Project Duchess - Sabrina Jeffries
To Joyce Ratley,
for your many, many fine years of teaching
and caring for our autistic kids and adults.
We’ll miss your wisdom and your wonderful ways.
I know you will go on to do even more great things.
And to my agent,
Pam Ahearn of The Ahearn Agency,
who has supported me for thirty-one years of
good times and bad. Hope we continue for many more!
London Society Times
DOWAGER DUCHESS LOSES THIRD HUSBAND
As promised, dear readers, we have made haste to bring you the latest on-dit, and a most startling one it is, indeed. The former Lydia Fletcher now has the dubious distinction of having been wed and widowed by three dukes: the 4th Duke of Greycourt, the 2nd Duke of Thornstock, and the newly deceased 3rd Duke of Armitage.
She has also managed to bear each an heir, and in one case, even an heir and a spare—with, it must be said, mixed results. While her son Fletcher Pryde, the 5th Duke of Greycourt, has increased his father’s wealth tenfold, he is also rumored to run a secret cabal of licentious bachelors. Given the reserve of this gentleman, one could hardly imagine anyone less disposed to such purposeless behavior, but then, as is often observed, still waters do run deep.
One might more easily believe such a rumor of her second son, Marlowe Drake, the 3rd Duke of Thornstock, who, it is said, has never danced with a lightskirt he didn’t like. His twin sister, Lady Gwyn, newly arrived in London, promises to make such behavior more difficult by forcing him to ride herd on her own suitors. Her first Season should prove most interesting, and yours truly will be observing such with rapt attention.
Finally we come to Sheridan Wolfe, the 4th Duke of Armitage, who has spent most of his life in Prussia, where his late father was ambassador. He’s the dark horse of the family, unfamiliar to many in society, though he will probably have no trouble finding an heiress willing to exchange her dowry for the rarified title of duchess. If she does, she’d best bear him an heir and a spare forthwith, since his younger brother Colonel Lord Heywood Wolfe is waiting in the wings for his chance at the title!
Indeed, all the progeny of the dowager duchess Lydia had best bear heirs as soon as they can, given—and one can only shudder to say it—the family propensity to have their dukes perish before their time.
The funeral will take place at Armitage Hall in Lincolnshire.
London, September 1808
One fine autumn afternoon, Fletcher Pryde, 5th Duke of Greycourt, strode up the steps of his Mayfair town house, caught up in thinking through his business affairs. Which was probably why he missed the speaking look on his butler’s face as he stalked through the doorway.
“Your Grace, I feel it is my duty to make you aware that—”
“Not now, Johnston. I’ve got a dinner at eight, and I hope to catch old Brierly at his club before then. He’s unloading property near my Devon estate that I must have if I’m to continue my improvements. And I have reports I have to peruse before I can even talk to him.”
“More land, Grey?” said a decidedly young, female voice. “Sometimes I think you shop for properties as eagerly as women shop for gowns. Judging from your reputation for shrewd dealing, you probably pay less for them, too.”
Grey whirled toward the sound. “Vanessa!” He scowled over at Johnston. “Why didn’t you tell me she was here?”
His butler lifted his eyes a fraction, as close as the man ever came to rolling them. “I did try, sir.”
“Ah. Right. I suppose you did.”
Grey smiled indulgently at Vanessa Pryde. At twenty-four, she was ten years his junior and more like a little sister than a first cousin.
He removed his hat, driving gloves, and greatcoat before handing them to the footman. Grey didn’t recognize the servant, who was gawking at Vanessa like a pauper at a princess. The footman’s fascination was understandable, given her heart-shaped face, perfect proportions, and wealth of jet-black curls, but it was also most inappropriate.
Grey cast the fellow one of the quelling glances at which he excelled.
When the footman colored and hurried off, Johnston stepped up to murmur, “Sorry, Your Grace. He’s new. I will be sure to speak to him.”
“See that you do.” Then he turned his attention to Vanessa, who didn’t even seem to have noticed the exchange. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“You ought to have been, Cousin.” With an elaborate curtsey, Vanessa flashed him a mischievous smile. “Or should