The Taming of the Duke Page 1

Author: Eloisa James

Series: Essex Sisters #3

Genres: Romance , Historical

Chapter 1

In Which the Curiosities of Courtship are Reviewed

August 1817

Ardmore Castle, Scotland

"I wish I were a queen," Miss Josephine Essex said to two of her elder sisters. "I would simply command an appropriate man to marry me by special license."

"What if he refused?" Imogen, sometimes known as Lady Maitland, asked.

"I'd remove his head from his body," Josie said with dignity.

"Given that men make slim use of their heads," Annabel, the Countess of Ardmore said, "you don't have to threaten decapitation; simply allow the fellow to believe that he made up his own mind about marriage." She was tucked in Imogen's bed and appeared little more than a tousle of curls peeking from under the bedcovers.

"That is precisely the kind of advice I need." Josie snapped open a small book and poised her quill. "I am making a study of the skills required to succeed in the marriage market and since you two are both married, you are my primary sources of information."

"I'm a widow," Imogen said. "I know nothing of the marriage market." She was sorting silk stockings and didn't even look up from the dressing table.

"One should be able to dance," Annabel noted. "You really must practice harder, Josie. You were stomping on Mayne's toes the other night."

"I need better advice than that," Josie said to her. "You are the only one of us to have actually gone on the season, and you married into a title. You do remember that I'm to have a season next year, don't you?"

Annabel opened one eye. "Only because you mention it every other minute. Lord, but I'm sleepy!"

"I've heard that marriage rots the brain," her youngest sister told her cheerfully.

"In that case, I wonder that you're so interested in it."

Josie ignored that unhelpful comment. "There's more to gaining a husband than not tripping over his feet while waltzing. I want to understand the challenges beforehand. I can't rely on beauty, the way the two of you did."

"That's ridiculous. You are lovely," Annabel said.

"I was in London for the better part of April," Imogen said, "and I saw plenty of young ladies in your situation, Josie. It seemed to me that the primary requirement for a debutante is a smirk. An innocent simper," she clarified.

"Smirk," Josie noted in her book.

"And listen to everything your suitor says as if God Himself is speaking. Of course, sometimes it's difficult to stay awake."

"Men can be very boring," Annabel agreed. "They have such a penchant for discussing themselves. You have to learn to endure, which is not one of your best qualities, Josie."

"To this point, you have shown no ability to suffer fools gladly," Imogen said. "Yet fools have the deepest pockets. It's a proven fact that lack of brains and a large estate go hand in hand."

Josie had been writing busily in her book but she looked up at this. "So I smirk at the fool as he talks about himself? Essentially, toe-curling boredom buys a spouse?"

"I think Imogen is overstating the importance of a smirk," Annabel put in. "There are moments in courtship that can be rather interesting. In my view, for example, a prospective groom might prefer engaging in a mildly scandalous activity to a mutual smirk."

"Annabel has a point. I suppose you might occasionally engage in an impudent act," Imogen said, "but only if you found yourself in the company of a truly engaging young man."

"That's a bit steep coming from you," Josie said. "You devoted yourself to outrageous efforts from the very moment you saw Draven Maitland. Remember how he kissed you, after you arranged to fall out of a tree at his feet?"

Imogen's hands stilled for a moment. "Of course I do. It was spring and the apple tree was in bloom."

"And then you fell off a horse, and finally you fell into marriage. Your example seems to go against the model of the innocent simper," Josie said. "I intend to be practical about this business, and I have no particular disinclination to creating a scandal, if that is the most efficacious route to marriage."

"My foolishness is nothing to emulate," Imogen said, returning to her task and folding two pale blue stockings together. "You would do better to find a husband by a more conventional means."

Josie made a note in her book. "Employ an innocent look, no matter how imprudent one's private conduct may be. It sounds like that gentleman thief who is always getting described in the Times. One moment he appears as a fine gentleman and then with a twist of a dish clout, he's transformed into a beggar."

"In fact, the reverse of Imogen's style," Annabel pointed out, a hint of mischief in her tone. "Since Imogen specializes in appearing debauched, no matter how innocent her private activities may be. According to Griselda, all of London now believes you are carrying on an illicit amour with Mayne, whereas in truth the man has achieved slightly more intimacy than a footman."

"Every woman should have an occupation," Imogen said. "Mine is to provide interest to the old biddies." She tossed a few stockings over her shoulder. They gently drifted to the bed and fell on Annabel's legs.

"Well, as to that," Josie said thoughtfully, "you seem to be slightly behind the times, Annabel."

"She's more than behind the times. She's utterly out of style," Imogen said. "Last night she was flirting with her husband at supper. That kind of behavior is beyond unfashionable; it's practically indecent. No one is supposed to pay attention to her spouse in public. Or," she added, "in private either."

Annabel grinned and said nothing.

"I saw Ardmore kissing you in the breakfast parlor yesterday," Josie remarked. "Your husband has lost his head, which suggests that you should be able to help me. You must have better suggestions than improving my dancing."

"I hardly planned my course of action in a thoughtful manner," Annabel pointed out. "I was desperately unhappy with this marriage, remember? The only reason you two are in Scotland is to save me from my terrible fate."

"A slight miscalculation on our parts," Imogen said. "I could be in London at this very moment, surveying the dubious temptations of men interested only in my estate."

Annabel snorted. Imogen's hair was a glossy black, and smooth as a raven's feather unless she decided to curl it—whereupon it kept a perfect ringlet. Her eyes were wide apart and framed by brows in a flaring arch. Her mouth was just as wide and made for laughing, even though she'd done precious little of that since her husband died the previous year.

"There are more than enough besotted men throughout London to catalog your features for you," Josie said impatiently. "The really interesting point here is that Annabel doesn't seem to realize that you have been making a concerted effort to woo Mayne into far more intimate activities than are generally enjoyed by footmen."

She ducked as a stocking flew over her head.

"Really, Imogen?" Annabel asked.

"I told you in London that I intended to take a cicis-beo," Imogen said with a snap in her voice.

"But I thought you meant merely a gentleman escort, not a cher ami."

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