And now, an excerpt from Duchess of Light by Susanna Ives, one of three novellas in the soon-to-be-released anthology Dukes in Disguise, which includes novellas from Susanna, me, and Grace Burrowes.
During his forced holiday in Lesser Puddlebury, the Duke of Lucere disguises himself as Mr. Stephens, a humble tutor. He and his manservant acquire rooms at a boarding house ironically named Duke of Lucere Boarding House that is run by women claiming to be the duke’s cousins. To impress his beautiful landlady Estella Primrose, Lucere tutors her younger, giggly twin sisters, Amelia and Cecelia.
After seeing to her mother’s comforts, Estella picked up the sheets that required mending and repaired to the parlor, where Mr. Stephens worked with her sisters at the table.
He had devised a clever game called “Going to Almack’s,” which the twins played with great relish. The girls had to give him their bonnets, gloves, and cloaks. They could earn their garments back one by one if they answered his questions correctly. If one of them dare giggled, they lost their Almack’s voucher and all the accessories they had earned back.
Mr. Stephens was so humorous. If a sister missed a question, he would exclaim that the Prince Regent was appalled at her ignorance and she could not make her curtsy to the queen.
The twins had lost their adolescence sullenness, although the giggling habit was difficult to overcome. Even Estella found herself giggling at Mr. Stephens’s clever quips. He shook his head. “Not you too, Miss Primrose.”
The twins played the game with gusto and managed to learn a great deal without realizing that they were. Estella enjoyed watching their happiness. It had been so long since joy filled this home. She felt at any moment she would look up and find her grandfather at the threshold.
How long would Mr. Stephens stay, and how hard would it be to let him go? He caught her watching him and smiled. The edges of his eyes crinkled. Her heart lifted, wanting to leave its cage of bones and fly to him.
“There now, Miss Primrose, your sisters don’t know Pythagoras’s theorem. Can you help them?”
“Oh, I’m afraid I can’t,” admitted Estella. “I think I used it once.”
“Nooo!” cried Mr. Stephens. “Must I tutor you as well?” He seemed rather pleased by this prospect, and in truth, Estella would have loved to learn. She had had to drop her studies and help her mother when she had turned fifteen.
“La!” Cecelia exclaimed, happy that her bossy elder sister missed a question. “What shall happen to her, Mr. Stephens? I know, she’s received an infamous set-down from our great cousin the Duke of Lucere. That will vex her.” She looked at Estella. “Now, you are too ashamed to attend Almack’s again. You must give Mr. Stephens your thimble, as you have no finery.”
Estella colored and shifted her sewing work about, remembering Mr. Stephens’s acquaintance with the duke. “Our cousin would never do something so cruel. He is a Primrose.”
Mr. Stephens’s head jerked up. She couldn’t decipher the curious look he gave her.
“Primrose, cabbage rose,” Cecelia taunted. “I think the duke is horrid. If he was such a wonderful cousin, he would acknowledge us. He would invite us to London.”
“What is that old story about the troll guarding the bridge?” Amelia asked. “Well, our cousin is a troll guarding London Bridge. Never mind dull geography lessons and such, we could find husbands fast enough if we could get to London.”
“My dears, Mr. Stephens is known to our cousin,” Estella explained, to stop further disparagement of the man.
The twins’ faces lit. The duke, who was an ogre not a half a minute ago, became the most charming and handsome man in all England.
“Is he really as satirical as the journals say?” Cecelia cried, rising from her chair. “Will one clever cut from him destroy a person’s standing?”
Mr. Stephens blinked.
“Does he really have the physique and face of Adonis?” asked Amelia. “Did he truly seduce all the pretty ladies of the Theatre Royal?”
“Amelia, that is not proper discussion!” Estella cried. “Apologize, at once.”
Estella’s words were unheeded. “And his friends, the Moon and Stars,” said Cecelia. “Do you know them?”
“Disreputable rakes, the lot,” replied Mr. Stephens, his lips thinned. “I would stay away from them and their kind.”
“I think rakes are captivating.” Cecelia capped her words with a wistful sigh, Mr. Stephens’s wise counsel ignored. She began to dance around the room, swishing her gown. “I want to marry a rake.”
“Me too,” agreed Amelia, joining her sister’s dance.
Estella bowed her head. This was her fault. Had she more time to see to her sisters’ moral improvement, the twins wouldn’t dare spout such nonsense. Before she could lecture, Mr. Stephens stepped in.
“No young lady of any sense or proper manners would want a rake. They are selfish monsters, incapable of love. They care nothing for the feelings of others and only for their own pleasure. No, you should desire a kind, rational husband who will endeavor to treat you with respect and tend to your comfort and well-being.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stephens,” Estella said.
“But such gentlemen are dull,” protested Cecelia.
For some reason, her sister’s words set Estella aflame. She jabbed her needle into the sheet. “How dare you say that?” she cried. “I very much wish I could marry a kind man who treated me with respect instead of… of…” She swallowed as all eyes turned to her.
She had gone too far.
Mr. Stephens was on his feet, coming to her. “Miss Primrose, you are distressed.” He slid beside her and grasped her hand. “What is this? Tell me at once.”
The pressure of his touch was so reassuring. She yearned to lean into his chest like a small child wanting to hide under the covers to protect herself from the terrors in the night. But she couldn’t allow the humble man, so poor that he had to seek lodging from her, to become entangled in her staggering financial problems. She extracted herself from him and gathered her sewing. “I must see to Lottie.” She walked away, her heart thundering.
Behind her, she could hear the twins begging to resume the game. One of them said something that caused them both to explode into twitters.
“Giggles!” Mr. Stephens’s voice boomed. He sounded almost angry. “You are both banned from Almack’s for the entire season. No rakish husbands for either of you. Now go help your worried sister and learn some gratitude.”