Two Dances and a Duke
Book 1 in the Seduction Series
Shamed for her curves and plagued by a Mean Girl, Bea is miserable—until she triumphs over social disaster and wins the hand and heart of a duke. One of Eloisa James’s most exuberant and emotional novellas.
Miss Beatrice Valentine is having a horrible first Season, shamed for her curves by a group of young ladies led by Lady Regina Haywood, daughter of a duke.
Despite Regina’s attempts to make Bea a wallflower, Bea finds herself torn between the rakish, quick-tempered Lord Peregrine (engaged to Lady Regina) and the gentleman war-hero, the Duke of Lennox (Lady Regina’s brother).
Bea is determined to marry a kindly man, and certainly no one attached to Regina. But both of these gentlemen are determined to seduce her…and one will succeed.
*This book first appeared on the serialized Amazon Vella platform as The Seduction/Bea. The book has been lightly edited, but the story remains the same.
Two Dances and a Duke
Book 1 in the Seduction Series
Two Dances and a Duke
Enjoy an Excerpt
Lord and Lady Sheffield’s ball in honor of their daughter’s debut
Porterhouse Square, #38
April 14, 1814
It was astonishing how easy it was to predict the future.
In a mere five weeks, Miss Beatrice Valentine had discovered that she had no need to gaze at the stars or a crystal ball, for that matter. She could make accurate predictions merely by peering at the ballroom from the shelter of a large fern.
Query: Will the lady dangling tangerine ribbons from her topknot drop her fan in front of the young man with the violet waistcoat?
Prediction: A probability of nearly 100%. The lady in question had already dropped her fan three times in front of various men, as if she were sowing a field and hoping a husband would pop up. A version of that Greek myth about sowing dragon teeth and harvesting a crop of Spartan warriors.
The lady’s fan slipped from her gloved fingers at the same moment that Lady Sheffield’s butler bellowed an announcement. The smile instantly fell off Bea’s face and her heart started pounding in her ears so loudly that she couldn’t hear whatever else he said.
She had thought that it was too late for new arrivals. That she was free for tonight. She never would have positioned herself so perilously close to the ballroom door, if she’d known guests might arrive so late.
Especially these guests. Bea swallowed hard. She would not disgrace herself by vomiting or crying.
Words to live by.
A fern wasn’t sufficient; she needed solid walls. A door with a latch or even better, a lock.
Their hostess, Lady Sheffield, rushed toward the ballroom entrance, her hand wrapped around her daughter Marguerite’s forearm as she towed her across the floor.
When the lady slid to a halt, out of breath and full of apologies for dismissing the receiving line—though frankly, her guests were hours late—Lady Regina Charlotte Haywood, sister of the current Duke of Lennox, stepped forward and dropped a slight, if gracious, curtsy. Her fiancé, Lord Peregrine, bowed with the air of a man who didn’t quite remember whose house he was in, and didn’t give a damn.
In Bea’s cynical opinion, Marguerite likely brushed her knees on the floor during her curtsy before Lord Peregrine. Rather than drop a fan, she gave him a long look at her cleavage.
Lord Peregrine’s chiseled eyebrows twitched when presented with a pair of large breasts bolstered by a stiff corset, but his insolent expression didn’t change. A housekeeper would look more excited glancing over melons for sale.
He was known as a rake, so perhaps he was bored by ladies’ chests.
Still, Bea couldn’t help taking a shuddering breath of pure longing. His cravat was crumpled, and his chin was shadowed—a terrible faux pas for a gentleman. He couldn’t have made it more clear that he had no interest in the opinions of society madams.
Young ladies weren’t supposed to feel waves of heat at the mere sight of a man’s shoulders, especially bad men like that. With insolent eyes and a walk that wasn’t a swagger but…
Bea couldn’t quite explain it. When they met, his eyes skimmed over her as if she was invisible. A sensible woman would despise him merely for that. Still, she couldn’t help thinking that perhaps Lord Peregrine was so bored because no one ever made him laugh.
Not that she was any good at making men laugh. But in her head, she was very witty.
Just then Regina’s trilling laughter as she exchanged pleasantries with Lady Sheffield echoed around the ballroom. Bea’s legs tensed with an impulse to flee, but she forced herself to take a deep breath instead. That would be foolish. Flight might attract attention.
Query: Now that Lady Regina has entered the ballroom, what are the odds that Bea’s weight and unattractiveness will become a topic of conversation?
Prediction: Around 80%. Which meant there was hope, Bea told herself, fighting a wave of nausea. 20% was 1 in 5.
Her fern was leafy and tall. What’s more, Regina might be waylaid by a suitor hopeful of cutting out Lord Peregrine. As the daughter of a duke, and exquisite in the bargain, most of the available gentlemen in London had been at her feet before he kissed her hand, danced with her once, and told a friend he meant to have her.
At least, that was the gossip that Bea had overheard while lurking in the women’s retiring room one night, confirmed by the fact their betrothal notice appeared in the papers the very next week.
Bea had felt sick with jealousy, but she understood. Regina was long-legged and thin, her body quivering with energy. She had a lovely face, if a rather predatory mouth. Yet to Bea’s mind, the real appeal was that Regina wasn’t docile and sweet, like most ladies tried to be. She was ferociously energetic, and “niceness” wasn’t a quality Regina admired.
Neither did Lord Peregrine, obviously. They were well-matched, like eagles that would woo each other by dropping small dead animals in each other’s path. Lord Peregrine clearly had no fear of competition. Bea had noticed that propensity to hand over his exquisite fiancée to any man who approached.
Regina had no need to drop her fan at the feet of another man, should she wish for a different fiancé. If she showed the slightest interest, a suitor would likely drop to his knees.
But she never did.
Bea had discovered any number of parallels between ballrooms and barnyards, and Regina’s behavior had a precedent in the hencoop. Regina had no interest in the rooster, so she was devoting her time to trying to peck away Bea’s feathers, with the occasional sharp peck at other women in the vicinity.
From behind the shelter of a particularly large frond, Bea watched as a man whom she’d never seen before entered, joining Regina. She could only see him from the rear.
Lady Sheffield and Marguerite sank into synchronized, frenzied curtsies before him. What’s more, Regina’s closest friend, Lady Martha Telton-Sacks, erupted out of the crowd and sank into a curtsy, Misses Prudence and Petunia Massinger on her heels.
Bea shrank even further back behind the fern, cursing her bad luck. The depth of Martha’s dip suggested that the stranger was Regina’s older brother, the duke.
He was one of those eligible gentlemen whom her chaperone had warbled about introducing her to, which would frankly be a fate worse than death. Dukes were better than anyone at a faintly contemptuous look that reminded an undesirable woman just how undesirable she was.
His Grace had just returned from somewhere. War? No, it couldn’t be war. They never let titled men go to war, did they?
Prudence and Petunia were curtsying before him. The light of a chandelier directly above them made the twin’s yellow curls look stiff and metallic. In fact, their heads looked like matching brass bed knobs.
Query: What are the odds that Prudence, Petunia, or Martha would marry Regina’s brother, the duke?
Unless he was promised to another lady when he was in the cradle. Perhaps he was in love with a barmaid. Perhaps he planned to run away to sea.
Perhaps he was enamored of a footman (Bea’s younger brother had returned from Eton with interesting facts that no lady was supposed to know). Perhaps he would be mowed down by a runaway horse before reaching the church.
In stark contrast to Regina’s flashy elegance, her brother’s tumble of hair was mahogany dark with a few lighter streaks, as if he had spent a good deal of time outdoors. Bea couldn’t see his face, but even from here, she could see Prudence simpering and twitching her shoulders in a manner that suggested she found His Grace attractive.
Equally likely, she found his title attractive.
Query: What conclusion could be drawn about the Duke of Lennox, given his sister’s character and his position in society?
Prediction: There was a 90% chance that he would be thoroughly despicable. To be avoided at all costs. Although the dowager duchess—
Bea let out a little shriek as acid peppermint-flavored breath washed over her, and a fan sharply rapped her on the shoulder.
“I found you!” Her chaperone, Lady Alcon, was in a rage, not an unusual condition. She was a tall, lean woman who seemed constitutionally prone to either a twitter of nerves or a storm of bad temper.
“Straighten up, Beatrice,” she barked. “It is extremely rude of you to make me poke around the ballroom, peering in the corners as if I were inspecting for dust. Lord only knows what our hostess thinks of me.”
Bea dropped into a curtsy that was as deep as Martha’s before the duke. “I apologize, Lady Alcon,” she murmured, keeping her eyes on the floor. She had proved unable to disguise an ironic gaze around her chaperone and found it better to keep her gaze to herself.
Lady Alcon was not one to appreciate irony, and in a black mood, she tended to employ her fan until Bea’s collarbone and shoulder were covered with little blue marks.
“I can’t believe that you are hiding behind a plant like a lazy housemaid!” Lady Alcon went on. “It’s quite intolerable that I keep having to search you out. Why, last season—”
She broke off, likely because last season didn’t present happy memories. She had been given charge of Miss Leodoldina Cottons, who had danced with princes, flirted with dukes—and ran away with a thirty-seven-year-old rake whose fortune didn’t make up for the twenty-year difference between their ages.
Miss Cottons’ father had publicly blamed Lady Alcon for allowing his daughter anywhere near an aging roué, particularly a French one.
In the last five weeks, Beatrice had come to quite dislike Leopoldina, without ever meeting her. In the normal course of events, Lady Alcon would have been shepherding about an aristocrat’s daughter. But in the aftermath of Leopoldina’s elopement, the lady had found herself available to chaperone a mere miss from the country, albeit one with a large dowry.
If Leopoldina hadn’t made a cake of herself, Beatrice wouldn’t be disappointing Lady Alcon on a daily basis.
Bea’s father had been ecstatic when he managed to hire her ladyship. “I did inform her,” he had announced, “that you were not to dance with any Frenchmen. Perhaps a German, but only if he had the best possible credentials.”
Too bad that no one asked Bea to dance, French, German, or otherwise.
“I told you to keep walking,” Lady Alcon snarled, pulling on Bea’s arm. “If you insist on eating a meal before the ball, you must keep moving. Sit down for even for a moment, and you must ask yourself: ‘Do I have the right to go into the dinner?’”
“I quite see your point, Lady Alcon,” Bea said, planting her feet and staying precisely where she was, shadowed by the fern. Regina was turned away, which was a blessing, but if Martha glanced in this direction…
Martha was almost as unpleasant as her closest friend.
“My maid reported that you ate a large meal in the afternoon. Enough for two, and certainly not what any lady should partake when she needs to look her very best.”
Question: What is the likelihood that Lady Regina ate a meal before coming to the ball?
Prediction: Zero. Absolutely none.
Lady Regina was as lean and hungry as a whippet. Not a greyhound, because they were nervous but gracious. Whippets liked to bark—
“Although we both know the outcome of this season,” Lady Alcon said, “I shall still do my duty and introduce you to more gentlemen. If you would stop hanging back like a sinner at the altar rail!”
Query: What were the odds of Bea finding a husband during the season?
Prediction. Again, zero.
This evening, for example, approximately forty young ladies were contending for twelve eligible gentlemen, although she might have overlooked an elderly widower or two, and she should add in the lame duke.
Even had she been as beautiful as Lady Regina, the odds were nil.
Fat ladies from the country weren’t in fashion.