The Unexpected Duchess

By: Valerie Bowman

CHAPTER ONE

London, Late June 1815

Lady Lucy Upton blew a leaf away from her lips. A twig in her eye and a mouthful of foliage were the unfortunate by-products of having her head lodged in a hedgerow. Not to mention, it was a bit chilly outside tonight. But this had been her idea, after all, and she intended to see it through.

Lucy was secure in her position behind the bushes in the Chamberses’ garden just steps away from her dearest friend, Cassandra Monroe. There might be a ball going on inside the stylish town house, but out here they were quite alone … for the moment. Lucy pushed her head through the branches as far as she could and craned her neck to see Cass.

Cass stood on the other side of the hedgerow, rubbing her shaking hands up and down her pale, trembling arms. “What if I cannot hear you, Lucy?” she whispered.

“Don’t be nervous, Cass. I’ll be right here.”

Cass gulped and nodded.

“See, you heard that, didn’t you?” Lucy asked.

Another shaky nod from Cass.

“Excellent,” Lucy called out.

The light from the candles that had been sprinkled throughout the gardens cast a warm glow on the pebble-strewn path where Cass stood. “What if he doesn’t come?” Cass asked, tugging on her gloves, a sure sign she was nervous.

“He’ll come. He said he would, didn’t he? And Jane agreed to remain inside and keep an eye on things. Your mother, specifically.”

“Yes, he said he would come. Though heaven knows I want to die of embarrassment. And if Mother discovers I’m out here meeting a man in the gardens, she’ll disown me.”

Lucy grunted. “Not if the man in question is the Duke of Claringdon.”

“Mama will be so angry if she learns that I’m discouraging him.” Cass bit her lip.

Lucy readjusted her position behind the hedge. “That’s just it. We must ensure she doesn’t find out.”

More tugging on the gloves. “What if the duke guesses you’re back there and becomes angry?”

“Must you always worry, Cass? He won’t know. And even if he does, he has no business becoming angry. While I give the man credit for his bravery in war, it hardly ensures he’d make a good husband.”

“I’m certain he’ll make someone a perfectly fine husband, it’s just…” Cass glanced away.

Lucy knew. Her heart wrenched for her friend. Unrequited love was an awful thing. “He’s not Julian.”

Cass bowed her head. “Cousin Penelope says Julian should be home any day now but … I just can’t…”

“You don’t have to explain it, Cass. I understand. Well, I don’t understand love, having never been in it myself, but don’t worry. First we’ll see to dispatching the duke, and then I intend to ensure you are given your chance with Julian.”

Cass rubbed her arms with renewed vigor. “I’m being ridiculous, I know. Julian is supposed to marry Penelope.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lucy replied. “The fact is you do not want to marry the Duke of Claringdon and you shall not. Regardless of what your mother might want. Not if I have anything to say about it. I cannot countenance anyone being bullied and I certainly shall not allow you to be. By either your mother or the duke. Besides, you can never go wrong if you’re honest and follow your heart.”

“Oh, Lucy, that’s what you always say. And I love you for it, I truly do. I’ve no idea how you think you’ll be able to give me a chance with Julian, but I do adore your optimism.”

“First things first. And at present our problem is the duke.”

Both young women were silenced when a shadow blocked the lights from the French doors leading to the house. The sound of gravel crunching beneath boots met their ears.

“It’s him,” Cass whispered, her voice wavering.

“Do not be intimidated, Cass. Courage, my friend. Be bold!”

In the next instant, the little clearing in which Cass stood was overpowered by the presence of the Duke of Claringdon. The moment he saw Cass, he stopped. From her vantage point, Lucy could only see him from the chest down. The impossibly broad chest down. She swallowed.

“Lady Cassandra,” the duke intoned, bowing.

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