Not That Duke
Book 3 in the Would-Be Wallflowers
The Duke of Huntington has no interest in an eccentric redhead who frowns at him over her spectacles…until he realizes that she is the only possible duchess for him. A new enemies-to-lovers romance by New York Times bestselling author Eloisa James.
Bespeckled and freckled, Lady Stella Corsham at least has a dowry that has attracted a crowd of fortune-hunting suitors—which definitely doesn’t include the sinfully handsome Silvester Parnell, Duke of Huntington, who laughingly calls her “Specs” as he chases after elegant rivals.
The worst happens. Marriage.
To the duke. To a man marrying her for all the wrong reasons.
How can Silvester possibly convince Stella that he’s fallen in love with the quirky woman he married? Especially after she laughingly announces that she’s in love—but not with that duke.
Not with her husband.
Not That Duke
Book 3 in the Would-Be Wallflowers
Not That Duke
On publication day, Eloisa was in Florence and celebrated Not that Duke with her family, and took many photos. Enjoy!
Eloisa discusses the inspiration behind the Wallflower series.
Not That Duke
“smartly sexy and sharply witty”
“Bestseller James’s fun third Would-Be Wallflowers historical romance (after The Reluctant Countess) sets itself apart in the depth of its interpersonal complexities. Lovers of historical romance will delight in these well-rounded, flawed characters learning to live their best lives.”
“This enemies-to-friends-to-lovers romance uses humor to show how a match that looks perfect on paper may be no match at all when it comes to chemistry… a compelling and delightful read. Enjoy this light and humorous historical romance.”
Not That Duke
Enjoy an Excerpt
February 20, 1816
12, Mayfair Place
The Duke of Huntington’s townhouse
“I’ve found your duchess.” Determination was stamped all over the dowager duchess’s face. “Lady Stella Corsham is perfect for you: the granddaughter of a marquess, with a sizable dowry. Able-bodied, well-bred, and original.”
In an act of profound self-control, Silvester Parnell, Duke of Huntington, did not roll his eyes.
Or otherwise indicate that in demanding her son marry a version of herself—a short, opinionated woman, albeit with spectacles rather than a monocle—his mother had lost her mind.
“‘Original’ is not a characteristic that interests me,” he said, instead.
His mother’s eyes sharpened. “I suppose you are looking for a girlish nitwit who will entertain ladies for tea and never embarrass her children.”
He pretended to think about it. “Does she have to be a nitwit?”
“Yes,” the dowager snapped, adding: “Because you want her to swill tea all day long.”
When his parents first married, rather than redecorate the ducal country house as did most new duchesses, Her Grace had redesigned the chimney on her husband’s first experimental steam engine. In the years since, she had delighted in flouting society with everything from her clothing (unconventional) to her entertainments (Julius Caesar performed by trained rats was a notable example).
Silvester and his sisters had grown up with the full knowledge that “polite” society considered his mother—and by extension, her family—to be eccentric, if not mad. Once sent to Eton, where he routinely engaged in fisticuffs in his parents’ defense, Silvester came to the conclusion that although he adored his mother, a less divisive duchess would be preferable.
“Do you think I am unaware of how much you and your sisters wish that I would blend into the wallpaper like most of the noodling nobility?” she demanded now.
“I am proud of your chimney,” Silvester said, meaning it. His mother’s clack box feed pipe for locomotives had survived four iterations of ducal steam engines and was still in use around the country.
Silvester interrupted. “Which doesn’t mean I want to marry Lady Stella.”
To be clear, he didn’t mind Stella’s lack of height or her spectacles. Certainly he appreciated her rather glorious bosom.
The eccentricity? That he minded.
Rumor had it that she’d read the entire Encyclopedia, which explained the fact that their conversations were often startling. And interesting.
He liked arguing with Stella; he just didn’t want to marry her.
“Want to? Want to?” The dowager pounced like a robin on a worm. “What does want have to do with it? You need a duchess. Lady Stella is suitable.”
“My fiancée will be of my choosing, Mother. I would like to be in love with my wife.”
She snorted inelegantly. “Romance is a fool’s game, nothing to do with marriage. You’re making a laughingstock of yourself mooning about after Yasmin Régnier.”
Fool he may be, but Silvester intended to marry Yasmin. She had charm, hair the color of old ducats, a naughty giggle… More than that, he and Yasmin were friends, never mind the fact that he’d love to bed her.
He felt the pull of her in his bones, deep in his gut.
Perhaps even in his heart.
“Moonblind.” The dowager waved her monocle at him. “Lady Yasmin is not for you.” His mother was small in stature, but she made up for it with gargantuan will power.
“I intend to ask Yasmin to marry me,” Silvester told her.
His mother replaced her monocle and eyed him. “You’d better open the Dower House. Lady Yasmin won’t want to live with me.”
A full renovation of the master bedchamber and Dower House at the ducal estate, Huntington Grange, was already in progress. “You will come to love Yasmin,” he said, not at all sure, but it was worth a try.
Her Grace snorted again. “Every Season, one woman attracts all the men like seagulls on a gutted fish.”
“A lovely metaphor,” Silvester commented.
“A lady who tolerates fools will make a dreadful wife.”
“Why?” Silvester inquired, though he didn’t really care.
“Because she tolerates fools,” his mother repeated. “She has no ballocks!”
“No woman has ballocks, as they are male appendages,” Silvester said. “May I point out that Stella has as many suitors as Yasmin?”
“Fortune-hunters and third sons,” the dowager said contemptuously. “You’d be the only duke. My point is that Lady Stella braves ballrooms in spectacles, although society dictates that ladies should blunder blindly around the dancefloor.”
“An idiotic rule,” Silvester agreed.
“Don’t you see?” his mother demanded. “You need to find a woman who has backbone, not just a woman at the center of a crowd.”
His mother was a brilliant tactician. She delivered that line with just the right amount of scorn. If women were allowed to debate in the House of Lords, the opposition would wither.
Luckily, he had a lifetime’s worth of experience thwarting her demands.
“No,” Silvester stated.
From the moment he entered Eton at the age of eight, he had carefully shaped a reputation for easy charm to counter his family’s reputation for eccentricity.
That didn’t mean he hadn’t inherited his mother’s steely core. Or his father’s entitled ferocity.
“I will never marry Lady Stella.”
The best debaters know when to retreat. His mother bounded to her feet and headed for the drawing room door. “You won’t marry Lady Yasmin either,” she said over her shoulder.
He opened his mouth to retort—
But she was gone.
March 24, 1816 (just over a month later)
The Duke and Duchess of Trent’s annual bal
Bearing the weight of a man sounded vaguely interesting…until it happened.
Mind you, Lord Belper was a particularly healthy specimen. Stella found herself pinned to the floor, gasping for air.
She had made an error while dancing a quadrille and collided with her partner, who collided with her bosom and toppled like an elm tree struck by lightning.
“Lord Belper,” she rasped, pushing ineffectively at his shoulders. From above came a swell of alarmed voices, along with more than a few giggles.
“Wha’ happened?” he asked groggily. Perhaps his head hit the floor when he fell. Hers certainly had.
“I can’t breathe,” she gasped.
“I can,” he informed her.
His weight suddenly disappeared as someone hauled him upright. “Belper, you dunderhead,” a deep voice said. “Are you in the whiskey again?”
Stella took a desperate gulp of air and realized that her vision was blurry. “Does anyone see my spectacles?” She should sit up and look for them, but her head was spinning.
“Drink had nothing to do with it,” Lord Belper said, sounding sulky. “She tripped me!”
“Lady Stella, are you injured?” She knew that voice, she thought fuzzily. Deep, low, confident… Without her spectacles all she could see was a circle of blurry heads standing out against a bright haze of chandeliers.
“Can’t see where she goes…”
“Blind,” someone else remarked.
And then, worst of all: “Bounced on her like a feather bed.” With a laugh.
Just to top off the disaster, a plop of hot wax fell from a candle far above and landed with an audible plop on her cleavage.
Stella squeaked and slapped a hand over her bosom just as a man bent down. She instantly realized who had spoken earlier. This particular duke smelled like late autumn: apples, spice, a touch of starch, a hint of snow in the air.
Her head cleared abruptly. She was lying on the floor and her rumpled gown was pulled above her ankles. Her aunt would have hysterics.
“My spectacles?” she asked again, rolling to the side and yanking down her skirts before she came to her knees, peering between the feet that surrounded her.
The Duke of Huntington crouched down beside her. “I have them, Lady Stella. They are undamaged.”
His Grace had astonishingly beautiful eyes: as grey as a winter day to go along with that…that autumnal odor of his. Stella blinked up at him before she snatched her spectacles and put them back on her nose, threading the sides around her ears.
He put a strong hand under her elbow. “Are you uninjured?” Silvester asked, once she was on her feet. She thought of him as Silvester because the name suited him. It was a fancy, elegant name for a fancy, elegant man.
“I’m fine,” she mumbled.
Stella thought of her body as capable of walking and dancing, most of the time. Luckily she was sturdily constructed, since her bones never broke, no matter how often she tumbled to the ground.
But around Silvester? With his broad shoulders, the handsome curve of his jaw, the easy swing of his muscled body, his grey eyes, even his commanding nose…
Around him, her body became her enemy, serving up shaking knees and quickened breath. Desire that flared straight down her back after a glance at his lower lip. Or the touch of his hand on her arm.
He went to Stella’s head like potent wine.
The very sad, very secret, truth was that she was captivated by a frivolous aristocrat.
“Stella!” Her aunt pushed through the crowd. “What happened?” Her eyes were wide with alarm.
Mrs. Thyme’s eyes were often wide with alarm, since Stella didn’t seem to be able to maintain the refined tone on which her aunt depended. On which civilization depended, if Mrs. Thyme was to be believed.
Stella often said the wrong thing. She argued with gentlemen. She regularly dropped things to the floor including, at times, herself.
She was unrefined, to say the least.
“We fell,” Lord Belper said, displaying a remarkable ability to synthesize facts.
Silvester nodded at Stella and melted into the crowd.
“I’m glad neither of you were injured,” said a cheerful voice, as an arm wound around Stella’s waist. “By next Season, we’ll all be far more proficient at the quadrille. For now, we shall retire, dear.”
Their hostess, the Duchess of Trent, was one of the few women in London whom Stella thought of as a friend. Perhaps because Merry was an American, she was happy to talk about subjects considered inappropriate for a lady.
“There’s no need—” Stella began.
“Your gown is creased,” Merry said firmly.
“Given that you insist on wearing those spectacles, I just don’t understand how you fell!” Stella’s aunt cried, after they were ushered into the duchess’s own bedchamber.
“I was confused by the quadrille,” Stella explained.
Lady Jersey had recently introduced the dance, and it had taken off like wildfire. But prancing back and forth in little quadrangles while circling at precisely the right moment wasn’t easy.
“I expect it was Lord Belper’s fault,” Merry said. “He drinks to excess. He walked into a lamppost at Vauxhall a few weeks ago.”
“No, it was my fault,” Stella confessed. “I misjudged the distance between us, and turned too early.”
“I don’t understand,” Mrs. Thyme wailed. “You’ve had the best of dance masters. Your uncle and I have shirked no expense. And yet social indiscretions follow you everywhere.”
“Me too,” Merry said kindly, if ungrammatically.
Mrs. Thyme waved her fan in the air as if she were conducting an orchestra. “Last week, Stella knocked over a glass of red wine that poured into Lord Pettigrew’s lap. He was wearing pale yellow breeches. I was hopeful he’d come up to scratch with a proposal, but now he’s dancing attendance on Lady Lydia. Moreover, my butler tells me that the table linen, woven in Venice, will never be the same. Never!”
“Here’s a robe, Stella,” Merry said. “Lucy will sponge and press your gown, and you’ll be back downstairs in no time.”
While Mrs. Thyme amused herself by recounting all of Stella’s mishaps since the Season began, the duchess’s maid eased Stella’s gown up and over her head.
“Please send up a tray of champagne and some canapés, Lucy,” Merry said.
“Lord Belper was stretched on top of her,” Mrs. Thyme moaned, returning to her previous lament. “Everyone will think the worst!”
Merry shrugged. “The worst being that Belper took some pleasure in the act? I doubt it.”
“He took advantage!”
Her Grace winked at Stella. “Dear Mrs. Thyme, may I suggest that you return to the ball and make certain that no one has vulgarly suggested Belper chose to leap atop Stella in the middle of my annual ball? I will keep your niece company, as I would welcome a chance to rest my feet.”
Stella sighed, after the door closed. “My aunt is convinced that every man who dances with me is a wolf. As well as those who don’t dance with me.”
Merry grinned at that. “I encountered a wolf or two in my first Season in London. My husband among them.” She rose and went to the door, responding to a quiet knock.
Stella would not have called Merry’s husband wolfish. The Duke of Trent was dignified and handsome in a distant sort of way.
Yet her aunt was convinced that all men were lustful marauders. Hounds straining at the leash, eager to destroy a lady’s reputation for sexual or financial gain. Her greatest fear was that a man would climb into Stella’s bedchamber from the conservatory roof, but since her uncle religiously nurtured seedlings over the winter, he flatly refused to tear down the greenhouse.
Practically from the moment Mrs. Thyme took on the unexpected burden of raising her orphaned niece, she had made a point of informing Stella that men want more than a kiss.
Worse than a kiss.
But lo these many years later…
To Stella’s mind, the evidence just wasn’t there.
Lord Belper had taken no pleasure in bouncing on her like a featherbed. She had never experienced the press of a male thigh or even the brush of a knee during a waltz. No one offered her illicit kisses in the shrubbery.
Male lust was wildly overestimated.
Merry carried a silver tray across the room and set it down. “One of the irritating things about being a duchess is that the title supposedly renders one incapable of labor. I had to wrestle this out of my butler’s hands.”
Stella leaned forward and tapped one of the champagne glasses before wrapping her hand around it. Even wearing her spectacles, she had trouble judging how far away an object was.
“Bottoms up!” Merry said cheerily. “That’s an American toast, by the way. I heard it on my last visit to Boston.”
Stella took a gulp of champagne before returning to the subject they had been discussing. “I haven’t seen much evidence of gentlemen who scheme to damage a lady’s virtue. I haven’t experienced it, I mean.”
Merry opened her mouth, but Stella added hastily, “It could be, of course, that my red hair and freckles, not to mention the spectacles, are enough to curb their lust.”
“Pooh!” Merry retorted. “Your hair is beautiful. One of my dearest friends, Mrs. Cleopatra Addison, has fiery red hair, and I assure you that she had most of the male population at her feet when she debuted. What’s more, to be frank, your bosom is a thing of beauty.”
Stella generally thought of her breasts as annoyingly large compared to the rest of her but she smiled a thank you. “My aunt has warned me many times that unmarried men will attempt to kiss me. They haven’t.”
“Is there someone you would like to kiss?” Merry asked. She was pouring herself another glass of champagne, so she topped up Stella’s glass as well. “I hope you don’t mind if I get tipsy. I forgot to eat today because of all the last minute preparations for the ball.”
“From what I see, hapless sentimentality overrules lust,” Stella told Merry. “Dowries aside, unmarried gentlemen are either in love or looking for love.”
“A utilitarian quest that masquerades as romance,” Merry said, poking through the small squares of toast that had been sent up with the champagne. “Must needs be done, though. The world must be peopled. I think that’s Shakespeare. Being an American and ill-educated, I’m never entirely sure.”
“Benedict, in Much Ado about Nothing,” Stella said. “The world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.”
“You had that stored in your head until just the right moment?” Merry asked, looking impressed.
Stella shrugged uncomfortably, realizing that she’d once again broken her promise to Mrs. Thyme to keep irritating knowledge to herself. “My point is that the bachelors we meet in ballrooms are not lustful, as my aunt insists. They are looking for love.”
“They could be doing both,” Merry said, a nostalgic look in her eye suggesting that her husband had managed that feat.
Stella didn’t answer, because although many men had an eye on her dowry, as far as she could see, not a single one of them had designs on her virtue.
They were looking for lovable women.
Stella would be the first to admit that she failed on that front. She was too awkward, too outspoken, too argumentative. Too peculiar. Too much hair.
Not to mention the spectacles.
Her own family had shown little propensity to love her, so why should some random stranger with whom she had danced a few times?
Men looking for love were selective. Their eyes skated over Stella as if she were invisible, after which they plunged to their knees before bird-boned and delicate ladies, tender girls with silky ringlets.
Silvester was a good example. He scooped Stella off the dancefloor—but he promptly slipped away to bow before Lady Yasmin.
“Just decide who you want and inform him of your choice,” Merry advised her. “You must try this salmon paste. It’s quite delicious.”
Stella had to stuff a piece of toast in her mouth to suppress a humiliated squeak at the very idea of her “informing” Silvester that she had decided to marry him. “Is that how you found your husband?” she asked, once she swallowed.
“Well, no,” Merry said. “That is, I chose someone, but he turned out to be the wrong person.”
“After which, you chose the duke?”
“No, he chose me,” Merry confessed. “My advice doesn’t match my experience.”
That didn’t surprise Stella. Merry’s husband had likely pursued her with the fervor with which Silvester was pursuing Lady Yasmin. Stella hadn’t formally met Yasmin, but she had a shrewd idea that the lady didn’t get into arguments with her suitors.
Lady Yasmin was Silvester’s equal in the marital sweepstakes. He was a duke; she was the granddaughter of a marquess; their children would be exquisite, rich, and titled. They would gracefully dance without ever falling over.
Silvester wasn’t looking for a woman who had memorized Shakespeare plays but someone slender, beautiful, and undeniably charming. Stella’s legs were sturdy even without having children, and charm was in short supply. Her eventual husband would propose with an eye to her dowry, not her allure.
Lucy popped back into the bedchamber with Stella’s gown over her arm.
“I suppose we must return to the ballroom,” Merry sighed, finishing her champagne. “Lucy, poor Lady Stella is in the midst of the horrors of her first Season. Can you think of any advice?”
Lucy gave Stella a grin. “Men like to be listened to, and they all think they have something worth saying.” She tossed Stella’s robe onto a chair and dropped a billow of sweet-smelling silk over her head.
“They want to be charmed,” Merry said, unsurprisingly. “The easiest way to do that is to convince them that they are charming. Watch Miss Fitzwilliams for a few minutes. She’s adorable. Tedious, but adorable.”
Stella was not adorable.
“Adorable” came from “Alla,” the supreme being for those worshipping Mohammed. Stella knew that because the summer before her debut she had read straight through the first four volumes of the 1773 Encyclopedia Britannica.
The definition might seem irrelevant, but it wasn’t.
Gentlemen entered ballrooms looking for a woman to adore.
Stella didn’t qualify.
Back in the ballroom, Stella saw Julia Fitzwilliams bouncing across the floor with Lord Mornay, snaring his attention with shyly admiring glances. Stella had danced with him earlier, but she had been riveted by his toupee and hadn’t exchanged more than a greeting.
“Julia’s waltzing with Mornay,” Merry said, sotto voce. “What is that toupee made from? It’s the mystery of the evening!”
“Horsehair,” Stella whispered back. “I couldn’t take my eyes from his forehead throughout our dance, so I’m fairly sure that he didn’t find me charming.”
“You don’t want him,” Merry said. “Oh, there you are, dear.” Her husband bowed before them and said something in a low, rough voice.
Merry laughed. Later, when Stella was standing with her aunt’s cronies, learning about rhubarb purgatives, she puzzled over his comment. He was leaving in the morning for Wales so he wanted his wife to—
Suddenly she caught the word “spectacles” and realized that a cluster of people nearby was discussing her vision, as if blindness was a reasonable choice.
She quickly looked the other direction. Her fingers curled tight in her gloves before she forced herself to relax. A rush of whispers followed, but she knew with sickening certainty that those voices would rise.
Sadly, she had come to understand that she was the real audience for discussion of her spectacles and other shortcomings. Ladies enjoyed enumerating her unlovable features, more so if she could overhear. Anticipation squirmed in her stomach, sending a pulse of misery up her spine.
The size of her dowry, combined with her ducal grandfather, ensured she had many suitors. Unfortunately, the more the fortune-hunters besieged her, the more prettier, sweeter, and more graceful ladies resented her.
Sure enough, Miss Brothy tittered something about “spots.”
Those would be her freckles.
Stella’s mouth had twisted, so she flattened it into a slight smile. Lack of reaction was the only claim to dignity she had left.
Behind her back, a male voice said firmly, “I find freckles quite attractive.”
It took a moment to sink in.
Her aunt pinched her arm. “That was Giles Renwick, Earl of Lilford!” she hissed. “Why didn’t I think of him? By all accounts, he’s intellectual, so he won’t mind your reading.”
Mrs. Thyme did not share Stella’s fondness for the encyclopedia, and had seriously entertained the idea that unladylike reading had leaked through her niece’s pores and alienated potential suitors.
Stella blinked at her. “Renwick…The same earl who gave that speech about habeas corpus last week?”
Her aunt rolled her eyes. “If my sister was alive, I’d give her a piece of my mind for having those spectacles made. If you’d never learned to read, you’d be betrothed already, freckles or no. I don’t know him well enough to introduce you, but I’ll ask our hostess to do it. Don’t you dare mention hibius cibius.”
Shortly thereafter, Stella found herself curtsying before a tall, serious man. Giles Renwick, the Earl of Lilford, had high cheekbones, a chiseled jaw, and a haunted expression. His eyes lit with interest when she brought up the impending act affecting judges’ use of habeas corpus in criminal trials.
When Mrs. Thyme moaned, his lordship courteously asked if she was feeling well, before turning back to Stella. They discussed the law throughout the next dance.
The earl didn’t loathe her freckles, or her spectacles, for that matter. He didn’t seem annoyed by her interest in jurisprudence. He could love her. Or perhaps—just perhaps—he was smart enough to realize that love was poppycock.
Perhaps he would choose a wife based on mutual respect and intellectual interests, rather than coy glances.
Stella was thinking about that when Silvester bowed before her. Her heart skipped a beat, and she forgot about the earl.
“I trust you have recovered from your tumble, Lady Stella?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” she said, dropping a curtsy.
“May I have the pleasure of this dance?”
“It’s another quadrille,” Stella said, clearing her throat. “I’d rather not.”
“Poppycock,” he replied, pulling her onto the dancefloor without waiting for an answer.
When they joined another couple, Silvester promptly took the lead, spinning her firmly in the right direction. “Belper is a duffer,” he remarked, after they completed a few more figures without disaster. “You’re doing fine.”
“It was my fault,” Stella said. “I turned the wrong direction.”
“I’ve done it myself. Damn—excuse me, dratted—dances get more complicated every year.”
His admission was untruthful. She’d watched the duke circle the dancefloor any number of times, including this very evening when he gracefully negotiated the steps of the new Dance Ecossoise, just arrived from France. It was even more complicated than the quadrille.
The dance parted them again, so Stella gave herself a firm lecture. Silvester was kind enough to fib about his dancing skills, but he didn’t know what habeas corpus was, or likely even that there was such a law.
Not that it mattered, since he would never consider her for a spouse, but she had determined to marry the most knowledgeable man she could find, not just someone who was good at dancing.
Back together for a final turn, Silvester murmured, “Did you see that Belper just bumped into the lady behind him? If I heard correctly, she called him a barbarian.”
She smiled at him, touched that he was still trying to make her feel better. “Before I debuted, I believed in the distinction between barbarians and gentlemen.”
To her horror, the sight of his powerful neck, head thrown back as he laughed, prompted an imagine of her running her tongue down its length.
When he bowed in front of his next partner, she couldn’t stop herself from ducking behind her fan to ogle his arse in tight silk breeches.
Her aunt would be appalled. Appalled.
Not because Stella admired Silvester: that was practically obligatory for young ladies. The Duke of Huntington was the most eligible man in England, possessed of a large estate, decent stature, and all his teeth. Ladies’ eyes followed him everywhere.
But she doubted that other debutantes had explicit daydreams about how they’d like to…to lick him. Do breathless, depraved things that Stella couldn’t quite envision.
Late at night, she spun stories under the sheets, during which he did things that she was certain no other lady had even imagined. Obviously, all those men looking for love didn’t engage in dissolute thoughts about the women at whose feet they worshipped.
It was her humiliating secret.
Doubly humiliating because Silvester was so far above her.
All of which didn’t stop her from enjoying the way he bowed, one powerful leg extended. His fashionable pantaloons strained over a muscled thigh that would overshadow even sturdy legs like her own.
A low thrum in her blood informed her that she would cheerfully follow him into the shrubbery or a secluded room.
In fact, it could be that Mrs. Thyme’s warnings about male lust disguised a more serious danger, not in men but women.
To be blunt, ladies want more than a kiss.
Worse than a kiss.
At least, Stella did.