The following is an exclusive extract from A Most Intriguing Lady, by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, out on March 30.
The book’s heroine, Lady Mary Montagu Douglas Scott, the youngest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, and Colonel Walter Trefusis (known as ‘Tre’), a founding member of the nascent Intelligence Branch (later MI6), have met at Cliveden House, Buckinghamshire, in summer 1876 to continue their clandestine romance, in an effort to decide if they should commit to marriage.
It was a beautiful summer’s day, and the Cliveden gardens were alive with colour. Bees hummed contentedly; doves cooed in the dovecote; and across the other side of the garden, the clock in the tower chimed the hour. Mary made her way round the house to the long terrace, then descended one of the stone staircases to the parterres with their triangular beds laid out in blocks of white and purple blooms. Her mother would immediately have set about calculating how many plants it took to fill each, though these days, the duchess was more concerned with how many radishes or carrots or cabbages could be grown in the considerably smaller beds which had become the school garden. Mama was now working at the school three days a week, and proving a resounding success with the other teachers and the children. Mary, in search of inspiration, had accompanied her twice, but all she had discovered was what she already suspected: little children simply didn’t interest her.
She had reached the end of the parterres where a strange domed folly had been erected. The paths shelved steeply down to the river from here. The view was spectacular, with the keep of Windsor Castle just visible in the distance. The river flowed peacefully in soft curves; the banks were thick with greenery.
“Well, well, fancy meeting you here.”
Mary whirled around. “Tre! I wasn’t expecting you until later.”
“I caught an earlier train.”
“How did you know where to find me?”
“By the process of expert deduction. It’s a beautiful day. These parterres look very much like the gardens at Drumlanrig. Oh, and one of the gardeners told me he saw you heading this way. How many hours of our acquaintance do you think we’ve spent in gardens?”
“Goodness, I don’t know. The majority of them. Do you want to go back to the house?”
Tre shook his head. Checking over his shoulder, he caught her in his arms and edged them around the side of the little grotto out of sight.
“We have gone to a great deal of trouble to engineer our presence here together. What I want to do is kiss you.”
“That is what is known as serendipity,” Mary said, lifting her face to his. “Because I want to kiss you, too.”
It was an unsatisfactory kiss. The domed building hid them from the house, but they could easily be seen from the river. “Cliveden has a history of intrigue and scandal,” Tre said, reluctantly letting Mary go, “but I don’t wish us to add to it.”
They took the path down to the river, where the view was delightful enough to distract Mary, or for her to pretend to be distracted. The ferry was tied up on the opposite bank, awaiting the arrival of more visitors to the house. They passed the ferryman’s cottage and continued past another in the Tudor style with half- timbered gables, which looked to be empty. Farther on, another larger cottage looked to be undergoing renovation works of some sort.
“I thought this was Spring Cottage but it can’t be,” Tre said.
“That’s where Queen Victoria liked to take tea when she visited. I remember my mother mentioning it.” Mary pushed the door. “Shall we take a look?”
The leaded windows were covered in fine white dust from the newly plastered walls. There was a faint smell of whitewash and timber shavings.
“We shouldn’t be in here,” Tre said.
“Which is why we shouldn’t be here.”
“In the last two weeks,” Mary said, “we’ve gone for several walks, and taken tea with your aunt twice, and though she wasn’t there one of the times – it’s almost as if you don’t want to be alone with me.”
“The problem is I want to be alone with you almost too much.”
“But you think it’s wrong?”
“I don’t know what I think, is the honest truth.”
Mary ran her finger through the layer of dust on the mantelpiece.
“If you feel it’s wrong, I don’t want you to kiss me.”
“It doesn’t feel wrong. That’s part of the problem.”
He pulled her back into his arms, kissing her deeply. She kissed him back, running her fingers through his hair, knocking his hat to the floor. Her skin was hot from the sun. They staggered backwards, still kissing, until he encountered a wall. She murmured his name. He smoothed his hand over her waist, upwards to the curve of her breast, frustrated by her layers of clothing, aroused all the same by the way she shuddered in response. He shifted, wanting to hide the effect she was having on him as she slid her hands under his coat. He cupped the swell of her breast.
Too many clothes.
Tre swore, dragging his mouth away. “That,” he said raggedly, “is why we should not be here. I will not risk losing control and foisting a child on you when you haven’t even decided whether you want to be a wife, let alone a mother.”
“There are ways to avoid such an eventuality, Tre. Aunt Louisa told me— ”
“You have discussed this with my aunt!”
“Not this. Not us. Only in theory. She was very helpful! She says that a great many men and women would be much happier in matters of the bedroom if they had been well briefed before they entered it!”
“Good God! I don’t know what she told you and I’m not sure I want to, but whatever she has said, let me assure you, there is no such thing as risk-free lovemaking. I wish there were, as I mentioned in Yorkshire. It would have prevented a great deal of heartache and trouble in the army. We are playing with fire and I don’t want you to get burned.”
“You’re right.” Looking quite crushed, Mary set about straightening her dress. “To place ourselves in a position where the decision was made for us would be unbearable.”
“A little self-control shouldn’t be too much for you to expect of me.”
Tre grimaced inwardly. It felt like far too much to ask of himself right now.
A Most Intriguing Lady by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, is out on March 30 (HarperCollins, £14.99); to preorder a copy for £12.99, visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Telegraph subscribers are invited to join Sarah, Duchess of York, and Celia Walden on March 29 for an online discussion about her new book