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Authors: Sara Bennett

To Pleasure a Duke

BOOK: To Pleasure a Duke
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To Pleasure a Duke

Sara Bennett

Prologue

Miss Debenham’s Finishing School, Graduating Ball

1837

M
iss Eugenie Belmont waited in trepidation. Olivia and Marissa had spoken of their ideal husbands, and after the uproar they caused Eugenie felt her own qualms increase. Perhaps if she stayed quiet and made herself very small no one would notice her? The truth was she didn’t have a choice of an eligible husband. Not a single, solitary one. Where on earth would she meet such a man in her circumstances? Eligible men were hardly likely to come calling at Belmont Hall, falling down as it was, and inhabited by her disreputable and rackety family.

Perhaps her friends would pass her over and ask Tina or Averil instead. Eugenie said a fervent prayer under her breath.

“Well, Eugenie? Are you going to tell us the name of
your
future husband?” Marissa was smiling a teasing smile, and the rest of her friends leaned forward, their eyes bright with expectation.

Eugenie tried to smile, too, although her heart was clanging in her chest. The moment she’d been dreading for weeks had arrived.

“I haven’t given it much thought, really. What about Tina? I’m sure she has someone really interesting to—”

“No, no,” Tina retorted, “we want to hear
your
choice, Eugenie. Come now, don’t be coy. Who is it? Do we know him?”

Eugenie took a drink of her champagne and violently choked on it. They patted her back, gathering around her. Desperately Eugenie tried to think of a way to escape their questions. She
could
tell the truth, but the thought of such an embarrassing admission made her squirm inside. Her friends seemed to know so many suitable men, all of them husband material. Eugenie longed to be like them, and she couldn’t help but think that if they knew just how
un
like them she really was then they would no longer be her friends.

“There now,” Olivia said, mopping Eugenie’s cheeks and tucking her wild curls behind her ears. “All better?”

“I—I think so.”

They waited expectantly. They exchanged glances.

“Come on, Eugenie. Is it really such a secret? Who is this man?”

“We all agreed to meet this evening and tell each other the names of the men we mean to marry. You can’t change your mind now, Eugenie. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“Tell us, Eugenie, please!”

They weren’t going to let it lie. Eugenie sought desperately for a name, someone handsome and wealthy and titled, someone who would impress her irrepressible friends. The one that popped into her head was completely unexpected and in her panic she gave herself no time to consider the consequences of uttering it aloud.

“Sinclair St. John, the Duke of Somerton,” she blurted out.

Smiles wavered. Eyebrows were raised. “Good heavens!” cried Tina, always forthright. “Somerton is the most eligible man in the realm. Aren’t you aiming a little high, Eugenie?”

“Why shouldn’t she aim high?” Olivia spoke gallantly. “Eugenie deserves only the best. And she has royal blood!”

“Dear me, yes,” teased Marissa, showing her dimple. “I had forgotten that. Was it your grandmamma, Eugenie, who was a king’s mistress?”

“No, it was my great-grandmamma. She was a maid in the palace, no great lady, and she wasn’t at all pretty, so it is quite a mystery how she lured King George to her bed. Although he was rather ugly himself . . .”

They giggled.

“And then he made their son a baronet with property to go with it. The property and the money are long gone. All that is left to us of my great-grandmamma’s liaison is the baronetcy, and my father’s nose, which he insists is pure Hanoverian. We have no reason to boast about our royal connection, I assure you.”

“But are you acquainted with the Duke of Somerton?” Averil, serious as always, dismissed Eugenie’s self-effacing jests.

“Yes. I met him three months ago.” Well, that at least was true.

“Met him only once?” Olivia gasped.

“No, of course not. That would be silly.” Eugenie forced a laugh. “Met him for the first time three months ago, I meant. We have spoken many times since and—and written.”

She was making it worse. Eugenie longed for her moment in the spotlight to be over. With any luck the Duke of Somerton would be forgotten by the end of the evening and then after a decent time she could bury him.

Averil was speaking. “I’ve heard he is rather particular in his choice of friends. A snob, in other words. I cannot see him sitting down to dinner with a mere baronet!”

“He is a pompous prig who believes himself too good for the rest of us!” Tina added hotly. “I have been cut by him. He looked right through me. Not that I cared, but I think you might do better, Eugenie. Why would you wish to spend your life with such a creature?”

“I, too, must express my doubts as to his suitability to be your husband,” Averil went on, a little wrinkle of concern creasing her smooth brow. “He is not someone I know well, but what I do know . . . Eugenie, he is said to be arrogant and cold, quite unlike you!”

The final words burst out of her and there was a murmur of doubt from the others.

“We’ve all heard you speak about your family, Eugenie,” Marissa went on in an understanding way. “Are you sure you haven’t chosen Somerton because he is the exact opposite of them?”

Now Eugenie felt her skin flush, as it was prone to do when she was feeling emotional. She knew her wretched freckles would be standing out. It all came of having a great-grandmamma with red curly hair—the disreputable great-grandmamma! Although Eugenie’s hair was more brown than red, she had inherited the tendency to freckle and to blush.

But it was true. Her rackety family was the bane of her life. Her friends knew the trials and tribulations she faced when it came to her family, and there was truth in what Marissa had said—she did dream of marrying someone who was the polar opposite of the baronet, her father.

“There is no point in denying it.” Eugenie sighed theatrically. “You’re right. I have a desperate desire to be conventional. And the Duke of Somerton is the most respectable man I know. Will he love me? Do I love him? I think I
could
love him and I
could
persuade him to love me. It might be fun to find out. Just think, I could be the first Belmont to be respectable.”

They were silent and she knew they thought she was indulging in wishful thinking. Why would the most eligible man in England marry her? Eugenie knew she was no beauty. She was small and slender, with not much of a figure to speak of. Her hair was brown with red tints and curled wildly despite her efforts to subdue it, while her features were too sharp to be considered more than interesting. It was true that males did tend to gravitate toward her at balls and parties, but she thought that was because she laughed at their jokes and listened sympathetically to their woes. They felt at ease with her—thought of her as more like a sister than a possible romantic partner.

Why, oh why had she chosen such an unlikely man to be her husband? Why had that particular name popped into her head? But it was too late now. The hole she had dug for herself was too deep to get out of. She’d just have to continue on and hope that at some point she could wriggle out of the mess she’d created.

She lifted her pointed chin, fixing her friends with her clear green eyes. “Yes, Somerton is refreshingly different from my family and I agree he can appear rather stuck-up and—and proud. But that isn’t the real Somerton. Beneath that chilly exterior is a man who is generous and kind; someone who isn’t afraid to laugh at himself.”

Olivia grasped her hand. “And, Eugenie, you are just the girl to bring out the best in him. But how do you know he isn’t exactly as he seems to Averil and Tina? Are you
so
well acquainted with him?”

“I would not say I know him intimately, but I have seen him as few people can say they have.”

It was true. She had seen beneath the pompous exterior of Sinclair St. John, the Duke of Somerton. Not in the way her doubting friends imagined, however. Now was the moment to convince them that plain and shy Eugenie Belmont was more than capable of ensnaring a duke.

She gave a secretive little smile.

“Eugenie! Tell us! Please!” they begged.

“It happened three months ago.”

They all leaned closer.

Soon they were under her spell. Eugenie told a good story—her father, the baronet, said she was a chip off the old block, although she preferred to use her story telling for the pleasure of others rather than to swindle numbskulls out of their blunt, as her father often boasted. Now she did her best to amuse her friends, causing them to gasp and laugh by turns, and embellishing the scene to the point that even she began to believe that it really was possible for her to marry a man like Somerton.

“ . . . and then he took my hand and said I was the most unusual girl he’d ever met . . .” It was mostly tosh, but her friends weren’t to know that.

When her story finally ended, Olivia clapped her hands and Marissa giggled. Even serious Averil was smiling, while Tina gave an unladylike snort of amusement.

“So now you know why I want to marry the Duke of Somerton,” Eugenie finished gamely, too flushed with her success to stem her flow of words. “Wait and see if I do not win him over.”

“In fact by this time next year I believe you will be his duchess!” Olivia declared.

Eugenie believed nothing of the sort but they were all watching her and she was forced to give a nod and a weak smile.

“How amazing,” Marissa said, her eyes widening. “I think I will have to come and call upon you, Eugenie, and see this unfold for myself.”

The others agreed, eagerly making plans, checking dates.

Eugenie’s nimble brain sought a way out. She hadn’t planned it, exactly, but she probably would have to wait a month or two and then pretend her romance with Somerton didn’t work out. She would send each of her friends a sad little letter and hope they didn’t arrive with the intention of reuniting her with her duke. She shuddered at the thought of them learning the truth. Bad enough that she didn’t have a husband-to-be, but to have told them such lies! If they discovered the truth they would never speak to her again. For a moment she considered whether it would be simpler to persuade Somerton to marry her.

She pictured his handsome, aristocratic face, his black eyes resting on her in amazed disgust.
Marry you?

The young ladies were raising their champagne glasses and she had no option but to raise her own and join in the toast.

“To Eugenie!”

“To the Duchess of Somerton!”

The champagne went down the wrong way. Eugenie began to choke. Again.

BOOK: To Pleasure a Duke
6.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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