Undressed to Impress the Duke – Scarlett Osborne

Eleanor Betham was Lady Julia Dennis’ lady’s maid. She had only recently been given the job, though she had lived at Clayriver Manor in London for most of her nineteen years. She was hanging up Lady Julia’s freshly cleaned dresses in the great oak armoire and couldn’t believe the softness of the muslins in their pastel shades. Lady Julia also had several real silk dresses, which were softer than cream. Because Lady Julia was unmarried, they were in gentle, but bright tones. She had exactly one black bombazine dress for funerals. Everything else was brilliantly dyed. The bed chamber had silk wallpaper in a soft egg-shell blue, with a large four-poster bed. Eleanor wondered what it would be like to live in a room such as this. She sometimes daydreamed about having another sort of life, one with two parents who loved her, a fancy house. Other times, she dreamed of being in love with a dashing gentleman…he would have intense blue eyes, and a wicked grin. He would sweep her off of her feet. The door opened suddenly, and Eleanor spun around. “You’ll never guess the news!” Lady Julia said, beaming at Eleanor. She entered her bed chamber like a March Lion, dressed in a pale-pink silk dress.

“Then do tell me, My Lady,” Eleanor replied, folding her hands. The two had been playmates as children. Though society separated them as they grew older, they shared a quiet respect for one another. “My parents have been discussing plans of making an alliance with the Duke of Durnsott,” Lady Julia explained, taking Eleanor’s hands in her own, squeezing them in excitement. “My Mother and I have been invited by his step-mother, the Dowager Duchess, to spend some time at their county seat, getting to know her son, and to discuss the marriage further.” She let go of Eleanor’s hands, drifting over to her dressing table, to look at her reflection in the mirror. “So it is an alliance through marriage,” Eleanor murmured as she hung up the last of the dresses, then shut the door softly. “Yes,” Lady Julia replied, sitting down at her dressing table. Eleanor went to stand behind her, unpinning Lady Julia’s long, golden tresses. She began to brush it out.

“Is that what you want?” Eleanor herself yearned for a love match, though she was but a servant. She had read Miss Austen’s books and knew that even an ordinary woman could find love, if only she was herself. “What an odd creature you are, Eleanor!” Lady Julia replied, gently. “It is a most advantageous match. What more could I want?” “Romance,” Eleanor shrugged. Lady Julia was not much for reading. “Not I. I’m a lady of the ton,” Lady Julia stated. “I am to wed so that our two families may be bound to each other.” Eleanor felt that Lady Julia was reciting a lesson, and not necessarily what she truly believed.

“And, you’ll be a Duchess,” Eleanor pointed out, watching in the mirror as her mistress beamed. Eleanor smiled back. “Everyone shall call you Your Grace.” It was fitting. Lady Julia was very comely. She had been destined to make an advantageous match from birth. “It will be a good match,” Lady Julia said. “I must admit, I am nervous. I haven’t seen His Grace since we were children. I do not know what he’s like now.

” “I’m sure he’ll be handsome and charming.” Eleanor began to twist Lady Julia’s hair into a high bun, leaving two portions of the hair toward Lady Julia’s face out, so she could curl it in ringlets that framed the lady’s high cheeks. Eleanor had set the iron in the fire earlier, so that it would be heated up when needed. “You are to come with me,” Lady Julia told her. “I’ll need my lady’s maid, as well as a chaperone.” Nervous butterflies filled her stomach. She was excited at the prospect of going on her very first adventure. She beamed at Lady Julia. “How exciting!” she gasped. “How long will we be gone for?” “Three weeks.

” Eleanor smiled, then began to place the pins in Lady Julia’s hair, securing the bun. She was anxious to see more of the outside world. She had rarely seen much of the world, though Clayriver Manor was so near to London. * * * Aaron Ayles, the Duke of Durnsott, was sitting in the parlor at Myrtlegrove Manor with his step-mother. His step-brother was out riding. Louisa Ayles, the Dowager Duchess of Durnsott had called him there, though, for what, he had no idea. It was a hot early summer day, and it was stifling inside the parlor. Aaron had a thin layer of sweat, coating his upper lip. He sat down in one of the armchairs. “So?” he asked.

She had just settled herself down on the blue brocade settee. She was a handsome lady, though her dark-brunette tresses were streaked with silver. Her face, only recently, had taken on wrinkles, which were carved deeply across her forehead with two parentheses around her lips. Regardless, her intelligent blue eyes were sharp as ever as she regarded him. She smiled at him, which should have been the first clue that something was amiss. “There’s something that I need to tell you,” she began, her hand going to the heirloom diamond necklace around her neck. “Then, do tell me,” he said. Aaron had loved his father. He wasn’t particularly fond of his step-mother, but he was respectful of her. She had meant something to his late father, God rest his soul.

“We’ll be having guests for the next few weeks,” his step-mother said. Aaron laughed softly, tilting his head to the side. “Oh? I thought we agreed that you would tell me first before tendering invitations.” As the Duke, he was now in charge, a fact that his step-mother seemed to often forget. She toyed with the diamond necklace. “Yes, well, it came around rather organically. Before I knew it, we’d already agreed upon it.” “Who is it, pray tell?” Aaron asked. He couldn’t see the harm in allowing Louisa to have her way. After all, she had cut back on her spending as he’d requested.

“Lady Whitecier and her daughter, Lady Julia,” she replied. “Very well.” Aaron had not seen Lady Julia since they were children. “We’ll be discussing plans for your marriage to Lady Julia,” the Dowager Duchess went on. For a moment, Aaron stared at her in complete shock. I should have known that it was all a part of some sort of scheme. “No,” he stated flatly. “You might think that you can manipulate Jack to do your bidding, but I am not your pawn. I am the Duke, now. I choose how my life is going to go.

” He had no plans to marry any time soon. It was an inevitability—for his half-brother, Jack, was not fit to take over the title. But Aaron himself was still young. He wouldn’t need to wed until he was in his thirties, at the very least. “But I’ve already sent the invitation, and they have already said that they are coming,” she said, looking equally as horrified. Which means I can’t get out of it without looking horrifyingly rude. He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He much preferred his stables, filled with thoroughbred horses, to the ton. When he opened his eyes, his step-mother was watching him nervously. “Very well,” he muttered.

“I can’t insult Lady Whitecier.” Lord and Lady Whitecier were beloved among the ton. Their county seat was very close to London, and they were a very powerful and old family, their title dating back many, many hundreds of years. “Aaron,” Louisa said, “you must marry and produce an heir, sooner rather than later. Not to mention, an alliance with Lord Whitecier would be most advantageous.” “As you say,” he muttered darkly. “Excellent,” Louisa said, standing up, and then walking from the room. “Someday, you will thank me.” The door closed behind her, but Aaron stayed where he was, staring at the window, where all he could see was the sharp blue of the sky. He didn’t like feeling like a pawn to anyone.

During her tenure as Duchess of Durnsott, Louisa had moved among the ton like a fish in water. She had, undoubtedly, raised the family up in stature. His father had relied upon her prowess. But Aaron did not. He wanted to do things his way. Louisa was going to have to start accepting that, and soon. Especially, if there was to be a new Duchess. Aaron suddenly felt as though life were closing in around him, like high walls, which would tumble down on top of him. He tugged at his cravat. I feel like I’m suffocating.

If Lady Whitecier and Lady Julia were to be on the Dowager Duchess’ side, then Aaron needed someone who was on his side, who would give him unbiased advice. Particularly if he was making a decision that would affect his entire life. He decided to write a letter to his best friend, Arthur, asking him to come to Myrtlegrove Manor. The Viscount of Mallen was at his hunting lodge in the country. If he asked, then Arthur would come, immediately. * * * Eleanor ran down to the kitchens after she had finished helping Lady Julia to dress for dinner. She was excited to tell Olivia what she had just learned. Olivia Betham was Eleanor’s adoptive parent. She was red in the face, and harried as usual. Her bright, white-streaked copper-colored hair frizzed beneath her kerchief.

She was in the process of drizzling butter sauce over the fish course: baked cod. “You’ll never guess the news,” Eleanor said. “You’ve come to help me dress the salad,” Olivia said, smiling at her, then turning back to drizzling the sauce. Eleanor moved to drizzle the dressing over the salad, tossing it to coat the lettuce. Olivia was always in a rush to get dinner out on time and still hot. She always needed extra hands, even though the kitchen was packed with help. “Well, go on—what’s the news?” Olivia asked, grinding a last bit of pepper over another dish, filled with roasted potatoes. “I’m to go to the Duke of Durnsott’s county seat with Lady Julia,” she explained. Olivia gasped, her face breaking into an excited grin. She actually stopped what she was doing.

“How exciting,” she said. “Your first time away from Clayriver Manor.” She quickly put the silver cloches over the food to keep it warm. She breathed a sigh of relief. Eleanor stood aside. “All right!” Olivia said, waving the footmen over. They were all dressed in livery, their hair slicked back. “Here’s the soup! Get it up there while it’s still hot!” The footman with the large silver tureen vanished, while Olivia gave a burst of orders to the others, pointing at each dish, and when it was to go. Once done, Olivia breathed a sigh of relief. Dinner was always a large production.

“Will you be all right? With me gone?” Eleanor asked her. The cook chucked her beneath the chin, then placed both of her pudgy hands on Eleanor’s cheeks. “I’ll certainly miss you,” she replied, “but I’ll manage. Then, when you get back, you can tell me all about it.” Eleanor smiled. “Go out. See a little bit of the world,” Olivia said, placing her hands on her voluptuous hips. She was breathing heavily after the exertions of putting on dinner for Lord and Lady Whitecier. “You’re old enough to go now. If Lady Julia marries, then I suppose you’ll be asked to go with her.

” “Even if I leave you?” Eleanor couldn’t imagine leaving Olivia. Her constant, steady presence was a balm to Eleanor, who would have otherwise felt very alone and unwanted. “As much as I would miss you,” Olivia replied soberly. Her hazel eyes were teary, her button nose and round cheeks turning red. She used her apron to wipe at her face. “And I really would miss you. Don’t hold back just for me. I did what I set out to—I raised you up just right, and then if you really want to, then you go out and into the world to get a job or to get married.” Eleanor’s life had been a quiet one. She had often dreamed of going out and seeing the world—perhaps, looking for the parents who had abandoned her when she was just a babe.

At the same time, her life was there at Clayriver Manor. Olivia had been a very good mother to her, and she didn’t know if she could leave her. She felt a wave of sadness wash through her. “Don’t you go getting all teary-eyed on me,” Olivia said sternly. Eleanor wrapped her arms around the cook, who patted her on the back. “You’ll have a good time, and come back with stories of all your adventures.”

.

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