Title: An Unsuitable Duchess
Author: Kathleen Buckley
Genre: Historical Romance
After her guardian’s death, Anne Sinclair comes to Town seeking a man with broad interests, rather than broad estates. She possesses a competence and a pretty face, so why did her late guardian think it might be difficult for her to make a match? The question becomes urgent when she discovers that London can be perilous for a young lady of inquiring mind—especially when she has a hidden enemy.
Lord John Anniscote unexpectedly inherits the title and responsibilities of his dissolute brother, the Duke of Guysbridge, including houses, servants, tenants, and the need to provide himself with an heir. Formerly poor, cynical, and carefree, he finds himself hunted by marriage-minded females. When a plot against a young lady up from the country touches his honor, can the new duke safeguard her reputation and repair his own?
“Try to look less like a hanging judge,” Jeffreys admonished. “You’ll terrify ’em, ’pon rep, you will.”
A greasy-looking rascal opened the door at Anniscote’s heavy rap. The duke shouldered him aside, calling out, “Wine! We want wine!”
“’Ere, sir, this is no public ’ouse…” the man protested. “We got nothing for gents o’ your quality to drink…”
“It’s not a tavern we want. You’ve got women, don’t you? That’s what we’re after. And I’ll wager you’ve got something we can drink.”
A thin little dame with a lined face and snapping dark eyes came forward. “We’ll accommodate the gentlemen somehow, Sam. Come into the parlor and inspect the wares, sirs.”
The “wares” were clad either in their smocks or in tawdry finery which must have been bought second- or third-hand. At least, since it was still comparatively early, the women did not look as tousled as they would later.
“We’ve a tolerable brandy,” the bawd said. “Our wine, I confess, is not of the best. Or there’s porter or ale or gin.”
“Porter! Ay, that’s a strengthening drink. For as Shakespeare says somewhere, wine increases the urge but takes away performance. Something like that.”
“Oh, yes, porter,” Tom agreed and began to laugh like a fool or a man already gone in drink. He had a lively sense of the ridiculous.
Anniscote heard the rapscallion who’d admitted them mutter to one of his fellows, “A pair of rum cullies, flush and ripe.” Anniscote guessed the man thought they’d be easily plucked. The duke threw himself down on a chair, and Tom took another, beaming foolishly at the whores.
Mugs of porter came and the bawd said, “If you’ve made your choices, gentlemen—”
“It bears thinking on,” Tom said. “One mustn’t make a hasty decision.”
“And I’ll drink the health of every one first,” Anniscote said. “Beginning with you, madam. Tell me your name, dear lady.”
“Get on with you now! I’m Susan, your hostess,” the thin woman said.
“To Susan’s bright eyes,” the duke said, raising his glass to her, and drinking.
“To Susan,” Tom echoed, a beat late. Anything to slow the proceedings down. Fortunately, the porter was drinkable—undoubtedly a better choice than either wine or brandy would be in such a place.
“And you, girl with the flaxen hair?”
“Bella, if it please you, sir?”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“Then I’m Beth,” she giggled.
“To Bella-Beth, good health.”
Four toasts made and another four to go, someone slapped the door with an open palm and cried, “Open up!”
Thank God, Anniscote thought, recognizing the voice of Solomon, his second footman. There was a little banter as Solomon and Davy, one of the grooms, came in. The two girls seated on a sofa made room for Solomon, and Davy draped himself over the back of a chair, the better to look down its occupant’s smock.
“Too crowded here now,” Anniscote said. “Better choose before these fellows snabble the pick of the litter. I’ll take the pretty Bella.”
Susan murmured an amount deprecatingly in his ear, and he pressed a guinea into her hand.
“Red-haired Kitty for me,” Tom said.
Bella was already leading Anniscote to the stairs, her arm hooked through his. Solomon grinned at him as he passed. Behind him, Tom had his arm around his Irish charmer and (by the sound of it) pretended to stagger a little.
At the top of the stairs, Tom and Kitty close behind, Bella started to lead Anniscote toward the front of the house.
“Nay, I’ve a mind to see what’s upstairs,” he said, disengaging his arm and going up the next stairs two at a time.
“But there’s not a thing up there,” Kitty called after him.
Glancing in both directions, the duke heard Matthew say softly, “Your Grace!”
Anniscote turned back to the stair and shouted, “Fire! There’s flames at the back of the house!”
The signal given, Tom, still on the floor below, spun the Irish lass around and gave her a gentle shove. “For your life, get downstairs and warn the others—the house is afire!” although it was certain everyone in the parlor had heard at least Anniscote’s bellow. Then the duke hurried back down a few steps until he was one above Bella, who stood frozen halfway up the stairs, and turned her around. “Go on down. I’ll just make sure everyone on this floor gets out.”
She fled down the flight of stairs, and Tom ran along the hall below, pounding on each door and yelling, “Fire! Fire in the upper storey! Save yourselves!” The Great Fire was three-quarters of a century past, but Londoners had not forgotten; the corridor filled with panicky half-clothed women and their stumbling customers, trying to pull up their breeches while keeping a grip on their coats and hats. They streamed toward the stair leading down, while Tom ran up the steps in Anniscote’s wake.
“Have you the key?” Anniscote demanded.
“Ay, sir. They give it to me so’s I could let the maid in with their dinner.” He pushed open the rough door, and Anniscote hurried forward, his heart pounding with more than exertion. He hardly knew which would be worse: finding Anne within or finding only some debtor-wench.
One girl he had never seen before; her eyes were wide, and showing white around the edges. The other—
“Your Grace!” Anne Sinclair took the other girl’s hand and pulled her toward the door. Anniscote found he was exhaling a breath half of pure relief and half of exasperation. ’Twould have been monstrous embarrassing to have freed only a pair of doxies, who’d likely have done better in the Colonies than in London. Her kerchief had come untucked, exposing the top of breasts like pink alabaster, though no doubt warmer. He scarcely knew whether he wished to strangle her or kiss her, not that he had time for either at the moment. How was it that Anne Sinclair found herself in such situations?
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It may not be a “must-read” for everyone. If you want lots of torrid sex scenes, it’s not for you. I hesitate to call my novels “sweet”, and they’re not drawing room stories like Jane Austen’s books. They contain romance, desperate situations, mystery or crime, dens of depravity, occasional bad language (because sometimes “Zounds!” isn’t strong enough), but no explicit sex. Oh, and there’s some humor for light relief. Neither your grandmother nor your twelve year old would be corrupted by them.
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Kathleen Buckley’s mother took her to the library every Saturday throughout her childhood, leading to a life-long romance with the written word. Early encounters with museums sparked her interest in old stuff.