The Duke Goes DownSophie Jordan
You made it through 2020 and you’re still going.
This book is for you.
About the Author
By Sophie Jordan
About the Publisher
A garden party, 1838
The day was bright. The weather perfect. The guests attired in brilliant colors that seemed to celebrate the occasion, as though the heavens wished to shine down on the birthday of the privileged and lauded heir to the Duke of Penning.
But it might as well have been a funeral to Imogen Bates.
There was no pleasure to be had for her. She smoothed a trembling hand over her ruffled skirt. It was a new frock. Mama had insisted on the extravagance since it was to be such a special occasion. Mama’s words. Such a special occasion. Papa went as far as to proclaim it an honor.
Other far more apt descriptors leapt to Imogen’s mind. None of them flattering. She would have preferred to stay at home among her books or visit one of her friends in the village—all girls who were never invited up to the duke’s grand house on the hill. Lucky them.
Oh, why couldn’t I be one of them now instead of stuck here?
Imogen wore a matching blue and pink bow in her hair that was ridiculous. A great monstrosity at the back of her head that threatened her very balance. Mama was trapped under the delusion that Imogen, at ten and five, was still three years old. She would not yet permit Imogen to wear her hair up off her neck as most of the girls in attendance this afternoon did. Other than a few thin plaits coiled atop her head, her hair hung loose down her back.
Mama called her lovely. Papa said she looked like a princess.
Imogen knew the truth. She looked more like an enraged peacock in full fan.
There were dozens of people in attendance. All close friends of the duke’s family. Bluebloods. Titled. Wealthy. Gentlemen with jeweled signet rings and ladies in tea dresses that far outshone any gown her mother had ever donned—or, for that matter, any gown Imogen would ever don. They were modest people rubbing elbows with the crème de la crème of the ton.
At least Imogen and her family were not invited to the evening festivities. She would be spared that wretchedness. She did not have to sit down to dinner with any of these people and make conversation with whomever sat beside her. She did not have to feel inadequate in her modest and juvenile attire. She did not have to suffer dancing among them—or even worse. Not dancing. Either scenario would be a veritable punishment.
The garden party predominantly consisted of young people. Naturally. As it was a weeklong house party to celebrate the birthday of his lordship, the heir apparent, the guest list was abundant with his friends.
Imogen started across the lawn toward Mama who was chatting with several of the heavily powder-faced dames. Her mother spotted her coming. Of course. She had not taken her gaze off Imogen for very long since they had arrived and Mama thrust her away like the proverbial bird from its nest, forcing her to socialize with those of her own age.
Imogen wasn’t normally shy or reticent, but the young people here all touted old and renowned titles after their names. The young gentlemen went to Eton with Penning and the young ladies all took their curtsies at Almack’s. Imogen was achingly aware that she was not one of them.
As she advanced, Mama gave a hard and swift shake of her head in a clear warning that Imogen should not join her with the matrons.
Imogen stopped, frowning. She was aware that Mama wanted her fraternizing with the young lordling and his friends, no matter how vast the gap between them.
No matter that Imogen would rather rub shoulders with a pack of rabid hyenas. Hyenas would at least acknowledge her.
Sighing deeply, she turned back and obediently ambled through the garden where a game of croquet was being played out.
She stood to the side watching, trying not to feel obtrusive as a group of young ladies and gentlemen played a lively game, whacking their mallets and laughing merrily. Unfortunately the longer she stood there, watching, being ignored, the more awkward she felt.
After several minutes of that misery, she decided to move along. Clearly not back toward her mother and the old dames where she was not welcome. She felt like a dinghy, cast adrift, lost at sea.
It really was a dreadful day.
She looked around helplessly before settling on the quietly beckoning pond as a potential refuge. She strolled toward its calm waters, stopping when she noticed a group of young men congregating at the edge, initially obscured behind the large oak with bowing branches. They skipped stones, laughing and chatting congenially.
At the center of them stood Penning’s unmistakable form. He cut a dashing figure with his dark hair and sharply hewn profile. She recognized only one other person in the group. Amos Blankenship. Like the young duke-to-be, he was easy to identify, but for different reasons.
Amos Blankenship was blinding in his lime-green-and-gold jacket. Amos’s father possessed untold railway shares and his son reveled in his family’s wealth, oft tearing through the village in a flashy new phaeton. They might not possess title, but money like theirs paved the way for them and bought them position. The Blankenship family took pride in leading village society. Mrs. Blankenship was the epicenter of all social activity . . . and the town’s biggest gossip.
Imogen studied the group of young gentlemen undetected. The young Lord Penning was no longer boyish. All his softness was gone, replaced by hard edges—a fitting observation on this, the celebration of his eighteenth birthday. He was a man now. She looked down self-consciously at herself, fisting a handful of ruffles in disgust. Whilst she was an overdressed little girl.
He reminded her of one of the chiseled Greek gods at the British Museum she’d visited not very long ago. Except he was attired in clothes, of course. Just last summer she and her cousin Winifred had giggled and gawked at the naked statues longer than they ought to have done. Their mothers would not have approved, which only made them revel in their silliness. There was something to be said of being away from their mothers’ gimlet stares that brought out the ridiculous in them.
Deciding she could not stare at the young men forever and remain undetected, Imogen turned in a small circle, renewing her search for a place where she might take refuge. Her choices were limited. She could not return to the house where the older gentlemen assembled over their drinks and cigars. No one wanted to include her in croquet. Mama would not welcome her with the other matrons, and she dared not approach the urbane lads near the pond.
Her gaze arrested on the conservatory in the near distance. She lifted her skirts and walked briskly toward the building.
She sent a quick glance over her shoulder. Satisfied no one was observing her, she unlatched the door and slipped inside. Instantly the loamy smell of plants and vegetation assailed her. She inhaled deeply and started down a row,
colorful flora on each side of her. She felt pleased with her resourcefulness. If she only had a book, she could spend out the remainder of the afternoon quite contentedly here.
She stopped before a pair of potted lemon trees, relishing the scent of citrus on the air. She reached out to stroke a well-nourished leaf. She was debating whether or not plucking one of the fruits would constitute stealing when she heard the creak of the conservatory door.
She whirled around, seeing them before they spotted her. Penning and his friends. Apparently they’d departed the pond and decided to invade her sanctuary. Monsters. Could she find no peace today?
With a muffled whimper, she dropped down before they could spot her and scurried under a table. It was undignified, but then so was she in this dress.
Imogen squeezed herself into the smallest ball possible, wishing she had the power of invisibility.
The voices grew louder, more raucous.
She slunk lower and buried her hot face in her knees. What had she done? She should have revealed herself once they entered the building and then pardoned herself from the conservatory. As simple as that.
Now she was trapped. Crouched beneath a table, cowering without a shred of dignity, praying the young gentlemen soon took their leave so that she might emerge.
Alas the muffled thud and shuffle of their footsteps came closer.
She hugged herself tighter.
There was the scratch of a match being struck.
Ah. So that’s what they were about. Evidently they did not wish to join their papas indoors for cigars, but would indulge among themselves.
“Is your father still keeping that opera singer?” one of them asked.
Imogen had a fairly good notion what he meant by “keeping.” She might be a vicar’s daughter, but she was not wholly ignorant on such matters. She read. She read a great deal. She devoured books her parents would not approve should they know of their content. And then there was Winifred in her life.
Imogen spent a few weeks with her London cousin every year. Winifred was very worldly and knew a great many things. Things Imogen’s parents would not deem proper—or Winnie’s parents for that matter—but Winnie knew of them nonetheless, and she imparted such knowledge to Imogen.
The reply came: “No, he’s moved on to an actress.”
“Indeed? I might pay the opera singer a call then. I’m a man about Town now. I’ve got an interest in setting up an attachment for myself. Something regular to see to my needs.”
“You’ve just finished your schooling and you want to take on the responsibility of a mistress?” another voice inquired with a snort.
“She’s not a wife,” came the quick rejoinder. “A mistress knows how and when to use her mouth . . . and it’s not to harangue a man.”
This earned several chuckles and remarks of agreements. She thought she recognized Amos Blankenship’s braying laugh.
Imogen’s face burned.
Penning had yet to comment—she knew his voice well enough—and she was inescapably curious to his thoughts on the matter. Did he, too, plan to take a mistress? Perhaps he already had one now that he was a man of ten and eight. For some reason the notion of this made her cheeks sting. He was a young man of the world now. If he did not have a mistress yet, he likely soon would.
The notion should not offend her. Truly, it should not affect her one way or another.
She shifted her weight and the motion nudged a small stack of planting pots stored beneath the table to her right. She cringed at the slight clanking and hugged herself tighter, holding her breath, waiting for what felt like imminent discovery.
What would they do if they found her? The mortification was almost too much to contemplate. She was hiding under a table like a mischievous toddler.
But then she was dressed like a toddler, so perhaps they would not be overly surprised.
They were still talking and she released her tight little breath. Thankfully they were too caught up with each other and their cigars to take notice of her.
“. . . after dinner,” one of the gentlemen was saying. “She has promised me a walk in the gardens.”
“Now that is a lovely mouth I would not mind being used on me.”
More of Amos’s bray.
“You best be careful.” Penning’s familiar voice rang out and she could not help easing her arms around her knees and leaning forward, eager to finally hear him speak. What would he contribute to this wholly inappropriate conversation?
Of course he would be as scandalous as the rest of them. She should expect no less. She recalled him well enough, even if he had spent the bulk of these last years away at school. He’d been an incorrigible boy. She doubted he had changed that much. Mama always said a leopard never changed its spots.
Imogen rather enjoyed this moment of invisibility. No one, especially gentlemen such as these fine toffs, ever spoke their true minds in her presence. She winced. These toffs never even spoke to her at all. She was beneath their consideration.
How different the world would be if people spoke their true thoughts. Chaotic perhaps, but there would be no confusion.
You would know who the monsters were.
Penning continued, “You shall be betrothed by the end of this house party if you do not exercise some caution.”
“Well, married to Lord Delby’s daughter would not be such a terrible fate? I can think of far more miserable futures than that,” a voice contributed. “The lass is comely. Her papa is well positioned and with deep pockets. It would be a brilliant match for any of us.”
“Well, if you don’t mind marrying straight out of Eton, then I’m happy for you,” Penning said in that all-knowing way of his that had not changed since he was a lad of ten. He always had that air to him. It irked her then and it irked her now. Arrogance must go part and parcel with his noble birthright.
“You expect to do better, Penning?”
“He is Penning,” another lad chimed in with an incredulous laugh. “He will have his choice of heiresses. Beauty, charm, rank . . . he can take his pick.”
“Aye, I’ll have my pick,” he agreed mildly. Arrogant prig. He spoke as though he were shopping for ribbons at the village market and nothing more significant than that. “But nothing would lure me into marriage for another decade at least.”
Invisibility, indeed, proved useful. She was correct on that score. He had not changed from that lad who treated her to hard silences, resentful of their parents forcing them to spend time together and vexed when things did not go according to his wishes.
“You mean the vicar’s daughter is not your fate then?” a voice trembling with mirth asked.
Imogen stiffened where she crouched. They spoke of her?
Masculine laughter broke out.
Hot mortification washed over her, but she strained for Penning’s response just the same, curious to hear if he would heighten her humiliation or alleviate it.
If he would be a decent human or not.
“Amusing,” he said, “but no.” Despite his words there was no amusement in his voice. Only hard denial. Stinging rejection that should not sting because she should not care.
She took a bracing breath.
Of course, he would not agree that their fates were entwined. That would be absurd. A vicar’s daughter and a future duke should not even be mentioned in the same sentence, and yet here, among this group of lads, it had somehow happened.
It had happened and she did not like it one little bit.
“Come now, Penning. Once you get beyond all the ruffles and bows, she’s a fetching lass.”
“I do not see it,” he countered.
The heat crept higher in her face.
“Indeed,” another voice seconded. “I would not mind exploring beneath all those ruffles and bows.”
The burn of humiliation now reached the tips of her ears.
“You lads are debauched. She’s a child,” Penning blustered. “And a sanctimonious one
She should feel grateful in his defense, except she did not appreciate being called a child. Or sanctimonious.
“She’s woman enough for me. And I would not be required to put a bag over her head during procreation like the chit my father wishes me to wed.”
“No, but you would need to put a bag over her personality,” Penning rejoined.
She flinched, feeling their laughter as keenly as the cut of a knife.
She did not know what offended her more: Penning with his clear abhorrence of her or his blue-blooded friends with their lewd comments. It was difficult to decide.
“Come now, Penning. She’s a fair lass and there likely isn’t much feminine enticement to be had in this little backwater. No brothels here, to be sure.”
“Unfortunately,” Amos inserted.
The voice continued as though Amos had not spoken. “All your visits home for holiday and she’s right down the road. Mightily convenient. You’ve never been tempted?”
Tempted? Outrage simmered through her. As though she were free for the picking. For his picking.
She had never rubbed on well with Penning. He never appreciated being stuck with her on those afternoons Papa visited the duke. He’d made his displeasure abundantly clear, treating all her attempts at conversation with scorn. And now she knew why.
You would need to put a bag over her personality.
His next words only further confirmed his enduring dislike of her. “She might not be hideous to behold, but other things matter.”
Might not be hideous to behold? Such a ringing endorsement. That was as much credit as he could grant her? Wretch.
“And what would those other things be, Penning? What is more important than a wife who is fair of face and not a chore to bed?”
“I can think of little else that matters more than possessing a lovely wife,” another voice seconded.
Possessing? Is that what these lads thought? That a wife was a possession? Papa did not think like that. Is that what Penning thought? She wanted to believe gentlemen did not think this way, but she knew the reality. Men controlled the world and women had to fight and claw their way for a foothold in it. She’d accompanied Papa on many a house call to visit a downtrodden wife, crushed beneath the boot of a domineering husband.