Prologue: four years earlier
Clementine Rigby was a well-bred young lady, but she was also penniless -- a more elegant term for utterly and completely destitute -- and practical. She had been forced to travel to Town to find a position as a companion or governess with barely enough money to last her a few days, perhaps a week, at cheap lodgings. By the end of the week she would have to have found something.
Her parents were both deceased now and the debts her father had left behind had allowed her no time for grief. She had sold the house to pay off the debts and she had been told that very little money remained. A girl of twenty-three would have liked to be left with better prospects. She had no relatives that she knew of and her care for her ailing parents, who had died within a year of each other, had not given her much time to prepare for her future.
She had but one choice, to travel to London. There, she had been told, an educated and able-bodied girl would have no problems finding a respectable position before her last pennies ran out. She had trusted this advice and she had embarked on her journey with both excitement and resignation. There would be some frail elderly lady who required a companion and she had experience taking care of one.
The road to London was not without dangers for a young and pretty girl. While coarse men in her small town had always observed the correct distance and propriety, coarse men on the road seemed to think that no one would ever know and that there was no danger in harassing a girl travelling on her own.
She could not afford to spend too much on travelling, which meant she could certainly not afford to hire private transportation, thus she was greatly bothered by the many people travelling with her. There was not much she could do, except push away hands that strayed. She was relieved when they finally reached the coaching inn where she was to stay the night. Some of the men travelled on and some stayed, but the encouragements given by the departing group to the ones who stayed were unsettling. Clementine was resolved to lock her door.
She was not easily frightened, but life outside her home village was proving to be dangerous and harsh. It was true what her parents had always said. A girl alone was not safe and had to have her wits about her. She had always taken that with a grain of salt, but it was turning out to be very true.
A fashionable woman with a shrewd eye struck up a conversation with her at dinner, but since Clementine did not quite like the look of her, she lied about her plans and said she was to visit her uncle. Perhaps it was not only coarse men who preyed on young girls. She had never been an extremely sociable girl and she had never liked people speaking to her uninvited, consequently she did not trust the woman entirely.
"Oh, that is a pity," said the woman. "I have so many friends who are always looking for girls freshly come from the country. Town girls acquire such an air about them, you know, so that they are hard to train. Pray why are you travelling alone? Are you alone in the world?"
"My companion fell ill at the last moment," Clementine fantasised when she got an odd feeling of alarm at these questions. "I had, however, a longstanding engagement with my nieces and nephews and I could not bear to disappoint them. For their sakes I shall have to suffer the aggravations of travelling alone." She smiled bravely, but then realised she did not want this woman to travel with her the rest of the way, for she might find out there was nobody in London to meet her and then the woman would impose.
"If you want," said the woman with a kind smile that did not reach her eyes, "you could accompany me tomorrow."
Clementine thought quickly. She had not yet said when and where she would be met. It might even be here, for all the woman knew. "No, thank you, although the offer is most kind. I am staying here two nights in the hope that my uncle can release his manservant to meet me here. If you will excuse me now, I am very tired."
She went up to her room, but after exiting the room she peered back in to see if any of the coarse men would follow her. There was a hand gesture from the woman to one of the men and it really looked as if they knew each other. For some reason this was not a good development, especially since one of the men rose and made for the door, as if he had been ordered.
Clementine exhaled audibly. She was not safe.
Without wasting another second, she entered the room opposite the main dining room, which she supposed to be a private room of sorts.
It was occupied by a young gentleman eating a lavish dinner. He was alone and from his expensive and fashionable clothing she guessed he would have nothing to do with the people in the other room, which would make her safe for the time being.
Her breathless appearance startled him. "I say!" he exclaimed. "You have not come about the soup?"
"It is cold," he commented regardless.
Years with sickly and complaining parents had perfected her practicality and without delay she took his soup bowl and set it on a burner. "That will work." She wondered why he had not thought of this himself, but if she did him a favour he might be more inclined to do her one in return.
He looked at her in admiration. "That is very kind of you, Miss..."
"Rigby, Clementine Rigby."
"Well, Miss Rigby, I am the Duke of Muncester," he announced in a manner that would be rather pompous if he had not also grinned like a boy, "so I know very little of these domestic things, but I appreciate your assistance."
"Y-Y-Your Grace," Clementine curtseyed in shock. She had never seen a proper duke from nearby, although she had trouble believing that this very young man was already a duke. He looked to be younger than she was. But it fit, if he was a duke, he would indeed not know anything, she supposed. He would always be served and assisted.
"They call me Monster, but that is not funny. I prefer Daniel. Are you the hostess?" Evidently Daniel was bored all by himself and glad for the company, even if it was a landlady or a maid.
"No, Your Grace, I am another guest at this inn, but I escaped from the main room." She told him in case he had a suggestion for her. Perhaps he would allow her to remain here for a while. If he did not suggest that himself, she would ask. He looked to be rather friendly. He could not object.
"There are some very coarse men in there who have been bothering me for the greater part of my journey." She gave the door a frightened glance.
"Excitement!" Daniel said enthusiastically.
"Your Grace, I do not care for being at the centre of it. I felt very bothered. They tried to touch me and just now one was about to follow me to my room. He could not have any good in mind. I do not want him there."
"Should I set them straight for you?"
She eyed him doubtfully. Although he was not weak, she did not think he would be as strong as a hardened labourer. "To be honest, I do not think you are a match for them. But may I stay here in the hope that they give up if they cannot find me?"
"I have always longed to offer a lady my protection." The young duke looked as if one of his dreams had come true. "But I never knew the opportunity would be thrown into my lap. I say, Miss Rigby, may I?"
Clementine looked hesitant. "Your protection?"
"Protecting you from wicked men. Or do you have relatives?" He seemed disappointed at that thought.
"I do not. I do not understand what you mean either." It did not seem to be completely equivalent to staying here with him.
"It means I will offer you carte blanche and set you up in a house of your own." He grinned as if that was a capital idea.
"Me?" She was stunned at the idea of his giving her a house of her own. Why? And what would be required of her in return? She had heard people mention carte blanche in hushed tones, giving a scandalous ring to it, but she did not know what it was precisely.
"Well, you are very pretty. I should like a pretty mistress."
"Mistress," she repeated in shock. "That is not very proper, is it?"
The duke shrugged. "I barely know anyone who does not have a lady set up. It is not very proper to bother ladies on the road, that is what I think. However, I would not be bothering you. You would be an intimate friend."
"But d-d-do men not do things with their mistresses that they are supposed to be d-d-doing with their wives?" Clementine stuttered. She turned a bright crimson. There were special words for that, although she had never known precisely what they meant, only that it was extremely wicked to do any of these things outside marriage. People would surely speak of it disapprovingly -- or was it common in London or among dukes?
He was unfazed by the question. "Obviously, but a grown man must find out how that goes. I am a grown man, but not so grown that I have the intention of marrying in the near future..."
"Are you playing a game with me?" she inquired. He might be worse than the shrewd woman and her band of coarse men, speaking so frankly about such matters. Yet she could not call him ill-bred because he was a duke. He said he was, at any rate, but he was dressed well enough for that to be true.
"Would I admit to being green?" he reasoned. "Men would prefer not to, you know. I am only doing so because the wine loosens my tongue and I have had one glass."
"Why should I want to sacrifice my virtue to satisfy your curiosity?" That was what it all amounted to, she thought.
"You will have a house and gifts and money."
She wondered if that was a fair trade. She could see how it would immediately appeal to some, though. Even she was tempted by that easy life, knowing that even if she made it to London unscathed, she would have to work hard for very little pay. "Who would want to marry a fallen woman when you tire of me?"
"I have no idea," Daniel said cheerfully. "Nor whether I might tire of you. But if it seriously ruins your prospects you must not do it, of course. I am merely offering."
Clementine felt a desire to laugh, in spite of the situation. It was too ridiculous that he should express some sympathy for her prospects. "Are you giving me the choice, Your Grace?"
"Indeed I am, but if you travel alone and get bothered, you cannot have much better prospects. Nobody seems to be looking out for you."
Despite his youthful enthusiasm, Clementine did not think he was entirely stupid. He had a point and he had expressed it kindly. "Would I live alone?"
"With your servants, naturally."
That was amazing. Her father had not even been able to afford live-in servants and this young fellow was offering her own house and servants. It came at a price, naturally, but she did not yet know how high it actually was. "Would that not be a double sin? Giving up my virtue out of greed?" She deliberately voiced all those bad words to see if that made a difference in her mind. She had always thought they would be worse deterrents.
"I suppose," said Daniel. "However, if you were truly greedy you would have said yes already. Some among my acquaintance have such mistresses, always demanding more gifts and money. They are more like parasites. That would be no good for me at all. I tend to be too nice and then they could have their way at all times."
Clementine was tempted to agree. "But you do not even know me."
"You are a virtuous and practical young lady and very pretty too. I shall be envied."
She decided she might as well be a companion to a gentleman as to a lady, since the former would in all likeliness pay better wages.
It had not been a very virtuous start to her new life, but beggars could not be choosers. Her parents had died and Clementine was alone in the world; nobody would care if she became the mistress of a gentleman of rank. Her gentleman, furthermore, seemed to be a decent young man, apart from his procuring a mistress. He treated her kindly.
Soon she was comfortably set up in town, with a house of her own and servants, and she had lost nothing but her virtue. Even that had been easy to lose. The Duke of Muncester was a kind young man, little more than a boy. He was more in love with the excitement of having a mistress than with her character, perhaps, but due to the infrequency of his visits and his sweetness Clementine could feign to be an angel without any effort.
Chapter 1: The New Duke
Unfortunately dear Daniel died after a lengthy illness, although he had provided for her very well. She would lack for nothing, he had promised when the outcome of his illness seemed inevitable, because she had always been very good to him.
Clementine thought along practical lines after the grief had been dealt with. A young and beautiful woman set up so comfortably would have no problems in life. Eventually she might even meet another young man she liked. She would be foolish to marry, however. Daniel, bless him, had provided for her until either her death or her marriage, but another protector was something he had not considered. Perhaps it was because she had never looked at another during his lifetime that he assumed she never would.
She could not say whether she would. Not yet, at any rate. Daniel had also not considered that someone else would look at her.
He had probably not reckoned with his cousin, the new Duke of Muncester, who seemed to believe that along with the title he had inherited the mistress as well.
Clementine did not think so.
She had opened his letter indifferently when she received it, curious what Daniel's successor could want with her, but not otherwise interested in his person. She had not even known his relatives knew about her.
It had soon made her furious.
I write to you as one of the duties of the position I recently inherited.
It has come to my attention that for several years my cousin the previous Duke of Muncester kept an intimate acquaintance with you of a by no means uncommon nature. It is not my intention to deprive you of the provisions he made for you. You may be assured of my honour in that regard and of my willingness to do everything required of a man in my position to leave the situation to your liking, as well as unaltered, but I now consider you to be my responsibility. You will find me as good at my duties as my cousin was, if not better.
I wish to call on you to discuss some arrangements of an intimate nature that had best not be mentioned in a letter. I trust that you and I will be able to come to a satisfying arrangement with regard to these matters and for that purpose I will call on you as soon as possible.
I remain, &c.
"I beg your pardon?" Clementine exclaimed. "I am one of the duties he recently inherited? Daniel's side of the bed is not yet cold, Your Grace!" He could have but one thing in mind and that was to continue where Daniel had left off. The sheer presumptuousness made her angry.
Clementine had learnt many things in the past few years, though, and another young pup was not what she was looking for. She was a lady of seven-and-twenty, no longer an innocent country girl, and her friendship with several women in a similar position had taught her many things that Daniel had not. She had also observed other relationships and arrangements and drawn her conclusions.
She was not going to be tricked and she was also not going to instruct and guide someone on his way to adulthood.
She was under no obligation to this new duke.
Clementine had no idea what the new duke understood by as soon as possible. It meant different things to different people and it could therefore be any time within the next few months. She was resolved not to wait for his visit as if she were someone who needed him. She would go about her usual business and she hoped that he would call in her absence -- although preferably not at all -- so that he would know she was no helpless creature waiting for his protection.
"Miss Clementine Rigby?" a male voice inquired.
She turned, having been about to ascend the steps to the front door. "Perhaps," she said, letting her eyes travel from his hat to his polished boots. A gentleman worthy of consideration, proud and well-dressed. He had come on foot, for there was no carriage. She did not have to guess his identity. There was but one gentleman who had said he would visit and she was not in the habit of receiving calls from strangers. It would be a coincidence if some other strangers called now.
He took off his hat and bowed. "My name is Julian Lenton, the Duke of Muncester."
"And you wished to call on me, Your Grace, I understood from your note," she said coolly. She did not wish to see him, yet here he was. Very well, she would speak with him and tell him he did not stand a chance. He would have to abandon his plans.
"Indeed I do."
"That can be arranged. Briefly." She pulled the doorbell and a manservant appeared to let them in. "Please take His Grace's coat, Vincent."
It did the new duke credit that he did not begin to speak until the manservant had disappeared and he had been shown into an elegantly furnished sitting room. "You have good taste, Miss Rigby," he said with some surprise.
"I had nothing to do with the furnishing, Your Grace," Clementine told him in still the same cool voice. "The house was completely fitted out when I was installed." She had not changed anything, so perhaps she did indeed have good taste. Why that should surprise him was odd and that he betrayed his surprise was downright rude. Evidently he believed that being a duke gave him all sorts of rights.
"Was there someone before you?" the duke asked impertinently.
She did not sit down. Standing might give her some superiority, even though she was not as tall as he was. "I never asked. What have you come to see me about?"
"Your arrangement with my cousin," he said lightly, keeping his eyes on a painting. "Did you call him Your Grace?" he asked, evidently referring to her attitude, which probably did not convey as much respect as he wished to receive.
She did not think this man deserved much respect simply because he had inherited a title. Respect had to be earned. "I did not."
"How did Monster find himself such a girl?" the duke asked no one in particular. He was still not looking at her, but at the furniture.
This gave Clementine the opportunity to study him more closely. He was not a pup. She had already seen that. He could be called handsome, she supposed, if one did not mind making a few concessions. She estimated his age at around thirty and if she did not know he was a duke, she would have guessed the Navy or the Army because of his bearing and complexion.
He was possibly more dangerous than a pup then, for he would be a good deal wiser than Daniel had been and he would have a more fixed notion of what he was after, which consequently meant that he would be more difficult to dissuade. She would have to watch her step.
"I do not think there was anyone before you," he said, finally looking at her. "Monster would have been a mere schoolboy. But back to the arrangements. The settlements puzzle me."
"Perhaps you should ask a legal man to explain them to you," she advised calmly, knowing this was not what he meant.
He let that pass. "You are not in black," he noticed.
No, she was in grey. He could tell one colour from the other, what an accomplishment. "Should I be?" Daniel had not been her husband. Discretion would not allow her to display too much, contrary to him, who could wear a band without anyone thinking anything of it.
"It would have been a token of gratitude, respect, love, affection. Did you love Daniel? You do not seem consumed with grief."
Her knuckles turned white as she clenched her hands, telling herself not to slap him across the face. "The state of my emotions can be no business of yours," she spat out. It was not up to him to judge the depth of her regard for Daniel by the colour of her clothing or even the number of tears she had shed. He implied that she had not grieved, which would make her an insensitive and scheming woman.
He regarded her silently for a few moments. "Does this mean you are now free to ... return to the market?"
The directness began. Clementine steeled herself against inevitable offers. "Which market?"
The duke raised his eyebrows. "You can be no ingénue, Miss Rigby, not in your position. Virtue once lost can never be regained. You must know what I mean."
"Truly I do not. Perhaps you could explain yourself a little more clearly, Your Grace." Her tone bordered on the contemptuous.
It only served to make him more blunt and uncivil. "I do not know how women of your sort operate, Miss Rigby. Do you lend your services to one man or to several at once? And when are you free to choose another? No mourning clothes to deter them."
Her eyes began to gleam even more indignantly at this almost direct question of when he could take his place in her bed. "Do you expect me to answer you, Your Grace?"
"Yes, I do," he said simply.
His nerve was unbelievable. "Why?"
"Because I asked you a question. Do you have any bastards?"
She was not going to tell him that if she did not know what he wanted to do with the information. She would sooner hit him and her voice betrayed that desire. If he had had any right to make inquiries about any children she might have borne, he could have referred to them as children and not as bastards. That disrespectful term removed any need she might have had to answer out of politeness. "Would you ask such a question of a sister? Would you allow anyone to ask such a question of your sister?"
He pressed his lips together in annoyance. "I would not."
"Then why do you presume to ask such a question of me?" Her eyes dared him to insult her by telling why he could ask this of her and not of someone respectable like a sister. He could have no qualms about being blunt about it.
The duke obliged her without a second's hesitation. "You are a woman of easy virtue."
She had been expecting such an insult, so it did not throw her off balance into speechlessness. It only made her more furious. "And I can attest to the fact that dukes are men of easy virtue. If I do not like you, I can and will have you removed from my house. I am too busy to deal with the likes of you."
He did not move. "What if I made you an offer that surpassed Danny's?"
"Someone your age must have several lady friends already," she sneered. "Are you trying to impress me with your wealth, Your Grace? Or do you want to minimise the risk of scandal by exiling me to a cottage on the other side of the country?"
"Have you got any choice?"
"I do. I have been well-provided for. I do not need your offer, whatever it entails, and even if I needed it, I would not take it," Clementine said proudly.
"Or so you think. What about the bastards? Give in," he said coaxingly, although it sounded more like an order. "And I will provide for your little bastards."
"Out," she said quietly, trying not to attack him. "Out. Leave my house."
The duke bowed. "You will see me again. You are my responsibility and I will not give up."
Clementine trembled when the Duke of Muncester was gone. She had never met anyone so rude before. Although she was aware that she had not exactly been a picture of polite perfection, her transgressions had wholly been his fault.
She needed to talk to somebody, yet she had very few people to talk to. The other women in the neighbourhood envied her and they always had, first for her young and amiable protector, then for his demise which made her a free and wealthy woman. They would not understand if she was enraged about the new Duke's offer. They would encourage her to accept it, because they would do the same. It was their way to survive.
She shook her head. It was demeaning and it was not even an offer. How could he simply believe she would let him replace Daniel? She was a person in her own right. She was not a child who needed guardians. She was also not an object that could be inherited or passed on from one man to another.
Whatever the awful duke believed, even a protector was not something that could be replaced without a second thought. Not in her case. It would surprise him, but she had certain standards. Even her acquaintances would have such standards. No matter how often they changed lovers, they did not do so indiscriminately, she always thought.
She read the letter again and again her anger rose. He would do everything required to leave the situation to her liking, but how could that include insulting her? Nobody could enjoy being insulted.
He must have a very low opinion of her indeed -- a mere piece of muslin, only interested in financial or material rewards. As long as those were provided, he had the right to behave as reprehensibly as he could.
Well, he was wrong. He might be the new duke, but even dukes could be wrong. That was a lesson he quickly had to learn, before he started thinking of himself as the Almighty.
It was not long before a neighbour called. Clementine was not surprised. Ladies of leisure had very little else to do.
"I saw a gentleman visiting you, but I did not know him," said Mrs. Vine, mistress of a well-known politician -- for the moment, for it might change at some point. Quite naturally she was interested in any changes in Clementine's situation as well.
"It was the new Duke of Muncester," Clementine replied, knowing that lying about his identity would be pointless. Mrs. Vine probably knew already anyway, since she dealt in gossip and information to strengthen her position. The woman would wonder why if Clementine invented a name for her visitor.
Mrs. Vine could be friendly if she perceived no threat and in Clementine's case she rarely did. The girl needed too much advice on how to use men. Not everyone was born with that skill and Mrs. Vine always felt particularly useful. "Oh?" she asked with her eyebrows raised in curiosity. "What could he want?"
She could not say she did not know. A part of her wished to vent her anger about this, too. "He came to be acquainted."
"Ah, he supposes you are now lonely," Mrs. Vine said with an understanding nod, for there was no other reason why he could want to strike up an acquaintance with a dead man's mistress. Nobody could teach her anything about men that she did not already know. Then she winked. "Was he any good?"
Clementine blinked. She did not misunderstand the question -- the women in the neighbourhood could be remarkably frank, yet the direction of their thoughts could take her by surprise. "He was too insulting."
Mrs. Vine clicked her tongue. "Do not spurn his advances. A duke, you know. Next time give him what he wants and he will be much less insulting, I predict. That is men for you. Be clever, not proud. He can be of use to you."
Most men could be of use to her, according to Mrs. Vine. Clementine had heard that before. She was still as unconvinced as ever. "But the provisions made for me were adequate. I do not need the new duke."
"Nonsense, child. Every woman needs at least one man in her life," said Mrs. Vine. "For whatever purpose. And if you lose one, another will come along, especially for a pretty girl like you. Do not mourn your loss. If your Daniel had been any good, he would have made you a duchess." She did not literally say it was Clementine's fault for not having succeeded, but perhaps the implication was there.
Clementine had not been in a position to demand a marriage, although she had wished for it frequently. She would have lived more respectably as Daniel's wife, but perhaps not more happily. It was a sore point, however, that for him marriage had always been out of the question.
The Duke of Muncester stayed true to his word and he called again the next day. Clementine had just paid her bills when Vincent brought his card. "I am not in," she said. She had no wish to speak with that rude and insulting man again.
Vincent hovered. "He knows you are in, Madam."
She cast her eyes up in despair. He could not possibly know such a thing. "He is bluffing. Has he threatened you?"
"If I send him away, he will be back in an hour, Madam. He said so."
That was probably true, Clementine realised. He appeared to be that sort of man, persistent and tenacious. "Very well then. Send him in." She had not managed to end this yesterday, but she would do so today. She would be clear about this with no opportunity for misunderstanding.
The new duke bowed, but wasted no time on further politeness. "This house has been in the family ever since it was built," he began.
"I am so sorry," Clementine said sarcastically. "It is now mine. Unless I sell or I marry, it will remain mine. But what sort of family were you that you did not even know or care that I was living in it?" It was a trifle late for such arguments. He could not be expecting her to sign it over to him simply because it had always been in the family.
"Show me your child."
Attempting to throw her off balance by changing the subject seemed to be his favoured strategy. She was not that easily caught, however, because she had already been controlling herself. She could stay cool without giving anything away. It was none of his business. "What makes you think I have one?"
He picked up a toy that lay half concealed under the desk and held it out to her.
"Someone brought a child on a visit," Clementine improvised. Quite naturally she had not expected that he would ever come in here and she had not checked under the desk.
"Really?" He was impertinent enough to doubt that. "Into your study? Do you receive visitors here?"
"Are you a visitor?" she asked pointedly.
The duke obviously thought he was more than a visitor. "How many have you got?"
"Visitors? One." She was really not hiding some man in her bedroom upstairs, although he probably thought she was.
Clementine was surprised that he actually knew the proper word for offspring and she raised her eyebrows mockingly. She was not so gratified by the term as to answer without thinking, however. "None."
"Then you will not mind my looking around the house," he said, aiming for amiability. "Because then I shall not find any, shall I?"
His plan angered her. "You need to be sent to finishing school. You manners are little better than those of a savage. Searching a stranger's house is trespassing and a grave offence." She would not be able to stop him, she suspected, but she would certainly not accompany him. On no account would she give him the opportunity to be alone with her in her private rooms. That was probably precisely what he wanted.
"I believe I am entitled."
That was no surprise. "Please carry on and discover to what I believe you are entitled. It might be painful, though." She focused on some papers on her desk to indicate she had no intention of going upstairs with the arrogant and conceited fool.
"You are not coming?" the duke inquired.
"And place myself in..." She shook her head, believing he would not go if she did not come. "No, no. I am most certainly not coming."
She was surprised when he left the room, but she was too proud to run after him.
"Whose child is this? Do you know?" Muncester asked bluntly when he had indeed encountered a nursery, inhabited by one small child, which he now set on its feet in the study.
His question enraged Clementine even more than the fact that he had carried the child down to the study. He was provoking her on purpose by doing all of this. "Mine," she answered tersely, vowing she would really do something to him if he had hurt the child.
"Do you know who the father is?"
She shook her head in disbelief. "I wonder at your nerve. There is no end to your rude tactlessness!" She stretched out her hand and pulled the child towards her, out of the savage's way.
"Is it a boy or a girl?"
Her eyes shot fire. "I am not telling you that. I do not see why you feel you must have that knowledge."
"What is your name?" he demanded of the child. It responded by hiding itself behind its mother. The duke drew the child towards himself by the hand and set it on a table.
"What are you doing?" Clementine exclaimed, wanting to interfere, but he pushed her away. She would like to attack him, but she feared the child would start crying if it witnessed such a scene.
"It will not be hurt. I am only checking what you refuse to tell me." With a quick movement he lifted the skirts and unfastened the infant's cloth for a peek. "It is a girl, I see. She will have to be sent to a school, naturally."
"I beg your pardon? She will not!" Nobody was going to take her daughter away from her.
"I cannot tolerate such behaviour in my family." He apparently struggled to refasten the cloth around the little girl's waist.
"Which behaviour? And do you know what I do not tolerate in my family? I do not tolerate strange men undressing my daughter, do you understand?" She pulled at his arm and kicked at his shins.
"I am not a strange man," the duke said, unperturbed. "If she is indeed my cousin's child."
Clementine slapped his cheek soundly for his doubt, but it made her even angrier when he did not flinch. "When will you stop insulting me?" she hissed.
The little girl began to cry when the strange man kept fussing about her. "You do it," he ordered Clementine. "Now that I know this, I shall prepare arrangements."
Her mouth fell open. "Are you insane? While I would have issues with your wanting to send a much older child to school without my permission, I cannot but doubt your sanity if you speak of schooling a two-year old!"
"Not a two-year old and why do you have issues?"
"How could you even ask? I doubt that such a decision would be made in the best interest of the child, but very likely only in yours. You want to be rid of her. Such a blemish on the family's good name."
"You cannot want your child to grow up to be a woman of pleasure. What other prospects does she have?"
She lunged at him to slap him again, but he evaded her deftly and caught her wrist. "I hate you," she hissed. Her daughter would have better prospects than she had had. She would make sure of that. She had the house. Her father had had a house, but he had had debts as well and she had none.
"I see no reason to stay," he announced, releasing her wrist. "I obtained the information I came for and to be attacked was not one of my objectives."
"It makes sense that you would not allow me the pleasure of attacking you." She rubbed her wrist.
"I thought you took pleasure in other things," he said.
She did not think that sort of comment deserved an answer. "Leave," she ordered, her eyes on the door. He should be moving in that direction.
"Do not worry. I am leaving."
"And stay away," Clementine added, feeling that this was probably useless because he would not listen. She lifted her daughter onto her arm.
"You will see me again when I have made my arrangements," Muncester said almost cheerfully. He seemed to take delight in crossing her.
"Spare yourself the trouble, Your Grace. Any arrangements you make will not be necessary or appreciated." Her tone and expression emphasised her words.
"Or so you think."
"I like a man who keeps his word and who leaves the instant he says he will."
The duke raised his eyebrows. "Do you? I must keep that in mind. I shall go instantly." He stayed true to his word and left without even glancing back.
Clementine hugged her daughter when the evil man was gone. "He will never send you to school, sweet darling. Shall we go to the park?" She did not want to send her child back to the nursery yet. Some fresh air and exercise would do both of them good. It would restore her temper and make her calm again, she hoped. She was still very agitated.
"Yes," said the girl. It was unclear whether she had understood anything of the encounter, but she smiled up into her mother's face with a sweet and trusting expression.
Clementine kissed her. "Let us get dressed. Did you talk to the man? Did he hurt you?"
There was a moment of silence as thoughts were associated. "What is a duke?"
"A duke is a bad man." Clementine wondered what sort of fool would introduce himself as duke to a two-year old. She was proud of her little Julia. She was such a clever girl and she had inherited her father's enthusiastic cheerfulness, and even the exposure to the bad duke had not ruined her mood. Still, she ought to be warned against him. He might be back.
It was inevitable that the duke should still be talking to somebody on the pavement outside her house, despite his having left a while ago. She knew the gentleman by sight; he was a Navy admiral. Clementine supposed she was equally familiar to him, although she hated to think what he knew of her. He had never done so before, but he greeted her now. The duke had probably enlightened him about the connection. He would have had to, if he did not want people to receive the wrong impression from his visits.
Even the duke tipped his hat politely as if she were a respectable woman. Inside the house he was rude and insulting, but outside he pretended to be civil. Clementine had taken his measure. She greeted him back with icy politeness, showing she had perfect manners. Presumably he would be able to read in her eyes that it did not come from her heart.
Julia had to ruin this scene of politeness. "Bad man!" she crowed in delight, unmistakably pointing her finger at the object of her censure.
Clementine lifted her up with a smug look, carrying her away quickly before she could be asked any questions about this impertinence. She was more amused than embarrassed, which was entirely Muncester's fault.
It was only a small park for the residents of the square, more like a garden and not really intended as a playground for children. She could watch the duke and the admiral from the park, but this meant they could watch her too. For some reason Clementine wanted to keep an eye on her house, however. She would not put it past His Gracelessness to request to be given entrance once again to search the house in her absence.
When he and the admiral parted and he disappeared in the direction of the neighbourhood where he now had his house, she relaxed and took Julia to a proper park a little further away. There they could run and play without being spied on.
Playing could almost make her forget the duke's visits. When Julia tired she thought of him again, especially of his motives. What were they? That he did not state them clearly right away did not mean he did not still have the well-defined intentions from his letter. He might simply be biding his time.
That she had a child might have posed a small problem if he had meant to pursue her instantly. She could not see why since it had not deterred Daniel either, but this man's logic was incomprehensible anyway. Perhaps he was surprised by her resistance. It was as Mrs. Vine had said. Men did not like resistance.
Nevertheless, the offer he had mentioned on his first visit had not yet received any elaboration. Something was yet to come, she assumed, unless he had taken her attitude as a refusal of the offer he had not voiced. But why did he keep coming back in that case?
"Your daughter was not mentioned in the settlements," said the duke when he called the day after. Vincent had let him in at the same time as the day before.
Clementine regarded him wearily. It seemed she was never going to be rid of the man. Instructing Vincent not to let him in was not going to work. "And I was thinking you might have come to offer your apologies." She knew what was and what was not mentioned in the settlements. Obviously, since her future depended on that kind of information, she had made sure to look into it very thoroughly. Had the duke now gone through the will again since yesterday's visit?
"Apologies?" He frowned as if he did not know why they should be offered.
It would be too long to explain if he insisted on being stupid. "Will you keep harassing me until I receive you in my dressing room?" That was bold enough. Mentioning a bedroom was too much.
He frowned some more at that, as if it were an unsuitable or incomprehensible remark. "I came to talk about the settlements."
"I was told I could live comfortably until my death or my marriage." She had had no reasons to disbelieve that. The attorney had explained it very clearly. She would gladly sacrifice some comfort for the care of her daughter.
"What if you died next year? What would happen to your child?"
"Do you and your duchess want to care for her?" Clementine was past politeness. He never failed to aggravate her with his simplistic assumptions. Obviously he thought women could not make any financial arrangements. Of course such a thought had occurred to her! "Does your duchess even know you are visiting me every day?" If he had a wife that wife must not be very pleased to hear of such visits.
He pursed his lips. "There is no duchess."
"That is only a matter of time. I am sure you will soon give in to family pressure to start a family and more candidates will be willing than are suitable. If you are not too particular you should have no problems. But you would neither of you want your name to be sullied by taking care of a bastard, furthermore since it is not your own, but your cousin's."
"Do you have any relatives?" he inquired, ignoring her speculations. He was not to be distracted from his purpose.
"I would not be in this situation if I did." Even Mrs. Vine must have been forced into this type of situation long ago, she thought.
"That is no business of yours, Your Grace. I am no business of yours. Why do you not go to your club to spend your days in a useful manner rather than bother someone who has absolutely no wish to talk to you?" Perhaps the message would be understood better if it was delivered literally, although she doubted it.
"Has someone offered you his protection?" he asked in a sharp tone.
She assumed him to be jealous and she felt no urge to reassure him. "That too is no business of yours."
"What are you after?"
"I have repeatedly been telling you what I am after and what I am not after, but you do not appear to be listening." She wanted to be left alone. She could say it again, but he would again not listen. It would be useless.
He could not admit to not having listened, so he changed the subject. "I shall visit again tomorrow."
"Oh, of course! Establish yourself in the eyes of the world so that I have no option but to acknowledge your influence!" Clementine exclaimed sarcastically. "The only thing you came to tell me today is that my daughter was not mentioned in the settlements. How useful! Did you think I did not know? Did you think I would have sat and waited until someone either threw me a crumb or threw me out of the house? What would my neighbours think?"
He gave either her or the neighbours or contemptuous snort. "Do you care? I will see you tomorrow."
Her Grace the Dowager Duchess of Muncester
Later in the day, Clementine was again disturbed by a visitor. Vincent brought in a card that announced the Dowager Duchess of Muncester, Daniel's mother. Clementine stood up in shock. She had never met the woman, nor had she ever wondered if the woman had any interest in her son's private affairs. Daniel had not mentioned her much and he had certainly not mentioned whether his mother knew about his mistress.
She curtseyed politely when Vincent showed the elder lady in. "Your Grace," she mumbled, realising belatedly that little Julia was still in the room as well, playing quietly beside the sofa. That could not be helped. Julia must be introduced.
"Miss Rigby," the duchess acknowledged. She was still dressed in black and appeared formidable because of that.
It was more difficult to meet the duchess than the new duke, Clementine thought. The former had no designs on her person and therefore required to be treated with civility, something the latter rarely deserved. "Please take a seat, Your Grace. Julia?" She held out her hand for her daughter.
"Julia?" the duchess interrupted sharply.
"It was your son's choice of name. Greet, Julia," she encouraged. She had attempted to teach Julia how to curtsey.
"It is also a family name," said the duchess, observing the toddler attempt a greeting.
"Which must be why Daniel wanted it," Clementine said quietly. Julia had done very well and she patted the girl's head.
"This, then, is my son's child?" The elder lady kept her distance, although it was her grandchild and it would have been adorable to anyone less involved.
"It is, Your Grace."
"There can be no doubt?"
Clementine met her gaze calmly. This woman, while not warm and kind, was a considerable change from the new duke. He assumed the worst, whereas she asked first. For some reason Clementine was feeling more lenient towards the questions. Perhaps because it was a mother who had lost her son, not a cousin who had inherited a title from a man he had not seen often. "Absolutely no doubt."
"Why did he keep a mistress?" was his mother's question. She was looking at the little girl with some reserve.
The question raised Clementine's eyebrows in confusion. She had expected his entire family to be reconciled to that sort of behaviour. They should not have to inquire into the reasons. "Er ... he said he did not know anyone who did not have a mistress."
She remained confused by Daniel's mother's disapproval. "I agree it is not a very convincing reason, but --"
"Let us reverse the matter. Why did you accept?"
That might be easier to explain, yet she wanted to take full responsibility for her choice too. "It was my best option. If one is to be ruined, it had best happen agreeably."
Clementine kept her chin up. "It did."
"Did you not attempt to trick him into marrying you?" the duchess inquired.
"I was grateful for my position, which was no position to make demands. I was considerably better off like this than I would have been if he had not offered his protection. I do not know where they take girls they catch on the road, but I doubt I would have ended up in a nice place. I could not make Daniel marry me if he did not want to be married, not even by tricking him."
Seemingly the Dowager Duchess of Muncester had known some aspects of her son's character. "It surprises me all the more that he should have a woman and child hidden away."
"Your Grace, it does not require any act of responsibility or maturity to father a child," Clementine said dryly, "and the care for her has always been entirely mine -- save for the financial, which is really a matter of instructing an attorney."
"I understand you are well provided for."
"Indeed, although I have one request."
"Which is?" the duchess asked sharply. She was not prepared to part with any money, houses or carriages.
"That you impress on the mind of the new duke, who has been harassing me most disagreeably, that I am not in need of either money or protection. I can take care of myself. He seems to believe women are of weak mind and flesh, but he is quite mistaken." Her fierce look supported her words.
"I refuse to believe this account of his character."
"If he comes home sporting a black eye, I will have given it to him. He wants to send Julia off to school! But she is only two years old!" Clementine became agitated. "He only wants to keep the little bastard out of sight! We are too much of an embarrassment if we remain in town, are we not? Never mind that none of you knew for four years and we have obviously never drawn any attention to ourselves!"
Finally, she burst into tears, the aggravations of the past few days becoming too much for her. Julia stared wide-eyed, her lip beginning to tremble. She would soon follow suit.
The duchess saw no reason to stay.
Mrs. Vine had a note delivered later, inviting Clementine to the theatre to see one of their mutual acquaintances perform. She did not have many outings lately and she generally accepted, although today it cost her some effort. A play might take her mind off serious matters, however, and she decided to go.
Daniel had taken her frequently, but it had been a few months since the last time. His friends also had no more reasons for visiting her, since they had always come at his invitation. Their ladies would not appreciate it if they went alone and neither would Clementine. She depended wholly on the visits and invitations of other women.
Not all of them were at leisure enough to remember her and she was grateful that her neighbour at least thought of her, whatever other motivations might be playing a role.
Mrs. Vine could make use of the box of Mr. Strong, the Member of Parliament with whom she was intimately acquainted. Clementine had been there before, with both Mrs. Vine and Mr. Strong and sometimes others, such as Daniel. Today Mr. Strong brought another gentleman, a Mr. Trelawney, who was rather old and heavy-set. He was not someone who captured her fancy, far from it.
Whenever Mr. Trelawney leant closer to allow her a look in the programme, or perhaps to peek into her cleavage, Clementine had to suppress a shudder. The only gown that had a cut suitable for the theatre and a colour suitable for some degree of discreet mourning was this one, but it was not proving to be such a wise choice. She wrapped her shawl around her and let the ends hang over her chest.
She could see Mrs. Vine's objectives in having this man brought along, but she wanted none of this.
"What of it, Miss Rigby?" he whispered when Mrs. Vine and Mr. Strong had left them for a moment to speak with friends in the adjoining box.
She did not have to ask what he meant. It was all too clear from his wink and his leer. "If you will excuse me for a second," she answered hastily, gathering her skirts together to facilitate her exit. Trelawney was slow to react and she had a head start.
She ran as if she was being chased, which might even be true. She could not look over her shoulder because people were still going in and out of their private boxes and they would be very interested in any chases taking place.
Around a corner she hid in the Duke of Muncester's private box. She had often been there. It was the most familiar place in all the building and her dark grey gown did its best to blend into the shadows as she sank to the floor behind the last row of seats. She was sure her breathing would give her away, however, and she waited anxiously for Mr. Trelawney to peer out of Mr. Strong's box straight into this one -- if he was still there.
Mr. Trelawney did obviously not feel fit enough to chase her and he had not attempted it, for he could be seen sitting down in Mr. Strong's box, exchanging headshakes with Mrs. Vine and Mr. Strong. There was no danger from them. It turned out to be worse than that.
Clementine had not known that for a full minute she had been the object of close scrutiny by someone already in the Muncester box. As her breathing calmed down she became more aware of her immediate surroundings and her eye fell upon a gentleman studying her quietly. "Oh no!" she said involuntarily when she recognised him.
"Is something the matter?" he asked in a soft voice.
"From one fix into another," she said in despair. The Duke of Muncester could do with her as he pleased. She would not cry out in a full theatre. People would only assume she had invited his attentions. There could be no doubt as to who was to blame for any trouble between them.
His slowness to react to this opportunity to misbehave reassured her a little. Perhaps she was fearing too much. "Mr. Trelawney made me a suggestion. I thought. What if he did not? I ran." She wondered if it could have been an innocent suggestion, so that her behaviour had now offended him. It was difficult to see it like that, however. It could not possibly have been a misunderstanding.
Clementine wondered if he was deliberately slow on the uptake. "What of it, Miss Rigby? That is what he said. Why would someone say that if it did not mean ... that?" She hoped he would tell her she had been right in running away. How could an evil man tell her that, though? Perhaps her distress would alert him to the fact that a gentleman's attentions were not always welcome.
"You are uncommonly unsettled by ... that," the duke observed.
"Do people not see there is a difference?" she lamented and then remembered she ought to get away from here as soon as possible. "But I am sorry to have disturbed your peace. I have been here too often to view this as anything other than a sanctuary. I will leave you now and go home. Please forget about the interruption."
"My friends did not come. I will escort you home."
Perhaps she had been wrong in her assessment and he had merely been biding his time. Having him escort her home was not desirable in that case. "No, no, no! Then you will want to come in and be rewarded. I have narrowly escaped one, only to be caught by the other!"
"You are talking nonsense, Miss Rigby," he said decidedly. "You have obviously suffered a shock. If you do not trust me I cannot help you."
"What are you to gain? Why would you want to help me?"
"I told you it is my duty to help you."
"Whereupon it follows in the male mind that it is my duty to reward you." She sounded mocking, but she was afraid. Men had such different notions sometimes.
"Upon my honour it is not." He held out his hand.
Muncester had ordered his carriage to take them to Clementine's house. It was not far and neither spoke on the way. There, he handed her down and accompanied her inside. "What happened?" he asked.
She had been too engrossed in her own feelings of shock and anger to think much about him, except for feeling some relief at his silence. Now she looked startled at his question. "Why could you be interested, Your Grace?" She backed off a little in defence. He had taken her away from there, but she was still not certain he could be trusted.
"What happened?" he repeated.
She was too depressed to be very rude. "Are you afraid I created a scandal?"
"I am not. I think you avoided one."
"Your Grace," Clementine said as she tried to order the thoughts she had had in the carriage. "If someone like that is bent on having me, there is not much I can do to avoid a scandal. I shall create one by refusing him and I shall create one by accepting him -- especially if the refusal is public. I shall have been seen in the box with one man, though not by choice, and seen leaving with another."
"Again not by choice?" the duke muttered. He stood still and straight, his hands on his back.
"Do you need a lesson in the workings of gossip?" she asked bitterly. "Life and gossip are not fair. The only way I can defend myself is by keeping strictly to myself and not going anywhere with anyone."
"But what happened exactly? Who was that man?"
She sat down and inhaled deeply. "My neighbour Mrs. Vine, who is the mistress of a politician, must have thought it a good idea to introduce that other man to me. She is always looking for more influence and she thinks everybody ought to be like her. She must act before her youth and good looks run out, I am sure, and secure her future, but I need not do such a thing. I do not see what is useful in accepting such an unappetising man as Mr. Trelawney merely to satisfy his desires." She gave him a covert glance to see how he reacted to such frankness.
The duke merely looked reflective. "Trelawney? He is said to be influential."
"I do not care if he could get me my own palace. He would make me gag," she said with candid disgust.
Muncester started to pace the room. "Gag, yes," he mused vaguely, as if that was his reaction to the entire situation. "What will happen now?"
"I wait for the next attempt?" Clementine asked cynically. "As long as there are people who believe every woman needs at least one man in her life and who believe she is at fault for refusing even the most loathsome of them ... I wish I had a son so I could say that was my man."
"Miss Rigby, I know nothing of these matters --"
"I am sure you do not," she said with obvious sarcasm.
"Not much then," he modified. "But the family would prefer that you do not go along with any of these schemes."
Clementine burst. "I have just been telling you that I do not want to go along with them!" she exclaimed. "Do you ever listen? I know what the family want -- no scandals! As it happens that coincides perfectly with what I want!"
He stopped pacing and looked down at her. "I have been at sea. I was back briefly at times, but never long enough to find out everything that went on. Now that I am back to stay I find that some family members have been behaving disgracefully and I mean to end as much of it as I can."
"Good luck," she muttered and turned away. "You cannot change people's characters. Believe me, I have tried." She shook her head. "You cannot make them grow up and you cannot make them change. And what about you, Your Grace? Oh wait, there is not much to be perfected in a man of the Navy, is there?" He believed himself to be as close to a deity as he could be.
"My manners?" he asked and sat down.
"You do listen sometimes," she remarked, feeling surprised. Even if he had listened sometimes, which would only be logical for a normal person, she had never expected him to admit it.
"Sometimes. Would a house in the country suit you?" he asked, changing subjects with his customary skill.
That surprised her too. "Why would you go through so much trouble? You thought the same of me as that man did. Perhaps you still do." He had even called her a woman of easy virtue to her face. She did not understand why he would go through any trouble for her sake.
"Perhaps I must reconsider my impression. Think about the countryside," he said, rising to his feet. He had only been sitting for a few seconds.
"If you could guarantee my daughter a respectable future you will be assured of my eternal gratitude and devotion," Clementine said before she could check herself. "Forget that. I do not want to give you that at all."
He grimaced. "It is forgotten."
"And you had best leave before I believe your offer. Gratitude is a dangerous thing." She did not want to feel grateful to him and she certainly did not want to change her opinion of him. He should go before that could happen.
"Is that how you..." But he checked himself and gestured that he did not want to know.
"Yes. Go. You will not be grateful for tomorrow's gossip." Clementine did not doubt that half the neighbourhood -- and perhaps half the theatre-goers -- were now firmly convinced that she had passed from the hands of one duke to the hands of another. Staying so long after darkness was suspicious.
"Another argument in favour of the countryside," the duke said. "Think about it."
"Why do men never listen literally?" she sighed. "Daniel would never stay if I asked him, only if I employed some cunning, and you will not go if I ask you. Stay then, but do move your carriage." As she spoke, she wondered what compelled her to say such a thing. It was good that he could be counted on to do the opposite of what she asked anyway.
Muncester had indeed not wanted to stay. In fact, the suggestion of staying had sent him scrambling for the door. He was out and gone in a minute.
Clementine regretted his departure a little for completely selfish reasons. She could have used some comfort, but life had taught her that comfort was rarely available when she needed it most. People were willing to provide it when it suited them, not when it suited her. No matter how much she wanted to be held, she would have to find another way. It would merely take longer to feel at ease if there was no one to speak soft and soothing words while caressing her.
As a sobering thought, she could not really imagine the offensive duke with his rough sea manners whispering niceties in her ear to make her feel better. That was an image that would simply fail to appear before her mind's eye. She could not even gag at what she could not imagine.
Yes, she had really sold her soul to the devil when she had ceded herself to Daniel. That thought crossed her mind when she climbed the stairs to go to bed. It could not be otherwise, or else she would never be having these ideas.
She looked in on Julia, who was sleeping soundly. Julia would love the playmates that the countryside would undoubtedly offer. Clementine's own childhood memories were full of children. She had been an only child, but there had been plenty of friends in the neighbourhood. There were few children here in town. They were all locked up in nurseries and only allowed out to the park very briefly and under close supervision.
And people might not like their children to associate with Julia because of her parentage, which would either be mysterious or tainted. That might be a conclusion she would have to draw in a few years' time.
Then she went to bed and thought about Daniel. He had always been very sweet, although he had not been the perfect man. There was no such thing as a perfect man, she supposed, but she missed him anyway. He would always live on in Julia, but it was his actual company for which she now longed.
Gratitude was dangerous indeed. It could so easily turn into more. It took a long time for her to fall asleep.
During breakfast Clementine was told the duke had come in through the mews. She wondered why it did not surprise her anymore that he should visit, but that only the manner of his approach could cause her to raise her eyebrows. Why the mews? Dukes always used the front entrance, unless her cautionary comments about gossip had been responsible for this secretive approach. Did he think nobody was watching that end? Perhaps he would be inconspicuous if he dressed like a tradesman, but he would not.
She could still not like him. Even disagreeable people had the right to do something good now and then and he had made use of that right, but it had in no way altered her opinion of him, she told herself. For instance, he was not more important than her breakfast.
She ate quickly nevertheless and joined him in the sitting room, where she found him eating off a tray. This was possibly even more puzzling than his secretive approach. The household of a duke would provide a much better breakfast, she supposed. Perhaps he had come here to find fault with hers.
"Have you slept?" he inquired after his bow.
"Not much." She averted her gaze before she continued. He must be able to see rings around her eyes. She had not dared to look into the mirror because she had felt quite clearly that she might not be looking her best.
"Because of the events of last night?"
She hesitated. The events of last night had been embarrassing. She did not want to discuss them with him. Yet if she said nothing, he might receive the wrong impression and think she was weak and helpless. She was not. It was not passive fear that had kept her awake. "I missed having someone to speak to. Not that I always had one, but at least I could always try to summon him and now I cannot do that any longer. My daughter loves me, but she is not an adult."
"I see," he said quietly. "Were you very attached to him?"
She wondered if she had said too much that he could so easily make the connection. Men never liked women to ramble on about their feelings, so she was cautious. He would not take her seriously as a rational creature if she rambled on too much. "As attached as one can be under the circumstances."
It was to be expected that this caught his attention. "Which circumstances would that be?"
"Would you mind telling me why you chose to have breakfast here, Your Grace?" she said instead. He was asking too many questions. It might be as unmannered as spewing forth insults. It struck her that he could easily have disturbed her breakfast, but he had not. He had settled for having her informed of his arrival and he had waited here.
"I was going to have it after my visit, but the people you employ had food to spare and they insisted on feeding me. Could I say no?"
"They never feed stray people at the back door," Clementine said warily. "Only cats and dogs."
He took a sip of his coffee. "Perhaps I looked hungrier than a cat or dog. Which circumstances?"
"You are probably not going to agree with me," she hedged. He was a duke and those had different values and standards, especially when it came to other dukes -- and themselves, naturally.
"Let me be the judge of that, Miss Rigby."
"You are a predictable judge."
"Really? Is that why you came into my box last night? I received the impression that I did not judge the situation as you expected."
She blushed deeply at that. "Well then," she said hesitantly, not knowing why she was going to tell him this. He really did not deserve to be told anything. "He could have married me when I came to be with child. He did not."
"Did he know?"
Clementine wondered if he had ever seen a pregnant woman and bit her lip. "It is rather difficult to hide this condition in the later stages, supposing I would not already have informed him as soon as I knew. He knew. I know why he did not marry me, but..."
"And why would that be?"
"Er..." she was nonplussed. "He was a duke! They do not marry girls of very little social standing -- or those who have lost theirs." She was certain that he was only testing her explanation. There could be no other reason for him to ask.
The present duke shook his head disapprovingly. "Is that it? Or is it the fact that you believe he ought to have considered that the child might have been a boy and that his eventual wife might be barren?"
She made a helpless gesture. It was something she had thought of, but it was typically something Daniel had brushed off. He did not like to think ahead and how appropriate it was to his philosophy that he had not lived. "He would not listen to that. He was not perfect. I did not even want to be a duchess, so I left it at that." That must be incomprehensible to people who only heard the brief and simple summary of events. Life was not always simple.
He narrowed his eyes. "But you made sure you were taken care of financially?"
"Obviously. You may not understand any of this or even his sort of logic. But you will probably not allow me to be frank about your cousin, Your Grace. He was after all a duke and your relative."
"Why not? I knew him well, at least until I went into the Navy. You might not tell me anything that surprises me. On the whole the faults of the dead are forgotten, unless they can offer an explanation. Death does not turn a man into a saint."
"Clemmie, you are my mistress, so of course I cannot marry you. That is the whole point of a mistress." She sighed. Muncester was very cold. She was not certain that he would understand anything about feelings. He did not appear to have cared much for Daniel. "It is very cruel of you to force me to say this."
"It sounds as if it was the secrecy and the excitement that was at least half of the attraction for him."
"Says the man who came in through the mews," she commented rapidly. That deserved to be said. "And thank you for the ... er ... compliment."
"Which compliment?" He looked genuinely ignorant.
She had been expecting as much. "Half of the attraction being excitement and not my assets or accomplishments?"
The duke blinked as he realised his words could have been taken as a potential faux-pas and he looked rather disturbed by it. "Oh er ... I am not in the habit of making compliments. Women really should not be imagining their presence or absence in every sentence."
That he never made anyone any compliments was quite obvious and Clementine suppressed a smile in spite of herself. "I can see how there is little occasion for making compliments at sea, Your Grace, but I tend to think they are rather compulsory for a duke on the land."
"Then I shall be remiss," he said stubbornly. "It is not my duty to flatter ladies."
"You will be the toast of the town, I predict," she mocked.
He did not care. "I was not planning to spend much time here. Once I have settled my affairs I plan to return to the country. My aunt told me your daughter's name is Julia. Why did you tell Miss Julia to call me a bad man? I had some explaining to do to the admiral."
It was interesting that his aunt should have informed him of her visit -- and of Julia's name. Obviously nephew and aunt kept each other informed of their visits. She was curious what else had been said, but she could not ask. If the aunt had dared to visit after her nephew's initial reports, was that a good or a bad sign?
"Julia asked what a duke was, so I said it was a bad man," she said in a challenging voice.
"Even though her father was one?"
"She spoke about you specifically. Who would introduce himself to a toddler with his proper title? You have to be..." She shook her head. "No, I am not saying it."
"Julia can talk?" he asked in amazement.
"Julia is not stupid," Clementine said proudly. She said nothing for a few moments and then decided to take advantage of the absence of insults this morning. Perhaps the man had taken her comment about his manners to heart and he was genuinely trying to improve. "May I ask you to explain what you meant in the letter you sent me? I may have misinterpreted you." She took the letter from a drawer and read the first line. "I write to you as one of the duties of the position I recently inherited."
"What is wrong with that?" the duke asked, as if nothing could ever be wrong about a letter he had written.
"Do you not see it? What do you mean here?"
"Exactly what it says." He looked puzzled that there could be room for doubt.
Clementine tried again. "You write to me as one of the duties you inherited."
"You inherited me?"
That made him frown. "How? I do not see what you mean."
"That is what you have written. I am a duty you inherited -- and then you proceed to say you are as good as your cousin was and you mention intimate and satisfactory arrangements. Well?" She looked at him expectantly.
"I fail to see your point," he said very stiffly.
"Does it not sound as if you believed the mistress was a part of your inheritance?" She wanted him to deny it, but she was not yet sure he would. He might in principle be against denying again. "Should I clarify how everyone else interprets intimate arrangements?"
The duke had tensed and he seemed to have trouble swallowing. After a few seconds he spoke. "Does this interpretation account for your behaviour?"
She rolled her eyes. "Your friendly and respectful attitude might have played some role too, but yes. Can you really blame me for being somewhat prejudiced towards someone -- whom I do not know -- announcing his intention to become my bedfellow? Because having lost the one I had, I must be in need of a replacement? And how easy that you would not have to look for one on your own. You could simply take your cousin's."
"Give me that letter," he ordered, almost tearing it out of her hand.
Clementine watched as he read it, her heart beating rapidly. She wanted to know what he had meant. "It cannot be news to you. You wrote it."
"I meant to write a neutral letter to an unknown quantity," the duke said after he had read the letter at least five times.
"Instead, you wrote an overbearing epistle propositioning a woman rather disrespectfully without ever having seen her." She was proud to get such an impressive sentence out without stumbling over words. Her heart was still racing.
"If a fear of being treated without respect is your frame of mind I can see how you might interpret it as such," he said cautiously. "But I think the neutral interpretation is sufficiently clear. I do not tend to reread my letters to see if they might be taken the wrong way by people in whose positions I cannot even imagine myself."
Clementine gave him a good glare. "But tell me one thing, Your Grace. It was not your intention to take me as your mistress?" She had begun to think not. He had left last night, after all. She had only thought about herself when he had left, but perhaps she should have realised that his departure had been significant. Many others would have assumed she had been offering herself on a silver platter. They would assume that at even the smallest hint and they would seize the opportunity.
He seemed to colour, but it was hard to tell with his complexion. "First of all, Miss Rigby, I abhor the practice of keeping mistresses. Second, I had never seen you when I wrote that letter, which I think would tell a sensible person enough."
"I applaud your civility and fortitude in conversing with someone as contemptible as a mistress," Clementine said with a sneer. She could not forget his attitude and his answer both relieved and shocked her too much to be reasonable. "And not even a sensible one at that!"
He made an obvious effort to control himself and then he spoke very calmly. "Miss Rigby, had you given the countryside offer any thought?"
"I accept," she said, although she had not really given it much thought at all. It would be nice for Julia. That was all she had considered so far. It might be all that mattered.
"Start packing," he said with a bow. "I must go now."
Now she had to start packing without knowing where she was going to be housed. She did not even know whether she could take everything. And when was she moving? How could he have a house ready? Dukes were omnipotent, certainly, but wholly in their own minds and not in practice.
But how was one to pack if one did not possess any trunks or boxes? She had never moved and rarely travelled. Daniel had taken her to the seaside a few times, but those had not been trips on which she had brought many clothes. Besides, everything had gone into his trunks.
It was impossible to carry out Muncester's order now and she was loath to send him a note to inform him of it. He would undoubtedly appear again today or tomorrow, for he seemed to have nothing better to do. She would ask him then.
She did not know what to make of the tension between them. The moment they seemed to get along a little better he had to insult her once again. The only thing that was good about the entire situation was that he was not out to take a mistress. She would be safe from him in that respect and that was a great relief.
Still, his looking down on mistresses caused many other problems. He abhorred the practice of keeping mistresses, as if they were a filthy species of animal that should not be kept in the house. The lack of respect and understanding he conveyed could make her blood boil.
As Clementine was assembling trinkets from Julia's nursery, she mused that he could have given his opinion in a much more palatable manner. "Julia, the bad man could have said he would marry the woman he adored, the only woman he would ever love, and that he would be loving and faithful to her forever." That would have made the same stance sound completely different.
"Duke -- bad man," Julia said seriously. She was trying to help with the packing and walked to and fro with small objects.
Her mother was encouraged by this support. "Indeed. He could have given his opinion a romantic, a religious or even a charitable twist, but he did not! Perhaps we should rule out the possibility that he could ever give something a romantic or sentimental twist?"
"Bad man -- clothes off!"
"No, no, no, darling. The bad man shall never take his clothes off here," Clementine assured her, afraid that little Julia was far too precocious and bright for her age and that she had somehow understood far too much. Julia kept nodding vigorously, however. "What do you mean?"
There was possibly a better explanation that occurred to her now. "Yes, he was the man who checked whether you were a girl. Very good!"
Now Julia shook her head. "Clothes off!"
"I really do not like your train of thought, Miss," Clementine said sternly. Muncester with his clothes off! It was not a suitable thought for her daughter.
Finally there was comprehension. Clementine laughed, relieved that the interpretation was far from scandalous. "When Julia is a bad girl, she needs dry clothes. When the duke is a bad man, he is ... a bad man."
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.