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Authors: Eliza Lloyd

AgeofInnocence

Age of Innocence

Eliza
Lloyd

 

Mad Duchesses, Book 3

 

The twice-widowed Duchess of Burnham is thrilled to finally
have a fit, younger husband and imagines nights filled with the kind of passion
she missed in her first two marriages. Lettie is every man’s dream—voluptuous
and sensual.

The Honorable Ferdinand Ford is horrified to learn his
family has made a match for him. Marriage is the last thing he wants. Ferd is
the consummate man about town, except he has a secret—he has very little
experience with women and has taken great pains to avoid them. Experienced
Lettie is all that he fears.

Lettie might be a little mad to pin all her hopes for
happiness on a man who doesn’t want her for a wife, but she hopes that nights
in her bed will convince him she is a wife worth having.

 

A
Romantica®
Regency historical erotic romance
from Ellora’s Cave

 

Age of Innocence
Eliza Lloyd

 

Chapter One

 

The Honorable Ferdinand Ford, or Ferdie as his friends
called him, was by all accounts one of the most sought after younger sons in
the
ton
, and much to his mother’s vexation, he seemed to have no
interest in the fairer sex. On occasion, Lady Ford conspired to throw him
together with the newest and brightest
ton
jewel, but Ferdie was either
very clueless about his mother’s intentions or very adept at avoiding an
association that might lead to matrimony.

He was too kind to hurt his mother, so he sidestepped any
opportunities to be alone with her. The constant nudging, hinting and scheming
irritated Ferdie but he attempted sanguinity rather than a curt, “Mother, mind
your own business.”

So it came as rather a shock when his father called him into
the library of the family’s Hanover Square townhome one spring day to announce
that Ferdie would be marrying the twice-widowed Paulette Whitfield, Duchess of
Burnham.

“Paulette Whitfield?” Ferdie gritted his teeth and managed a
reasonable restraint of the words he wanted to say. “Is this Mother’s idea?”

“No. It is not. It is time you marry, my boy, and the
duchess is, without a doubt, one of the wealthiest women in Britain. She would
make an excellent match.”

“She is older than I am. She has borne no children. This is
all rather imprudent, especially without consulting me.” Ferdie could think of
nothing but her age, and the fact she had no children from not one but two
marriages. His mind began a spiral of jumbled thoughts about why this match was
not for him, but coherent ideas seemed fleeting in the face of the surprise
attack by an unforeseen enemy. With Mother, he’d learned to be on guard. Father
never seemed to notice anything, let alone that one of his children remained
unmarried.

“Neither of these things should concern you. She has all of
the qualifications necessary—the right bloodlines, the wealth and property, and
you can’t deny that she is particularly attractive.”

“She is older than I am,” Ferdie said again, as if there
weren’t a hundred other reasons the proposed marriage was ill-advised. He tried
to corral just one thought that would support his position.

“Good grief, Ferdie. She is thirty, you are about to turn
twenty-eight. If that is your only arguable objection, I must say your Oxford
education was a waste of money.”

He lowered himself, rather shakily, into one of the chairs
at his father’s desk. “I do not wish to marry.” Because the real truth was very
ugly. “Everyone says she’s…mad.”

“Nonsense. We must all have our turn at the pillory. Buck
up. Once you marry and you experience the virtues and gifts that can be found
in the arms of a woman such as the Duchess of Burnham, you’ll forget all about
these objections. And your mother informs me the duchess is a happy woman.”

Happy? Barmy was more like it. With a penchant for feathers
and gold bracelets. He hoped she never lost her way in an aviary.

“She’s been married twice without producing children. I
think that is concern enough.” Father conveniently avoided mention of her
mental state. Ferdie was certain Her Grace was a fine woman—for some other man.
The family did not need her wealth so it should not be a consideration.

“Your mother has discreetly inquired as to her status.”

Discreetly? Ferdie could imagine that embarrassing
conversation, though he doubted Mother asked the duchess directly. He suspected
it involved gossip over several afternoon teas after his parents hatched this
harebrained scheme. Gawd! Had they already approached her with this preposterous
idea?

“It seems,” his father continued, “the dear lady was married
less than a year to her first husband, then again, he was past sixty, so one
can understand the outcome of that union. To the duke, she was married fourteen
months. And I’m not sure of his age, though I do recall some health issue or
other. So you see, not really enough time to make a judgment about her
childbearing abilities.”

“You have this all thought out, I see.”

“Why yes. And as luck would have it, the duchess is most agreeable.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Fords do not go back on their word. And as your father, I
have given my word.”

“On my behalf,” Ferdie said smartly, chafing as if he’d been
wearing wet trousers for a day.

After Father delivered his lecture, he exhaled a deep breath
of air as if he’d known Ferdie would object and had bolstered himself ahead of
time. “I think it is high time you marry.”

Ferdie sat frozen in his chair, staring—at nothing
really—and contemplating the vast and shocking changes that were about to occur
in his life.

Sons and daughters were allowed little latitude when it came
to marriage. When the woman brought a substantial amount of wealth to the
union, feelings and wishes were the last consideration.

Lord Ford cleared his voice and steeled his jaw. “You do
like women, don’t you?”

Ferdie glanced at him. Father’s brow had turned down in a
hard expression.

“Pardon?”

“Women? You are attracted to them?” he asked.

If the situation could have gotten any worse, he didn’t see
how. His face heated until he knew he was red from his hairline to his cravat.
Ferdie pushed from his chair and glared at his father, for the first time truly
angry that his parents were, well, his parents.

“I am a man, Father. And I have a man’s desire for women.”
Ferdie was reminded of his youth and the reactions the boys had had when he was
sent away to school. He’d been a delicate child with blond curls and fair skin.
He’d been teased mercilessly but had believed all of that had been left behind.
The doubts lived on only in his mind.

For his age, he was a bit taller than the other boys and
stronger than he appeared. After a few bloody noses and black eyes, Ferdie had
made his point. He wasn’t to be teased. Ever. No one accused him of being fair
as a girl again to his face, but that hadn’t stopped the two-faced slights and
the petty insecurities they fostered.

Hearing his father’s doubts brought it all back—in painful,
clear detail.

“Is it that you are still a virgin? Really, there is nothing
to fear.”

Well, hell. He was wrong. It could be worse.

“I’m not a virgin.” If it was obvious to his parents that he
had steered a wide swath around women, he wondered how many others had noticed.
He had pursued a most rigorous physical regime once he was on his own to shed
any lingering perceptions of weakness. Unfortunately, his regime did not
involve pursuits designed to enhance his reputation with women.

“Then we are in agreement.”

There was no question. Father was concluding the arrangements
he felt his youngest son incapable of handing.

“When is this illustrious occasion?”

“In six weeks. St. George’s. Your mother is making the preparations
with the duchess and her mother. I would imagine the duchess will be expecting
you to call in the next few days to make it formal. I think it would be best if
you proposed tomorrow. We can have the announcement in the paper by Friday.
Plenty of time to read the banns.”

Father shoved the marriage contracts across the desk. “You
will want to read these.”

Ferdie jammed the papers in his jacket and left without saying
a word.

Instead of the usual round of balls and card playing, Ferdie
took himself off to White’s where he found a quiet corner and a loud bottle of
whiskey. The more glasses he downed, the more the whiskey drowned out the
untenable situation and its attendant insecurities.

All of it could be traced back to his time at Harrow. One
would think it easy to overcome such petty childhood impairments.

The second bottle arrived along with Randall VanLandingham,
the Duke of Pelham.

“It is a night for drinking,” VanLandingham said, taking a
seat across from Ferdie. He wasn’t in the mood to talk and His Grace seemed to
be of a similar mind.

They drank. They poured again.

When it seemed the duke had had enough, he stood, glanced at
Ferdie and said, “You should stop by for cards one evening. The duchess enjoys
your company.”

Ferdie had no problem with married women and ancient
dowagers. He was a favorite dance partner of every widow over forty in London.
He was a billiard’s sharp and a clever card player. He could go several rounds
with any boxer at Jackson’s. His horses occasionally won at Newmarket. For a
younger son, he had a brilliant life by any standard and no one had mentioned
living at a far-off vicarage.

Except he was afraid of women.

Afraid of what happened with women when one was alone and
intimate with them.

And he was afraid of what happened
to him
when he was
with a woman.

A childless, twice-married, barmy woman was beyond the pale.

It was easier to perfect his skills as a great competitor
and a gracious loser.

Humiliating himself with his weak sexual performance was not
his idea of happily ever after. But then maybe she was too touched to realize
he was inept in bed.

* * * * *

By morning, Ferdie had found his way to his apartment on
Jermyn Street. His valet helped strip his clothes and poured him one final
concoction that knocked him off his feet until nearly four that afternoon.

At the first sign of life, Clark had prepared a bath for him.
His clothes were hanging in the ready, matched and pressed. Perfect fashion for
proposing to the richest widow in London. Or was it all of Britain?

Ferdie rolled to his side, moving slowly until his world
settled. How did one maintain one’s wealth if she were insane?

Had he ever said more than two words to the duchess? He
couldn’t think of a single conversation.

Could there possibly be a more inappropriate match for him?
He might appear worldly with his Brummell-like fashion and his man-about-
ton
attitude. But the Duchess of Burnham was worldly and experienced. She’d put two
husbands in the grave.

If there was a word to describe her physically, it was
voluptuous. He could remember only that she was of medium height. Her hair
color he couldn’t quite recall—dark more than light. Of course he would
recognize her if they passed each other in the park, but he could honestly say
they rarely frequented the same circles. He wasn’t the heir. He wasn’t the
spare. Most of the
ton
probably thought he had gone off to die at some
remote vicarage.

He had heard she’d held salons with unsuitable characters,
invited the King’s mistress to her home and was a frequent guest at a gaming
hell, the name of which he could not remember.

If he were in a better mood, he could admit his lack of
knowledge was because he stayed far away from all eligible females, much good
that had done.

The bath helped revive him. The black coffee helped even
more.

By five he was knocking at her door. The short wait produced
a round of thoughts about his situation—the silliest of them being that he had
failed to bring a bouquet to mark the occasion.

He assessed the façade of the house, realizing that in a few
weeks this might be his new home. She would not be moving to Jermyn Street, he
would be moving to her home. Her mansion.

Gawd. Could this be more humiliating?

He had planned on marrying a social equal—someday. At
Jackson’s, punching above one’s weight was considered the height of arrogance.
Was he the only one who saw the incongruity of this union?

The door was opened by a dour-faced majordomo who led him
through a set of double doors and into a spacious sitting room. The first thing
Ferdie noticed was the pleasant smell of flowers. His bouquet would have been
lost in the room full of vases—five blooming bunches in all—that were
interspersed around the chamber.

The duchess enjoys flowers.
Aside from her two
marriages, her mental state and her age, it was the first personal thing he
knew about her.

He didn’t have to wait long. The majordomo led the duchess
into the room and waved his hand toward Ferdie.

“The Honorable Ferdinand Ford,” he said before pulling the
doors shut and leaving them alone.

The Duchess of Burnham dropped a quick curtsy. Feathers were
tucked in her elaborate hairstyle.

“Your Grace,” he said, bowing in return.

She smiled, one of those dazzling white-toothed smiles that
was meant to blind the recipient. She strolled toward one of the vases. She
stuffed her face into the blooms and breathed deeply. “Are they not heavenly,
Mr. Ford? Do you not want to drink them in?”

Voluptuous, yes. Very, very voluptuous. The gown was the
color of her skin, strewn with lace and pearls, diaphanous down her arms and
across her ample bosom. He thought he could see all of
her
.

Ferdie’s reaction was immediate. Already his chest ached
from trying to draw air. Worse, he felt the reaction deep in his groin as his
cock sprang to immediate life. Things never ended well from this point, but he
couldn’t think about that now. Concentrating on his objective should be enough
to soothe his savage beast.

Of course it was his imagination. It was only the color and
fit that made it appear so revealing.

She was cozily round and he thought if he could have painted
a perfect physical specimen of woman he might have started with the duchess.

If he did not speak now, he was going to embarrass himself.

“My father has explained the arrangement.”

“Yes, but please, do sit. Some tea will be along shortly.”
She walked by him and admired another bouquet. The opaqueness of her
skin-colored gown was quite disturbing. The feathers teased him and guided his
gaze to the pulsing vein in her neck.

“Thank you.” Just as when he’d discussed his impending
nuptials with his father, Ferdie’s legs were weak. This was precisely the type
of situation Ferdie had avoided most of his adult life.

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