Fate Gave Me a Duke by Amanda Mariel

Chapter 1

Mayfair, England

December 12, 1811

Lady Juliet Gale stood near the potted ferns at her dear friend Olivia, the Duchess of Thorne’s Christmastide ball. Her gaze lingered on the dance floor where couples clad in deep greens, vibrant reds, golds, blues, and silvers danced the quadrille. Candlelight caught their jewels—or was it the other way around—and glittered about the enormous space.

Add to that the bows of greenery Olivia had placed about the room, and the setting certainly was festive. Everyone who was anyone seemed to be in the room, and they all wore smiles, their continence full of merriment and good cheer.

Juliet lowered her silk fan as her gaze met Olivia’s. “You outdid yourself.”

Olivia beamed back at her. “William told me to spare no expense for such a special evening. He wanted perfection, and I daresay I delivered. The girls are a smashing success.”

William and Olivia had married last year, and Olivia became both mother and sister to his three younger siblings. Tonight was the unofficial come-out ball for the oldest two sisters, Lady Catherine and Lady Louisa.

Juliet tapped her fan against Olivia’s arm playfully. “My, but you sound smug. Nothing like patting oneself on the back.”

Olivia huffed a soft sigh, though she wasn’t the least bit scalded. “There is no need to be jealous,” she retorted in a teasing lilt.

Juliet turned her attention back to the dancing couples, her gaze finding Louisa and Catherine in their complimentary silk gowns. One in silver and the other in an ice blue, both trimmed in seed pearls and lace. The girls seemed to enjoy themselves, and they certainly were garnering loads of attention from the gentleman. On that score, Olivia was quite right, and it thrilled Juliet to witness the outcome.

She turned her attention back to Olivia. “I was only jesting. Honestly, you have every right to be pleased with yourself. It seems Louisa and Catherine are a success.”

“Indeed,” Olivia said. “I am planning for a parlor full of suitors come morning.”

Juliet took a glass of champagne from a passing footman. “And, right, you should. I would wager they both have offers of marriage by season’s end.” She brought the glass to her lips and took a copious drink as she wondered if her turn would ever come. At four and twenty, most of her peers considered her past her prime and no doubt racing toward spinsterhood.

Olivia turned her understanding gaze on Juliet. “Do not fret. Your prince charming will arrive.” She waved her hand at the crush of lords and ladies. “Perhaps he is here now, and you have only to find him.”

“I am not fretting,” Juliet said. She brought the champagne flute back to her lips for another drink as the music ended, and couples began departing the dance floor.

She could not help but notice how Catherine’s partner was leading her toward the balcony. He had his hand resting over hers where her fingers looped over his arm and smiled at her as they traversed the room. Perhaps the girl had already found her future husband.

“I daresay he looks smitten,” Juliet said, without taking her gaze from the couple.

“I had better chaperone them,” Olivia said. “From a distance, of course,” then departed with haste to follow Catherine and her suitor.

After finishing her champagne, Juliet sat the empty flute on a passing footman’s tray, then looked about for their other friend Emma. Her usually cheerful mood turned more sour when she spotted Emma in her husband’s arms. She did not begrudge Emma. On the contrary, joy-filled her at her friend’s happiness.

Still, she could not help feeling a bit left out. Perhaps even abandoned to some extent. The three of them, Emma, Olivia, and Juliet, had been the closest of friends. A trio of wallflower’s who always kept each other company and cheered one-an-other on. Now she was alone. Leastwise, mostly alone, and she very much wanted her own happily ever after with a dashing gentleman.

Juliet sighed as she started across the ballroom toward the hallway. She was not truly alone, and it was unfair of her to think in such a way. Emma and Olivia still included her in all the ways they could. The three of them were still fast friends and loyal confidants. And it pleased Juliet that her friends had found love.

She was simply depressed tonight and, as a result, being unfair. Olivia was right. Juliet would find love. Though she very much doubted it would happen tonight. She had to be patient. And if her friends were any indication, the wait for her own prince charming would be well worth it.

Yes, she would hold out hope, but she would seek a bit of solitude in the meantime. Half an hour away from the glittering ballroom and smiling couples would no doubt set her mood to rights. When she reappeared, she would be her usual cheerful self.

Juliet slipped out, then turned toward the library. She would select a new book to read, and once she’d cleared her mind, she would slip back into the ballroom.

No one would miss a stray wallflower.

Of that, she was certain.

* * *

Giles Fortescue, Duke of Cleburne, bemoaned his attendance at this bloody ball. He’d never enjoyed such events and, as such, did all in his power—and he welded a considerable amount—to avoid them.

On the rare occasions when he failed, he ensconced himself in the game room or between a willing widow’s thighs. Sadly, there would be little of that this evening. He’d already been here several hours and drank a copious amount of liquor. Yet, he remained in the ballroom, as Thorne had requested.

Casting his gaze about the room, he caught sight of his long-time friend ensconced in conversation and wondered if he might sneak off for a bit without being noticed. Surely Thorne would not begrudge him a small reprieve. After all, Thorne was well aware of Giles’s aversion to these things.

A smile curved his lips at the thought, and he searched the room, seeking a lady to distract himself with. His gaze met nothing beyond the innocent smiles of debutantes and appraising eyes of matchmaking mamas.

The whole thing was enough to make a fellow’s skin crawl. And he wondered for the thousandth time why he’d allowed Thorne to rope him into this.

Giles slipped his flask from his coat and took a long drink of the brandy canceled within. Perhaps if he got drunk enough, Thorne would dismiss him from his obligation. Leastwise, he would find the ball more tolerable. Regardless, he was well on his way to being foxed and had no intention of slowing down now.

Giles simply was not fit for good company. He did not belong at a come-out ball full of innocent ladies. Thorne never should have requested his attendance. He certainly should not have asked that Giles remain in the ballroom.

Why the devil had he allowed Thorne to talk him into attending his sister’s ball, at any rate? Giles should have declined. He was not the sort of man to add prestige to such an event, and certainly not the sort that would help the girls.

If anything, his presence here would hurt their chances of finding suitable matches, and Thorne well knew it. Giles was a hardened rogue. That he was a duke only allowed him more liberties. He could tarnish a lady’s reputation by merely dancing with her.

Still, Thorne was Giles’s oldest and closest friend. He could scarcely refuse his invitation. Nor could he ravish any of the innocent ladies swarming the ballroom.

There was nothing for it. He was here, and he would do his best to honor Thorne’s wishes. Surely, he could survive one night of debutants.

He took another long drink of brandy before he capped his flask and closed his eyes.

“Fancy meeting you here,” a familiar feminine voice fairly purred near his ear.

A roguish smile curved his lips, for it seemed his luck was taking a turn for the better. “Lady Lambert,” he said as he opened his eyes to greet the widow.

She gave a slight smile, her gaze full of invitation. “It has been some time, Your Grace.”

“Indeed,” he agreed. The last time he had entertained her had been several months back. Perhaps a year ago. “How long has it been? A year?”

She gave a nonchalant shrug. “I couldn’t say.”

The severe set of her face betrayed her feigned nonchalance, and he recalled why he’d ended the affair. She had become too serious—even a bit territorial. He’d wager she knew down to the hour how long it had been since he’d bedded her.

Regardless, she was just the distraction he needed tonight.

He brushed the back of one finger along her cheek and asked, “Have you missed me,” he leaned closer, “Kitty?”

Passion flared in her gaze. “Meet me in the library in twenty minutes, and I shall endeavor to show you exactly how much.” She tapped her silk fan against his chest. “I promise I will not disappoint you.” Kitty pivoted, then fled in a billow of scarlet skirts, her hips swaying in invitation.

Giles waited a few minutes, then strode around the perimeter of the ballroom before exiting. As he made his way to the library, he sipped from his flask. A bit more brandy and a willing woman would set him to rights. After his tryst, he would return to the ball and lend Thorne his full support.

For whatever that was worth.