Duchess By Night Page 1

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Prologue


Justice By Duchess


December 15, 1783 Shire Court The Duchy of Berrow Honorable Reginald Truder, presiding


“I didn’t mean to marry both of them!”


“The problem,” said the duchess, leaning forward, “is not marrying twice, but marrying a second husband while the first is still alive.”


“Well, I didn’t want Avery to die,” Loveday Billing explained. “I just wanted to marry John, that’s all. I couldn’t stop myself. I was that tired, and lonely, and he…he sat with me of an evening.”


The judge snorted and Loveday thought he might have woken up, but then he started snoring again.


The Duchess of Berrow had very kind eyes, but she shook her head at Loveday. “You were already married to Avery, that is, Mr. Mosley, when you married John.”


Loveday hung her head. “Avery left me three years ago,” she said. “I didn’t know as how he wanted me anymore, because he said I was stupider than a sow in springtime.”


The duchess had a quiet sort of prettiness about her, like a preacher’s wife. Her gown was black, but it had a shine to it. Her hair was lovely too, looped and frilled and ruffed over her head, the way fine ladies did those things. And her eyes were so forgiving that Loveday suddenly felt like telling the truth. It was as if she were a youngster back in her mother’s kitchen, having stolen a cake.


“I ain’t really married to Avery Mosley,” she said. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Avery swing up his head. “I was already married before I married Avery. And I didn’t really marry him because it were an Irish minister named Usher and he told me privately that it weren’t a real marriage.”


Avery probably fell off his chair at that news, but Loveday was focused on the duchess. “My da married me off the first time, when I was twelve.”


“Twelve!”


The duchess looked a bit stricken, so she tried to explain. “It wasn’t so bad. I had developed, you see, and I was worth something, and it wasn’t so bad.”


“What is his name?”


“That was Mr. Buckley. But he died, so after Mr. Buckley passed on, I married Harold Eccles.”


“I don’t suppose that Mr. Eccles is dead?” The duchess sounded hopeful.


“He’s about as alive as anyone could be in debtor’s prison. I always visits him when I’m in London. Two hatbands and a coat, they got him for. He’s been there almost eleven years now.


“So I married—” she paused for a moment, just to get it right “—Monsieur Giovanni Battista. He was an Italian man, and he said he’d take me away. But he gave me a pair of gloves, and then he went away instead.”


“And then Mr. Mosley came along?” the duchess asked.


Loveday nodded. “I shouldn’t have done it,” she said. “I knows as I shouldn’t have. But I didn’t know what to do, and he asked me. But he left.”


“You were in a difficult position,” the duchess said. “If I have this right, your first husband died, the second is in prison, the third went to Italy, the fourth was not a real marriage, and the fifth—”


“I had no one to care for myself and the babes because my dad doesn’t speak to me after the Italian man.”


“Children?” The duchess looked through the long pieces of paper that were floating around the table. “There’s no mention of children in these pleadings.”


The fancy London man standing next to John answered. “It was not considered relevant to the matter at hand, Your Grace. My client married her in good faith as the certificates indicate. And may I point out that these court proceedings are highly irregular? Surely the Honorable Judge Truder should be roused?”


The duchess ignored him. Loveday could have told the London man that in Berrow, this was the way of it. Truder was a drunk, but it didn’t really matter as he and the duchess did the business together, just as it was in the old days, and that was good enough for the town of Berrow.


“Whose children are they?” the duchess said, turning back to Loveday.


“All of them, really,” Loveday said hopelessly. “I gave them each one. Except for John, of course, because we only married a bit ago.”


“You have four children?” the duchess asked.


“Five. Harold, him as is in prison, has two.”


There was silence in the courtroom. Loveday could hear John moving his feet. If only…but it was too late.


“You are really Mrs. Eccles,” the duchess observed.


Loveday nodded. “I know as how you’re right, Mrs. Duchess.”


“Your Grace,” a man next to her hissed.


“Your Grace,” she said obediently. “But Harold is in debtor’s prison.”


The duchess looked over at the box, so Loveday looked too. There was John, with his blue eyes. And Avery with his angry small mouth, just like always.


“Why did you pursue this indictment, Mr. Mosley?” the duchess asked.


Avery burst into words, but the gist of it was that he wanted her back, even after the things he said about her.


The duchess looked at him steadily. Then she turned back to Loveday. “Have you any money?” she asked.


“Oh, no,” Loveday said. “I’ve no money but what my husbands give me.”


There was quiet for a moment, and then the duchess said, even more gently, “Is your father still alive, Mrs. Eccles?”


“Yes, but he—” and she stopped.


The duchess folded her hands and looked so sweet. “He’s ill, isn’t he?”


“I heard so,” Loveday whispered.


“And your father has some money that he might leave you?”


Loveday looked back at John’s blue eyes, and she felt like a fool. “That’s why Avery wants me back. Because of the mill. And John…I suppose that’s why John courted me. For the mill.”


John got up and left, so that sort of spoke for itself.


Avery left too, so Loveday cried for a little bit, and then the duchess said, “You were very wrong to marry so many men, Loveday.”


“I know,” Loveday said, sniffling.


“I’m going to advise the judge to acquit you. But you mustn’t marry again. I want you to bail out Mr. Eccles. And then live with him.”


“I will,” Loveday promised.


The duchess reached over and poked the judge. He snorted once or twice and woke up. She said something to him and he snorted again and said, “Case dismissed!” Then he slumped back down in his chair.


Loveday stood there for a moment before she realized she was free to go. Except the duchess wanted to see her. So she went to the front, and the duchess took her hand. She told her a fairy tale, about how Mr. Eccles—that would be Harold, in prison—should treat her like a princess, because she was to be a mill owner.


Loveday just smiled and smiled. That duchess was the most lovely, best-smelling woman in the world. She had a funny way of talking, and daft ideas, but you couldn’t help liking her. Especially when she sat right there, holding Loveday’s hand—Loveday, who everyone said was as stupid as a sow though she wasn’t.


And finally the duchess gave her five pounds, which she could use to get Harold out of prison right away. Harold didn’t owe more than a pound or two, even counting charges for board, so Loveday tried to give some back, but the duchess wouldn’t take it.

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