Charming the Duke

By: Holly Bush

Chapter One

Near London, 1849

Matilda Sheldon concentrated on the stitches of her needlework and listened to the mindless chatter around her. From early afternoon until nearly teatime, her two sisters, Juliet and Alexandra, and her mother, continued a conversation on the virtue of green vegetables in one’s diet. Often Matilda was reading a book when these three found an inane topic worthy of four hours of discourse. Sometimes she let her mind or her feet wander far away. Today, though, she had promised herself to finish the doily she’d been working on for two months.

“What is your opinion, Matilda?” Alexandra asked. “Yes or no to the nasty broccoli.”

Matilda pushed her glasses up with her middle finger and stabbed herself in the forehead with the needle she held. “Botheration! That stings.”

“Tee hee,” Juliet giggled.

The only person on the face of God’s green earth to say tee hee aloud was her sister Juliet. It didn’t appear odd to anyone in her family. Nor anyone else for that matter. Men, in particular, found Juliet’s tee-heeing terribly becoming and some actually replied with a spoken, “Guffaw.” Matilda could only shake her head in wonder.

Frances Sheldon stood gracefully and approached Matilda. She pulled the ever-present lace hanky from her sashed waist, dabbed it with her tongue, and touched the small globe of blood on Matilda’s forehead.

“Must be more careful, darling,” Matilda’s mother said.

“I say hang the vegetables and double the cakes,” Alexandra said.

“How naughty of you, Alexandra,” Juliet replied. She turned in her seat to face Matilda. “But you’ve yet to share your feelings. Greens. Nay or yea?”

“How witty, Juliet. Nay or yea. It rhymes, you know,” Alexandra added.

As if any persons but the ones in this particular room needed instruction on words that were the same in sound except for their first letter. “I imagine moderation in all things applies to diet as well, Juliet. Some greens, some meats, some sweets,” Matilda said. Her sisters stared at her straight-faced. Her mother stitched. The room was silent as it seemed they had applied for her opinion and taken it as gospel. Matilda hoped it ended more hours of speculation.

Frances Sheldon looked up from her stitching minutes later with the same smile that had knocked the bachelors of London on their seat twenty-five years ago.

“Some meats, some sweets. Nay or yea. They rhyme. How droll, girls.”

“How droll,” Alexandra repeated with a giggle.

“Tee hee. Tee hee.”

“The Earl of Finch will be here this weekend, Juliet,” Frances said. “I believe he will make an offer very soon.”

“La de,” Juliet said.

“But don’t you think he’s ever so handsome and dashing,” Alexandra asked as she moved to the edge of her seat.

Juliet shrugged. “I suppose so.”

Matilda eyed her oldest sister. Juliet was fair of skin and hair with a deep dowry, a full hope chest and, by her own admission, future plans as elaborate as hosting elegant balls. “You seemed to like him well enough at the Grossner soiree. Have you had a change of heart?”

Juliet tilted her head. “I’m not sure. Possibly.”

“A change of heart perhaps,” Frances Sheldon said, eyes trained to a biscuit she was holding.

“A change of heart most definitely,” Alexandra added.

Matilda wondered how she’d ended up in this household out of all of England’s families. She would have far preferred to be the only daughter of a village vicar, happily wiling away the hours absorbed in literature and philosophy. It seemed there was no justice. Matilda was the middle daughter in a family of handsome and, well, daft siblings and parents. The only family member she could converse with reasonably was her father’s mother, Grandmother Sheldon. Although Ethel Sheldon preferred to be addressed by her Christian name, her grandchildren, all but Matilda, called her Grandmamma. The old woman cringed each and every time one of her son’s family addressed her as such. They just failed to notice. Matilda knew from her earliest memory that Grandmamma preferred Ethel.

“I’m going to wear either my green or my new yellow gown,” Alexandra said.