The Duke and The Wallflower by Jessie Clever
Lady Eliza Darby, daughter of the sixth Duke of Ravenwood, sister to the now seventh Duke of Ravenwood, was determined not to upset her stomach in the middle of the Duchess of Sudsbury’s ball.
It would just be rude.
“I’m certain Viv will be considerate in her machinations,” Louisa said from Eliza’s left.
Johanna scoffed to her right. “When has Viv ever been considerate of anything that affected one of us?”
Louisa frowned. “Do be kind, Jo. You know Viv is only trying to protect us.”
This roused Eliza from her determination to not upset her stomach across the ballroom floor.
“Protect us?” She shook her head. “She’s not so much protecting us as hoping to keep us from finding our husbands abed with an opera singer like she did.”
The words came out more forcefully than she had intended, her rattled nerves driving her usual cutting wit toward unsavory sarcasm. She pressed a hand to her stomach, willing it to settle.
Jo snorted in her lemonade and peered around sheepishly as if hoping no one spied her unladylike behavior. But as was the case with all of the Duchess of Sudsbury’s events, the night was a crush, and no one was paying particular attention to the forgotten Darby sisters.
“Is that really something one can prevent another person from experiencing?” Louisa posed.
“Surely not,” Jo responded, having recovered from her lemonade dousing. “I think that only serves to illustrate the futility of what she is trying to do.”
Louisa shrugged. “I must commend her. After all, there’s nothing to compel her to help us now that Andrew is the duke. It’s rather perceptive of her to think he may not want three unwed sisters underfoot when searching for a wife.”
Johanna lifted her chin. “I see nothing wrong with the matter. We are family after all. Andrew’s duchess should accept us.”
Eliza gave her younger sister a sharp look. “Are you mad? Even I find it difficult to accept us.”
She didn’t miss the soft laugh Louisa attempted to hide.
Jo frowned and rolled her glass of lemonade between her hands. “Still. I see nothing wrong with the current situation.”
The current situation was three unwed sisters living in the home of their unattached brother, the Duke of Ravenwood now that Father had passed the previous year. With Mother succumbing to the influenza when Johanna was only two, it had left far too many females in the hands of an absentminded father to see them safely off and into society. That was why Viv was the only one of the Darby sisters to wed, and then only because Aunt Phyllis had been alive to sponsor her. Aunt Phyllis had promptly died before the next season, leaving Eliza without proper guidance. Father had tried, of course. Each girl had gotten…well, it resembled a season at least.
But as all three were still unwed, it was obvious their father’s attempt had rather lacked in ambition.
Louisa leaned around Eliza to peer at Jo. “Of course, you don’t. You have no wish to wed at all.”
Jo opened her mouth to retort, but oddly, no sound emerged except for a gurgled word, a shadow of what might have been intelligible speech. Eliza blinked at her sister. Jo was the strong one, always quick to speak her mind no matter the consequences. For her to stumble so was…well, Eliza didn’t know because she’d never witnessed it before then.
Louisa leaned into Eliza now to get a better look at Jo. “Johanna Elizabeth, do you really wish to wed?”
The sisters, Eliza included, had always assumed Jo’s independent nature would not incline her to the married state, but perhaps they had been wrong. Viv would be only too pleased.
The conversation was momentarily suspended when Lady Setterton collided with them as she attempted to drag her poor daughter closer to the dancing. Eliza eyed the young woman, pity pouring through her at the poor girl’s unusually yellow complexion.
Eliza had thought she was safely on the shelf until Viv had come stampeding back through the doors of Ravenwood House, a scorned woman determined to ensure her sisters did not meet the same fate. Now here she was again, feeling just as yellow as Lady Setterton’s daughter appeared.
As she had already discussed with her sisters, Eliza could not determine how this plan was at all logical. But there was no reasoning with Viv once she’d set her mind to something, so that was that.
Eliza was taken down from the shelf, dusted off, and returned to the marriage mart much to her dismay. She was no fool after all. It wasn’t that she hadn’t received her fair share of marriage proposals from fortune hunters. As the daughter of a duke, she had a sizable dowry to tantalize most gentlemen in need of funds into ignoring the rest of it.
The horrible truth of the matter was the fact that Eliza had had the unfortunate circumstance of inheriting her father’s visage.
When people were polite, they used the word plain to describe her. When they were not polite, well…she would rather forget what she’d been called.
Even to think on it had her hands going together, twisting the fine silk of her gloves against her knuckles. She wasn’t entirely sure she could bear any more of this. Standing on the fringes of a society that had deemed her less even while her sister searched for a match for her. For poor Eliza with the hooked nose, thin lips, and bespectacled eyes too small for the rest of her face.
She forced her hands apart and squared her shoulders. If she kept her posture, her gown didn’t hang so billowy on her overly thin frame, and perhaps whoever the suitor Viv found wouldn’t notice her lack of…bits.
Her eyes drifted downward to her own chest before she could stop them, but she wrenched her gaze away when the wilted bit of lace Viv had stuffed into her décolletage earlier that evening stared back at her. No, she most sincerely was not fooling anyone about her lack of bits.
The momentary interruption must have derailed Louisa’s thoughts because suddenly she said, “I’m sure Viv will select a most reasonable man for you, Eliza.”
“A most reasonable man?” Jo gave an unladylike snort. “That sounds like an enticing future.”
Louisa frowned and swatted a hand at her sister. “You are not helping at all. I’m sure there’s someone here tonight that is utterly perfect for you.”
And without hesitation, Louisa popped up on her toes to scan over the top of the crowd. The ballroom was already teeming with the best the ton had to offer, and still names were announced one after the other in a waterfall of earls, marquesses, and barons.
Jo placed her empty glass of lemonade on the tray of a passing footmen.
She studied Eliza briefly, some sort of understanding passing over her features, before she turned away saying, “Someone sensible,” as she scanned the other side of the ballroom.
“He would enjoy reading, of course,” Louisa said, coming back down on her heels.
“Of course,” Jo readily agreed. “And he’d be kind to animals.”
Louisa brought her hands together in glee. “Oh, I bet he’ll have a beloved hound.”
Eliza swallowed the sudden surge of bile in her throat. Wasn’t that what every girl dreamed of when she thought of her future husband? Not that he’d be dashing and strong and handsome. Not that his kiss would make her toes curl or that his touch could—
“Books and hounds is it then?” she whispered.
Louisa’s eyes pinched until a line appeared between them. “Oh, Eliza, you know—”
Louisa reached a hand toward her, but Eliza took a step back, her chest squeezing in familiar pain for things she’d never have.
Eliza did know.
Standing there between her beautiful sisters, Eliza could feel her plainness like a cloak, too heavy and suffocating. She wiggled her shoulders, ensuring they were perfectly square before lifting her chin. She had to remember her goal in all of this silliness. She couldn’t let her feelings of inadequacy or society’s ideas of her cloud her thinking.
Because there was something she wanted out of all of this, and her looks wouldn’t prevent it from happening.
Because every duke needed an heir.
“Perhaps we should catalog the dukes seeking wives this season and determine who it is Viv may select for my match,” she said, her practical nature coming to the fore.
Louisa, ever the one to bolster a soul, clapped her hands together and turned once more to the crush about them.
“Let’s see,” she began.
Jo gave her one last slow look, a hint of understanding in her deep eyes once more before joining her sister’s perusal of the crowd.
“Well, there’s Lyndhurst,” Louisa said.
“He breeds beagles.” Jo turned with a bright smile to Eliza.
“Bradley,” Louisa continued but quickly wrinkled her nose. “Oh, but he smells like mushrooms. I had to dance a quadrille with him once.” She laid a hand on Eliza’s arm. “I’m sure Viv will consider such a thing and remove him from the prospects.”
“Dunderton is a fool. Cheever is a silly boy.” Jo rattled off the titles of dukes like items on the list Cook took to market every week. “Matthews isn’t too bad, I should think.”
Isn’t too bad.
That was where she had landed. Her future depended on isn’t too bad.
She clasped her hands together, twining her fingers until knuckle rubbed knuckle, willing her unspoken desires to go away.
Her desire for more.
For more than just a good match. For a respectable gentleman to call her husband. For a good name that would bolster the title of Ravenwood.
For a family of her own.
She had to keep her focus on that. Through all of this, from society’s judgements to being treated like a specimen on the block, she had to remember what she would get in the end.
A babe to hold in her arms, a child to watch grow.
Someone to love her when no one else did.
She would be lucky to be anything other than spinster, and a loveless marriage was surely no cause for concern if it meant she would finally get the child she so desired.
“Nevins is a good man. I’ve heard Andrew say as much,” Louisa said before falling back on her heels so quickly they made a snapping nose against the marble of the ballroom floor. “Oh.” The syllable was so soft she may not have spoken it at all.
“What is it?” Eliza stepped forward, blood surging through her limbs as if discovering them for the first time.
Louisa slid a glance to Jo, a small smile tugging at her lips. Jo tilted her head before going up on her toes to see where Louisa had been looking. She landed flat on her feet with a soft snort as she tried to stop a smile from forming.
“Oh indeed,” she breathed.
Eliza looked between the two of them. “Whatever is the matter?”
Defeated, Louisa let the smile come to her lips. “I had heard His Grace, the Duke of Ashbourne had returned to the marriage mart.”
The blood drained from Eliza’s head. Surely not. No. Viv couldn’t—
Jo’s smile was equally as filled with silly young girl nonsense. “The Jilted Duke, back for more.” She peered around the crowd as if to catch a glimpse of him again. “I’m surprised he’s having another go at it. What with what happened and all.”
“What happened?” The question came out stilted, and both sisters gave her a blank stare. She put her hands to her hip. “You know I am not one to stay abreast of society gossip.”
Jo shook her head. “This wasn’t gossip. Ashbourne’s jilting occurred in the middle of a ball for all of the ton to witness.”
“He’d arranged the ball as a formal proposal to the woman he thought he had an understanding with. Only she didn’t show.” Louisa’s smile slipped from her face, and the line appeared between her eyes again. “It was quite sad actually. She’d run off with his best friend to Gretna Green. Or so the rumors went.” Louisa peered back over her shoulder where presumably they’d spotted the duke in question. “I can’t imagine wishing to find a wife after that.”
“I would think the marriageable ladies of society don’t feel that way.” Jo’s smile tilted into a smirk.
“Whatever do you mean?” Eliza was not at all enjoying where their conversation was going.
Again, her sisters blinked at her with odd expressions.
“Because he’s gorgeous,” Jo blurted out.
Eliza’s gaze darted to Louisa, who nodded emphatically.
“It’s true. He’s quite handsome. Any girl would be lucky to scoop him up. Mmmm, simply remarkable.” She put one hand to her hip as she seemed to consider just how delectable the Duke of Ashbourne was.
Eliza regarded both of her sisters, seemingly lost in their own imaginings of snaring the Jilted Duke for themselves.
“I’ve never heard you speak like this,” she finally said, and she heard exactly how silly she sounded.
Louisa’s gaze snapped back first. “We speak like this all the time.”
“We just figured you wouldn’t care for such things, so we never invited you to join in,” Jo clarified.
Eliza struggled to keep her mouth closed. “Do you really think about eligible gentlemen in these terms?”
They exchanged glances.
“Of course,” Louisa said while Jo shrugged. “Why not?”
Because it was far more likely for Louisa and Jo to fetch a handsome husband and thus make the discussion of a man’s attractiveness a likely subject for debate. Eliza’s nerves settled with a thud in the pit of her stomach.
What had she to worry over truly? Viv would find a dull, suitable match for her and that would be it. She’d be married and with child within the year. She need only remember that when her nerves returned.
The crowd parted on a wave of emerald silk, and the sister of most importance that night spilled into their small square of ballroom floor.
Viv looked neither crumpled nor frazzled from having made her way through the crowd and simply pressed a hand to an errant strand of auburn hair along her forehead, pressing it back into place as if hurtling oneself through a ball required the most modest of exertions.
“There you three are,” she said, running her hands along her skirts even though the emerald silk remained pristine. “I trust you have not wasted time chattering about over here and have filled your dance cards for the evening.”
Louisa raised her hand, brandishing her dance card like a cat presented a dead mouse to its master, all pride and glee. “I’ve filled every slot with eligible young men worthy of a connection with Ravenwood.”
Viv nodded. “Very good.” And turned to Jo.
Jo brandished her dance card more like a weapon. “Filled to capacity, I’m afraid.”
Viv frowned. “Do try to be a little optimistic.”
“I can’t,” Jo returned. “It might crack my face.”
Viv only blinked at her sister, clearly refusing to rise to the bait.
“Now then,” she said, “you must both be sure to present well and with ample conversation.” She turned with a pointed finger at Jo. “But not too much conversation.”
And by this she meant for Jo to keep her mouth shut and smile and look pretty. Eliza wondered what this must be like. For someone to worry you may attract too much attention from a man.
But even as she considered it, she did not miss the fact that Viv had not asked about her dance card. It lay empty and untouched at her wrist. Just like it always did.
She pretended not to care. She feigned disinterest in dancing and usually found a seat with the spinsters along the peripheries of the ballrooms. It was safer that way.
Louisa, however, never missed anything.
“What about Eliza’s dance card?”
Viv waved a dismissive hand. “I’ve already arranged a partner for her for the first waltz. The rest should be taken care of after that.”
“A partner?” This from Jo.
“The rest of the dances?” From Louisa.
Eliza opened her mouth, determined to ask with whom it was she was supposed to partner but no sound emerged because just at that moment the first strands of a waltz permeated the air as the crowd around them began to shift. The people moving like water cutting around the bow of a schooner as if whoever came toward them propelled people from his path.
As if his reputation proceeded him.
Eliza swallowed, but it was too late.
The Jilted Duke stepped from the crowd, his gaze directed squarely at her.
“Your Grace.” Viv smiled and extended a curtsy. “May I introduce my sister, Lady Eliza Darby?”
Eliza knew she was meant to curtsy. She was meant to bow in respect. She was meant to—something, but she couldn’t move, her mind absorbed with only one thought.
Louisa and Jo were right.
The Duke of Ashbourne was gorgeous.