. But he would — truthfully — not be able to tarry due to “prior commitments.” It was perfect and he was relieved to have thought of it. He stretched his lips into as much of a smile as he could manage and reached out to pat Lady Rosaline on the arm. “I simply cannot wait,” he declared with aplomb.

.

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