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The Wicked Ways of a Duke

By:Laura Lee Guhrke

Chapter 1

Duke of St. Cyres sinks to new depths of depravity! Peeking beneath young ladies’ skirts at charity balls? We are appalled.

—Talk of the Town, 1894

Miss Prudence Bosworth’s opinion of the incident in question would prove somewhat different from that of the society papers, but during the evening itself, she was unaware of what the scandal sheet scribblers would have to say and too busy to care. The goings-on of dukes, depraved or not, was of no concern to her.

For weeks now, she and the seamstresses under her at Madame Marceau’s had been frantically making up gowns for the fashionable young ladies coming to London for the season, and at the moment, one of those gowns had a hem in need of repair. If Lady Alberta Denville would only stand still.

“Hurry up, Bosworth!” Lady Alberta jerked impatiently at her skirt, ripping the blond silk away from the seed pearl trim in Prudence’s fingers, tearing the fabric in the process. “Must you be so slow?”

Prudence sat back on her heels, staring in dismay at this new damage to the gown. And she’d been nearly finished. She pushed damp hair back from her forehead and reached into her sewing basket for her spool of gold thread and her scissors. “I shall try to sew faster, my lady,” she murmured, striving to maintain the air of humble, apologetic deference so necessary to her position.

“You had best do more than try! The Duke of St. Cyres has engaged me for the next dance, and it could be the most important event of my life. He’s just returned from Italy, and he’s looking to marry, you know.”

Prudence didn’t know and didn’t much care. This ball was the first significant social event of the season, and the preparations of the past few days had been grueling, with little time for either food or rest. Missing meals she didn’t mind so much. As the lead seamstress for a fashionable London dressmaker, she was acutely conscious of her plump figure, and was always making attempts to reduce its proportions. Sleep, however, was a different matter. She longed to go home to her cozy flat in Little Russell Street and crawl into bed, but knew rest was a good twelve hours away at least. “Yes, my lady. Of course.”

These subservient murmurs did not seem to placate Lady Alberta. The young lady heaved an aggravated sigh, folded her arms, and tapped one satin-slippered foot on the floor, fuming. “I cannot believe this is happening to me. First, Sir George Laverton treads on my lovely dress and tears it, the clumsy oaf. And then I find myself saddled with the slowest seamstress in Madame Marceau’s employ.”

The seamstress in question decided she was saddled with the most odious debutante. Such a pity she couldn’t say so. Prudence set her jaw, reminded herself that self-restraint helped to build one’s character, and sewed as fast as she could.

“If your ineptness causes me to miss this waltz and lose my chance with Rhys,” the girl went on, “Madame Marceau shall hear of it.”

A pang of alarm shot through Prudence at those words. It had taken her eleven years of hard work to be elevated to the position of lead seamstress, and with one unfavorable word from Lady Alberta, she could lose her post in an instant. Lord Denville was one of the few peers in Britain able to pay tradesmen’s bills promptly, and his daughters were some of Madame Marceau’s most valued clients. Without pausing in her work, Prudence took as deep and steadying a breath as she could manage in her tight stays. “Yes, my lady.”

Another silk skirt moved into Prudence’s line of vision. “Planning your wedding to St. Cyres, are you, Alberta?” a laughing feminine voice inquired, a voice that to Prudence’s ears was tinged with malice. “A bit precipitate, don’t you think, to leap from acquaintanceship to matrimony because of one waltz?”

“I’ve a better chance of securing him than most, Helen Munro, and you know it. Our families possess some adjoining lands and we’ve known each other all our lives.”

“All your life, you mean. Don’t you think you’re a bit young for St. Cyres? He’s thirty-three, my dear, and you’re barely twenty. To him, you are still a child.”

“I’m not! It’s true I was only eight when he went away, but he certainly doesn’t see me as a child any longer. Why, the moment he set eyes on me again, he engaged me for a waltz. It must mean something.”

“I daresay it does!” another woman said, joining the conversation with a laugh. “Home less than a week, and he’s already ascertained the amount of your dowry and income!”

“He’ll need every penny of it, too,” Helen Munro assured her companions. “St. Cyres likes to live well, and he’s head over ears in debt, they say. The fact that he’s inherited the title from his uncle won’t save him from the creditors. The old duke’s debts were ten times greater than his, and the estates are a shambles. Munro and I are in Derbyshire every summer to stay with Lord and Lady Tavistock, and I’ve seen for myself the sorry state of St. Cyres Castle. It’s a deserted ruin. God only knows what condition the other ducal estates must be in.”

“Winter Park looks well enough,” Lady Alberta answered. “We’d live there, of course, since those St. Cyres lands adjoin ours. As for his debts, most peers have those. Not my own papa, of course. He has heaps of money.”

“Yes, and London has heaps of pretty American heiresses who’d love to snare a duke and whose fathers have far more money than yours!”

“Americans? They’ve no breeding at all. Rhys would never choose an American to be his duchess.”

“Those American girls have a great deal of charm.”

Lady Alberta seemed undaunted. “I am much more charming than any dreadful American.” She gave Prudence’s knee a none-too-gentle kick with her foot. “For heaven’s sake, Bosworth, aren’t you finished yet?”

“Nearly done, my lady,” she answered, keeping a firm grip on the skirt lest the girl yank it away again.

“Mind you, I expect the gown to be as flawless as it was when I first put it on. If anyone notices the repair, I’ll have your head for embarrassing me—”

“Still abusing servant girls, Alberta?” an amused male voice behind Prudence said, interrupting the tirade. “How refreshing to know that some things never change.”

Shocked murmurs from the other ladies rippled through the room at the unexpected arrival of a man in their midst, for this alcove and the retiring room that adjoined it were reserved exclusively for women. But Lady Alberta didn’t seem to notice.

“Rhys!” she greeted him with a cry of delight. “What are you doing back here?”

“I came in search of you, of course,” he answered, and though Prudence did not look up from her work, she could discern him moving closer as he spoke. “We are to have a waltz, are we not? Or was that only in my dreams?”

“You weren’t dreaming.” Lady Alberta laughed, seeming in a better humor with the duke’s arrival. “But you really must leave. You’re causing a scandal.”

“Am I?” He came to stand beside where Prudence knelt on the floor, and as his shadow fell across her hands, she paused in her sewing to take a quick peek up at him, for she’d never seen a duke in the entire twenty-eight years of her life, and such a daring one would arouse any woman’s curiosity. But her one cursory glance told her little. The gaslights were behind him in the small alcove, making his tall frame no more than a silhouette of black broadcloth, snowy linen, and blond hair.

Returning her attention to her work, she was dismayed to find that his wide shoulders were blocking what little light she had to work by. Asking him to move, however, would be a gross impertinence, and she didn’t want to risk raising Lady Alberta’s ire even higher by irritating the girl’s potential future husband. Prudence bent her head close to her sewing and tried to carry on with what little light she had left, but it was slow going.

“Rhys, you have to leave,” Lady Alberta repeated, still laughing. “You shouldn’t be back here at all, you know.”

“Why ever not?”

“It’s not done.”

“But that’s what makes it worth doing. Besides, I couldn’t find you in the ballroom, and was emboldened to venture within this feminine enclave in search of you. Though I fear I am too late, for I detect the strains of Strauss.”

“Strains of what?”

“Strauss, darling,” he said patiently. “They have begun the waltz without us.”

The girl let out a shrill cry of dismay.

“No need to shatter the window glass, Alberta,” he said at once, and Prudence smiled to herself, fancying that perhaps the gentleman wasn’t as enamored of Alberta as she was of him.

“It is only a waltz,” he went on. “We’ll have another sometime.”

“We ought to be having one now, but Bosworth here cannot seem to manage a simple repair to my gown.”

Prudence’s smile vanished and she felt an overwhelming desire to prick Lady Alberta in the leg with her needle. Just a harmless little jab, she reasoned to herself. She could always offer profuse apologies afterward for her clumsiness.

Even as she savored the idea, Prudence knew she couldn’t carry it through. This girl was the daughter of a wealthy earl, and she was a seamstress of no consequence. She could not afford to risk her post for a little momentary satisfaction. Sometimes life was very trying.