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The Duke in Disguise
By Gayle Callen
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Gayle Callen
All right reserved.
Meriel Shelby stood on the edge of the cliff, the wind swaying tall grass against her skirt, and looked out over the glistening North Sea. Watching the sun sparkle off foam whitecaps on the waves, she could imagine the bend of land off to the north, hiding the mouth of the Thames. She felt peaceful, alone, away from Thanet Court and the strangers she now worked for. But she knew she couldn't stay away long, so she turned and started back down the narrow, well-worn path. Little Stephen, the future Duke of Thanet, would be with his nurse, but it was time to resume his studies for the afternoon.
Meriel had never imagined that she would one day be forced to earn her living as a governess. She'd been a child of wealth, whose father earned his success as a banker to the nobility. Not quite a gentleman, of course, but she hadn't really seen the difference. She'd been educated and trained as a lady, meant to be the bride of a wealthy man -- preferably a peer, if her mother had gotten her way.
Practical Meriel had understood the need for a husband and was not against the concept. She had always planned to make a logical decision on a man that she had much in common with. If love happened after that, then she wouldhave been fortunate.
But all those plans dissolved with the death of her father, and the revelations that he'd died penniless and that her mother had known of their precarious finances.
Meriel's emotions varied wildly, from grief to the clutch of anger that never quite went away, and disappointment in her own ignorance. Why hadn't she recognized the signs of imminent trouble? Her parents' betrayal was a bitterness that still clouded her every judgment and left her with a heavy guilt that should not be hers to bear.
Her childhood home had been bought by a distant cousin, who would soon return and take possession. Meriel and her sister Louisa had secured positions as a governess and a companion, but their wages had not stretched as they'd all hoped. Her sister Victoria had been forced to sell family heirlooms to feed their mother, who was so devastated by her fate that she had to be coerced from her bedroom.
But a beacon of hope had come only last week -- Victoria was getting married. It was a shock to think that her shy sister had been proposed to by a viscount! Their mother would have a place to live. It eased the burden on Meriel, who had been sending home as much of her meager salary as she could these past months. It had been a long struggle to this point.
She had lost her first governess position due to the wife's jealousy. Meriel had since learned to hide her golden curls with a severe hairstyle, mask her blue eyes with glass spectacles, and dress as plainly as possible. Luckily, her new position had no duchess to critically oversee her. That was one of the reasons she'd been glad to accept it.
Little Stephen had been alone but for the servants. His father, the Duke of Thanet, spent most of the year in London, the center of every gathering, socializing into the night, sleeping away half the day. Perhaps it was good that Stephen was not exposed to that, she thought wryly.
The grass swishing past her skirts gave way to a trim lawn overlooking Thanet Court, which was set lower than the cliffs. The house sprawled across the grounds, a living thing, three stories tall, with a turret housing the grand staircase, and hundreds of windows glittering in the sun. Meriel had grown up wealthy, but Thanet Court was like a palace to her. She'd gotten lost almost every day the first week of her employment.
Starting down the hillside, she remembered her naivete when she'd first begun her new position. She had always admired her own governess, who'd filled Meriel with a love of learning. Mathematics had made the world seem a logical place, and she had appreciated the orderliness of it. She wanted to pass that on to her student.
Instead she'd found a six-year-old boy who'd been allowed to roam his estate like a wild thing. His mother had died at birth, leaving him with an absent father and longtime family servants who coddled him with their love. Meriel had expected resistance -- especially when Stephen had informed her in a well-rehearsed sentence that his title was the Marquess of Ramsgate -- but he was polite and inquisitive, and over the last several weeks, she thought she was making progress acquiring his trust.
Then they received word that the duke was returning to Thanet Court for an extended stay as he recovered from a recent illness. The servants did not openly say what he suffered from, but their urgent whispers were filled with the word "consumption." Stephen had seemed sad and worried, and Meriel had felt a maternal instinct to protect him as her parents hadn't protected her.
She was halfway down the hill, almost into the formal gardens, when in the distance she saw someone riding up to the estate. Shielding her eyes with her hand, she squinted, but all she could see was a man riding with quiet precision. He avoided the portico that sheltered the grand entrance to the mansion, and instead guided the horse alongside the building, heading for the servants' entrance. Yet the man rode like no servant she'd ever seen, and he was certainly dressed far too fashionably.
Then he pulled the horse to a stop and glanced up at the building. Without his hat shading his face from the sun, Meriel recognized him as the duke himself, whom she'd met when he interviewed her two months before. She'd thought him an arrogant, idle, handsome man, with little interest in his son. But he'd certainly been a man cognizant of his high status in the world.
Excerpted from The Duke in Disguise by Gayle Callen Copyright © 2006 by Gayle Callen. Excerpted by permission.
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