Welcome to Sugarbeat’s Books – The Home of the Romance Novel!
The day was as hot as the pond was inviting. It’s not as if anyone in Little Huffington was going to happen upon a secluded vale on the Duke of Greycliffe’s lands. And Venus Collingswood didn’t want to get her shift all wet. It was the perfect setting in which to plan her lovely bookworm of a sister’s betrothal to the mysterious new duke arriving seven days hence. If only she had a suitable accomplice…
Andrew Valentine, Duke of Greycliffe, never thought arriving at his own household a week early would cause so much trouble. The housekeeper thinks he’s his own cousin. Actually, the chance to not be the duke for a while is a pleasant opportunity indeed. It might even help him interrogate the delectable little nymph he’s discovered swimming in his pond—if he can manage to get a word in edgewise…
Praise for the Novels of Sally MacKenzie
“Naked, noble and irresistible!” —Eloisa James
“The romance equivalent of chocolate cake…every page is an irresistible delight!” —Lisa Kleypas
“A perfect night’s read.”—Romantic Times
The Duchess of Love is available on Amazon
Why do you need to read this book? Although this book was a bit too short for my tastes, I found the characters totally delightful. Venus Collingswood is a totally delightful, no nonsense heroine that deserves her hero.
Venus Collingswood ran into the vicarage and flung open the door to the study. As she expected, Papa, Mama, and her older sister, Aphrodite, were all there reading.
“Papa,” she said breathlessly, “did you know the Duke of Greycliffe and his cousin are coming to Little Huffington?”
“Hmm?” The Reverend Walter Collingswood kept his eyes on his book.
Venus turned to her mother. Surely with two unwed daughters, Mama would have heard the news. “Mama, did you know?”
Mama turned a page. “Did I know what, dear?”
“That the Duke of Greycliffe and his cousin, Mr. Valentine, are coming to visit now that Greycliffe has inherited Hyndon House.” Venus paused before she delivered the most important part. “And neither of them is married.”
“Oh?” Mama made a notation on the paper by her elbow. “That’s nice.”
“Nice?” Venus glanced at Aphrodite. At twenty-three Ditee was Venus’s only matchmaking failure, in imminent danger of becoming an old maid despite Venus’s best efforts. Surely she was interested in this news?
Surely not. Ditee was consulting Papa’s large Latin dictionary. She likely hadn’t heard a word Venus had said.
I swear I’m a changeling, Venus thought. It is the only explanation.
“Mrs. Shipley told me Mrs. Edgemoor told her that Greycliffe and Mr. Valentine are expected next week so Greycliffe can inspect the property,” she said, refusing to give up. “We should invite them to dinner to welcome them to the neighborhood.”
Mama sighed and sat back. “Walter, I am having the devil of a time making sense of this passage.”
“I’ll take a look at it in a moment, my love.”
Mama blinked at Venus. “I’m sorry, Venus, were you saying something?” She glanced back at her book. “Oh, I have it! Malum is apple, not evil. The man threw the ripe apple. How silly of me not to have seen it at once.”
“I’ve made the same mistake, Mama,” Ditee said, glancing up from the dictionary.
Venus ground her teeth. “I am going out to the road and throw myself under the next carriage to pass by.”
“Oh?” Mama chewed on the end of her pencil. “Please tell Mrs. Shipley to put supper back an hour before you go, will you?”
Venus stepped carefully out of the study. She did not slam the door behind her. She was quite proud of herself.
Mrs. Shipley, standing in the hall, clucked sympathetically. “Deep in their books, are they, Miss Venus?”
“Yes.” Venus swallowed. She was going to explode with frustration if she didn’t get out of this house immediately. “Mama said to set supper back an hour.”
The housekeeper laughed. “I warned Cook when that package of books arrived they’d be in there all night.”
Venus smiled tightly. “I believe I’ll take Archimedes for a walk.”
“Good. He’s been trying to beg a soup bone from Cook all morning. She’ll be happy to have him out from under foot.”
Venus collected Archie from the kitchen, and they stepped out into the hot afternoon sun. A squirrel scampered by; Archie, barking maniacally, shot off over the broad lawns in pursuit. Venus strode after him.
What was she going to do? Having a duke–and a ducal cousin–fall into their laps was not an opportunity to be missed, yet she couldn’t invite them to the vicarage herself. Well, she might try–she wasn’t above a little, er, creativity for a good cause–but the fact remained that unless the men appeared in togas and laurel wreaths, no one in her family would notice them.
Her odds of nabbing Ditee a duke were about as good as Archie’s for catching a squirrel–zero.
It was a crime. Ditee was at her last prayers, and yet she was by far the most beautiful girl in Little Huffington. Venus had managed to find matches in the admittedly shallow pool of marriageable men for far less well-favored women. Farmer Isley’s sister closely resembled his prize sheep, for goodness sakes, and Mrs. Fedderly’s niece had an obvious squint, and yet she’d successfully matched them with willing males.
Ditee was sweet tempered, too, as long as you didn’t try to take a book away from her. That was the problem. She wouldn’t pull her nose out of her Latin tomes long enough to have a conversation with a man, let alone something of a warmer nature. The men had finally given up and turned to younger, more approachable girls.
Not that Ditee noticed.
But if her sister could catch the duke’s attention…
“I’m sure Ditee would be considered a diamond even in London, Archie,” Venus said as the dog, having chased the squirrel up an oak tree, trotted back to her.
Archie, tongue lolling from his exertions, wagged his tail enthusiastically.
“And she is certainly intelligent. Any man must be pleased to have intelligent children, wouldn’t you say?”
Archie barked twice in apparent agreement.
“Of course, it would help if he is a bit scholarly himself, but I suppose he’ll spend most of his time at his clubs, so that shouldn’t make too much difference.” But Ditee needed to cooperate in any matchmaking effort; Venus had learned that lesson all too well. What would seduce her sister? Not a handsome face or deep pockets or–
Venus snapped her fingers. Of course–books! “I would think a duke, even if he isn’t much of a reader himself, would have an extensive library, wouldn’t you, Archie? Owning a vast quantity of books is considered most impressive.”
Archie was not interested in books–he’d chewed one as a puppy and been exiled from the house for months. He raced off after another squirrel.
Venus treated herself to a lovely daydream of Ditee walking down the aisle at St. George’s, Hanover Square, the ton, dressed in the latest fashions, filling the pews and even standing in the back. Not that her imaginings could be very precise. She’d never seen St. George’s or any church besides Papa’s here in Little Huffington.
If Ditee did marry the duke, she’d spend part of her time in London, wouldn’t she? Surely she’d invite Venus to visit. Then Venus could see the museums and the parks and go to the theater and perhaps even a ball or two. She’d not be condemned to live forever in sleepy Little Huffington amid people she’d known her entire life.
Archie had reached the gate to Hyndon House’s land and was waiting for her to open it. She paused, her hand on the latch. Old Mr. Blant, the previous owner, had never cared if they trespassed, but the duke might feel differently.
Archie barked and then whined, bumping her hand with his nose. He smelled water.
She’d like to go down to the water, too. It was so hot, and the deep, secluded pond was one of her favorite spots.
Archie jumped up as if to push the gate open himself.
“Archie, your manners! Show a little patience.”
Patience was not Archie’s strong suit. He got down from the gate, but clearly it was a struggle. His back end wiggled, his front feet danced, and his eyes were bottomless pools of supplication.
The duke was still in London; he’d never know.
“Oh, very well, we’ll go in, but before we come again, we must ask Greycliffe’s permission.”
Archie backed away enough so she could swing the gate open, but the moment there was space for him to squeeze through, he was gone.
Venus closed the gate carefully behind her. She must not get ahead of herself with her matchmaking. She knew nothing at all about Greycliffe. He’d never come to Hyndon House while Mr. Brant was alive, and Mrs. Shipley had not got any details from Mrs. Edgemoor beyond the fact that the fellow was unwed. What if he was Papa’s age? She frowned. She couldn’t wish for Ditee to marry an old man. Or an ugly one. Or an unrepentant rake.
She heard a great deal of quacking and honking and then a storm of birds erupted from the trees ahead of her. Archie had reached the pond.
She hurried down the rest of the slope and through the woods.
She’d been coming here since she was a girl, but she was always a little surprised and thrilled to step out of the trees and see this perfect jewel of water. The woods ringed it, leaving a grassy bank on which to sit or sun; and on the south and deepest side, a large gray rock sat as if it had been placed there specifically to jump from. Once Papa had discovered the pond, he’d been sure to teach her and Ditee how to swim.
It would be quite peaceful, if it weren’t for Archie, romping and splashing in the water. He started toward her.
“Oh, no, you’re not going to shake half the pond all over me,” she said, dashing for the rock and scrambling up onto it, well out of Archie’s reach. After some good-natured barking, he ran back into the water.
She sat down. Even the stone was hot.
When she was a girl, she used to come here often. Before Ditee had become such a bloody bookworm, Mrs. Shipley would pack them both a basket with their lunch, and they’d spend lazy summer days playing in the water, lying in the sun watching the clouds float by, and talking about all sorts of things.
She took off her shoes and stockings and wiggled her toes. She’d dearly love a swim, but she was nineteen now, not nine.
Yet if the duke did bar the gate to his property, this might be her last chance.
It was so hot…
She looked around. She’d never seen anyone else here. What were the odds someone would appear today?
Close to zero. Certainly good enough to wager on.
She pulled off her bonnet and plucked out her pins, shaking her hair free. She was wearing a simple frock; it took only a moment to have it and her stays off. Then she stood up in her shift and looked down at the deep, cool water. It would feel so good washing over her.
But a wet shift would feel terrible–even worse when she had to put her stays and dress on over it. She didn’t have time to lie in the sun and let it dry.
This was a stupid idea. She would get dressed again.
But if it weren’t for the shift…
She closed her eyes, imagining the cool water rushing over her naked flesh.
No. That was too scandalous.
But Archie didn’t care what she wore-or didn’t wear–and there was no one else to see.
Archie, obviously sensing he might have company, ran back and forth on the bank, barking encouragement.
Damn it, what was the benefit of living in the middle of nowhere if you couldn’t do what you wanted? No one would see her but Archie, and he didn’t bear tales–except for the one he was wagging furiously.
Before she could change her mind, she grabbed her hem and pulled off her shift. She threw it on top of her other clothes, turned back to the pond–
Oh! Her ankle twisted slightly, throwing her off balance. Her arms flew out, but there was nothing to hold onto.
She tottered on the edge and then plunged down into the clear, cold water.