The Virgin Who Seduced the Duke – Scarlett Osborne

Each step toward the breakfast parlor filled Daphne with dread. She would dally at her toilette each morning, though she rarely had letters to send or reply to and she rarely had anyone to impress with her appearance. Finally, her maid reminded her of the hour, coaxing and encouraging her down to the breakfast parlor. Even though Anne meant well, hoping to stir Daphne from her melancholy, Daphne objected to being reminded of her duty as the Mistress of the House. At just two-andtwenty years old, she was too young to be the mistress of her father’s household and there had been so many tragedies– With slow steps, she slid along the smooth floors of their London townhome, past the busts of her ancestors, the paintings of all the ladies. Everyone morning, she would avert her eyes from the most dreadful painting of them all, a portrait of Daphne with her twin sister when they were young. Oh, Josephine, I miss you so– Like a careful dance, Daphne entered the breakfast parlor, finding her father already halfway through his plate, reading the paper. Behind the vases of flowers arranged neatly on the table, Daphne could sometimes pretend he wasn’t there. As long as he held the pages high in front of his ruddy face, she felt safe, but hearing her enter, he dropped the pages to interrogate her. “Ah! You’ve finally arisen,” he noted. “Still abed at such a late hour?” She flinched at his words, busying herself with selecting delicacies from the breakfast buffet. The footman offered an encouraging smile, but no more. “Marquess and Lady Markham were quite offended with you skulking off at such an early hour,” he continued. She always imagined that he just wanted to hear himself speak and she was the easiest target. Daphne still said nothing, joining her father at the table.

His anger against her stole her appetite, but she picked at her cake and cold meats. A serving girl brought her tea, which she accepted with a weak smile. “Luckily for you, you have no visitors today. However, I’m expecting young De Clare, Duke of Kingham, this afternoon. He’s bound to ask about you, the rumor is he’s finally looking for a wife.” Daphne’s hands shook as she took minute bites of her cake. To still her trembles, she pressed her fingers against the napkin in her lap. Her father, watching her, chortled with laughter at her. She shrank into herself, shoulders dropping, as if making herself smaller would reduce the barrage of her father’s insults. “Markham said Kingham was looking for a demure young thing, chaste and quiet.

” He wiped greasy fingers on his waistcoat, causing Daphne to wince at his ill manners, then laughed at her, “Sounds to me like he thinks you might be what he’s looking for.” Frustrated with her vacant expression, her father threw down his paper on to his plate and pushed his great gut away from the table. Daphne sighed with relief when he left the room, straightening in her chair to reach forward for her tea. Finally, alone, she relaxed. Daphne missed Josephine and the hours they spent in each other’s company. If Josephine was here, she would coach Daphne through courting this young Duke, how to win him over. Now, though, she would not get her hopes up. Sitting alone at the table in the breakfast parlor, she found her appetite return, managing to find respite in the quiet while she ate and sipped her tea. Her father was right, she was not a good entertainer. Without her sister, she found herself struggling to make conversation.

Shy and reserved, she struggled in society to find another young lady that could replace her Josephine. The quiet of the parlor calmed her tattered nerves, though the void in her heart could never be replaced. No one could ever replace you, Josephine. For every business venture he embarked on, Anthony liked to make a good impression. He had worn a somber but exquisite suit, the patterns in gold thread on his cream waistcoat subtle. Defying the fashion of powdered wigs, he styled his dark hair neatly, letting long curls fall over his forehead. Taking his defiance a step further, he kept a beard, a practice he started as a younger man to make him seem older. This time, though, Anthony had alighted his carriage with annoyance. The weather was abysmal. Even though he could walk from his Kensington townhome to the Pembroke’s townhome near Hyde Park, he had no desire to arrive undignified.

He fussed with the cuffs on his coat, turned his hat in his hand, and stroked his beard the whole way to the main door, alternating each in his distraction. This is just another negotiation. The Earl of Pembroke was known by the ton to be an ill-mannered, hulking man. However, others rumored that his daughter was a quiet, gentle woman of great beauty – but of few words. Anthony tried to recall if he had met either of them, but could not. Perhaps the death of Lady Pembroke and their mourning had taken them from society at the most unfortunate time. Anthony understood the loss of a loved one. His parents had been torn from him, their carriage overturning into a river when he was a boy, nearly a young man. Since that day, he was thrust into responsibility and duty, afraid to let anyone close again. Now, approaching thirty, his friends and extended family were pressuring him to settle down and produce an heir to pass down his title and estate.

Arriving at the Pembroke’s London townhome, Anthony was not overwhelmed, though the gilt and ornamentation screamed opulence. His own Kensington townhome could at least rival, perhaps overshadow, Pembroke. The butler greeted Anthony solemnly and showed him to Pembroke’s study. When Lord Pembroke, William Fitzroy, rose from his desk, his great belly straining at his greasy waistcoat, Anthony wanted to recoil. However, he greeted his host affably, taking the seat offered to him. “Shall I send for some refreshments, Your Grace?” Fitzroy offered, ringing a bell. “Quite a ways from Kingham, how’s the estate?” Fitzroy’s beady eyes popped out from pox-marked cheeks. Anthony stroked his own beard absentmindedly. “I’ve been staying here in the City for the Season, in my townhome, managing the Estate from afar. As far as the Estate, it’s doing quite well, thank you.

We just completed an extensive renovation of the cottages on the property, as the last harvest was quite profitable. And yours, Lord Pembroke?” “Very well, of course, yes. And call me Fitzroy,” he said cheerfully, “We just restocked the pond and the hunting has been prime.” “Wonderful to hear,” Anthony approved, absentmindedly “Now tell me, how has it been managing that great estate without your father, the late Duke Kingham?” Fitzroy pressed. Anthony sat back in the chair, uncomfortable under the man’s prying eyes. Even though he felt indignant, he maintained a calm demeanor to respond, saying, “Well, I’ve been running the Estate since I was a mere boy, if you remember. I do believe I’ve found my stride, at this point.” “Wonderful!” Fitzroy exclaimed. “So, with the estate well managed, surely you need a Lady of the Manor?” Laughing at Fitzroy’s directness, Anthony nodded, “Yes, well I see you’ve been speaking to Lord and Lady Markham. I had inquired after their daughter, Lady Lydia Markham, I believe? But she’s recently been betrothed.

” “I imagine you’ll find that you evaded the devil’s grasp on that front,” Fitzroy told him, wagging his bushy eyebrows, “That young lady is a tyrant.” Kindly, Anthony countered, “I’ve always observed her to be a pleasant, charming woman, if a bit confident in her ways.” “Quite the opposite of my young Daphne,” Fitzroy countered. “I promise you, she’s lovely and demure and would make a doting wife to any man.” “I was rather hoping to make her acquaintance today,” Anthony suggested. “Is she occupied?” “Yes, yes,” Fitzroy dismissed, waving his hand. “You know young ladies, social calendars booked for months.” Anthony didn’t press Fitzroy, though his casual excuse reeked of a lie. “What I propose,” the man continued, “is to make your acquaintance at a ball, here at Pembroke. Just a private, intimate affair, but surely dancing and music would help facilitate your courtship.

” Anthony almost groaned out loud. His responsibilities with the Estate offered so little time for leisure. Somehow, he had hoped his courtship with any potential wife could be more of a contractual affair, a business transaction. However, with any business, negotiations must be made, and Pembroke had outmaneuvered him. The thought crossed Anthony’s mind that Fitzroy was hiding his young daughter’s plainness, or simple-mindedness even, hoping that a ball would mask over any unremarkable qualities. Perhaps, even worse, was that the rumors of the young Lady Pembroke’s quiet temperament were true. He shuddered to think of wasting his years away with a prudish, mute wife. Hoping to find out for himself, he made his decision. “A ball sounds a wonderful idea,” he lied, trying to hide his annoyance. “What better way to make out her character?” “That settles it,” Fitzroy said gleefully.

“I’ll make the arrangements and write to you as soon as we settle on a date.” As unpleasant as her father could be under normal circumstances, he was a changed man preparing for a ball at Pembroke. Daphne spent her mornings before breakfast reviewing menus with the housekeeper and writing invitations. The servants must have reported her interest to her father, as he would happily spend each breakfast dictating his directions and opinions to Daphne. “Don’t forget the Duke of Glastonbury,” her father prattled. In a small voice, she assured him, “I haven’t, I’ve already invited him.” “Good girl,” he assured her. “And make sure we have the right sauce on the roast, none of that watery stuff like they had at Markham’s last affair.” “Mrs. Higgins and I have already settled on the menu,” she mumbled, sure that he wasn’t even noting her responses.

She sipped her tea quietly. “And none of those scandalous waltzes,” he continued. “If I hear a single waltz, I will throw everyone out on their shirttails. Such wantonness, the French.” Daphne made no response. Thankfully, her father did not see a need to dictate her dress, which after breakfast she languished over designs with her maid. Blushing over French patterns, Daphne settled on a modest, but luxurious, soft-blue silk, cut in the latest fashion. Her cheeks were warm when she donned the dress for the first time, the tops of her breasts so bare in front of the modiste. The petticoats and corset helped to accentuate the bell-shaped skirt of her dress. “I assure you,” Anne said gently, “that all the most fashionable ladies are wearing this.

Why, you’ll be the most modest of them yet!” She felt no calmer the day of the ball itself, retiring to her chambers in the afternoon to rest and prepare for the evening. Anne doted over her, tightening her stays and buttoning her dress, carefully arranging her hair in the latest fashion. Just before Daphne was ready to head down, Anne whispered so lightly in her ear that she barely heard her: “If ye manage to convince young Kingham to marry ye, ye can escape yer wretched Father at last.” Anne ducked away before Daphne found her voice to chide her. She quickly forgot Anne’s words though, as Anne exclaimed, “Oh, that’s Kingham now!” Daphne rushed to the window, overlooking the front lawn. Stepping down from a carriage, the tall young man looked distinguished in his black coat. However, Daphne noted that he sported a beard, quite unlike the fashion. The beard gave him a somber appearance, stern and stately, rugged and strong. She caught her pulse quickening and chastised herself, saying aloud, “I can hardly make out his features.” “But he’s a strapping fellow, ain’t he?” Anne commented.

“Anne,” Daphne chided simply. Anne ducked her head at the simple rebuke, bowing away. “Let me get that flower in yer hair, then,” Anne reminded her, beckoning to her. “With that lovely hair of yers, that’s all ye need.” Daphne complied, sitting on a chaise to allow Anne to affix a single blue cornflower in her dark-brown hair. Patting her gently, Anne shooed her out the door at last. Feeling her feet dragging again, Daphne struggled to catch her breath, between the stays of her corset and the hammering of her heart. She felt such immense pressure, to please her father by winning the heart of this Duke of Kingman. Her heart was just as heavy, burdened by the thought of facing this trial alone, without her sister. Passing by the portrait of them as young girls again, Daphne stopped, murmuring, “Wish me luck, Sister.

” Daphne stepped into the dressing room where the other ladies gathered before the ball. Married women and young women alike were replacing pins in their hair or smoothing wrinkles from their skirts. They hardly acknowledged Daphne when she entered, for which she was grateful. She took a seat at the edge of the room, watching the chaos, when a maid told her that her father had come to escort her into the ballroom. Smiling a fake, strong smile, she stepped from the door and took the arm her father offered. Unceremoniously, he whisked her into the ballroom, already aglow with dancing and music. The room glittered with candles and dresses spinning, the merriest the hall had been at least since Josephine had left, but perhaps even since her late mother had passed. Pembroke deposited his daughter in a prime seat near the dance floor, muttering something about getting an introduction to Duke Kingham. With an almost pitying look, the Caller brought Daphne the program, which she had already memorized. Her father discussed her dances with her extensively – rather, at her.

She felt that he would measure her success with wooing Duke Kingham by the number of dances she managed to secure with him, above the single mandatory dance he would be obliged. She watched the spectacle for a moment, the woman dressed gaily, the silk and chiffon a whirling blur between the glossy-black coats of the men that twirled them. A few women were sitting, mostly matron chaperones or older spinsters. She felt dread, seeing herself reflected in the wrinkled, powdered faces. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw her father approaching her, the man Anne had said was Duke Kingham by his side. He was a towering man, standing inches over her hulking father. In mass they were not similar, her father stout and round, contrasting sharply against Duke Kingham’s athletic form. Duke Kingham appeared to be listening patiently to her father’s raves, but as he got closer, he focused his gaze upon her. She genuinely believed she would faint, unable to get a breath past her corset. His green eyes, flecked with gold, rested upon her.

When she rose to greet them, Duke Kingham bowed low toward her. Her father said to her, “May I introduce Anthony De Clare, Duke of Kingham?” Turning to the Duke, demonstrating meticulous manners for the first time in ages, told him, “May I present my Daughter, Lady Daphne Fitzroy?” Daphne curtsied, afraid she wouldn’t have the strength to stand upright. When she rose, she found herself lost in his emerald eyes.

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