Home > My American Duchess

My American Duchess
Eloisa James

Chapter One

April 6, 1803

Lady Portmeadow’s ball in honor of the East End Charity Hospital

15 Golden Square

At 9 pm sharp, Lord Cedric Allardyce gracefully fell to his knees, signaling his intent to request Miss Merry Pelford’s hand in marriage.

Merry stared down at his buttery curls, scarcely believing this was actually happening to her. She had to force back a nervous giggle when Cedric complimented her finger for its slenderness before slipping on a diamond ring.

It felt as if she were on a stage, playing a role meant for a delicate, feminine Englishwoman. That actress hadn’t shown up, and storklike Merry Pelford had taken her place.

But at 9:02, after Cedric’s lyrical proposal drew to a close, she forced back a nervous qualm and agreed to become his bride.

Back in the ballroom, Merry’s guardian, her aunt Bess, didn’t seem to realize that Cedric and Merry were mismatched. “The two of you are exquisitely suited, like night and day,” she said, eyeing Cedric’s yellow hair. “No, midnight and the dawn. That’s not bad; I’ll have to write it down.”

“My aunt is a poet,” Merry told Cedric.

Before Bess could prove her credentials by tossing out a line or two, her uncle Thaddeus—who was bluntly unsympathetic to rhymes of any kind—dragged Cedric off to the card room. Merry instantly pulled off her glove and revealed her diamond ring.

“Cedric is friends with the Prince of Wales,” she whispered.

Bess raised an eyebrow. “It’s always helpful to be acquainted with those in power, though I can’t say I view the man as a desirable acquaintance on his own merits.”

Merry’s aunt had grown up in that cradle of American high society known as Beacon Hill; her father was a Cabot and her mother a Saltonstall. Her staunch belief that she represented the pinnacle of society had remained unshaken in the presence of the most haughty noblemen.

“Cedric believes that His Highness has been portrayed unfairly,” Merry said stoutly. She was marrying an Englishman, and that meant she had to adopt English ideas.

“The only prince I’ve met to this date is that Russian who courted your cousin Kate,” Bess said. “There’s nothing worse than a man who bows too much. He popped up and down like a jack-in-the-box; it gave me a headache just to look at him.”

“Prince Evgeny,” Merry said, nodding. “He was always wearing white gloves.”

“White gloves on a man have their time and place. But what with the gloves and the bowing, he was like a rabbit, one of those that flashes its tail before it runs off.”

Aunt Bess certainly had a lively gift for metaphor.

“What a lovely evening,” she continued. “The only thing better would be if your father was with us, but I’m certain that he and your sainted mother are watching over you. Likely he was the one who put the idea for this visit to England in my mind!”

Merry nodded, though she was less certain about her father’s approval. Mr. Pelford had been a patriot to his core, and had been elected to represent Massachusetts in the Constitutional Congress, after all.

He had made his own way in the world, taking the profits from a successful patent for a weaving machine and speculating in real estate, then standing for the House of Representatives. In fact, if he hadn’t succumbed to a heart ailment, Merry thought her father could have ended up President of the United States.

Her aunt’s thoughts must have followed hers, because she added, “Though now I think on it, your father might have disliked the idea. More likely, ’twas your mother. I know she loved the land of her birth.”

Merry brushed a kiss on her aunt’s rosy cheek. “My father wouldn’t have a single complaint. You and Uncle Thaddeus have been the best possible guardians.”

“Such a sweet child you were, from the very day you came to us,” Bess said, her eyes turning misty. “You make up for the lack of my own children tenfold. I can scarcely believe that my niece will be an English lady.”

Merry couldn’t quite imagine it herself.

“Lord Almighty, this room is overheated!” Her aunt started fanning herself so energetically that the feathers on her headdress billowed like a ship’s sails. “I feel as hot as a black pudding.”

“Why don’t we go onto the balcony?” Merry suggested. Its doors stood open in a fruitless attempt to cool the room.

“If it’s stopped raining,” Bess said dubiously. Once in the cool night air, she quickly recovered. “Your Cedric is dazzling,” she exclaimed, snapping her fan shut. “A title is all very well, my dear, but I think it’s better to judge a husband on his own merits—on the plain naked man, if you take my meaning.”

“Aunt Bess!” Merry tugged her from the open doorway. “You must watch what you say. English gentlewomen aspire to modesty.”

It hardly need be said that Bess didn’t share their aspirations. “That ballroom is full of women pretending never to have gawked at a man’s wishbone,” she pointed out, “whereas in reality they walk around the room like butchers’ wives at a fish market.”

“Englishwomen have very refined manners,” Merry objected.

“So they’d like to think. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, m’dear. Look at the fashions here. I appreciate those silk pantaloons as much as the next woman.”

Merry rolled her eyes. “Aunt Bess!”

“You’re betrothed again, so I can speak my mind,” Bess replied, unperturbed. “Mind you, speaking of pantaloons, your Cedric is certainly a well-timbered fellow.” She gave a throaty chuckle. “That reminds me—I promised to dance this quadrille with your uncle. He’s as clumsy as a June bug, but he does enjoy a nice gallop around the room. Come along, dear.”

“If you don’t mind, Aunt, I’d rather stay here for a few minutes.”

Her aunt gave her a squeeze. “How I love that smile of yours! Your Cedric is a perfect lady’s playfellow. Come your wedding night, the two of you will be as merry as crickets in a fireplace.”

With that, her aunt reentered the ballroom, feathers and fan flapping.

Merry wrapped her shawl around herself to ward off the April air and tipped back her head to look at the sky.

She kept forgetting that no stars shone above London, rain or no. Fog and smoke turned the streets dark by four in the afternoon.

But Cedric loved the city, so they would live here. There was no point in longing for starlight. Or gardens, for that matter.

Merry had a passion for gardens that went beyond her school friends’ delight in arranging bouquets. She liked to “muck about in the dirt,” as her uncle called it, rooting up plants and rearranging them until she had laid out the perfect garden.

Just then a man shot across to the balustrade and muttered a string of oaths that no young lady was meant to overhear.

She drifted a step closer, pleased at the opportunity to augment her vocabulary of forbidden phrases. Alas, the only word she caught was “bollocks,” and she already knew that one. As she watched, his fingers curled around the rail in a controlled but furious gesture.

Most likely, someone had snubbed him, and he’d come out here to regain his composure. English aristocrats, as she’d discovered since her arrival in London, had a penchant and a talent for delivering withering remarks. She’d seen her own darling Cedric issue several snubs himself, though only when mightily provoked.

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