1849 . . . Matilda Sheldon, the middle daughter of the sixth Earl of Bisset, has never been interested in the fashionable society events that so preoccupy her parents and siblings. Her loving, albeit, daft family cannot understand why. But Matilda has little use for silly rules and dramas. She would rather occupy her time with a worthwhile cause such as opening The Sheldon Home for Orphans, much to the chagrin of her mother and grandmother. They are quite certain a venture of this nature will discourage suitors. Matilda is quite certain that if suitors are discouraged it is because she is clever, plain, a bit clumsy, and inevitably compared to her beautiful sisters.
The Duke of Thornsby is in tight spot. After receiving the title on the death of his father, he discovers the inheritance is to be gifted elsewhere if he does not marry before his thirtieth birthday. Unfortunately, our man-about-town is embroiled in a scandal, not of his own making, and the marriage mamas won’t let any eligible misses anywhere near him. What’s a Duke to do? Get invited to a house party hosted by the notoriously absent-minded Earl of Bisset, who just happens to be Papa to some young ladies of marriageable age!
Thornsby finds himself fascinated, not with the two Sheldon debutantes actively seeking a husband, but rather with the ‘brown wren’ he first mistakes for a servant. Matilda is counting the hours until the house party ends when the necessity of conversing with the guests will be over, and ridiculously handsome men go far away. Can a worldly Duke convince a sensible girl to accept his court? Find out in Charming the Duke.
Near London, 1849
Matilda Sheldon concentrated on the stitches of her needlework and listened to the mindless chatter around her. From early afternoon until nearly teatime, her two sisters, Juliet and Alexandra, and her mother, continued a conversation on the virtue of green vegetables in one’s diet. Often Matilda was reading a book when these three found an inane topic worthy of four hours of discourse. Sometimes she let her mind or her feet wander far away. Today, though, she had promised herself to finish the doily she’d been working on for two months.
“What is your opinion, Matilda?” Alexandra asked. “Yes or no to the nasty broccoli.”
Matilda pushed her glasses up with her middle finger and stabbed herself in the forehead with the needle she held. “Botheration! That stings.”
“Tee hee,” Juliet giggled.
The only person on the face of God’s green earth to say tee hee aloud was her sister Juliet. It didn’t appear odd to anyone in her family. Nor anyone else for that matter. Men, in particular, found Juliet’s tee-heeing terribly becoming and some actually replied with a spoken, “Guffaw.” Matilda could only shake her head in wonder.
Frances Sheldon stood gracefully and approached Matilda. She pulled the ever-present lace hanky from her sashed waist, dabbed it with her tongue, and touched the small globe of blood on Matilda’s forehead.
“Must be more careful, darling,” Matilda’s mother said.
“I say hang the vegetables and double the cakes,” Alexandra said.
“How naughty of you, Alexandra,” Juliet replied. She turned in her seat to face Matilda. “But you’ve yet to share your feelings. Greens. Nay or yea?”
“How witty, Juliet. Nay or yea. It rhymes, you know,” Alexandra added.
As if any persons but the ones in this particular room needed instruction on words that were the same in sound except for their first letter. “I imagine moderation in all things applies to diet as well, Juliet. Some greens, some meats, some sweets,” Matilda said. Her sisters stared at her straight-faced. Her mother stitched. The room was silent as it seemed they had applied for her opinion and taken it as gospel. Matilda hoped it ended more hours of speculation.
Frances Sheldon looked up from her stitching minutes later with the same smile that had knocked the bachelors of London on their seat twenty-five years ago.
“Some meats, some sweets. Nay or yea. They rhyme. How droll, girls.”
“How droll,” Alexandra repeated with a giggle.
“Tee hee. Tee hee.”
“The Earl of Finch will be here this weekend, Juliet,” Frances said. “I believe he will make an offer very soon.”
“La de,” Juliet said.
“But don’t you think he’s ever so handsome and dashing,” Alexandra asked as she moved to the edge of her seat.
Juliet shrugged. “I suppose so.”
Matilda eyed her oldest sister. Juliet was fair of skin and hair with a deep dowry, a full hope chest and, by her own admission, future plans as elaborate as hosting elegant balls. “You seemed to like him well enough at the Grossner soiree. Have you had a change of heart?”
Juliet tilted her head. “I’m not sure. Possibly.”
“A change of heart perhaps,” Frances Sheldon said, eyes trained to a biscuit she was holding.
“A change of heart most definitely,” Alexandra added.
Matilda wondered how she’d ended up in this household out of all of England’s families. She would have far preferred to be the only daughter of a village vicar, happily wiling away the hours absorbed in literature and philosophy. It seemed there was no justice. Matilda was the middle daughter in a family of handsome and, well, daft siblings and parents. The only family member she could converse with reasonably was her father’s mother, Grandmother Sheldon. Although Ethel Sheldon preferred to be addressed by her Christian name, her grandchildren, all but Matilda, called her Grandmamma. The old woman cringed each and every time one of her son’s family addressed her as such. They just failed to notice. Matilda knew from her earliest memory that Grandmamma preferred Ethel.
“I’m going to wear either my green or my new yellow gown,” Alexandra said.
“Definitely the green. You must wear the green,” Juliet replied.
“I wonder when Fitz will arrive,” Frances said.
“In time for supper no doubt,” Alexandra said with a smile.
“And bringing his marks from fall term,” Juliet said, frowning and batting her lashes. “Don’t let Father sulk and ruin the party, Mother.”
Frances Sheldon rose and refilled each of her daughter’s teacups. She turned with a knowing look. “Not to worry, girls. Father won’t have anything to say about Fitz’s marks. Your brother wrote last week that Oxford has discontinued its practice of grading its students.” Frances reseated herself. “Some new system, very modern he said. So there will be no poor marks for Father to fluster about.”
Alexandra tilted her head. Juliet smiled winningly.
Matilda looked from her sisters to her mother. “And you believed him?”
Matilda’s youngest brother was a handsome whirlwind of practical jokes and smiles. When she had tutored him over holiday, he’d had one excuse after another to be anywhere his books weren’t.
Frances was incredulous. “Why, of course, dear! Fitz would never misrepresent something so serious, I’m sure.”
Juliet and Alexandra continued with their needlepoint. Frances sighed and sipped her tea.
“Why is Fitz coming home now? Isn’t he in the middle of term?” Matilda asked. Mostly Fitz’s homecomings were filled with lighthearted requests for money or asking Father to write a letter petitioning the headmaster for forgiveness for his latest transgression. “He hasn’t been dismissed, has he?”
“Dismissed, Matilda? Hardly. Your father wouldn’t stand for it.” Frances shook her head in disbelief. “Fitz is coming home for the house party this weekend. Certainly you remember.”
Matilda’s shoulders dropped. “Another party? We just had a party last month.”
“Why don’t you like our parties, Matilda?” Alexandra asked.
“Matilda likes our parties. Everyone loves our parties. What a silly notion,” Juliet said. “But why the frown, Matilda? You can wear the new gown Mother bought you. Alexandra is wearing her green one.”
Each of the females in the room stared at her in the benign way the Sheldons did when someone said anything beyond their reasoning. What good was it to spoil their fun? Matilda continued her stitching. Shortly, with no response imminent, Juliet and Alexandra resumed their tittering about the coming festivities.
Matilda dreaded the coming assembly of guests. As the old saying went, birds of a feather, flocked together, she supposed. There would be few interesting souls to speak with at dinner. Any bright and urbane guests from past assemblies simply did not respond to future invitations from Maplewood, leaving a variety of dim-witted Londoners as the bulk of her parent’s guests.
Juliet’s or Alexandra’s quest for a good match, however, might well be fulfilled. Intelligence was not high on the list of desirable elements for a society wife in 1849. Beauty, social grace, an impressive dowry, and a flawless family history were in all actuality the key factors determining a gentleman’s offer. And Juliet, and Alexandra as well, had those qualities in abundance. Matilda never worried of an offer coming her way. She did share an unblemished hierarchy of ancestors and an equal dowry, but as for beauty and social grace, that was a different matter altogether.
By her own description, Matilda was clumsy, plain, and outspoken. And smart. Those facts rarely troubled her. Fate or the hand of God had seen fit to strand her in this family. There was absolutely nothing to be done about it. She was fortunate in many ways. Matilda was not chased by suitors or adored by poets. But she was fed and clothed with a sculpted roof over her head. Her closet hung tightly with day dresses and ball gowns. Stacks of boxed shoes filled her dressing room. Servants filled her bath with steaming water on command. Matilda was, indeed, most fortunate.
That understanding was one of the reasons, perhaps the principle reason, for Matilda to embark on her current, and most ambitious, endeavor. Ethel Sheldon approved most heartily. But not at first.
“An orphanage, Matilda?” Ethel Sheldon said and glared over her quizzing glasses. The two of them were happily whiling away another afternoon together in the Dowager House on the Maplewood estate. “What on earth convinced you that you were suitable to undertake such a task?” Ethel’s gaze dropped to her granddaughter’s hands. “You’re spilling your tea, dear.”
Matilda dabbed her dress and looked up. “I am rich in my own right, counting the funds Grandfather left me, and bored beyond belief.”
Ethel Sheldon laughed aloud. “Is that all?”
“No. Actually I believe that those that are fortunate are called upon to do for those less fortunate. And who could be less fortunate than children without parents or family?”
Ethel Sheldon shifted in her chair and stared at Matilda. “And you have given up on any prospect of a husband or family of your own?”
Matilda shrugged. “Coming from a woman, who by her own admission declared motherhood highly overrated? Surely those are not your concerns. My marital status or lack thereof.”
Ethel pinched her nose with a sniff. “True enough.” But then she paused, apparently toying with her next words. “But all in all, marriage to Henry had its charming moments. Produced your father. And therefore, eventually you.”
Ethel Sheldon was not soft by any standards. Her own son declared her tougher than a gnarled sailor. Matilda’s mother was petrified of her mother-in-law. Ethel’s admission was, therefore, a shattering one. Ethel Sheldon did not have a heart of stone as her brothers declared. Of course, Matilda knew Ethel was not as rock hard as her family imagined, but she’d never had any firm evidence to the contrary. Matilda just knew.
“Well, yes, charming moments. Don’t be cheeky, Matilda,” Ethel warned to her granddaughter’s grin. “Charming. Husbands do have their uses.”
“You miss Henry?”
Ethel curled her nose in distaste. “I wouldn’t go quite that far. Ultimately, his death was timely.”
Matilda’s eyes opened wide. “Timely?”
“Is it your determination to repeat the last word of every one of my sentences? Push up your glasses, Matilda.” Ethel tapped her fan on her leg. “Timely, as in Henry was ill.” The pitch of her voice dropped a hair. “Truthfully, I could never picture myself watching him and holding his hand while he wasted away.”
Although the words were harsh, Matilda suspected Ethel was concealing far deeper feelings. “What kinds of moments were charming?”
Ethel looked out the long window near the fireplace they sat in front of, with a wry grin on her face. “Your grandfather was, by all accounts, no scholar. He never read a book as far as I knew. Nor did his concerns vary much from hunters and his hounds.” She drew a deep breath. “But the coupling, dear, well, it was charming.”
In the soft light of late afternoon, with little imagination, Matilda could see Ethel as a young woman. Strikingly handsome and poised, and the master of home and family with her husband’s blessing. Surely not in vogue any more then than now. But a new layer emerged from her grandmother’s countenance. A lover. A young woman and a young man. Lovers. How peculiar to picture her grandmother in that way.
Ethel Sheldon recovered quickly from her musings. “Coupling is such an unusual thing, dear. It can indeed bind together those who would seem far apart in many other ways. Opposites attract, as they say.”
“Not the case with Mother and Father,” Matilda said.
Ethel’s brow wrinkled. “Quite true. Dull twits the both of them. That is not true in your case, though.”
“And you feel that charitable work of this nature will not advance my chances of finding a husband that is, well . . . charming?” Matilda asked. Ethel had always been perfectly candid. Matilda was sure she could ask Ethel any question, regardless of how intimate or controversial, and receive a frank answer.
“No, I don’t, Matilda. Men must be handled so delicately. Far more expeditious to find the proper one and then slowly take the marriage in the direction you desire. In the life you desire. No need to tip your hand at the outset, my dear.”
Matilda had heard this speech before and knew its conclusion. “All the while allowing him to think he has retained the upper hand.”
Ethel nodded vigorously. “Yes. Exactly. And this foray into charitable works may be seen as terribly independent. As well as unfashionable.”
“And therefore unacceptable in a wife.”
Ethel leaned forward in her chair. “Find a suitable match and then proceed with this orphanage. Certainly there’ll still be orphans a few years from now.”
Matilda considered her grandmother’s words. Wise words, she admitted. It would be interesting to experience what softened the hard frame of Ethel Sheldon’s face. But frankly, Matilda admitted, she’d be far too old to enjoy much of anything if she waited for a husband.
“I am determined, Ethel, to begin this project straight away. I see no need to wait for a man who won’t materialize and can’t mourn what I’ve never felt. These children, on the other hand, have heavy grief at their doorstep this very day. No. I shan’t wait to train a husband.”
Ethel Sheldon folded her hands in her lap and stared at Matilda. “Have you all the necessary funds at your disposal?”
Matilda felt a surge of triumph. “Not quite. But it will come, I’m sure of it.”