The American Duke – G. L. Snodgrass

Sometimes life turns out better than a girl could ever hope. That night was such a night for Miss Lydia Stafford. That very morning, she had been introduced to the Queen. Her, a simple country girl. And tonight. This ball. All in her honor. It was almost too much to believe. Smiling to herself, she sighed heavily. She had danced with a Duke, two Earls, and a very handsome young Baron. And each of them had looked at her as if she were a woman. Not a silly school girl. A delicious feeling of power and satisfaction washed through her. What girl wouldn’t love this life? Especially when compared to a country cottage with a leaky roof. For the thousandth time, she sent up a silent prayer of thanks.

All of this was because her sister had married a Duke. It was His Grace, the Duke of Norwich who was paying for this fairytale. It was only because of him and his status that these people accepted her. She was perfectly aware, if not for Ann’s marriage, her best hope of matrimony would have been a tradesman or farmer. Instead, she had been admitted to the inner sanctum of British nobility. Running her gloved hands over her silk blue dress she couldn’t help but smile. Both Ann and the Duke’s Mother, the Dowager Duchess of Norwich had insisted she wear a high waisted, pastel. Lydia had refused. Repeatedly, until they had finally relented. Instead, she wore dark blue with a true waist.

Silk, not cotton. A look she instinctively knew that men preferred. Ann and the Dowager just wanted her to be accepted by the other women of the ton. But Lydia looked at it differently. She wanted to be noticed by the men of the ton. The other young women coming out this year could afford to be nondescript. They drew power from fitting it. From following the rules. From familial connections and a long history of expectations. Lydia knew that would never be her strength.

She hadn’t been raised in this world. She had not had a lifetime to make connections. After all, she was a Miss, not a Lady. No, her only hope was to be the diamond in the rough. The one girl who stood out from the crowd. The one who was noticed. Then, and only then might she capture the attention of someone of worth. And tonight, the journey began. The simple goal, find a husband before the season ended. And as the Dowager had explained repeatedly.

Every choice, every comment, would be weighed and evaluated. Mostly by the mothers of the eligible bachelors. What The Dowager didn’t understand, Lydia thought. Was that she wasn’t interested in men who could be swayed by their mother’s concerns. No, her husband would be a prince charming type. Strong, handsome, kind, and adore her. The kind of man who would never let his mother dictate his wife. Lydia smiled as His Grace, the Duke of Norwich approached her. He bowed slightly while she dropped into a quick curtsy. The two of them lived in the same house and shared every meal.

It seemed sort of ridiculous that they follow such formalities. But, it was one of this life’s many rules, she realized. “Standing alone?” he said with a slight shake of his head. “No, aren’t you young women supposed to congregate in packs. Like wolves scoping out their target. Lydia laughed. “Thank you again, Your Grace, for all of this,” she said as she waved at the ballroom teaming with people. Nobility, wealth, happiness. He returned her smile and dipped his head in appreciation. “You are my sister now,” he said.

“You and Isobel. Of course you deserve all of this. But be careful.” Her brow furrowed in confusion. “A beautiful woman,” he continued. “Becomes a target. A beautiful woman with a heavy dowry becomes a target for the worst of men.” She studied him for a moment and realized that he really was concerned for her happiness. Once again she thanked her sister for marrying such a fine gentleman. And a very rich one at that.

“Thank you, Your Grace,” she said as she lowered her head. “I will keep that in mind.” He sighed heavily as he scanned the crowd then said. “As my sister-in-law, I desperately hope I don’t have to take to the dueling fields to protect your honor. But I will. Have no doubt.” The seriousness of his expression and his words drove home the point. She must do nothing that risked her honor or the Duke might very well die in a duel. The thought sent a shaft of self-awareness through her. She was part of a family.

Part of a society where the rules were very strict and ruthlessly enforced. “Of course, Your Grace, I assure you, I will do nothing that brings shame to your … our family.” He smiled gently. “It is not you I worry about Lydia. You I would trust with my soul. No, it is them I worry about,” he said as he waved at the partygoers. “They are the most conniving, vindictive, shallow groups of humans on the face of the earth. I am sure of it.” Lydia gasped. How could he say such a thing? This was the British Nobility.

The people who ran the country and more and more of the world every day. Seeing her surprise, he laughed gently. “Don’t worry, every other klatch of humans are almost as bad. The only difference is that this group has all the power. And at times, it can go to their head.” Lydia frowned as she tried to process his words. Why had she never heard him speak like this before? Why now? Obviously seeing her confusion, he smiled and said, “You are an adult now. It is time you knew the truth. The world is filled with carnivores. Do not allow yourself to become their prey.

” “Does Ann know you think this way?” Lydia asked. The Duke smiled, “She’s the one who told me to talk to you.” The twinkle in his eye let her know just how true that was. “She believed,” he continued. “You might listen to me whereas, in her words, ‘if she told you the sky was blue, you would insist it was green.’” Lydia’s cheeks grew warm. She and her sister had been known to disagree on a thing or two of late. They were close, just as she and Isobel were close. But that didn’t mean they always got along. They were sisters after all.

Still, the thought that Ann didn’t think she knew how to be careful was idiotic. It wasn’t like she had been raised in a glass jar. She and her two sisters had been thrown from their house when she was but eleven. She had lived dirt poor on the kindness of others. No, she knew how harsh life could be. Smiling back up at the Duke, she said, “My sister should know very well that I have every intention of making a match as perfect as hers. Perhaps even better.” The Duke laughed. “Unfortunately, most of the Dukes are older than dirt and under no circumstances are you to even flirt with one of the Princess. They are blaggards, each one.

” Lydia laughed. This was a side of her brother-in-law she rarely saw. Normally, it was the strong, formal Duke persona he presented to the world. But behind that façade was a happy man who liked life. Ann had done that to him, she realized. Opened him up. Softened the sharp edges and made him a better man. And a perfect brother-in-law. “I assure you,” she said. “No blaggards, as you called them.

No beasts, as Isobel refers to them. No, I will marry a kind, gentle man.” He smiled. “With a title, I assume?” She blushed slightly. “Well, after all, I am a woman and status is important. But the right man is more important, don’t you think?” He pursed his lips as he thought about it then shrugged. “You know your own mind.” Lydia sighed internally. Yes, she did. As almost every girl, she had dreamt of her future husband most of her life and was determined to accept nothing less than exactly what she wanted in a partner for life.

As they stood next to each other watching the dancers twist and turn in the quadrille she could only smile to herself. So refined, so … as things should be. Yes, her life was special. As the music came to a halt. She watched as her sister bowed to her partner, the Earl of Brookenham. His Grace’s good friend. The two of them laughed about something and turned to make their way towards them. The Earl of Brookenham? She thought. What of him? He would make an excellent husband. As half the women of the ton were perfectly aware.

They talked of little else. Rich, a long and illustrious family. Handsome, tall. With a kind smile and an easy laugh. Yet, deep in her soul, she knew it was not right. There was no spark between them. Nothing but casual friendship. No butterflies. No anxiety. And from everything she had ever heard.

Butterflies were mandatory for falling in love. And the one thing she was sure of was that she would never marry a man she didn’t love. Besides, her sister Isobel hated the man for some unknown reason. Despite their age difference. Put the two of them in the same room and it was like two of Isobel’s barn cats meeting on a trail. Neither would back down. No, the Earl of Brookenham was not a candidate. But the thought did not distress her. She had an entire year and a plethora of eligible men to choose from. It was only a matter of finding him.

“So,” her sister said to her before she turned and smiled up at her husband. “Are you enjoying yourself, Lydia?” Lydia smiled as she nodded. “Yes, everything is so perfect.” Lord Brookenham laughed gently. “And to make it even better for you. Your sister Isobel is upstairs, furious that she cannot participate.” Lydia laughed. “You know me too well, My Lord.” Her brother-in-law laughed as he shook his head, “Yes, Well, next year when Isobel comes out, I fear the ton will not know what hit them.” Both Lydia and Ann smiled to each other.

Their younger sister was known to be rather forceful. Some would even say blunt, in expressing her opinions. Lord Brookenham scoffed as he scowled. “I plan to spend the season on my estates. It will be the only safe place in Britain I fear.” “What, you worry about a young girl?” His Grace said to his good friend with a teasing smirk. Lord Brookenham scoffed again. “I have a mother who is perfectly capable of pointing out my many failings. I don’t need a sixteen years old girl for that.” The group laughed, That was Isobel without a doubt.

“There you are,” The Duke’s mother, the Dowager of Norwich said as she approached them, completing the group. “You should be dancing, my dear,” she added, addressing Lydia Lydia smiled at the older woman as she dropped a quick curtsey. “Yes, Your Grace, But the next dance is to be a waltz and I have been informed by more than one senior female member of the ton that I am not to dance the waltz.” The Dowager nodded, “All the more reasons for you to dance all the other dances, my dear. You don’t want people thinking the wrong thing. That you are unwanted as a dance partner. That is how stories spread.” Lydia glanced over at her brother-in-law. Was this what he meant by the ton being conniving and vindictive. He raised an eyebrow and smiled just the slightest bit, letting her know that was exactly what he had meant.

Then he turned to his wife and held out his hand as he said, “A waltz? Then I believe I have this dance.” His wife looked up at him with adoring eyes and blushed slightly. Lydia couldn’t help but smile. It was one of their silly rules, Ann was only allowed to dance the waltz with her husband. The rest of the ladies of the ton thought it was unbecoming. And rather possessive. After all, there were many women who would love to dance the waltz with a handsome Duke. But unfortunately, because he was a Duke, they could not complain directly to him, heightening their frustration. What they didn’t understand was that Ann loved the fact that her husband was jealous enough to demand that she dance the waltz with him alone. Besides, although, Ann was everything sweet and kind, she rather enjoyed upsetting the other women of the ton.

Especially when it came to her husband. Lydia could only smile as she watched the two of them walk out onto the dance floor. “Brookenham,” the Dowager said to him with a frown as she snapped her fan open and began to wave it. “Isn’t their someone you need to dance with. Go, go make some woman’s night by asking her to dance. There aren’t enough eligible bachelors here tonight for you to be wasting your time here to the side.” Lord Brookenham grimaced as he bowed to The Dowager. Lydia could see behind his eyes that the man couldn’t wait to get away. He nodded to her then hurried away. Once he was gone, the Dowager turned to her and slowly shook her head.

“Really Lydia, spending all your time here alone. You must mix, you must mingle. How else are you to impress some mother who will insist you meet her son? Even worse, you will never learn the latest gossip unless you let them impress you with their knowledge. It is all part of the game.” Lydia could only frown. She had no real friends in this world other than her sisters. The Dowager had made every effort over this last year to expose her to more and more of the senior members of the ton and their daughters. But there had been no connection. Not really. The other girls didn’t look at life the way she did.

They had grown up pampered, always knowing they would live at the highest levels of society. The rules and expectations had been drilled into them from an early age. Besides, she knew in her very soul that they looked down on her. A simple country Miss. Not even from London. Growing up in the wilds of Kent or some such foreign place. Of Of course, they had been perfectly accepting. Much like a snake accepts its prey. But Lydia knew the truth behind those sweet smiles and cold eyes. She was a threat.

Competition on the marriage market. She knew she would never truly fit in. Never be accepted as truly one of them. On the other hand, she had never expected to live her dream. She was more than willing to accept the trade-off. “Why is gossip so important, Your Grace?” Lydia asked. “Besides, I was always taught that gossip was frowned upon. Unladylike.” The Dowager harrumphed as she continued to fan herself. “Gossip is the coin of the realm, my dear.

Never forget that. You have to know what is happening within the ton to ensure you do not take a fatal step.” Lydia frowned at the Dowager as she tried to understand. The older woman rolled her eyes and said, “Imagine if you were to hear a rumor that Lady Gleason is increasing. A fact that everyone knows. And you were to congratulated Lord Gleason the next time you danced with him. Lydia nodded as she waited for a more detailed explanation. Although she had no idea who Lady Gleason was or why she would ever dance with Lord Gleason. “It might,” the Dowager continued, “be important to know that the Lady Gleason and Lord Gleason hate each other and have not been in the same room with each other for over two years. Do you think that little tidbit of information might be important? That, plus the fact that the child might very well be that of her footman.

Or at least that is the rumor.” Lydia swallowed heavily as she nodded. A cold feeling trickled down her spine as she imagined asking the man to his face. Or worse, in front of his wife. The Lady might very well think she had done it to bring shame to her. She might very well have created an enemy for no good reason. “Or,” the Dowager said. “The latest about the Marquis of Treadbury and his brother Lord Drake.” Lydia frowned, “Who are they and why should I care?” The Dowager shook her head obviously upset that Lydia didn’t know what she should. “The heirs to the Duke of Cambridge?” “What about them?” “They are dead,” the Dowager said with an angry scowl.

“A carriage accident in Oxford.” Lydia winced, but still, she didn’t seem to understand the significance. “It means,” she said with an exasperated tone. “That there are two fewer eligible bachelors. What is more, while there was a third son to inherit, no one has seen him in ten years or so. A young man named Aaron. Supposedly, he ran off to the wilds of America. And if they don’t find him alive and soon, then the title will revert to the crown.” Lydia pondered the idea of a young man abandoning all that wealth and power. What must have driven him away? But he had also abandoned his responsibility.

Again, why? “And just so we are perfectly aware,” the Dowager continued. “We, the ton, cannot abide the ideas of titles returning to the crown. Too few of us and we lose our power.” Lydia nodded, it sort of made sense. But still, what kind of man would abandon his family and his country? A scoundrel without a doubt, she thought as she remembered what His Grace had told her about blaggards. Most assuredly, a man who met every criterion for the word.

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