This Duchess of Mine Page 72


Elijah frowned instantly. Of course he, of all the dukes in the realm, would know precisely what a mudlark was, and how perilous their lives. “Has he been injured?”

“His legs are somewhat scarred, but he seems well. Another boy appears likely to lose his foot from a great cut.”

“The mortality rate is very high.”

Villiers felt that like a punch to the stomach. “Ah. Well, my son appears to be alive. Very alive. In addition, he seems to be a hellion.”

“Imagine that,” Elijah said. “Who would have thought?”

Villiers ignored his sarcasm.

“Where is he?”

“I handed him over to Mrs. Ferrers, my housekeeper.”

“You handed your son over to the housekeeper? You don’t know where he is sleeping?”

“What housekeeper?” Jemma said, straightening up and yawning. “What time is it?” With a groan she collapsed back onto Elijah’s chest.

“Who else could take care of the boy? He was filthy. Was I supposed to do something with him?” But it was a question he had been asking himself. Should he go up to the nursery and say something? Take the boy somewhere?

Jemma sat up again and threw back her hair. “What the devil are you doing here, Villiers?” She blinked and clutched her blanket a little higher.

“I came to hear your good news,” he said blandly.

“Oh.” Then she beamed at him. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

“Yes.”

“But what were you saying about your housekeeper?”

“The housekeeper has been assigned to care for one of my children,” Villiers said. “I have five more children to find, and God knows what sort of living arrangements my solicitor made for them. He’s gone missing, by the way, and I expect he’s taken a quantity of money with him.”

“Have you put a Runner on him?” Elijah inquired.

Villiers nodded. “Not for the money, but in the event that I can’t find one or more of the children.”

“You must go look for the rest of them,” Jemma said.

“What are you waiting for?”

“Advice,” he said flatly.

“I know nothing of children,” she replied. “Perhaps you should hire a nursemaid. In fact, you will need more than one, as well as a governess. Your housekeeper can find them for you.”

“Not that,” Villiers said, picking up his sword stick and examining it as if he’d never seen it before. “I need a wife. That is, I suppose I do need a nanny or two, or three. But I need a wife. And I’ve lost two fiancées so far.”

“You need someone of a generous temperament, of course.” She hesitated. “Are you certain that you wish to bring up these children in your own home, Leopold? You could place them in the country, with a good family, and visit them often.”

“No.” He didn’t know why it was, but he couldn’t have Tobias sent away, where he might not be safe. Never again. Even though he was a repellent little monster. “I was under the impression that you were quite enamored of your brother’s illegitimate brat.”

“But last year Elijah threw a tantrum at the mere idea that the boy would be staying under our roof, and he was just the one child, rather than six,” Jemma said, elbowing her husband.

“I was trying to be effective in Parliament at that point,” Elijah said. “And I was going about it the wrong way.” He dropped a kiss on her hair.

“You need a woman who won’t be terrified by the very idea of your children,” Jemma said, “which I think excludes the greater number of debutantes, don’t you agree, Elijah?”

“The problem,” Elijah said slowly, “is not how to handle these children now. It’s what will happen to them when they reach marriageable age.”

“I shall dower them,” Villiers said. “I am one of the richest men in England, and much of it is unentailed. They shall marry whomever they please.” He heard the arrogance of his father, in his voice, and his father’s father—and didn’t give a damn.

“That’s not going to be easy,” Jemma said. “Perhaps a nice widow?”

“No,” Elijah said slowly. “The duchess would have to be of equal stature to Villiers.”

“I see. If we could find a duke’s daughter,” Jemma agreed, “between the two of you, you might be able to compel the ton to accept the children.”

“I doubt that the Puritanical will ever accept the children,” Elijah said.

Villiers felt a wave of rage in his chest. “They are my children,” he said tightly.

“Illegitimacy is well-nigh impossible to overcome.”

“So I need a duke’s daughter,” Villiers said, ignoring his doubts.

“The problem is finding eligible ducal offspring,” Jemma said. “Not to mention ones who might be convinced to marry a man in your situation.”

“You show me an eligible woman, and I’ll take her,” Villiers said softly.

“You can’t just take her,” Jemma said, scowling at him.

“Watch me.”

“There’s the Duke of Montague’s daughter,” Elijah offered.

“Actually, Montague has three daughters,” Jemma said. “The eldest one is Eleanor. She’s apparently quite proud. I’ve heard tell that she won’t even consider those of a rank below an earl.”

“I am above an earl,” Villiers said. “Are the other two as superior in their thinking?”

“I’ve met the youngest Montague daughter only two or three times, but it seems to me that she was as full of her own consequence as her sisters. I believe it’s a family trait.”

“Doesn’t the Duke of Gilner have a daughter?” Elijah asked. “I always liked him. He comes infrequently to the House, but he’s thoroughly intelligent.”

“Her name is Lisette. But she’s ineligible,” Jemma said.

“Why?” Villiers asked.

“She’s mad. Quite mad. She has never had a season. And everyone says it’s because she can’t appear in public at all.”

“There must be others.”

Jemma shook her head.

“Then I shall choose among the Montague daughters. Did you say the eldest is called Eleanor?”

Jemma nodded. “Eleanor, Anne, and Elizabeth. They’re named after three queens. I don’t believe they’re in London at the moment, but I shall invite them to the house for tea upon their return.”

“I would appreciate that,” Villiers said. He was beginning to feel worried about Tobias, as if the boy might flee if he left him alone too long. “I’m happy to find you so well,” he said to Elijah. “Now you should have a footman fetch that miraculous medicine.”

“We owe you thanks, since you found the doctor who directed us to Withering.”

“I shall take that as confirmation that I no longer need feel guilty about the fact you saved my life last year, after that duel.”

They didn’t embrace. English dukes didn’t flaunt affection, even under circumstances like these. But Elijah accompanied him to the door and their shoulders jostled together, just as they had in their boyhood.

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