A Duke of Her OwnBy: Eloisa James
London’s Roman Baths
Duchess of Beaumont’s ball to benefit the Baths
June 14, 1784
“The duke must be here somewhere,” said Mrs. Bouchon, née Lady Anne Lindel, tugging her older sister along like a child with a wheeled toy.
“And therefore we have to act like hunting dogs?” Lady Eleanor replied through clenched teeth.
“I’m worried that Villiers will leave before we find him. I can’t let you waste another evening chatting with dowagers.”
“Lord Killigrew would dislike being identified as a dowager,” Eleanor protested. “Slow down, Anne!”
“Killigrew’s not eligible either, is he? His daughter is at least your age.” Her sister turned a corner and peered at a group of noblemen. “Villiers won’t be in that nest of Whigs. He doesn’t seem the type.” She set off in the opposite direction.
Lord Thrush called after them, but Anne didn’t even pause. Eleanor waved helplessly.
“Everyone knows that Villiers came to this benefit specifically to meet you,” Anne said. “I heard it from at least three people in the last half hour, so he might have been civil enough to remain in the open where he could be easily found.”
“That would deny most of London the pleasure of realizing just how desperate I am to meet him,” Eleanor snapped.
“No one will think that, not given what you’re wearing,” her sister said over her shoulder. “Rest assured: I would be surprised if you attained the label interested, let alone desperate.”
Eleanor jerked her hand from her sister’s. “If you don’t like my gown, just say so. There’s no need to be so rude.”
Anne swung around, hands on her hips. “I consider myself blunt, rather than rude. It would be rude if I pointed out that at first glance any reasonable gentleman would characterize you as a bacon-faced beldam, rather than a marriageable lady.”
Eleanor clenched her hands so that she didn’t inadvertently engage in violence. “Whereas you,” she retorted, “look as close to a courtesan as Mother would allow.”
“May I point out that my recent marriage suggests that a more tempting style might be in order? Your sleeves are elbow-length—with flounces,” Anne added in disgust. “No one has worn that style for at least four years. Not to mention that togas are de rigueur, since your hostess requested the costume.”
“I am not wearing a toga because I am not a trained spaniel,” Eleanor said. “And if you think that one-shoulder style is any more flattering to you than my flounces are to me, you are sadly mistaken.”
“This isn’t about me. It’s about you. You. You and the question of whether you’re going to spend the rest of your time in dowdy clothing simply because you were spurned in love. And if that sentence sounds like a cliché, Eleanor, it’s because your life is turning into one.”
“My life is a cliché?” Despite herself, Eleanor felt a tightness in the back of her throat that signaled tears. She and Anne had amused themselves for years with blistering fights, but she must be out of practice. Anne had been married for a whole two weeks, after all. With their youngest sister still in the nursery, there was no one to torment her on a daily basis.
Anne’s face softened. “Just look at yourself, Eleanor. You’re beautiful. Or at least you used to be beautiful, before—”
“Don’t,” Eleanor interrupted. “Just don’t.”
“Did you take a good look at your hair this evening?”
Of course she had. True, she had been reading while her maid worked, but she certainly glanced in the mirror before she left her chamber. “Rackfort worked very hard on these curls,” Eleanor said, gingerly patting the plump curls suspended before her ears.
“Those curls make your cheeks round, Eleanor. Round, as in fat.”
“I’m not fat,” Eleanor said, taking a calming breath. “A moment ago you were insisting that I’m out of fashion, but these curls are the very newest mode.”
“They might be among the older set,” Anne said, poking at them. “But Rackfort’s inadequate use of powder makes them anything but. For goodness sake, didn’t you notice that she was using light brown curls, even though your hair is chestnut? It’s oddly patchy where the powder has worn off. One might even say mangy. No one would think that you are the more beautiful of the two of us. Or that you’re more beautiful than Mother ever was, for that matter.”
“True,” her sister said indomitably. “I’ve begun to wonder why our mother, so very proud of her glorious past, allows you to dress like a dowager.”