The Duchess Diaries by Jillian Hunter. Copyright February 2012. Published with the permission of New American Library, a member of Penguin Group (USA).
Gideon wasn’t sure that he had accomplished anything during his brief encounter with Charlotte Boscastle except to make a nuisance of himself. He doubted that the time he’d spent with her had rendered her more desirable to other men. Or that he would have felt as comfortable teasing her if she hadn’t been Devon’s cousin.
But she hadn’t reminded him of Devon at all. There was a dreamy quality about her that set her apart from the rest of her family. She might have stepped from a watercolor painting that graced the wall of a country manor, her coolness an illusion. Her skin wasn’t an innocent white. It was sinful cream with a swirl of rose petals beneath the surface. Her smile had revealed an attractive slight overbite. The gold flecks in her eyes hinted at hidden fires.
He found himself wondering what she would look like if she unknotted the thick blond hair that sat primly on her nape. He had counted twenty tightly fastened buttons on the back of her modest dress. God only knew what a fuss she’d have put up if she had any idea that he had been wondering how fast he could undo them.
And yet if he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn that there was an immediate sense of intimacy between them. Which wasn’t possible.
They hadn’t exchanged a single world the day he had seen her at the emporium.
“There you are,” a male voice called from the vicinity of the French doors. “Confess all. What did you say to chase Charlotte into the garden, and don’t tell me you’ve made a secret assignation to meet her there because there are more spies planted outside than trees?”
Gideon snorted. “I’d prefer not to talk about it. I’m sure you will appreciate the fact that a gentleman does not discuss his dealings with a lady.”
“Did you offend her?”
“Probably, and it’s your fault.”
“Nothing,” Gideon said.
Devon looked skeptical. “Nothing?”
“Nothing,” he repeated, and wondered why the admission felt like a lie.
“You asked her to dance?”
Devon shook his head. “And I thought that you were the most charming man at the ball.”
Gideon laughed. “I’m sorry to let you down. I tried. I failed.”
“You’re determined to pursue your life of decadence?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Devon nodded in grudging acceptance. “At least you gave it a go. Would you like to come upstairs to the gallery and drink a toast to your continued decline?”
“Not tonight. Other pleasures await. And I’ve promised to drop off a few friends on the way.”
“It’s just as well. Jane would probably corner you under the pretense of a friendly chat. She is unabashedly pursuing suitors for Charlotte.”
Gideon resisted looking back into the room. “Good luck to the man who can get past her guard. I couldn’t even convince her to lower the drawbridge.”
“Her brothers have written to Grayson announcing their intent to marry her off as soon as possible.”
“Thank you for the warning, after the fact. I knew I detected the scent of conspiracy in the air.”
“You could do worse for a wife,” Devon commented.
“I don’t disagree.” Gideon shook his head in amusement. “But I’m not in the market for one. I doubt I will in the near future, either.”
“That’s what I thought right before I met Jocelyn,” Devon said. “One minute I was on my way to a midnight assignation with another woman, and the next I was standing at the altar wondering what had happened.”
Charlotte nibbled at her salad and raised her champagne flute to the woman sitting two chairs down from her. Harriet lifted her own glass high. Her feathered turban listed on her head like a dying turkey, but nobody seemed to mind. All the girls were present and accounted for. A full compliment of young gentlemen had been flushed out of the gaming rooms to balance the room.
It was a rare event in Boscastle history—a party that had concluded without a scandal to make the morning news. Even Miss Peppertree, Charlotte’s prudish assistant, looked pleased. Weed, always a stickler for ceremony, had his underfootmen lined around the wall like wooden soldiers.
“To the Scarfield Academy!” Harriet called out over the happy chattering. And Charlotte felt an immense relief that the party was almost over. In fact, she was so sure the night would end uneventfully that she excused herself right after the supper and went upstairs to make arrangements for the girls to leave.
Jane always kept a suite of rooms available for family; Charlotte had spent the previous night here with Harriet and the girls to familiarize them with the ballroom.
Harriet trailed her through the upper corridor. “I need my cloak and reticule. The Duke of Wynfield is dropping me and a crowd at another party. I don’t suppose I could convince you to come?”
Charlotte smiled wistfully. She wouldn’t enjoy sitting in the duke’s carriage while he was anticipating holding another woman in his arms. It was going to be difficult enough saying goodbye in her diary.
“Perhaps you’ll be able to persuade him not to go to Mrs. Watson’s later on,” Harriet teased her. “Jane and I watched the pair of you flirting—”
“It wasn’t flirting,” Charlotte said in dismay, pushing open the door to their suite. “Devon put him up to asking me to dance. What a mess in here.”
“It looked like flirting . . . oh, Charlotte, I know that you are drawn to him. I wish he— God above, look at the state of my turban.” Harriet confronted her reflection in the long cheval glass. “I can’t believe no one told me how hideous it looks. I don’t have time to do my hair, either. Where did I put my cloak?”
Charlotte didn’t answer. Harriet turned to her. “Are you all right?”
“No.” She bit her lower lip. “I think you should leave me alone. I might cry. It’s been a long, fraught evening.”
“Oh, no. What— It’s him, isn’t it?”
She nodded ruefully. “I’m a dreamer. I had always hoped, perhaps . . . He asked me to dance because he felt sorry for me. It’s over.”
Harriet knelt before her. “What’s over?”
“My love affair.”
“Well, it wasn’t real, was it?”
“Do you know what the worst part is?”
“I spent so much time dreaming about that man. And yet I know it’s time for that to come to an end. But I’ve discovered he has a conscience, and now he’s more attractive to me than ever. I’m so stupid, Harriet. Why didn’t you tell me that my writing was a waste of time?”
“Because it isn’t,” Harriet said. “The stories you read me were beautiful.”
Charlotte felt mournful. “Oh, but so much of my diary is make-believe. But now I can’t even dream about meeting him again. I’ll have to draw pictures of butterflies to pass the time.”
“Charlotte, I was a criminal. You gave me the gift of good books. There were thoughts in them that I had felt but never knew how to express.”
“You express yourself more eloquently than any lady I have ever met.”
“Even when I lapse into profanity?”
“Especially then.” Charlotte gave an unsteady laugh. “Don’t tell anyone I said that. A lady isn’t allowed to show her emotions. Nor should she use bad language.”
“You can trust me. Do you wish to talk about him?”
She shook her head. “Not now.”
“You’ve been working for weeks to train the girls for this graduation. Take a well-deserved rest, my dear.”
“I ought to see the girls off. I’d go with them but I have a few belongings to pack first.”
“Miss Peppertree is waiting in one of the carriages, Sir Daniel is riding behind them, and there will be enough footmen during the drive to fill a cricket field.”
Charlotte smiled. “It went well, didn’t it?”
“More than well. The young ladies have not only survived the night due to your dedication. They have thrived. Furthermore, remember that tonight you made history. It was a Boscastle event that didn’t end in scandal.”
“Forgive me. I didn’t—”
“Take a breath while I make myself presentable again. I could ring for some refreshment. I noticed you ate nothing at the table.”
“I couldn’t eat.”
Charlotte sighed and opened the desk in which her diary was concealed inside a false drawer. Soon she forgot that Harriet was even in the room. She only had time to pen a sentence or two, but she had to purge her feelings for the duke while his impression was emblazoned in her mind.
Tonight I kissed the duke good-bye. Well, not really, but he asked me to dance, over and over, and I was dying to accept. If I had, we’d have danced until my slippers wore out and sunlight shone through the ballroom windows.
“I thought you had an assignation,” she whispered between his ardent kisses.
“I met you.”
“Will your mistress be angry?”
“Does my future wife care?”
“Charlotte!” It was Jane at the door. “Miss Peppertree is leaving with the girls. See them off and then take a brandy with me and Chloe before Weed calls the carriage around to take you back. Harriet, are you joining us?”
“No. I told you we were going on a treasure hunt. Do you have another turban I can borrow?”
Charlotte arose, closed the desk, and hurried to the door to join Jane. “Enjoy yourself, Harriet.”
Harriet smiled at her distractedly from the dressing table where she had settled in an attempt to tame her hair. “I’ll ask him for a kiss to bring back to you,” she said under her breath.
“Don’t you dare,” Charlotte whispered. “I’d never be able to show my face again if you do.”
“Where is the turban?” Harriet asked Jane before she closed the door.
“Go through the closet and to my room. Ask my maid.”
Harriet turned from the mirror, giving Charlotte a look of sympathy. “I was only joking. I would never do anything to betray you.”
“Charlotte!” Jane stuck her head inside the room again. “Hurry up, dear. Everyone is waiting.”
“Harriet,” Charlotte said. “Shut the door after you leave. And please, please, whatever you do, don’t give away my secrets tonight.”
Harriet hadn’t even heard the chambermaid enter the room. “The duke’s carriage is waiting, Your Grace. He has asked that you hurry. There is quite a crush in the street.”
Harriet stuffed an escaped curl into the turban that she had denuded of its feathers and glanced around the untidy room. She hadn’t found another turban into which she could tuck her defiant hair. She knew she was forgetting something. What had Charlotte said?
Fans. Shoes. Her reticule. Where in the world had she put her cloak? Was it buried under the other articles of clothing that had been tossed willy-nilly on the chaise?
Gloves? She spotted her cloak neatly draped over the chair by the desk were Charlotte had been—she gasped. The desk front had fallen open, which wasn’t a surprise considering it looked as if it were at least ninety years old. Her gaze lit on the diary that Charlotte had carelessly left where anyone could read its scandalous contents.
In fact, the chambermaid’s stare was riveted to it as well.
Charlotte would be humiliated if anyone read her confessions. And Harriet had promised to protect her.
“The duke is waiting, Your Grace!” Weed announced imperilously from the door.
“I’m fetching my cloak, you old frog,” she called back, and she did, whisking the diary in its folds with a talent for larceny that she had perfected in her tender years. It wasn’t the ideal solution, but Harriet felt better carrying the diary with her than leaving it for the chambermaid to see. There was something off about that maid’s face. She looked—sneaky. And familiar? Harriet wasn’t sure.
Charlotte returned to the room with a sigh of relief. She had fulfilled her obligation to another class of girls and to the academy. Now she could savor her success. On any other night she might have sat at her desk and written to her heart’s content, pouring out secret urges she could never have revealed to anyone.
She had been in love with words since her father had allowed her into his library and she had decided with all her gangly being that the answers to life’s questions would eventually be given her by those who had taken the time to share their thoughts.
Of course no one would ever read what Charlotte had confessed in her diary. The story of her first heartbreak might have seemed tragically poetic when she was fifteen; it had devastated her to catch the boy she adored describing her to his friends as “that giantess with big teeth.” And then she had seen him with another girl.
She only felt a twinge of pain when she reread those pages now. She was tall, but she no longer slouched to hide her height in the presence of gentlemen. She had an overbite and it didn’t stop her from smiling. And she would have been miserable marrying an insensitive clod like Philip Moreland.
Perhaps she would tear out the pages in her diary that referred to him. The demon memory of his unkindness had been exorcised from her heart in the safest manner offered to a lady in her position.
She walked over to her desk, frowning as she noticed that Harriet had left the room a mess. And that—the diary was gone.
It couldn’t be. She must have hidden it and forgotten where. She’d done it before. She opened the desk drawer and rifled through the sheets of paper and fashion plates to no avail. Another drawer?
Think. The duke. The girls. The duke. Her diary. Her personal confessor.
She wouldn’t panic. There had been so many distractions that night. This is what happened to ladies who drank champagne like it was water.
She looked across the room. She had been writing at the desk while Harriet fussed with hair and complained about her turban. Slippers. Discarded mantles. The dress that Jane had tactfully suggested Charlotte wear instead of her simple white satin ballgown.
Perhaps Harriet had hidden it in the room before she left. Her heart gave a hopeful thump. Where was Jane? This was Jane’s house. She might have come in and recognized the diary for the dangerous article it was. She could ask the staff, or better yet, Weed. He knew all, saw all, heard all.
She ransacked the room, her anxiety increasing by the second. But she wouldn’t give in to panic. The diary could not have disappeared by itself.
“I’ve lost it,” she whispered. “Somebody help me. I need to stay— I’ve lost it!” she wailed at the top of her voice. “I’ve lost it! It’s gone!”
She turned as the door flew open and Jane rushed toward her, her face white, Weed at her heels. “I was on the stairs,” Jane said breathlessly. “I heard you screaming, but I hope I didn’t hear what I thought I did. Weed, stand at the door and make sure no one comes near. It isn’t true, is it Charlotte?”
Charlotte nodded miserably. “I’ve lost it, Jane. It’s gone.”
“Gone. Taken. Stolen. I don’t know. It’s gone.”
Jane stared at her in horror. “Your virginity?” she whispered, running back to the door and slamming it with a force that nearly extinguished the candles on the wall. “Listen to me.” She clasped Charlotte’s hand. “It’s bad enough that it happened, but there is no need to shout it across the whole of London. I assume it was the duke.”
“Was it in this room?” Jane demanded, her temper rising. “When? I thought he’d left. If you tell me that he sneaked back to ravish you while—”
“It isn’t the duke.” Charlotte pulled her hand from Jane’s. “It’s my diary. I left it on the desk and it has disappeared.”
“Oh, my heavens,” Jane said weakly, falling back onto the chaise. “For a moment I had murder in my heart. Don’t ever scare me like that again.”
“Get up, Jane, please. We have to find it.”
“I’m sure we will. Someone is bound to come across it—”
Jane sat right up. “Pull yourself together this instant. I highly doubt that anything you have written is going to ruin you. Let us be honest. What could you recount that would do more than raise an eyebrow here or there, if even that? You have lived a circumspect life.”
“That’s what you think.”
Jane stared at her. “Are you saying that you confessed on paper some misdeed that could taint your name?”
Charlotte gave a soft groan of despair. “The contents of that diary could bring down me and the academy. Where is Harriet? I have to talk to her.”
“She left some time ago in the Duke of Wynfield’s carriage with a group of friends. They were all going to Mrs. Watson’s to meet up with another party. Their amusements do not begin until midnight.”
“I heard someone mention a treasure hunt.”
“I shall send Weed to find her straightaway. No, I’ll ask Sir Daniel when he returns from the academy. Who better than a former Runner to find Harriet? He apprehended her a few times in the past, didn’t he? In the meantime, you must remain calm.”
“You’ve never read my diary.”
“Then let us hope no one else does,” Jane paused to look at the door to the adjoining room. “Who is there?” she asked sharply.
“Just the chambermaid,” a reedy voice called out. “I wondered if Miss Boscastle wanted me to straighten the room before she retired. I couldn’t ‘elp overhearing that there is a crisis in the ‘ouse.”
Jane rose abruptly. “I don’t know your name. You must be new, and perhaps unaware that there are rules of employment. You do not listen at doors. Nor enter without permission.”
“Yes, milady.” She curtsied, backing to the door.
“And there is no crisis in this house.”
She must be one of the maids Mrs. Barnes hired for the party,” Jane said, closing the door on the retreating figure. “Perhaps I should have asked her and the chambermaids if they set the diary aside.”
“Or if they stole it,” Charlotte said bleakly.
“Stop acting as if the world hinged on your thoughts, Charlotte. Who would go to the trouble of stealing your diary when I have a fortune in jewels in my suite?”
This book is available from NAL. You can buy it here or here in e-format.