The Once and Future Duchess

ISBN: ISBN 10:0062273639 or ISBN 13: 978-0062273635

Book IV (Finale) – Royal Entourage series: Six Regency heroes — One royal hangover!  A duchess in time saves a noble line . . .

In theory, the Duke of Candover is the most eligible peer in the realm. But in truth, he has a deep aversion to the merest hint of marriage, not to mention two botched engagements which have marked his jaded soul. Now, after a debauched bachelor party that causes public outcry, the Prince Regent is demanding that it's Candover's turn to be brought to heel. And Prinny secretly believes that Isabelle Tremont, the Duchess of March, is up to the challenge.
Isabelle must marry, but a day of reckoning with the man she's loved for years is her greatest fear. If Candover insists she's too young and innocent for a seasoned world-weary man like him, there's no shortage of other candidates. Gentlemen of prestige and position. Gentlemen whose attentions are driving Candover to jealous distraction. Yet one abandoned mom hints that if they can put aside pride and duty, then a love once denied might just be their destiny.

EXCERPT . . .

Chapter One

 

There comes a time in a lady’s life when she must lace up her stiffest corset and face what she fears above all else. It’s called a day of reckoning in polite circles. But in the privacy of her mind, Isabelle Tremont, the Duchess of March, preferred language far less refined. Base, in fact. Yes, this promised to be a rotter of a day full of sodding answers. Yet she had little choice but to harness pluck and see it through. And so she would wrestle through a forest of indignities to avoid future brambles of regret. Cowardice was just not to be borne. Her father, the Duke of March, had often told her that before he had died three years ago, leaving her a duchess in her own right. A rare creature to be sure.

 

She only prayed God would not smite her when she did not fully own up to her true sentiments. It was one thing to take on the enemy, or rather . . . the gentleman who owned her heart. It was altogether another to bare her sensibilities. Pride was natural. Indeed, it protected one’s dignity. And one’s dignity protected the soul. And one’s soul . . . Oh, for the love of God, there was no time for pastoral ruminations. Endless speculation was mere procrastination. Procrastination was worse than waiting for someone else to come to hissenses.

 

And so, at precisely three o’clock in the afternoon deep in Mayfair on a brilliant, cloudless late summer day, which did not match her mood, the petite duchess descended the stone steps of March House toward her destiny. At least no one else could fathom her inner tumult. Her maid, who not only excelled at pulling corset stays tighter than a French straightjacket, but also kept calm in the presence of silent madness, trailed her steps toward the carriage.

 

And then Isabelle saw an excellent sign. 

 

A single crow alit on the roof of the family’s crested, gilded, well-lacquered barouche. The onyx-colored bird appeared disoriented and lost; his murder—why a flock of crows was called a murder she would never understand— had forsaken him. Whoever said crows were vile, knew nothing of the matter. They provided the finest quills, laid beautiful blue splotched eggs, and were the single most intelligent bird on the continent. He squawked and flapped his wings with displeasure. She knew just how he felt. But he would soon learn that independence was a lovely thing . . . once you got used to it. The crow flew off, and so would she.

 

Yes, a crow was a very good sign.

 

She was sure.

 

The liveried footman opened the barouche’s door and as she reached for the servant’s outstretched hand to aid her, she froze.

 

Calliope. Perfect hell. Her younger cousin was inside.

 

“Morning, Isabelle,” Calliope chirped. Her cousin’s spectacles caught the sunlight and her eyes were hidden. Calliope glanced toward the maid. “Morning, Lily.”

 

The maid dipped a small curtsy.

 

“Dearest,” Isabelle began. “Whatever are you doing here? Surely Mr. Malforte is waiting for you in the ballroom.”

 

“He left. I don’t think he’s coming back.”

 

“And why is that?”

 

“I told him gentlemen look like wounded partridges bowing and hopping on pointed toes. A jig is all right, I suppose, but the minuet?” she pulled a face. “He didn’t seem to care for my observations.”

 

The waiting footman cleared his throat to cover the sound of a snort.

 

Isabelle suppressed a sigh. “Calliope?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Dearest, we’ll discuss this later. Will you not wait for me in the library until then?”

 

Calliope studied her with eyes magnified twice their size and then turned her attention to the maid. “Lilly, Her Grace and I need a moment of privacy please. We’ve a matter of some importance to discuss.” She glared at the vastly entertained footman. “You too.”

 

Isabelle ground her teeth. She would be lucky not to spend an hour with the tooth-drawer if her cousin remained in March House a full year as agreed. “Calliope shall accompany me, Lily.” Lord, she could not be late on this day of all days.

 

“Of course, Your Grace.” Her maid’s passive expression gave nothing away. Isabelle knew that every last one of the servants were wagering on how long Calliope would last before being sent back to Portsmouth, where Isabelle’s poor maternal aunt lived with a huge brood.

 

She stepped into the barouche and the carriage door closed. Calliope opened her mouth but Isabelle raised her hand.

 

“Dearest, not now. I need a quarter hour of quiet. On the return you can tell me everything.”

 

Calliope closed the blue velvet carriage curtains with a peevish willfulness that only the very young or very old dared to do with genuine flare.

 

Isabelle, in the darkness, was silent. She had but one last quarter hour to reconsider. Ill-ease clogged her throat. She arched her back, exhaled, and tried desperately to regain the quiet dignity her father had tried to instill in her. No success. She might be able to hide her sensibilities, but the other was another matter. In fact, the only time she achieved stateliness was on cloudy days with the letter P in them.

 

Her young cousin pretended to study a random page in the slender volume she held in her lap, and said idly, “I suppose you would prefer the curtains open.”

 

Isabelle bit back the truth. “Actually, I find I can’t deny you the bliss of reading in the dark. One of life’s little joys I always say.” Living with a cousin of four and ten who had mastered the art of a contrary contrarian five times her age was illuminating. Had Isabelle herself been like this a mere four years ago? Impossible. She had never thought she would have sympathy for Miss Hackett, her ancient ape-leader of a governess who had ruled with ill-humor and iron discipline.

 

Calliope trained her attention on Isabelle; her book forgotten.

 

Isabelle gave up any notion of reflection, quiet or otherwise. “Now would be the time for you to say, ‘But Isabelle, I know you’d prefer to take in the beauty of the day.’”

 

“Why would I suggest such a thing?” Calliope said. “Then you’d agree and I’d be forced to open the curtains. Where’s the fun in that?” Her cousin pursed her lips like a dowager with a secret. “Very well. I can take a hint. I’ll read while you pretend this is an ordinary day.” 

 

How was she to have a chance of success with the notorious Duke of Candover if she couldn’t manage an adolescent? At least now she had a moment to think. Isabelle resisted the urge to relax her spine against the well-cushioned squabs.

Flashes of him fluttered in her mind’s eye. His powerful stature and his harshly chiseled features declared him a noble of the highest distinction. Austere was the word most used to describe him out of his hearing. And it had been that mysterious  asceticism in his dark eyes that had untethered the first romantic yearnings of Isabelle’s young heart six years ago. The depth of his character and the sheer raw masculinity he exuded had left her reeling, a sensation hitherto foreign to her.

 

He was a paradox—inspiring such warring emotions within her—confidence, and yet vulnerability, which she deplored. From the start he was her champion and the man she most admired. And yet, she secretly feared she would never truly earn his esteem. Hell, she didn’t just want his good opinion. That was all good and well.

 

She wanted his love.

 

And she just knew—knew without the merest wisp of doubt—she had not a prayer of a chance. He was not attracted to her in the least. He thought her a child. A capable, willful, very young duchess, whose father had had the misfortune of having a daughter instead of a proper son to leave his duchy. 

 

It was not like her to be such a pessimist.

 

Yes, indeed, James Fitzroy could very well condescend to make her the happiest of women. The premier duke in England, infamous for cool reserve, might just scoop her off her feet, twirl her about like the foppish dance master, and unfetter his secret years of grand passion for her. And then they could hand feed each other  chocolates and take turns reading aloud love sonnets until dawn.

 

Right.

 

Calliope, without gloves as usual, was inelegantly biting a thumbnail; her attention glued to a certain passage in her book..

 

Isabelle cleared her throat. “So is the book Edgeworth or Byron, dearest?”

 

“Not telling,” Calliope replied, not meeting her gaze.

 

“Not telling?”

 

“No,” Calliope replied. “Unless you tell me what the visit is all about.”

 

“I’ve a better idea,” Isabelle replied archly. “I shall tell you why I’m not going to Fitzroy House and you will tell me what you’re not reading.”

 

A little smile finally appeared beneath the brim of Calliope’s countrified straw bonnet. “Guess.”

 

“Lady Caroline Lamb’s lurid stew.” Isabelle resisted the urge to straighten the sagging haystack resting on her cousin’s small head. She would drag her to Bond Street tomorrow without fail. Honestly, what creature of the fairer sex did not like shopping for hats?

 

The creature known as Calliope.

 

Her cousin pursed her lips. “You know nothing of it.” She paused, and raised her pointed chin. “Johnson’s Sermons,” she continued well-pleased. “Fascinating, actually.” She turned a page. “All about pride versus duty. And dignity and the soul.”

 

She started. God was smiting her already by granting Calliope the ability to read minds. “Liar.”

 

The imp giggled. “Killjoy.”

 

Isabelle finally allowed herself to laugh. There was a reason she had arranged with her unfortunate aunt to have one of her cousins come to live with her. She was tired of living without any family. At first when she had dismissed Miss Hackett and her father’s disapproving, unimaginative advisors the day after attaining her majority, she had reveled in her hard-won freedom. But freedom did not prevent loneliness. She needed companionship and her aunt’s family needed one less mouth to feed.

 

She was certain Calliope would not agree. Her cousin’s father might have been a poor man, but the huge family had always been jovial—until he died, leaving them very short on funds.

 

Just when Isabelle discarded her last hope for a few more moments of peace, Calliope lowered her head and began to read in earnest. The barouche drew ever closer to St. James Square.

 

Isabelle was prepared. She had rebuttals to every possible argument James might wield. And she could retrench using the element of surprise.

 

The surprise was in her pocket.

 

There was but one thing she could not do—retreat. Apprehension knitted her mind to the nth degree. The sensation had become all too familiar the last three years. Death in a family tended to do that.

 

Something beyond the carriage window snagged her attention. A flower girl hawked her posies on a corner deep in Mayfair. Isabelle grasped the ivory handle of her father’s old cane, forever resting in its place within, and rapped on the roof. The barouche swayed to a stop and she quickly lowered the door’s brass lever before a groom could descend. A hand clenching a large bunch of violets appeared as Isabelle withdrew tuppence from her beaded reticule.

 

“Thanky kindly, yer ladyship,” the girl said before she backed away in awe. A moment later the carriage drove on.

 

“Calliope?”

 

“Yes?” Her eyes danced. “I thought you wanted me to keep to myself.”

 

Isabelle was learning the patience of all the saints in heaven. And she was certain her father and governess would agree it was justice due given the silent, deadly looks of disapproval they had worn ninety-eight percent of the time. The other two percent of the day, Miss Pickering had mysteriously smiled, which was fairly difficult to distinguish from a frown.

Isabelle offered the enormous posy to her companion. “For you, Dearest. Don’t pretend you don’t like them.”

Her cousin’s brown eyes softened. “For me?”

 

“They compliment your eyes,” Isabelle lied.

 

“What are you up to?”

 

“Why on earth do you insist something is afoot?”

 

“Because you have that ‘look’.”

 

“What ‘look’?”

 

“That ‘look’ that says you’re trying to hide something.”

 

“I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about,” Isabelle replied.

 

“Yes, you do,” Calliope insisted. “You look like those statues in front of March House.” Calliope paused, considering. “Not the one with the spear in his ribs, dying in misery. But the others—all deathly pale and frozen. Like you now. ”

 

“Did your mother teach you any manners at all?”

 

She tilted her head. “Whatever do you mean?”

 

There was no need to reply.

 

Calliope pulled a face. “ Everyone knows honesty is always the best course, especially with family.”

 

“Since when does honesty have anything to do with manners?”

 

“According to Papa . . . since the day I was born.”

 

“Your father was a brilliant man.”

 

“I know,” the younger lady replied, her smile slowly disappearing.

 

“I’m sorry, Calliope. He was a wonderful father.” She wished she could say the same. “You were very lucky to have him.”

 

“I know that.” Calliope ducked her head, fishing a sweetmeat from her pocket to hide her expression.

 

Isabelle instinctively felt for the folded note in her own pocket. The barouche swayed as it rounded a corner. They were almost arrived.

 

Calliope sucked on her candy. “Are you ever going to tell me why we are visiting old sobersides?”

 

“We are not paying a call on old sober”—she closed her eyes for a moment to regain her composure—“I mean, His Grace. I’ve a rendezvous to discuss a matter of importance and you will wait for me in one of the salons.”

 

“The salon with nothing of interest, or the salon with the odd artifacts? Or perhaps the chamber with the caged military spoils?”

 

She sighed. “I don’t know.”

 

Calliope blinked her large eyes. “Well, don’t they keep some sort of schedule at Candover’s pile?”

 

“Schedule?” She asked faintly.

 

“Of course. He should not bore his visitors to pieces by storing them in the same old chamber they’ve seen again and again.”

 

“Any other complaints?”

 

“Yes. He’s extremely irritating.”

 

“Why would you say that?”

 

“Because he’s self-righteous, toplofty, stuffy beyond reason, and refuses to be provoked.”

 

Isabelle bit back a smile. “A challenge to be sure.”

 

“How can you enjoy the company of someone so unfeeling and heartless?”

 

“He has a heart.”

 

Calliope’s eyes challenged her. “Have you ever managed to quarrel with him?”

 

“No.” She feared that might change today.

 

Calliope muttered. “Why would anyone want to spend time with someone who looks like he has an icicle stuck in his—”

 

“Calliope!”

 

“—throat.”

 

Isabelle prayed to a saint known for patience.

 

Calliope let out a long-suffering sigh like a master. “Honestly, have you not ever wondered what is going on in that colossal skull of his?”

 

Forever. “You know, Calliope, for one who claims not to esteem the man, you can’t seem to stop talking about him. One might think you actually like him.”

 

“I refuse to like someone who always makes us wait forever and a day until His Highness decides he will condescend to give a person fifteen minutes of his time. And not a minute more by the by.” She smiled. “I’ve timed it.”

 

“Calliope?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“I realize you’ve never been more than a dozen miles from Portsmouth, but do you think you could make more of an effort to embrace the ways of Town?”

 

“Does it include kowtowing?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Are you going to send me home if I don’t?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Liar,” her cousin retorted with a mischievous gleam.

 

Isabelle stuck out her tongue. She knew how to lance a Parthian shot with the best of them.

 

Calliope nearly choked with laughter.

 

Lord, Isabelle hadn’t stuck out her tongue since the day old Hacksaw, uh, Miss Hackett had nearly yanked it out of her mouth.

 

Calliope removed her spectacles and wiped her eyes with her hands before Isabelle could remind her to use her handkerchief. At least her expression had softened.

 

“So why must you see him by yourself?   My mother explicitly told me my main duty was that I’m never to leave you alone with any man. Mama puckered like she’d swallowed a peeled lime when I asked why.”

 

Isabelle smiled despite herself.

 

Calliope looked at her with knowing eyes. “You’re not going to set his servants to gossiping, are you? I do have a reputation to maintain.”

 

“Do you now?”

 

“Yes. If I’m to be your companion, at least I want to be an excellent one.” She paused. “Isabelle?”

 

“Yes, dearest?”

 

“I know more than you think.”

 

“Really?” Isabelle smoothed the folds of the elegant patent net over the pale blue gown trimmed with jonquille ribband.

She pleated her stiff hands, the picture of everything proper. “And what, pray tell, do you know?”

 

“I know that nothing good will come of your visit with the Duke of Candover. And I know something is brewing otherwise you would not have that look.” She handed Isabelle the book of sermons. “Here, you need this more than I.”

 

She glanced down only to find it was, indeed, that bit of nauseating fluff by Lady Lamb. She opened it. Out of the corner of her eye, Isabelle could see Calliope part her lips to speak, but she interrupted. “I’m reading, Calliope. As you suggested.” She was abashed to descend to her cousin’s level.

 

Calliope snapped her mouth closed, and appeared to turn her attention to the world outside their conveyance. Isabelle had all of thirty seconds before her cousin rattled her cage again. She trained her unseeing eyes on the page.

 

Dear God, she could not lose her resolve. Yet suddenly, she could not remember how she was to say it. She had over-prepared last evening. Twenty three times repeating the same outrageous question would make anyone feel like a fool. But perhaps he would see the practical brilliance of the idea. Two birds . . . one stone. Two dozen words . . . one idiot. Two friends . . . one soon to be former friend. Then again, could gentlemen and ladies really be just friends? Lady Lamb’s ridiculous tract showed every evidence of the impossibility of it. Johnson’s Sermons warned against it at every opportunity. And her estate library’s section on animal husbandry never mentioned friendship between the sexes.

But could she go through with it? Even if her pride screamed ‘no,’ every particle of her heart insisted on it. He was the man meant for her. She had known it since she was thirteen when he had arrived on the vernal equinox during one of his twice yearly visits to her father. That visit, James had insisted she learn how to use a pistol, one of the endless number of skills he had said she must acquire. It had been unsaid that she would soon be alone in the world when her father died.

 

He had showed her how to prime and load a dueling pistol and when she had proved a miserable shot after watching his demonstration, he had stood behind her, wrapped his arms about her and suggested she inhale and exhale with him to steady her breathing. When he had placed his warm, strong hands over hers to show her how to take proper aim, his jaw had rested on her temple, and his masculine scent had invaded her senses. It had been a miracle she had hit the target at all.

 

But that had been nothing compared to what he had said six months later as her father lay on his deathbed. Isabelle had overheard them speaking about her. Her father was worried as always about the duchy and her questionable abilities. James’s words were seared in her memory. “To be sure, she is young. But she is courageous, and intelligent, and a born leader. She will do you proud of that I promise you.” She had tiptoed away when she had heard the butler’s footsteps. But she had held tight to James’s words during the weeks and months of difficulties after her father died. James never lied, and if he believed in her abilities, so could she.

 

The barouche again swayed as they turned yet   another corner. Her gaze darted to the window where St. James Square’s well-manicured central garden loomed. Isabelle watched the townhouses of the Allens, the Pickerings, and the widowed adventurer Mr. Lyerley slip beyond view. As the carriage horses slowed on the approach to No. 9 St. James Street, Isabelle glanced toward the imposing gray marble townhouse endowed to the Candover duchy.

Her stomach lurched and she finally slumped against the carriage seat. Well, slumped was not entirely the right word, considering the torture device under her gown. She felt more like the library’s enormous atlas leaning against a shelf.

And for the first time ever, she spied anxiety in Calliope’s face. Indeed, if her expression was any indication, Isabelle had not a prayer of a chance at this game. Not that she ever truly thought she did.

 

But by God, at eighteen she was a fully grown woman, a duchess in her own right, who very capably oversaw three estates with a myriad of details, and she knew the value of occasional risk and opportunity.

 

And so she would play her cards.

 

For everyone knew you had to play if you wanted to win—no matter the odds. And Isabelle Tremont very much wanted to win. 

REVIEWS . . .

"Once again, Nash's impeccable Regency roots shine as she pens another exquisitely detailed, deliciously sensual, and sometimes outrageous escapade that sees all lovers properly aligned, beautifully wrapping up this engaging series."   ~***Starred review*** Library Journal