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If I Only Had a Duke

By:Lenora Bell

Prologue


County Cork, Ireland, 1818


Dear Duke of Osborne,

I hope you will forgive my impertinence in writing to you without a formal introduction, as I am temporarily your neighbor. My aunt's Ballybrack Cottage overlooks the park of your Balfry House. Yesterday your housekeeper kindly offered me a tour.

Such a rare collection of old masters you possess! I haven't seen their equal since I toured the museums of Italy. As a student of art I recognized works from the hands of Caravaggio, Raphael, and Titian.

Your housekeeper tells me you haven't visited Ireland in over a decade. I wonder if you can be aware of the significance of your ancestral collection?

In curiosity,

Lady Dorothea Beaumont




London

Dear Lady Dorothea Beaumont,

Can there be two Lady Dorothea Beaumonts? I find it difficult to believe the lady I'm thinking of would write to me, given her involvement in the strange and scandalous circumstances surrounding my friend the Duke of Harland's marriage last autumn.

In puzzlement,

The Duke of Osborne




County Cork, Ireland

Dear Duke of Osborne,

I fear there is only one me.

The events to which you allude are the reason I'm hidden away here in the Irish countryside like your ancient masterpieces.

I confess that I continued my tour of Balfry only to discover an attic room filled floor to ceiling with mysterious painting-sized parcels. How I longed to unwrap them. Perhaps you would benefit from a catalogue of your collection?

My services would be gladly rendered.

Lady Dorothea Beaumont




London

Dear Lady Dorothea Beaumont,

His Grace forwarded us your petition concerning the collection of stored artworks at Balfry House. Please be aware that the matter has been assigned a number and will hereafter be known as MCCCXXVIII.

While His Grace makes every attempt to answer such queries swiftly, delay is often unavoidable and usually prolonged.

Your humble servants,

Stallwell and Bafflemore, Solicitors




County Cork, Ireland

Dear Messrs. Stallwell and Bafflemore,

Please inform His Grace that I'm not so easily dissuaded.

I may have unwrapped a portion of one painting and found it to be an important lost work by Artemisia Gentileschi, a female Italian Renaissance artist whose work greatly interests me.

Her Sleeping Venus reposes on turquoise velvet while Cupid fans her with peacock feathers. While she may be a little old for the duke's taste (nearly two hundred) she's a diamond of the first water and deserves to be admired by an adoring public.

I implore His Grace to allow more unveiling.

Lady Dorothea Beaumont




London

Dear Scheherazade,

There will be no unveiling.

My late father was the art collector; not I. Dusty old paintings leave me cold. I'm strictly a connoisseur of the warm and living variety of Venus.

Allow me to assure you that Balfry House, and all its contents, is closed for good reason, and will remain so.

Firmly,

The Duke of Osborne




County Cork, Ireland

Dear Duke,

You cannot be so flint-hearted as to forbid the uncovering of what is quite possibly the finest assemblage of paintings by a female Renaissance artist in the world (yes, there are more lost works by Artemisia in your late father's collection!).

You deny the public, and the student of art, great edification and pleasure.

If you would only come and see the paintings for yourself, your heart could not remain unaffected.

The undeterred,

Lady Dorothea




London, Autumn 1818

Dear Determined Lady,

You seem to be spending quite a lot of time at my house. Should I be charging you rent? I trust you have other pursuits? Cow pastures in which to gambol . . . country squires to enthrall.

If you will forgive me, important and urgent business calls.

The flint-hearted,

Duke of Osborne




County Cork, Ireland, Autumn 1818

Dear Duke,

If by important and urgent business you refer to leaping from the balcony of Mrs. Renwick only to be spied scaling the rose trellis of Mrs. Beckham-Cross the very same evening (I read such a thrilling account in a broadsheet) one wonders if all this leaping about can be good for a gentleman's health?

Allow me to prescribe a peaceful rest in the Irish countryside and a quiet contemplation of seventeenth-century artworks.

The rusticating,

Lady Dorothea




London

Dear Rusticating Lady,

Please don't trouble yourself. I'm in the prime of vigor, virility, and health. Just ask Mrs. Renwick.

A beast of Town,

The Duke of Osborne



And just how was she supposed to respond to that?

Thea dipped her quill into ink.

Dear Duke, she began. But he really wasn't a dear. He was an arrogant rake who ignored a lady's sincere petition.

Thea scrunched the sheet of foolscap into a ball and placed a fresh sheet on her sloped writing desk.   





 

Dear Beastly Duke.

Satisfying, but probably ill advised.

A gentleman thrives upon flattery. There was her mother's voice again. Even after a year of exile in Ireland, Thea hadn't been successful in banishing that imperious internal monologue and its constant instructions.

Find something to praise. Anything. Compliment the sheen of his boots. Commend the bloodlines of his stables. Then ask him a question about himself. Gentlemen never tire of the subject.

Right, then. Flattery. Questions.

Dear Virile Duke, how do you manage to satisfy so many widows when there are only twenty-four hours in one day?

And yet another discarded ball of foolscap hit the basket by her feet.

Thea propped her elbows on her desk and stared out at the window. There was Aunt Emma, a plump figure in a white gauze-draped bonnet, tending her beloved woven basket beehives.

Behind her, the sparkling green waters of Balfry Bay caressed rocky cliffs and beaches strewn with the rosy fossilized algae known as maërl, which the local farmers crushed and sprinkled over their fields.

Hundreds of years from now archaeologists would find Thea buried beneath a drift of crumpled paper.

Slow death by inarticulateness.

She was an expert on the subject. Just ask her mother, the Countess of Desmond.

Poor Lady Desmond. She'd had such plans for her daughter. Thea couldn't remember a time when she hadn't known she was meant for Great Things.

A triumphant come out, a dozen marriage proposals to closely follow, selection of the most eligible duke, and a long, unchallenged reign as England's most envied duchess.

The plan even possessed a motto: Propriety. Elegance. Refinement.

A code of conduct formed from the first three letters of the word perfect-because nothing less than perfection would suffice.

Thea conversed in Italian and French by age eleven. Read Ovid in the original Latin epigrams by twelve. Mastered all of Mozart's concertos on the pianoforte by thirteen.

Her dance steps were light, her watercolors captivating, and her posture impeccable.

Mr. Debrett could have consulted her for corrections to his guide to the peerage, as she knew more about each peer's prospects than they did themselves.

While she practiced the proper method of pouring real tea from actual Wedgwood's creamware for her pretend future duke, other children shouted with laughter in the square outside their town house in St. James's.

But Thea was meant for Great Things. Not grass stains.

Her only adventures occurred within the confines of the mythological paintings on the walls of the schoolroom. In those misty, verdant forests dotted with silver pools she wandered-a laughing wood nymph, frolicking with her wood-nymph friends, and winning the heart of a handsome Apollo who would never scold her if a drop of tea splashed over a rim.

Of course accomplished, elegant young ladies never rambled in woodlands and never held trysts with handsome deities.

In fact, they never stepped outside the house without a lady's maid, two footmen, and a sharp-eyed mother.

And so it was that when Thea reached seventeen years of age, the countess finally judged her elegant and refined daughter ready to conquer society.

The countess had made only one slight miscalculation.

Thea had been so cloistered, so sequestered and silent, that she'd never actually conversed with a real live eligible gentleman, let alone a duke.

Her interactions with the male of the species had been limited to brief glimpses of her two brothers who were much older than she and away at school during her childhood. On the rare occasions her father was at home and not out dallying with paramours, his entire conversation consisted of grunts, and quotes from the financial section of the papers.

And the pretend duke at Thea's tea parties had always been portrayed by an old stuffed cloth doll with painted-on eyes.

Not very intimidating, the Duke of Stuffing.

He'd never said a word to fluster her, or made comments so inane as to render her entire education the premise of some monstrous joke.

At her debut, when presented with precisely such inanity from an elderly duke with violet veins webbing his cheeks and absolutely no chin to speak of, Thea opened her mouth to make an elegant, refined reply . . . and nothing emerged.

She was terrified to speak because she might say something wrong.

And if she said something wrong, she wouldn't be perfect.

And if she weren't perfect . . . her life thus far would be rendered meaningless.

At times during that interminable evening, Thea managed monosyllabic responses. Or a high-pitched giggle.

The giggle was simply the worst. It erupted like lava from the volcano of self-sabotage bubbling inside her chest.

To quench the errant giggle, Thea desperately gulped several cups of sugary ratafia punch, which, unfortunately, also erupted . . . all over the gown of a horrified baroness in the lady's retiring room.   





 

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