“Oh, heavens, Tally, this is terrible news,” Miss Felicity Langley announced to her sister Thalia who was seated across the sitting room.
“What is it?” her twin replied, looking up from her sketchpad.
Felicity set down the copy of the Times she’d been reading and sighed. “Lord Garner died.”
“No!” Tally got up from her chair by the window, and as she rose, her little black dog, Brutus, rose as well, stretching out his legs and yawning before he followed his beloved mistress as she crossed the room to see the account for herself. “A riding accident! How dreadful.”
“Terrible luck,” Felicity muttered as she dipped her quill into the inkpot and proceeded to strike Lord Garner’s name from the open journal before her.
“Heavens, that’s the fifth bachelor this winter to expire,” Tally said as she watched her sister draw a series of lines through her careful reckoning of the now deceased baron’s life and holdings.
“Actually the sixth.”
After giving her head a few woeful shakes, Tally asked, “This Lord Garner, he was rather old wasn’t he?”
Her nose wrinkled. “Positively ancient. You should have crossed him out years ago.” The twins had just turned one and twenty not a fortnight earlier, and Tally especially considered any man not in his twenties to be nothing short of a Methuselah.
“Ancient or not, one cannot overlook twelve thousand a year.”
Her twin shrugged, then glanced back at the paper. “An heir worth noting?”
“A lad of seven.”
A “tsk, tsk” was her sister’s only reply for that meant this new Lord Garner would have to wait another ten years before he could even be considered eligible for inclusion in Felicity’s infamous Bachelor Chronicles.
Not that any man in his right mind would want to find himself inside the pages of such a journal. The Bachelor Chronicles, as they’d been dubbed by her classmates at Miss Emery’s school, was far from being the giggling, foolish musings of a title-mad young lady, but rather a meticulously researched encyclopedia of every eligible bachelor in the ton.
A volume of Debrett’s could give you lineage and a family motto. The Bachelor Chronicles could tell you if the man had a penchant for drink and late night rambles through the wilds of Seven Dials. Mr. Billingsworth’s guidebooks and histories would give you an effusive and flowery travelogue of the man’s holdings and properties, but Felicity’s encyclopedia of dilettantes and Corinthians revealed the true condition of the roof and whether or not the walls were buttressed by mortgages or mortar.
Dukes to barons, knighted gentleman and even a few men of means were given her discerning perusal. Even second sons and distant heirs found their way into the Chronicles, because as Felicity was wont to say, “One day a spare, the next an heir.”
To accomplish all this, Felicity spent the first few hours of each day scouring the Times, the Globe, and of course, the Morning Post, as well as the latest volumes of the Gentleman’s Magazine, the Ladies Magazine, and The Ladies Fashionable Cabinet looking for information that would necessitate addendums or corrections to her Chronicles.
What she couldn’t glean from the regular publications, she gathered by contacting Miss Emery’s former students. A voluminous correspondence with these ladies, most of them having married into the loftiest families in society, gave her insights into her quarry that unfortunately never found their way into print.
“Tally, I am rethinking Pippin’s future again,” she said after she’d carefully blotted the wet X running across Lord Garner’s entry.
“Oh, Duchess, not again,” Tally protested, using her favorite nickname for her sister.
Felicity waved off her sister’s objection. “I’m more inclined to see our cousin with Lord Elmsley than the Earl of Darlton. I’ve just been informed by the viscount’s mother’s second cousin’s wife, that Elmsley carries a bit of the romantic tragic about him, which would fit quite nicely with Pippin’s current state — ”
Tally groaned. Loudly. “Don’t do this,” she told her sister. “Leave Pippin be.”
“Because our poor cousin hasn’t been the same since . . . well, you know.”
Felicity heaved a sigh. “Her father’s death was untimely to say the least, and the shocking state of his finances even worse, but I daresay it is high time that she — ”
“Stop!” Her sister threw her hands up. “Sometimes I wonder if you even have a heart. I’m not talking about her father. I’m talking about him.” Tally lowered her voice to a whisper. “Captain Dashwell.”
“That pirate?” Felicity exclaimed. “I won’t hear that name mentioned again. Not in this house. Oh, how I wish the devil would take him to the bottom of the sea! Pippin was such a sensible creature before that wastrel kissed her.”
Four years earlier, during Felicity’s first matchmaking endeavor, she, Tally and Pippin had become entangled in more than assisting their teacher, Miss Porter find her heart’s desire with the rakish Jack Tremont — rather they’d discovered themselves in the middle of an elaborate network of spies and espionage, and had had to stand in for Jack when their misadventures had accidentally landed him in prison.
And that one night had changed their lives forever — ending with Pippin being kissed by a young American sea captain, Thomas Dashwell as they had exchanged gold for passengers from France. It had happened in the flash of an eye, but to hear their cousin recall the night, it was as if she and Dash had spent an eternity in each other’s arms.
Nonsense, really, Felicity had told them both on numerous occasions. Captain Dashwell was a murderous, ruinous, dreadful pirate. Best forgotten, or better yet, hung from the nearest yardarm. For not long afterward, the brash American had gone from being their ally to their enemy, as their two countries had plunged into war. And his daring and audacious pirating had cost England dear.
Tally’s blue eyes sparkled. “You’re just jealous he didn’t kiss you.”
“I am not!” Felicity told her. “I’d have shot the scallywag before he’d come close enough to dare.”
“Oh, come now, you don’t want to end your days never having been kissed, do you?” Tally gathered Brutus into her arms, fluffing the mane of fur that ringed his monkey-like face.
Felicity’s hand came to rest atop her volume of Debrett’s, its thick weight just the right foundation from which to launch her argument. “Tally, kissing is out of the question. If I thought for a moment either of you two were going to run about kissing every pirate and rapscallion you cross paths with, I would never have gone to such lengths to get us to Town for the Season. Can’t you see that this house, Aunt Minty, our very reputations are at stake. If any of us are impugned, if anyone were to discover the lengths we’ve gone to…well…”
“You’ve gone to,” Tally corrected. “I’m not the one getting transported for any of this. Besides, I’m with Pippin on this, Duchess. I’d prefer to find my own husband, not one of your approved dullards. I want a man like Captain Dashwell who will kiss me senseless and leave me willing to dare anything.”
Well, of all the ungrateful… Felicity drew an even breath. Really, did her sister think she was going to be so easily sidetracked away from her lecture?
“Please do not wax poetic about kissing pirates in my presence! Why, it isn’t done. Not by us. You both must marry well — for how can I have a cousin, least of all a sister, who isn’t as well-connected as I am when I am Hollindrake’s bride?”
Tally set Brutus down. “When? Don’t you mean ‘if’?”
Felicity shot her sister a hot glance. “I will marry the duke and no one else.”
“But dearling — ” Tally was cut off by the bell at the front door — the insistent, and unexpected clamor causing them both to start. “Heavens, who could that be?” Then she froze, her face growing pale as she glanced around the salon that served as their day room. “You don’t think . . . that someone has discovered —”
“Certainly not!” Felicity said, though not completely convinced. “But I suppose we must see who it is.”
“I’m not going to jail, Duchess,” her sister repeated, as she had every day since they’d come to Town.
“Yes, Tally, I know,” Felicity replied. She gathered up her shawl from the back of the chair and tossed it over her shoulders before she left the warmth of the upstairs sitting room—the only warm room in the house Tally liked to grumble—to do what one usually left to a servant.
Only they hadn’t any.
Tally followed hot on her heels, and where Tally went, so did Brutus, who never let his mistress get too far out of his sight. He barked and growled, setting up a loud ruckus that echoed through the mostly empty Mayfair mansion they’d taken for the Season. Though of noble breeding—his grandsire, Tally liked to tell anyone who would listen, had belonged to Marie Antoinette—Brutus possessed the manners of a spit dog.
Felicity glanced over her shoulder at the growing parade behind her and shook her head. “Keep him from chewing on whoever it is, will you, Tally? I am still trying to determine how we will pay for the damage to Mr. Elliott’s boots.”
Her sister groaned. “Some solicitor. Served that old pinch purse right.” She cleared her throat and when she spoke again, it was with the man’s stoic pitch. “A Season? Why a dreadful waste of money. Economize, dear girls. Now that’s the best course of action given your situation —” she sputtered and growled, not unlike the noise Brutus was making. “That cheap, wretched bast — ”
“Thalia!” Felicity heaved a beleaguered sigh. Not that she didn’t share her sister’s sentiments about their solicitor, but she preferred to take a more ladylike stance on the matter. “Remember what Nanny Bridget always said, “The rare man is the one who looks toward a lady’s future.”
“Yes, well Nanny Bridget wasn’t living in an empty mansion scratching by on her pin money, now was she?” she muttered back, but still she scooped Brutus up as they turned at the landing and soothed the little beast with some softly spoken assurances.
Another pair of boots would cut dearly into their already meager budget.
As the bell jangled with yet another insistent and discordant peal, Tally heaved a sigh. “Heavens! How terribly rude they are. Why don’t we have Mrs. Hutchinson get that?”
“Mrs. Hutchinson. . . is. . . indisposed,” Felicity supplied.
There was a indelicate snort from behind her.
“Mrs. Hutchinson isn’t indisposed, she’s tanglefooted.”
“Could you be a bit more discreet?” Felicity said over her shoulder as she rounded the second landing. “What if someone heard you? How would it look if word got out that our household has some . . . some . . . irregularities?”
“We live in an empty house, my dearest Duchess,” she replied. “It won’t be long before someone notices. And that housekeeper you hired does us no favors. The woman is a toss-pot, a drunkard, top-heavy, a high goer…”
“Yes, yes, so she’s got a slight penchant for brandy, but her wages are what we can afford.”
“Nice of her to work for brandy, I suppose,” Tally said. “And thank God we were able to liberate so many bottles from uncle’s cellars before we left Sussex or we’d be up to our necks in debt with the spirit’s merchant bill.”
Felicity did her best to ignore Tally’s lamentations. “Don’t be so dramatic. Mrs. Hutchinson is merely unavailable to answer the door. And that is all it is.”
“Yes, if only that was all,” Tally said, sharing a skeptical glance with Brutus.
The bell jangled again, and whoever was on the other side, had an annoyingly, persistent way of yanking it into such a discordant clamor, it was getting on Felicity’s nerves. “When I am the Duchess of Hollindrake . . . ” she muttered as visions of an endless supply of coal, servants and respectable housekeepers danced before her eyes.
“Yes, wouldn’t that be lovely,” Tally agreed quickly. “We’ll be living around the corner on Grosvenor Square, warm and snug without the least bit of economies.” She paused for a moment and let a wicked little grin tip her lips. “And most likely employ a housekeeper who doesn’t drink. What do you think? Do you think the duke’s housekeeper drinks, because—” She stopped mid-sentence, her mouth falling open in a wide moue. “You don’t think that perhaps he drinks and that’s why you haven’t heard from him in so long? With his grandfather’s death maybe he’s fallen into a dark, and dangerous decline. Oh, dear, Felicity, what if he’s turned into a rumpot and intends never to marry?”
“Piffle!” Felicity declared. “Winston Thomas Michael Aubrey Sterling, the 10th Duke of Hollindrake would never turn into a rumpot. He hasn’t such a nature.” With her nose in the air, she did her best to set aside the niggle of doubt her sister had managed to plant inside the armor she wore when it came to all matters pertaining to the duke.
“How do you know?” Tally argued. “You’ve never even met the man.”
Felicity wheeled around. “Not know him? What a ridiculous thing to say. I’ve been corresponding with him for four years. I believe that counts as ‘knowing’ him.”
Tally reached over and took her sister’s hand and squeezed it. “Dear Duchess, he hasn’t written in months. Not since his grandfather died. Even you must admit that something has . . .” To her credit she didn’t say “gone wrong.” “Changed,” she finally finished.
“Of course his situation has changed.” Felicity set off again for the door. “He’s a man with vast responsibilities now. He can hardly be expected to be writing to me constantly.”
“As you say,” Tally agreed. “Perhaps that’s him now. Come to call, to sweep you off your feet and take us all to his glorious house. Would be quite convenient, since we haven’t enough coal to last the week.”
For a moment, Felicity gave herself over to Tally’s fanciful prattle. Coal. And candles. And enough tea in the chest to make a decent pot of pekoe. And the sugar to go in it, as well. But as a draught raced past her, the chill — along with her sister’s dire words — brought her back to her senses.
Why had he suddenly stopped writing? Not even a response to her perfectly penned note of condolence. It was as if he was the one who’d gone aloft, not his grandfather.
Oh, whatever had gone wrong?
As the bell jangled again, Tally groaned at the clamor. “Sounds as presumptuous as a duke, don’t they? Should I check the window for a coach and four before you answer it?”
Felicity shook her head. “That could hardly be Hollindrake.” She nodded toward the bracket clock their father had sent them the year before. “For it’s too early for callers. Besides he’d send around his card or a note before he just arrived at our doorstep. Not even a duke would be so presumptuous to call without sending word.”
Sweeping her hands over her skirt and then patting her hair to make sure it was in place, Felicity was actually relieved it couldn’t be her duke calling — for she still hadn’t managed a way to gain them new wardrobes, let alone more coal. But she still had a good week to solve those problems, at least until the House of Lords reconvened . . . for then Hollindrake would have to come to Town to formally claim his title and take his oath of allegiance.
“So who do you think it is?” Tally was asking, as she clung to a squirming Brutus.
Taking another quick glance at the clock, Felicity let out a big sigh. “How could I have forgotten? The agency sent around a note yesterday that they had found us a footman who met our requirements.”
Tally snorted. “What? He doesn’t need a wage and won’t rob us blind?”
Felicity glanced toward the ceiling and shook her head. “Of course I plan on paying him — eventually — and since we have nothing worth stealing that shouldn’t be an issue.”
The bell jangled again and this time Brutus squirmed free of his mistress’s grasp, racing in anxious circles around the hem of Tally’s gown and barking furiously.
Well, if there was any consolation, Felicity mused as she crossed the foyer and caught hold of the latch, whoever is being so insistent is about to have his boots ruined.
Taking a deep breath, she tugged the door open and found herself staring into a dark green great coat, which her gaze dismissively sped over for it sported only one poor cape. The owner stood hunched forward, the brim of his hat tipped down to shield him from the wintry chill.
“May I help you?” Felicity asked, trying to tamp down the shiver that rose up her spine. It wasn’t that she’d been struck by a chill, for this mountain of a man was blocking the razor cold wind. No, rather, it was something she didn’t quite understand.
And then she did.
As this stranger slowly straightened, the brim of his hat rose, revealing a solid masculine jaw — covered in a hint of dark stubble that did little to obscure the strong cleft in his chin, nor hide a pair of firm lips.
From there sat a Roman nose, set into his features with a noble sort of craggy fortitude. But it was his eyes that finally let loose that odd shiver through her limbs with an abandon that not even Felicity could tamp down.
His gaze was as dark as night, a pair of eyes the color of Russian sable, mysterious and deep, rich and full of secrets.
Felicity found herself mesmerized, for all she could think about was something Pippin had once confessed—that from the very moment she’d looked into Captain Dashwell’s eyes, she’d just known he was going to kiss her.
A ridiculous notion, Felicity had declared at the time. But suddenly she understood what her cousin had been saying. For right now, she knew there was no way on earth she was going to go to her grave without having once had her lips plundered, thoroughly and spectacularly by this man, until her toes curled up in her slippers and she couldn’t breathe.
She didn’t know how she knew such a thing, but she just did.
“I’m here to see Miss Langley,” he said. His deep voice echoed with a craggy, smoky quality. From the authority in his taut stance, to the arch of his brow as he looked down at her — clearly surprised to find a lady answering her own door as she was to find him standing on her steps — he left her staggering with one unbelievable thought.
And her shiver immediately turned to panic.
This is him, her heart sang. Please let this be him.
She struggled to find the words to answer him, but for the first time in her life, Felicity Langley found herself speechless. She moved her lips, tried to talk, tried to be sensible, but it was impossible under this imposing man’s scrutinizing gaze.
Yet how could this be? What was he doing here, calling on her? And at such an unfashionable hour?
And no wonder he was staring at her thusly, for her hair wasn’t properly fixed, her dress fours years out of fashion, and her feet — dear God, she’d answered the door wearing red wool socks!
Tally nudged her from behind. “Felicity, say something.”
Reluctantly wrenching her gaze away from his mesmerizing countenance, composing herself, she focused on what it was one said to their nearly betrothed.
But in those few moments, Felicity’s dazzled gaze took in the coat once again—with its shockingly worn cuffs. Worn cuffs?
Oh, no that wasn’t right. And where there should be a pair of perfectly cut breeches, were a pair of patched trousers. Patched? But the final evidence that cooled her wayward thoughts more thoroughly than the icy floor that each morning met her toes, was the pair of well-worn and thoroughly scuffed boots, one of which now sported the added accessory of a firmly attached small, black affenpinscher dog.
Boots that looked like they’d marched across Spain and back, boots that had never seen the tender care of valet. Boots that belonged to a man of service, not a duke.
And certainly not the Duke of Hollindrake.
She took another tentative glance back at his face, and found that his noble and arrogant features still left her heart trembling, but this time in embarrassed disappointment.
To think that she would even consider kissing such a fellow…well, it wasn’t done. Well, she conceded, it was. But only in all those fairy tales and French novels Tally and Pippin adored.
And that was exactly where such mad passions and notions of “love at first sight” belonged — between the covers of a book.
“You must be the man we’ve been expecting,” Tally was saying, casting a dubious glance in Felicity’s direction. Obviously unaffected by this man’s handsome countenance, she bustled around and caught up Brutus by his hind legs, tugging at the little tyrant. “Sorry about that. He loves a good pair of boots. Hope these aren’t your only pair.”
* * *
Winston Thomas Michael Aubrey Sterling, the tenth Duke of Hollindrake, eyed the damage to his boots first, then looked back up at the pair of young ladies before him. Twins, he guessed, though not identical. The one catching up the mutt of a dog in her arms was a lithe beauty, but it was the one still holding the door latch who caught and held his attention.
Her hair held that elusive color of caramel — something to tempt and tease a man. Especially one like himself who’d been gone too long from the company of good society — and young women especially.
Twelve years at war. Three months on a transport sailing back from Portugal. A month of riding from one end of England to nearly the other with enough snow in between to make him wonder if he’d been dropped off in Russia instead of Sussex. Then the shock of arriving home and finding himself not just his grandfather’s heir, but the duke.
The Duke of Hollindrake.
Gone in an instant was Captain Thatcher, the nom de plume he’d taken that long ago night when he’d disavowed the future his grandfather had cast for him. Instead he’d used the winnings from a night of gambling to buy a commission under a false name and fled to the far corners of the world where no one would interfere with his life.
The Duke of Hollindrake. He shuddered. It wasn’t the mountains of responsibilities and the management of all of it that bothered him. He’d shouldered that and more getting his troops back and forth across the Peninsula. No, it was the title that had him in the crosshairs. He wasn’t a duke. Not in the mold his grandfather and eight generations of Sterlings before that had set down. Stuffy and lofty, and trained from birth for the imperious role that was theirs by some divine ordinance.
Oh, to be Thatcher still. For even with his arse freezing, his nose nearly frostbit and his fingers stiff from cold, his blood suddenly ran hot at the sight before him. And Thatcher would have stolen a sweet kiss from her pert lips, while the Duke of Hollindrake, well, he had to assume a more, shudder, proper manner.
Too bad this fetching little minx wasn’t the miss his grandfather had wooed on his behalf. No chance of that, certainly not the social climbing bit of muslin who’d written quite plainly of her intentions to attain the loftiest of marriages — well, shy of a royal one.
“I’m here to see Miss Felicity Langley,” he repeated.
By the way this miss was eyeing him—as if he were some ancient marauder, having arrived on their front steps to pillage and plunder — he realized that perhaps his aunt had been right, he should have made himself presentable before arriving on the lady’s doorstep.
Well, perhaps he would, as Aunt Geneva had declared, send Miss Langley running back to Almack’s at the sight of him.
“I’m Miss Langley,” she said, pert nose rising slightly.
A small frisson of hope rose within him. This was his betrothed? Nearly betrothed, he corrected himself. Since his grandfather had had a hand in all this, he’d expected some snaggle-toothed harridan or some mousy bit without a hint of color. Not one who’d answer the door wearing bright red socks.
“Miss Felicity Langley?” he probed. Certainly there had to be a mistake. His grandfather would never have chosen such a pretty chit. Breathtaking, really.
But to his shock, she nodded.
Fine. So this was Felicity Langley. He took a deep breath and consigned himself to the fact that while she hadn’t the dental afflictions he’d imagined, given time she’d prove him correct about the harridan part.
“My apologies, miss,” he said, bowing slightly, “I’ve come to—” But before he could say anything further, the lady found her tongue.
“Heavens sir, what are you thinking?” she scolded. “Arriving at the front door? Hardly a recommendation, I daresay. Speaks more of your cheek than your experience.” She paused for a moment and glanced at him, as if she were inspecting him for . . . well, he didn’t know what. He’d never had a woman look at him in quite this way. Or scold him in such a fashion. At least not since he’d stopped wearing short-coats.
Certainly he’d had his fair share of women casting glances in his direction, but this imperious Bath miss had the audacity of giving him a once over as if she were measuring him for a suit . . . or shackles.
“Now that we’ve settled the fact that I am Miss Langley,” she was saying, “may I introduce my sister Miss Thalia Langley.”
Thatcher bowed slightly to the girl who thankfully still held her vermin of a dog, for he was wearing his only pair of boots. At least until Aunt Geneva could order up twenty or thirty new pairs. Enough to keep a room full of valets fully employed just with the task of polishing and shining them.
Miss Langley opened the door all the way, and eyed him again. “Are you coming in or are you going to stand there and let that draft chill the entire house?” Her hand rested now on her hip and the other one pointed the way inside. “Or worse, you catch your death out there before we can come to some arrangement and I’ll have to start this process all over.”
Arrangement? Start this process all over? Well there was arrogance if he’d ever heard it. She might be a pretty little thing, but he was beginning to see that she was also mad as Dick’s hatband.
She huffed a sigh. “Now are you coming in or must I assume that you are as witless as the last one?”
He wasn’t sure if it was the authority behind her order, er request, or the draught of wind that blew up the street which finally propelled him into the house. “Yes, oh, so sorry,” he said.
Then it struck him. The last one? Wait just a demmed moment. She had more than one ducal prospect?
And she had the nerve to call him cheeky?
Miss Langley closed the door, shivered and drew her shawl tighter around her shoulders, then turned and led the way up the stairs. Her sister flashed him a saucy grin, while the oversized rat in her arms continued to look down at his boots with an eager eye. “Come along then,” Miss Langley told him. “As you can see we need your services.”
But before he could ask her, she and her sister had already scurried up the flight of stairs. By the time he caught up with them, they’d turned down a narrow hall and entered a small parlor. The room was cozy, with a decidedly female ‘air’ about it—a discarded basket of knitting, an open and forgotten novel on the floor near the grate. A small pile of coals glowed in the hearth and off to one side sat a large overstuffed chair where an old lady snored most indelicately. Her lace cap sat askew and a lap robe lay on the floor at her feet.
Without missing a beat, Felicity set things to right, the book was closed — a bit of braided thread to mark the page — then the throw was settled back over the lady’s lap, and she even had a moment to put a bit more coal on the fire.
“I hope Aunt Minty finds you acceptable,” she said as she went about the routine tasks. “I’d wake her, but she likes a good doze this time of day, and bears no one any favors if they rouse her before she’s ready.” Dusting her hands off, she turned to him and sighed yet again, shaking her head as she went. “I suppose a good chaperone should be a bit more alert, but Aunt Minty is…well, she’s quite perfect for us, for we are very aware of our tenuous circumstances and haven’t the tendencies for romantic misalliances—”
“‘Cept for our cousin, Pippin,” Miss Thalia added. “But you’ll meet her later.”
Her sister shot her twin another scathing look and he took the interruption in this nonsensical conversation as his chance to wrestle some control over the situation. “Uh, yes, well, the point of my visit—”
In a flash, the chit outflanked him. “Oh, yes the point. Exactly,” Miss Langley said, not even batting an eye over the fact that she had just cut him off. “Though I must say, you hardly look proper.” She tipped her head and measured him yet again from the toes of his boots to the top of his head. There was another sigh and then she said, “I daresay the livery will be a tight fit.”
Livery? He shook his head. Whatever was she talking about? She wanted him in livery? What sort of wanton nonsense was this?
“You look surprised. But yes, we have livery for you,” she assured him. Not that he found it the least bit assuring.
“Nanny Jamilla always said a footman should be well-dressed,” Miss Thalia added.
“A footman?” he stammered.
“Oh, dear,” Miss Langley said. “They didn’t hint about that you may have the butler position did they? I told them quite plainly we sought only a footman who could—”
He waved his hands at her. “Miss Langley, there’s been some sort of — ”