Tess Townsend was accustomed to men falling at her feet metaphorically, but this was the first time one had ever done it literally.
And on her wedding night, no less.
The decrepit Duke of Wansford—her husband of less than a day—lay prone on the rug, but unlike many new bridegrooms, he was not drunk.
He was dead.
When he’d entered Tess’s bedchamber ten minutes ago, the lascivious look he’d cast her had turned her stomach.
She’d just opened her mouth to tell him to go away, when he’d clutched at his chest with an expression of faint surprise. He’d staggered sideways, knocked over a table, and dropped to the ground like a stone.
Despite her dislike of the man, Tess had instinctively rushed forward to help, but instead of lurching to his feet, or taking the opportunity to grope her, he’d simply lain there, eyes closed, limbs slack.
With a growing sense of alarm, Tess had shaken him, then slapped his cheek. Belatedly realizing she couldn’t recall his Christian name from the ceremony, she’d hissed, “Wake up, you!” and pressed her fingers to his neck in search of a pulse.
To no avail. He was definitely dead.
A wave of incredulous relief rose in her chest, swiftly followed by guilt. She’d prayed for a miracle to save her from this dreadful marriage, but she’d never envisaged anything as drastic as this.
Indeed, when nothing had happened that morning to interrupt her vows, she’d taken matters into her own hands, and placed a loaded pistol under her pillow.
Her father might have forced her to the altar, but Tess had no intention of allowing the lecherous old duke his “husbandly rights.” She’d half hoped that if she threatened to shoot him, he’d demand an annulment on the grounds of her insanity. Better to be considered mad for the rest of her life than submit to his repellent touch.
Whether such a plan would have been successful was now a moot point: the man wasn’t in any state to demand anything, ever again.
An insistent pounding on the bedroom door made Tess start—until she remembered the desperate plea she’d issued to her two best friends. Ellie Law and Daisy Hamilton had sworn to do everything in their power to save her from the unwelcome attentions of her new husband. The three of them had met at Miss Honoria Burnett’s Ladies Academy as children, and as far as Tess was concerned, they were far more her family than the father who’d treated her so shabbily.
“Your Grace, you must come!” Ellie’s urgent voice was muffled by the heavy wooden door. She’d affected an accent, to sound like one of the servants. “The dower house is ablaze!”
Tess stumbled to the door and swung it wide. With a frantic look up and down the corridor, she seized both girls by the arm, and hauled them inside.
“Quick! Before someone comes!” She slid the bolt home behind them.
“Are we too early?” Confused, Daisy glanced at the door connecting the duchess’s room to the master’s suite. “Is the duke still in his rooms?”
“No. He’s there.” Tess pointed at the body on the floor, which was half-obscured by a wing armchair.
Ellie stepped sideways to get a better view, then sucked in a breath. “Oh, Bloody Hell. Tess, what did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything, I swear! He came in, leered at me, and collapsed. He’s not breathing.”
Daisy, always the most practical of the three of them, knelt and put her ear to the duke’s scrawny chest. After a tense moment she sat back on her heels with a sigh that was more irritation than dismay.
“She’s right, he’s dead.” She sent Tess a wry glance. “Considering how fetching you look in that robe, my love, I’d say it’s no surprise.”
Tess bit her lip. A lifetime of comments had made her aware that most people considered her beautiful. With her dark eyes, pale skin, and lustrous hair, she’d lost count of the number of times she’d been compared to a Renaissance masterpiece or an ancient Greek deity. She supposed she must take after her mother, who’d died when she was a baby, because she bore only a passing resemblance to the dissolute scoundrel who was her father.
Guilt tightened her chest even more. The duke was—had been—awful, but the thought that she might have caused the demise of another human being, even inadvertently, was unsettling.
“You think I killed him?”
Ellie snorted. “Of course not. His own lechery killed him. A man of seventy-two has no business wedding a girl of nineteen. His shriveled heart probably gave out from all the excitement. It serves him right.”
Daisy grimaced. “He didn’t touch you, did he?”
“Thankfully not.” Tess shuddered at the thought of the man’s papery skin and rancid breath. She’d truly had a miraculous escape.
Daisy rose to her feet and dusted off her skirts, as Tess sank weakly onto the edge of the bed.
“Oh God, do you think people are going to think I killed him?” She shot a glance over her shoulder. “Daisy, your pistol’s under my pillow. I was going to threaten him with it if he tried to force himself on me.”
Daisy gave an approving nod. “Excellent plan.” She rounded the bed, slipped her hand beneath the linen, and withdrew the pistol. With the ease of long practice, she unloaded the weapon and slid it into her skirts. “There.”
The mattress sagged as she sat down next to Tess, and Ellie crossed to sit on her opposite side. All three of them gazed down at the corpse.
The duke’s lined face was pale and waxy, and the powdered wig he’d worn to hide his thinning hair lay on the expensive rug like a small, furry creature that had fallen from a great height.
“We need to think this through,” Ellie said levelly.
“It’s quite possible that you’ll be suspected of killing him. After all, it was no secret that your father forced you to say your vows.”
Tess grimaced. Her father had, for all intents and purposes, sold her to the duke.
Her family had been wealthy once, but a series of bad investments, a disastrous loan to Mad King George that had never been repaid, and her father’s drinking and gaming had squandered what they’d had.
Tess’s childish hope of marrying for love had earned her a scornful laugh from her father; her pretty face was his ticket to a fortune. When the twice-widowed Duke of Wansford’s roving eye had fallen on her during her first London season, her father had jumped at the chance to offer her up as an unwilling bride.
None of her other suitors could match the dual enticement of a title and a fortune, so Tess’s objections had been soundly ignored. Her attempts to escape had been foiled, and she’d spent the week leading up to her wedding locked in her room, or under her father’s inescapable gaze.
“It’s obvious you didn’t shoot him,” Daisy said, breaking into Tess’s bitter recollections. “Or strangle him. There aren’t any visible injuries. But you could have poisoned him.”
Tess groaned. “As soon as the servants realize he’s dead, the whole house will be in an uproar. If they find you two here, they might even think we planned it together.”
“The first thing anyone will do is call the doctor,” Daisy said reasonably. “If he suspects there’s been foul play, then the magistrate will be called and he’ll start an official investigation.”
“But he’s not going to suspect anything,” Ellie said.
“Because you’ve done nothing wrong. The duke clearly died of natural causes.”
Daisy pointed at the body. “I can’t think with him just lying there. We need to put him back in his own room so everyone will think he died in his own bed.”
Tess nodded. “Agreed.”
The three of them stood.
Ellie tilted her head. “How, do you suppose? I’ve never had to deal with a corpse before.”
“It can’t be that different from moving a drunkard,” Tess said. “Heaven knows, I’ve done that enough times, when Father’s been three sheets to the wind. El, you grab him under his arms. Daisy, you and I can take his feet.”
“Good Lord, he’s heavy,” Daisy groaned as the three of them hefted the duke’s lifeless body. His head rolled
forward so his chin rested on his chest.
“Who’d have thought someone so spindly could weigh so much?” Ellie panted. “He’s like a sack of potatoes.”
“When have you ever carried a sack of potatoes?” Daisy scoffed.
“Well, never. But this is exactly as heavy as I’d expect one to be.”
With faltering steps, they staggered through the doorway and into the sitting room that separated the duke’s room from the duchess’s quarters. When they finally reached the duke’s bedchamber, they deposited him on the bedcovers with universal sighs of relief.
Tess wrinkled her nose. “We need to take his robe off.”
The duke had appeared in her room in a voluminous pea-green striped banyan, his skinny legs protruding from the hem like two pale sticks of rhubarb.
“I have a horrible feeling he’s not wearing anything underneath. Look, that’s his nightgown.” Daisy indicated a square of linen folded neatly on the pillow and Tess quelled an instinctive shudder.
“It has to be done.”
With a fortifying breath, she edged the duke’s arm out of the sleeve. The front of the robe slid open, exposing his entire—naked—body, and granting the three of them the unwelcome sight of his flaccid member lying limply between his legs amid a tangle of sparse gray hair.
“Eughhhh!” Daisy leapt back with a gagging sound.
“My eyes! I’m never going to be able to unsee this as long as I live!”
“Far be it from me to speak ill of the dead,” Ellie said, “but can I just say how unfair it is that this is the first man I’ve ever seen naked? Couldn’t we have found a handsome prizefighter in an alley? Or nursed a wounded soldier back to health?”
Daisy snorted. “You read too many novels, Ellie Law.”
She angled her chin toward the duke’s groin. “Real life is clearly a badly stuffed sausage.”
Ellie grinned. “I should put that on a sampler.”
Together they wrestled the duke into his nightgown and maneuvered him until he lay in the bed, the covers pulled up to his chin, his hands resting peacefully on his chest.
Tess stood back with a satisfied nod. “That’ll do.”
Ellie placed the duke’s wig carefully on the stand in the corner, while Tess folded his banyan and laid it over a chair.
Back in Tess’s room, Daisy righted the table that the duke had knocked over, then turned toward the bed, but the sound of footsteps approaching along the corridor had all three of them glancing around in panic.
Daisy, wide eyed, darted around the bed, pulling Ellie down beside her to hide.
Tess froze as a tentative knock came on the door.
“Yes?” Her voice held an alarming quiver.
“Your Grace? It’s Hannah. Mrs. Jennings sent me to see if you’d like a bath?”
The servant’s tone was soft, with a trace of pity. Tess had seen the commiserating looks the girl had given her when she’d brushed out her hair in preparation for the duke’s conjugal visit earlier.
At the time, Tess had felt as if she was being readied for the guillotine. Or like Andromeda, about to be chained to the rocks as a sacrifice for some hideous sea monster.
Only, unlike Andromeda, there would be no heroic Perseus coming to rescue her; Tess was going to have to save herself. Hence the pistol.
She cleared her throat and aimed for a normal tone.
“Er, no, thank you, Hannah. I’m too tired this evening. His Grace has . . . just retired to his own rooms.” She gave an internal wince at the suggestive inference of those words. “I’ll have a bath in the morning.” Her heart pounded as she waited for the servant’s response.
“Very good, Your Grace. Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“No, thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Tess expelled a huff of relief as the girl’s footsteps retreated, and she turned to see Ellie and Daisy emerging from their hiding place.
“When one of the servants finds him in the morning, you can act surprised and dismayed,” Ellie whispered.
“You can say, quite truthfully, that the last time you saw him alive was when he came in here tonight. You certainly don’t have to mention that the last time you actually saw him, he was dead.”
Daisy sent her an admiring grin. “You have a fiendish brain, Ellie Law.”
Ellie bobbed a mocking curtsey. “Thank you.”
“Wait,” Daisy said, turning back to Tess. “If you and the duke never did the deed, is the marriage even legal? What if his relatives find out, and try to get it annulled?”
Tess sank onto a chair with a groan. “I’ll be sent back to my father—who’ll probably try to marry me off to some other horrible, rich old man, now he’s got the idea.”
Ellie shook her head. “That’s not going to happen. Nonconsummation is not a legal reason for an annulment. As long as the marriage itself was valid, with the right names and witnesses and so on, then you’re the Duchess of Wansford. Whether you’re still a virgin or not.”
Tess’s anxiety ebbed a fraction. Ellie definitely knew what she was talking about when it came to legal matters. Her father was Sir Edward Law, Baron Ellenborough, one of England’s top barristers. He’d been Attorney General for England and Wales, and was now Lord Chief Justice. Ellie had inherited her father’s love of the law and his brilliant, incisive mind. Only the fact that she’d been born a female had stopped her from becoming a barrister herself.
“So where does this leave me?” Tess frowned.
Daisy flopped gracefully onto the bed. “As the envy of every woman in England, that’s where. A widowed duchess, with all the benefits of the position and none of the aggravation of a husband.”
“But my father—”
“—can’t force you to do anything, ever again,” Ellie finished with a smile. “In the eyes of the law, you’re independent now. Your father has no right to control what you do. And with no husband to bully you, either, you’re free, Tess.”
A heady rush of excitement filled Tess’s chest, but it was immediately quashed by her next thought. “But I don’t have any money of my own. Father didn’t even provide me with a dowry. The duke paid him two thousand pounds.”
“There should have been provision for you in the marriage settlement,” Ellie said. “A widow’s jointure. Did you read it?”
Tess nodded. “Oh, I’d forgotten about that. Yes, I think I get lifetime use of the dower house.”
“It’s not actually on fire, by the way,” Daisy grinned.
“We just said that to get you out of here.”
“I gathered that.”
“You should get financial support, as well,” Ellie pressed. “Like rent from some of the duke’s properties. The standard percentage is usually a third of the estate, but even if you only get a fraction of the duchy’s income, you’ll still be better off than with your father.”
Tess nodded as hope blossomed anew. “There was definitely something about rent in there, but I don’t remember the particulars. I was too disgusted with my father to pay much attention.”
Ellie gave a satisfied smile. “It’s going to be all right. The duchy earns more than enough to support you. You deserve this, Tess. You said your vows. It’s the duke’s misfortune that he didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.”
Daisy wrinkled her nose—a sure sign that she was thinking.
“Even if the marriage doesn’t have to have been consummated, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to let everyone assume the duke bedded you.” She held up her hand to stave off Tess’s instinctive protest. “It will buy you some extra time before you have to deal with the next duke, because the executors will have to wait a few months to make sure you’re not carrying an heir. When it becomes
clear you’re not, they’ll go and find whoever’s in line to inherit.”
“That’s not a terrible idea,” Ellie agreed.
“In fact,” Daisy continued, warming to her theme, “you could always try to get pregnant, quick, and tell everyone it’s the duke’s. That would really cement your position.”
Tess gasped, half amused, half appalled by her friend’s flippant suggestion. “I’m not against having children someday, but I’m not that desperate! And besides, how would I even go about it? Pounce on the first drunkard I see outside the Dog and Duck and beg him to make love to me?”
“You wouldn’t have to beg anyone.” Daisy sent her a playful grin. “They’d be lining up and thanking their lucky stars. But men in their cups aren’t known for giving the best performance, so to speak. You’d be better hiring a professional.”
Tess frowned. “A professional man? What do you mean?”
“A male whore,” Daisy said, matter-of-factly. “I’ve heard people talking about them at my father’s parties.”
Officially, Daisy’s father was the dissolute Duke of Dalkeith, but it was an open secret in the ton that her real sire was an Italian count with whom her mother had conducted a torrid, and very public, affair.
“I know they exist, too,” Ellie nodded sagely. “Male prostitutes, that is. My father called one as a witness in a case he prosecuted last year. I read about it in his notes.”
Tess threw up her hands. “I’m not hiring a man to lie with me. That’s ridiculous. Not to mention expensive. At least, I expect it would be.”
Daisy shrugged. “It was just a thought.” She pulled back the bedcovers and gestured to Tess. “Come on, get in. We’ll stay with you tonight. We’ll leave before dawn so we’re not seen.”
“Won’t you be missed at Hollyfield?”
Daisy’s father owned the neighboring estate, on the far side of the village.
Daisy snorted. “Unlikely. Father’s hosting a hunting party, which means everyone will be foxed. He thinks Ellie and I are both safely tucked up in bed. We won’t be expected down before breakfast, at the earliest.”
“How did you get here?”
“We left our horses in that empty cottage by the spinney. Then we sneaked in through the tradesman’s entrance while the staff were having dinner. They were all gossiping about you, of course.”
Tess made a face. “They probably think I’m a scheming harpy who only married the duke for his money.”
“They do indeed. Because there’s no other reason anyone would have married him. It’s not like he was young, handsome, or even charming.”
“Perhaps that’s why Fate’s giving you this second chance,” Ellie mused.
A glowing excitement swirled in Tess’s chest as the reality of her situation finally began to sink in. For the first time in her life, she didn’t have to answer to anyone.
English law usually decreed that a woman passed directly from her father’s control to that of a husband. They were little better than chattel, powerless to exert any authority over their own lives or finances.
But Fate had granted her an astonishing reprieve. Widowhood, combined with a modest income, would mean blissful independence. A chance to do something with her life. Something interesting. Something worthwhile.
“Think of all the things you can do now you’re a duchess,” Ellie murmured, almost as if reading her thoughts.
“You could start a charity,” Daisy suggested. “Isn’t that what rich widows do? Open a hospital for orphaned puppies, wounded veterans, and fallen women.”
“All in the same building?” Tess teased. “Wouldn’t the soldiers trip over the puppies?”
“And wouldn’t the harlots fall onto the veterans?” Ellie chuckled.
“It wouldn’t be the worst thing.” Daisy shrugged. “In fact, it’s a brilliant idea, now I think about it. Flirting with women and playing with dogs are both excellent reasons for the veterans to recover. I bet our rehabilitation rates would be incredible.”
Tess shook her head. “You are absurd.”
“But brilliant.” Daisy grinned. “Admit it.”
“Yes, that, too.”
Tess pleated the sheets as determination unfurled inside her. “I’ve spent nineteen years being told what to do, with no control over my own fate, and I never want to feel that way again. From now on, I’m going to do what makes me happy, not what pleases someone else.”
“Bravo!” Daisy clapped.
“But,” Tess continued, “think of all the women who can’t choose. We know scores of girls who’ve been bullied or manipulated by the men in their lives. What if I use my new position to help those who haven’t been so lucky?”
Daisy raised her brows. “It’s a nice idea, but you’d have to be discreet.”
“We’d have to be discreet,” Tess amended. “I couldn’t do anything without the two of you.”
Ellie’s eyes sparkled with excitement at the prospect of a new challenge. “We do make an excellent team. And you know how much I like justice.”
“And you know how much I like annoying men.” Daisy chuckled.
Tess smiled at her two best friends, grateful beyond words to have them in her life. “So this plan has something for everyone. Are you with me?”
Neither Ellie nor Daisy hesitated for a moment.