Lady Eve's got the perfect plan . . .
Pretty, petite Evie Windham has been more indiscreet than her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Moreland, suspect. Fearing that a wedding night would reveal her past, she's running out of excuses to dodge adoring swains. Lucas Denning, the newly titled Marquis of Deene, has reason of his own for avoiding marriage. So Evie and Deene strike a deal, each agreeing to be the other's decoy. At this rate, matrimony could be avoided indefinitely . . . until the two are caught in a steamy kiss that no one was supposed to see.
Contains mature themes.
About the Author
James Langton trained as an actor at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. An AudioFile Earphones Award winner, he has performed many voice-overs and narrated numerous audiobooks. James was born in York, England, and is now based in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
"What you seek to accomplish, my lord, is arguably impossible."
Earnest Hooker shuffled files while he sat in judgment of the Marquis of Deene's aspirations. When the ensuing silence stretched more than a few moments, the solicitor readjusted his neck cloth, cleared his throat, and shifted his inkwell one inch closer to the edge of the blotter centered on his gargantuan desk.
Two of his minions watched the client-whom they no doubt expected to rant and throw things in the grand family tradition-from a careful distance.
Lucas Denning, newly minted Marquis of Deene, took out the gold watch Marie had given him when he'd come down from university. The thing had stopped for lack of timely winding, but Deene made it a point to stare at his timepiece before speaking.
"Impossible, Hooker? I'm curious as to the motivation for such hyperbole from a man of the law."
One clerk glanced nervously at the other when Hooker stopped fussing with his files.
"My lord, you cannot mean to deprive a man of the company of his legitimate offspring." Hooker's pudgy, lily-white hands continued to fiddle with the accoutrements of his trade. "We're discussing a girl child, true, but one in her father's possession in even the simplest sense. The courts do not exist to satisfy anybody's whims, and you can't expect them to pluck that child from her father's care and place her in... in yours. You have no children of your own, my lord, no wife, no experience raising children, and you've yet to see to your own succession. Even were the man demented, the courts would likely consider other possibilities before placing the girl in your care."
Deene snapped the watch shut. "I heard her mother's dying wishes. That should count for something. Wellington wrote me up in the dispatches often enough."
One of the other men came forward, a prissier, desiccated version of Hooker, with fewer chins and less hair.
"My lord, do you proceed on dying declarations alone, that will land you in Chancery, where you'll be lucky to have the case heard before the girl reaches her majority. And endorsements of a man's wartime abilities by the Iron Duke are all well and good, but consider that raising children, most especially young girl children, should not have much in common with battling the Corsican."
An insult lurked in that soft reply, but truth as well. Every street sweeper in London knew the futility of resorting to the Court of Chancery. The clerk had not exaggerated about the delays and idiosyncrasies of that institution.
"I'm sorry, my lord." Hooker rose, while Deene remained seated. "We look forward to serving the marquessate in all of its legal undertakings, but in this, I'm afraid, we cannot honestly advise you to proceed."
Deene got to his feet, taking small satisfaction from being able to look down his nose, quite literally, at the useless ciphers whose families he kept housed and fed. "Draw up the pleadings anyway."
He stalked out of the room, the urge to destroy something, to pitch Hooker's idiot files into the fire, to snatch up the fireplace poker and lay about with it, nigh overcoming his self-discipline.
The third man had the temerity to follow Deene from the room, which was going to serve as a wonderful excuse for Deene's long-denied display of frustration-a marquis did not have tantrums-when Deene realized the man was carrying a pair of well-made leather gloves.
"My thanks." Deene snatched the gloves from the man's hand, but to his consternation, the fellow held onto the gloves for a bit, making for a short tug-of-war.
"If your lordship has one more moment?"
The clerk let the gloves go. The exchange had been bizarre enough to penetrate Deene's ire, mostly because, between Hooker & Sons and the Marquis of Deene, obsequies were the order of the day and had been for generations.
"Speak." Deene pulled on a glove. "You're obviously ready to burst with some crumb of legal wisdom your confreres were not inclined to share."
"Not legal wisdom, my lord." The man glanced over his shoulder at the closed door behind them. "Simple common sense. You'll not be able to wrest the girl from her father through litigious means, but there are other ways."
Yes, there were. Most of them illegal, dangerous, and unethical-but tempting.
Deene yanked on the second glove. "If I provoke him to a duel, Dolan stands an even chance of putting out my lights, sir, a consummation my cousin and sole heir claims would serve him very ill. I doubt I'd enjoy it myself."
This fellow was considerably younger than the other two, with an underfed, scholarly air about him and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses gracing his nose. The man drew himself up as if preparing for oral argument.
"I do not advocate murder, my lord, but every man, every person, has considerations motivating them. The girl's father is noted to be mindful of his social standing and his wealth."
Vulgarly so. "Your point?"
"If you offer him something he wants more than he wants to torment you over the girl, he might part with her. The problem isn't legal. The solution might not be legal either."
If there was sense in what the young man was saying, Deene was too angry to parse it out.
"My thanks. I will consider the not legal alternatives, as you suggest. Good day."
"My lord, that wasn't what I meant-"
Deene was down the stairs and out the door before the idiot could finish his sentence. Fortunately for all in Deene's path, his coachman was just bringing the horses around the corner at a sedate walk. Deene climbed in before the vehicle even stopped moving.
Anthony Denning folded down his edition of the Times, his expression impassive. "Any luck with your pet weasels?"
Deene appropriated the spot beside him, since Anthony was on the forward-facing seat. "They were waiting for me to lay waste to the office from the moment I arrived."
"Uncle once said that was the best way to get their attention."
Deene stared out the window, knowing Anthony was simply trying to make conversation. "His tempers were just another way for him to feel powerful while incurring ridiculous costs and earning a reputation as a dangerous lunatic."
Anthony set the paper aside as Deene banged twice on the roof quite stoutly. The horses moved up to the trot only to come back to the walk two blocks later.
"I should have ridden."
"You should have let me accompany you," Anthony said. He had the knack of sounding not like he was scolding, which he was, but like he was saddened to have been denied an opportunity to serve.
"You'll make a lousy marquis when Dolan douses my lights, Anthony. I appreciate the support, but my problems with Dolan are personal."
Anthony bore the same Denning family features as his cousin: blue eyes, wavy blond hair, a lanky build, and decent features. He'd look like a Marquis of Deene, but he'd never be able to carry out the displays of temper, incontinent drinking, and excesses of sexual indulgence Polite Society expected of the titleholder.
Anthony did, however, make a fine supervisor to the myriad Deene land stewards, for which Deene was shamelessly grateful.
"I'll take Beast out this afternoon prior to the fashionable hour. Perhaps some carousing tonight will improve my humor as well."
Anthony picked up his newspaper, a bland smile on his face. "A man newly out of mourning cannot neglect his carousing. Once the Season starts, you'll be waltzing the night away. Then there's every house party and shooting party in the land to attend while each ambitious mama in the realm tries to put you on a leash for her darling daughter."
"If you're trying to cheer me up, Cousin, you are failing spectacularly."
Though the solicitors had mentioned that a man with a wife might stand a better chance in the courts than one without.
What a dolorous, uncomfortable thought.
Lady Eve Windham's great fall had happened on her sixteenth birthday. In the eyes of Polite Society, it was a bad fall from a fast horse.
Eve's family knew it to be a fall from grace, while Eve understood it to be a fall of even more disastrous dimensions than that. A long, hard fall, involving injury to her heart-not just her left wrist and hip-and requiring years of convalescence. Seven years later-she found something ominously biblical about the length of time-she still hadn't gotten back on a horse.
Nor entirely mended her heart.
Neither situation merited much notice though, because she'd been born the youngest daughter of Their Graces, the Duke and Duchess of Moreland. The Windham family's consequence was such that the exact nature of this youthful indiscretion was never allowed to reach the ears of the gossips, sparing Eve that most inconvenient and troublesome Windham family tradition-Great Scandal.
Great Scandal might as well have the status of a great-aunt, so frequently did it come to call upon the Windhams. His Grace's offspring included two by-blows, both fortunately conceived prior to his acquisition of the title, and also-God be thanked-before his acquisition of a duchess.
When Windhams married, the firstborn was typically not a nine-months babe. In fact, nobody could recall when a Windham firstborn had been a nine-months babe, not even back to the present duke's late grandfather. And yet, Windham infants were notoriously healthy from birth.
The Windham sisters had by a narrow margin evaded what amounted to the family curse. With Maggie and Sophie wed, that margin was so narrow as to suggest Windham brides conceived on their very wedding nights. The third Windham sister to marry, Louisa, Countess of Kesmore, was being closely watched to see if she too was going to present her earl with an heir in such spanking time.
Eve Windham, by contrast, had no intention of allowing herself to encounter those circumstances conducive to the subsequent appearance of a baby.
Not now, not ever.
And therein lay a problem of disastrous-even scandalous-proportions, for no less a person than Esther, Her Grace, the Duchess of Moreland, had lately taken a notion to see her two remaining unwed daughters escorted up the aisle.
Locked in wed, as Eve's brothers used to say.
All three brothers were married now, and saying very different things indeed.
"Smile, Evie. Trottenham is on his way over."
Eve pasted the requisite smile on her face and glanced around the ballroom. "Be still my tender heart." The tone of her words was at variance with their content, which caused Eve's sister Genevieve to smile as well.
"He's not so bad, or you wouldn't have given him a minuet."
Eve said nothing as her latest admiring swain wove ever closer through the crowd. Jenny was right: he wasn't so bad, or so good. He'd serve as one of this Season's decoys if need be.
Eve kept her smile in place, though the thought of another entire Season-months!-of social prevarication made her oppressively tired.
"My lady." Trottenham bowed over her hand, bringing his heels together like some stuffy Prussian officer.
"Mr. Trottenham, a pleasure." Though it wasn't.
"I believe the sets are forming for my dance." He wiggled his blond eyebrows, probably his attempt at flirtation. Jenny took a whiff of her wrist corsage, though Eve thought her sister might be hiding a smirk.
Eve placed her gloved fingers over his hand, and for the thousandth time, prepared to tread that fine line between reeling a man in and casting him away. In the course of the dance, she batted her eyes, though twice she forgot the name of Mr. Trottenham's estate. She let him hold her a trifle too close-as she tittered. The grating titter was a rarefied art form.
"Lady Eve, has my conversation grown tiresome?" Trottenham twirled her gently under his arm while he spoke, and the slight resulting vertigo was Eve's first clue she was in trouble.
"Nonsense, Mr. Trottenham. I'm merely concentrating a bit on the steps of the dance." She treated him to her most fatuous simper, while sounds around her altered as if from far away, including the sound of Eve's own voice. Each sound became both clearer-more detached from other noises-and less real.
"One can't expect such a pretty little lady to dance and follow a conversation." Trottenham beamed an indulgent smile at her. "Though my sisters tell me..."
He prattled on, while Eve dealt with the peculiar sense that her head was three feet wide and that she could feel sensations with her hair. By the time the dance concluded, the visual distortions had begun.
"Jenny, I must leave." Eve kept her voice down. The next afflictions would be nausea and much-worse vertigo, and there was no way on earth Eve could afford talk to circulate that she had been unwell or dizzy at a social function.
Jenny's perpetual smile dimmed. "Is it a megrim, dearest?"
"A bad one." Though there was no such thing as a good megrim. "There must have been red wine in the punch."
"Mama's playing cards with Aunt Gladys. I can fetch her and have the coach brought around."
"There's not time." Before Eve's eyes, odd lights began to pulse around Jenny's head.
"Deene is here. He can see you home."
Eve made no protest, which was surely a measure of abject misery. "Fetch him."
Jenny moved off while Eve sidled closer to the French doors letting in fresh air from the terrace. The Season was still a few weeks off, so the night was brisk. The darkness beckoned, as did the quiet.
Quiet and darkness were her only friends when a headache struck. Laudanum was a last resort, lest she become dependent on it.
"Lady Eve." Deene stood before her, tall and strikingly handsome in his evening finery. He bowed over her hand, doing a credible impersonation of a proper gentleman. "You don't look well."
How perceptive. At least he'd spoken quietly.
She managed to bat her eyes at him. "Get me out of here without causing talk. Please."
His gaze traveled over her quickly, assessingly. Eve would have hated that, except it was a completely impersonal inventory. "A breath of fresh air is in order."
"Deene, nobody is going to believe-"
He tucked her hand over his arm, beamed a brilliant smile at her, and led her out to the terrace. As soon as they'd gained the edge of the illumination cast by the torches, he paused and took off his jacket. "Unless you start squawking, nobody remarked our departure."
He settled his jacket over Eve's shoulders and gave the lapels a little tug to bring it close around her. Eve's first impression was of blessed warmth.
"My pleasure." He didn't exactly sneer the words, but neither were they sincere. No matter. If he could get Eve home without further embarrassment, she'd suspend their skirmishing for one evening and be grateful.
He offered his arm again. "There's a gate this way we can use."
Eve hadn't meant to hesitate, but it was difficult even to think when that ominous ache started up at the base of her skull.
"For God's sake, Eve Windham, it was just a kiss under the mistletoe, probably inspired by your papa's wassail more than anything else."
She had to put her hand on his arm while the feeling of the ground shifting beneath her feet swept over her. "My brothers said it was white rum."
"The occasional tot makes the holiday socializing less tedious. You really do not look well."
The last observation was grudging, almost worried.
"I did not mean to swill from your glass, Deene. You should have stopped me." They had to get to the coach. The night felt like it was closing in, and Deene's voice-a perfect example of male aristocratic euphony-was swelling and shrinking in the oddest way.
"I might have stopped you, except you downed the whole drink before I realized what was afoot, and then you were accosting me in the most passionate-"
Eve clutched his arm and swayed into him, breathing shallowly through her mouth. "If you insist on arguing with me, my lord, I will be ill all over these bushes."
"Why didn't you say so?" He slipped an arm around her waist and promenaded her down the steps. By the time they got to the garden gate, the nausea was subsiding, though Eve was leaning heavily on her escort. She had the notion that the scents of cedar and lavender coming from Deene's jacket might have helped quiet her stomach.
Deene ushered her through the gate, which put them on a quiet, mercifully dark side street.
"How often do these headaches befall you?"
"Too often. Sometimes I go for months between attacks, sometimes only days. The worst is when it hits on one side, subsides for a day, then strikes on the other."
Deene pulled one of his gloves off with his teeth, then used two fingers to give a piercing, three-blast whistle. "Sorry."
All the while he kept his arm around Eve's waist, a solid, warm-and quite unexpected-bulwark against complete disability. "The coach will here in moments. Is there anything that helps?"
"Absolute quiet, absolute dark, time." Though her mother used to rub her neck, and that had helped the most.
He said nothing more-Deene wasn't stupid-and Eve just leaned on him. Her grandmother had apparently suffered from these same headaches, though neither Eve's parents nor her siblings were afflicted.
The clip-clop of hooves sounded like so much gunfire in Eve's head, but it was the sound of privacy, so Eve tried to welcome it. Deene gave the coachy directions to the Windham mansion and climbed in after Eve.
"Shall I sit beside you, my lady?"
An odd little courtesy, that he would even ask.
"Please. The less I move, the less uncomfortable I am."
He settled beside her and looped an arm around her shoulders. Without a single thought for dignity, skirmishes, or propriety, Eve laid her head on his shoulder, closed her eyes, and was grateful.
To see Eve Windham brought low ought to have been satisfying in some private, ungentlemanly regard. Instead Deene felt unwelcome inclinations toward protectiveness and-it was hard to admit such a thing even to himself-helplessness.
And if there was one feeling he resented with a passion, it was helplessness where a female was concerned.
Small, silent, and miserable beside him, Lady Eve was obviously suffering with every bump over the cobbles and turn on the streets.
"Evie, is there anything I can do?" The name had slipped out, harking back to a time when he'd been more an older-brother-by-association to his fellow officers' sisters. "Evie?"
She cuddled closer, like a suffering animal looking for relief. "My mama used to rub my neck. I hate this."
She was helpless too, he realized, and equally unhappy about it. How strange, that after growing increasingly quarrelsome with each other, they'd find pride as their common ground. This temporary truce put him in mind of the way the French and British armies would declare an unspoken détente regarding the use of rivers and streams flowing between their respective warring camps on the Peninsula.
"Let's try something." He pulled a lap rug from under the padded bench and spread it over his knees. "Down you go."
With him braced against a corner of the coach, he eased Eve facedown over the makeshift pillow on his knees. When she made no protest, he found her nape with his bare hand and started a slow massage. "Does that help?"
He could feel her ease somewhat, though in deference to her condition, the horses were moving only at a walk. "Shall I take your pins out?"
"Please, God. I can feel them. My hair hurts."
He might have smiled, but her torment was obvious in her voice. Carefully, so carefully, he eased the pins from her coiffure, until her hair hung down in a long, golden braid. She was unmoving against him while he alternated between gently squeezing the sides of her neck and rubbing her nape.
They would not speak of this peculiar interlude, and Deene had been a fool to bring up their one stupid kiss at Christmas past. Eve had been adorably tipsy, having swiped his glass of thoroughly spiked punch, and he'd enjoyed the effects of the alcohol on her demeanor. Enjoyed her passionate, artless, determined kisses much more-and much longer-than he should have.
She'd been a cheerful, even mischievous girl, dear and sweet and easy to tease. With her brother Bart's death, something had changed and not for the better. When Deene had made some courtesy calls after selling his commission, he'd found Eve Windham to be punctiliously proper, stiff, and even chilly toward him, though Bart had more than intimated that the lady had her reasons.
She wasn't chilly now. She was utterly undone. It pleased him not at all to see it.
He had, though, been pleased to find himself accosted in the coat closet out at Morelands over the holidays. The old Eve had been there in that kiss-wicked, sweet, playful, but also all grown-up in the best places.
"Eve, we're here. Shall I carry you?"
She sat up slowly, her hand going to her forehead. "I can walk."
Or she'd crawl, or expire of pride in the filth of the mews before she'd allow him to assist her where others might notice. He handed her out of the carriage, and any fool could see she was none too steady on her feet. "You can ring a peal over my head later, my lady."
"Deene, no." Such a weak protest wasn't going to deter him from scooping her up against his chest and proceeding toward the house.
"For once in your stubborn life, hush. Your brothers would expect this much of me."
The reference to her brothers was intended as a sop to her pride and a warning-it was also the truth. In addition to the late Lord Bart, Deene had also served with Devlin St. Just, now Earl of Rosecroft. If Rosecroft got wind Evie had received cavalier treatment when in distress, a friendship Deene valued greatly would falter. To say nothing of what the lady's father would do to Deene should Moreland learn his daughter had been allowed to suffer needlessly.
"Where are you taking me?"
"Inside." He'd run tame in this house for years, so he was able to clarify. "To your room."
He managed the service door off the kitchen, it being the family practice not to lock it until everyone was in for the night. Two flights up had him in the family wing, where he himself had been an occasional guest.
"Which door, Evie?"
"Don't call me that. Next one on the right."
The listlessness of her scold rankled, and when Eve's lady's maid came scampering out of the dressing room, Deene felt a reluctance to surrender his burden.
"Lady Eve is suffering a megrim. You'll want to fetch the lavender water and perhaps a tot of the poppy. You're not to brush out her hair or do anything other than exactly as she directs."
The woman's expression suggested she'd never beheld her lady in a strange gentleman's arms, much less in the confines of the lady's own apartments. "I'll take good care of her, my lord."
"See that you do." He wanted to deposit Evie on the bed, but her dignity would not thank him. Carefully, he set her on her feet, keeping an arm around her shoulders.
"Turn down the bed, Hammet." Eve's voice was a weary thread of sound. "Please."
The maid bustled off to put coals in the bed warmer, leaving Deene to peer down at the woman half-leaning on him. "Shall I alert anybody?"
"Hammet is used to this. Good night, Deene, and thank you." She went up on her toes, blinked her pretty green eyes at him once, then kissed his cheek and subsided on a sigh.
After that, there was nothing for Deene to do but bow courteously over her hand and take his leave.
"Oui, mon coeur?"
Mischievous blue eyes peered up at Jonathan Patrick Francis Dolan. "Why don't you speak the Irish anymore? I hear it only if you sing to me."
Dolan smiled down at the prettiest female he'd ever beheld. "Because a proper lady knows her French." He turned a page in a worn copy of Robinson Crusoe. "Shall I read about poor Crusoe in French?"
Translating as he went would be a challenge for a man who'd picked up his French on the docks of Calais, but for her he'd muddle along.
"Please don't." Georgina shifted on the sofa beside him. "Miss Ingraham makes me recite in French every morning. Will you sing to me tonight?"
Eight years old and already she was learning to wheedle. He didn't know whether to be proud or dismayed. "Will you apply yourself to your French, acushla mo chroí?"
She pursed her lips while Dolan ran his hand over a tidy golden braid. Thank a merciful God she'd gotten her mother's English blond locks and not Dolan's unruly auburn hair.
He'd stopped up in the nursery suite when he should have been down in his office, reviewing the accounts of any number of lazy subcontractors, thieving factors, and useless suppliers. The next thing he knew, he'd been cozened into reading just a few pages of an old favorite, and an hour had gone by.
Not a wasted hour, but a precious hour stolen from a press of business that never left him enough time with his only child.
"Tell you what," he said, setting the book aside. "If Miss Ingraham gives a good account of your French, I'll sing to you tomorrow night."
"Why not tonight?"
"I'm going out, my heart, and you are going to mind Miss Ingraham, say your prayers, and dream sweet dreams."
She reached for the book and laid it open on her lap. "I'll dream of a pony."
"Learn your French, and I'll get a pony for you to keep at Whitley."
The look she gave him was curiously adult. "We won't go to Whitley until it's summer, and it's not even completely spring yet."
Before she could start needling him, Dolan kissed her crown and rose. "Learn your French, Georgina dearest, and then you'll be in a stronger bargaining position."
"You'll start on my needlepoint, next. I'll never get a pony." Fortunately, she was grinning.
"Who wants a pony when there are magical unicorns to be had?" He tapped her nose with one callused finger and took himself off, before she could tell him there were no unicorns. The first time she'd informed her father of this truth, Dolan had permitted himself a wee drop of medicinal whiskey despite it being broad daylight.
He'd recognized it as the beginning of a slippery slide away from the innocence and ease of parenting a very young child, toward the utterly bewildering prospect of shepherding a wealthy young Englishwoman into a happy and pampered adulthood.
"A caller for you, sir."
Every time he heard Brampton's voice, Dolan felt a little satisfaction. His butler had been lured away from nothing less than a duke's household, and was the embodiment of English dignity and propriety.
Brampton held out a little silver salver-gold, Dolan had learned, was too ostentatious-and Dolan peered at the card thereon.
"Tell the marquis neither I nor Miss Georgina are at home, and don't expect to be for quite-" No, let the sodding beggar keep coming around and being turned away. "Just tell him we're out for the day."
"Very good, sir."
Brampton withdrew, having the knack of moving silently and at just such a speed as to convey determination on an important errand, but not quickly enough to suggest urgency. Dolan watched him processing down the paneled corridor.
Someday, Jonathan Dolan would visit his daughter's household and see just such a butler, except that fellow would address the lady of the house as "my lady." Dolan let himself into his office and went back to dealing with the thieves, rogues, and charlatans with whom he did business every day.
"You look like you could spit nails. Hardly encouraging to all the sweet young things twittering about the ballroom."
Deene knew that slightly ironic bass-baritone, and turned to see Joseph Carrington, Lord Kesmore, sipping champagne at his elbow.
"Evening, Kesmore. What has lured you from the wilds of Kent so early in the year?"
Kesmore's dark brows twitched down. "Raising hogs is vulgarly profitable. I say this to you in strictest confidence as your neighbor and friend, and as a man who has seen you so drunk you sing odes to the barmaid's feminine attributes. There is, however, a certain hardship upon the man-particularly a man newly married-who undertakes such a commercial endeavor when the weather moderates and the hog pens must be cleaned of several months' worth of pig shit."
Despite the cloying heat of the ballroom, despite the gauntlet forming for him as the orchestra warmed up, Deene's lips quirked up. "You came to Town to avoid the smell of pig shit?"
"Pig shit wafting in my bedroom window at night, pig shit scenting my linen, pig shit... but I am whining, and thank all the gods it's not me the mamas are trolling for this year."
Deene snagged a glass of champagne from a passing footman, lest he look over and see pity lurking in Kesmore's typically impassive gaze.
"My cousin Anthony, who is much more socially astute than I am, says I must accept all of the invitations now that I'm done with mourning, and leave the tedious business of the marquessate to him as my second-in-command. I suspect him of something less than selfless devotion in his advice."
"Let's head for the card room then. In my company, fewer of the sweet young things are likely to approach you directly."
A generous offer, except in the card room one gambled-an undertaking best reserved for those with ample disposable income.
"I'll bide here among the potted palms." Deene paused for a fortifying sip of his wine. "The mamas patrol out here in the ballroom, but the aunts and grandmamas are in the card room, and those dragons I am not yet drunk enough to deal with."
Kesmore did shoot him a look of pity, or perhaps simple commiseration, since the earl was himself newly married. "I'm off then, and I'll leave you to your fate. You could always say your old war injury is acting up and the dancing is beyond you."
As Kesmore stalked away, Deene lifted his flute to salute that helpful notion, and went back to leaning on a shadowed pillar as unobtrusively as he could. Given that he was several inches over six feet, his hair was golden blond perfectly hued to gleam by candlelight, and his title the highest available on the marriage mart in three years, he suspected his evening-and likely he, himself-were doomed.
Two hours later the suspicion was a patented, sealed conclusion.
"My lord, you really must lead my darling Mildred out." Lady Staines affected a simper that came off more like a glower. "She's ever so shy, and yet quite the most graceful thing on two feet."
The ever-so-shy Miss Mildred Staines was the selfsame young lady who'd not fifteen minutes ago tried to accost Deene on his way to the men's retiring room. She had claws where her fingernails should be, and if Kesmore hadn't come along at an opportune moment-
"Oh, Deene! There you are!" Eve Windham swanned up to him, a blond, green-eyed confection in a pale blue ball gown that showed only a hint of cleavage. Though why would he allow himself to remark such a thing when he was about to be dragged by the hair into holy matrimony by Lady Staines and her familiar?
"Lady Eve." He bowed over her hand, which bore a slight, pleasing scent of mock orange.
Eve greeted the ladies with voluble good cheer then beamed a smile up at Deene. "Come along, my lord. The sets are forming."
For just one moment, just the merest blink-and-he'd-miss-it instant, Eve looked him directly in the eye. She was trying to tell him...
Bless the woman. And it was the supper waltz, too.
"My apologies, Lady Eve. I was distracted by the charm of my companions. Lady Staines, Miss Staines, if you'll excuse me?"
He led Eve to the dance floor and bowed as protocol required. "You have my thanks."
She curtsied gracefully. "Repaying a favor owed." She came up smiling, a different smile from that brilliant, cheerful-and, he suspected, false-smile she'd dispensed before the Staines women.
The introduction sounded, and he took her in his arms to the extent called for by the dance. "Have we waltzed before, my lady?"
"You have not had that pleasure since I put my hair up. The last time was at a Christmas gathering at Morelands. You were on leave with Bart and Devlin."
The music began, and as they moved off, Deene cast his memory back. He'd danced with several of the Windham sisters, even Maggie, who had been accounted the family recluse until she'd married Hazelton.
He had danced with Eve on the last leave Lord Bart had taken before his death. When Deene glanced down at his partner, he saw a shadow of that recollection in her eyes, which would not do. He pulled her a trifle closer on the next turn.
"Deene." She made his title, just five letters, sound like an entire sermon on impropriety.
"If you're going to rescue me, you have to do a proper job of it." He aimed a smile at her, pleased to see the shadows had fled from her eyes. "If I'm not seen to flirt with you, the Lady Staineses of the world will think I am still quite at large, maritally speaking."
"You are at large, maritally speaking. Just because I appropriated your company for one dance doesn't mean I'll be your decoy indefinitely."
"Decoy." He considered the notion. "The idea has a great deal of merit. And you're bound to me for supper as well, you know."
He saw by her slight grimace that she hadn't intended this result. Her generosity had been spontaneous, then, which meant she hadn't watched him being hounded and chased and harried the livelong evening.
"A waltz and supper." She paused while they twirled through another turn, and this time Deene pulled her a shade closer still then let her ease away. "Lucas Denning, behave, or I shall put it about you have a fondness for leeks."
He danced her down the room-she was very light on her feet-realizing that his taunt had backfired. In that one moment when she'd been against his body, he'd felt an unmistakable flare of arousal.
"Just for show, my dear. You must tell me how you've managed all these years to avoid wedded bliss. I will pay you handsomely for such a secret."
Her gaze flicked up from where she'd been staring determinedly at his shoulder. "You need a wife, Deene. You've only the one cousin to manage the succession, and he's not married. Besides, I'm not avoiding anything. I simply haven't taken."
"Haven't taken?" He'd heard her brothers grumbling about having to beat Evie's swains away with muttered threats and thunderous scowls.
"I'm short. A proper English beauty is willowy, like Jenny." She gave him the false smile again.
"You fit me well enough." The words were out, grumbled but honest, and Eve went back to staring at his shoulder.
And they had yet to get through supper. He cast around for a harmless topic.
"What do you hear from St. Just?" As conversational gambits went, that one was creditable. Eve's oldest brother had served with Deene, then two years after Waterloo, been awarded a Yorkshire earldom.
"He's thriving up in the West Riding. We saw him at Christmas, and I think the dales agree with him-or marriage and fatherhood does."
Did she sound wistful, or was she merely missing her brother?
"Perhaps I should pay him a visit." Though it was probably still winter on the dales.
Eve was silent a minute, then she cast her gaze over him again in that assessing, female way. "Lucas, they're just girls. They've been brought up to want nothing more than a man who can provide for them and give them babies. Your title, your fabulous good looks, your estates, they are so much gilt on the lily. Find a woman with whom you can be affectionate friends and propose to her."
Affectionate friends. She described a sophisticated, practical version of marriage, such as the beau monde expected, and such as Eve likely expected, but to Deene it loomed like an extra-chilly circle of hell crafted just for titled English lords.
Though many more evenings like this one, and the choice was going to be taken from him.
By the time the music came to a close and Eve's partner had led her off the dance floor, she was regretting the impulse that made her pluck the man from the jaws of Lady Staines's ambitions. He was a former cavalry officer, titled, and blessedly good-looking. Surely the prospect of a few tittering ninnies wasn't putting that haunted look in his sky-blue eyes?
"Shall I fix you a plate, my lady?"
He was smiling down at her, his expression genial.
She'd forgotten this about him-he was a gentleman. A significant contretemps involving Maggie's past had been resolved directly before her marriage, but only with Deene's willing, adroit, and very discreet assistance. A damsel in distress, or a damsel in need of sustenance, would both loom as an inescapable duty to him.
"Please, but avoid the aged cheeses and anything bearing a resemblance to red wine." She moved along the buffet line with him while he piled a single plate high with various delicacies.
"Let's find a quiet corner, shall we?" Her escort leaned down to nearly whisper in her ear. "The less conspicuous I am, the less I'm likely to attract a wife."
She did not snort, but the man could hardly help but attract notice. Were she anything less than the daughter of a duke-the theoretically eligible daughter of a duke-he would be swarmed even in the buffet line.
"Perhaps in the gallery?" Eve suggested. She led him across the hall to the long, high-ceilinged space that opened onto the terraces. A few of the doors were propped open, making the place both quieter and cooler.
"Down there." Deene gestured with the hand holding the plate. His other arm had been offered to Eve for escort, as if by her very presence she could ward off encroaching mamas.
Which, if it came to that, she could.
They found a small table beneath an arch, a blessed oasis of privacy in an otherwise dauntingly public evening.
"I believe I owe you an apology," Eve said when they were seated.
He lounged back in his chair, a delicate little wrought iron piece that barely looked capable of holding his weight. "For?"
"Perhaps not an apology." Eve picked up a forced strawberry and considered it. "I love strawberries, but I have this notion they taste better when they're allowed to develop according to their own natures." She popped it in her mouth and watched while Deene did likewise with a smaller berry.
He had a lovely mouth. She hadn't forgotten that for a moment, blast the man.
"What would you be apologizing for?" He picked up another strawberry, drawing Eve's attention to his hands. Without his gloves, their strength was obvious. Those hands had been on her person, they'd offered her relief from misery, and at Christmas...
She frowned at a section of orange. "You haven't tattled, so to speak. You have my thanks for that."
"Tattled." He sat forward, a predator catching a scent. The strawberry had disappeared, Eve knew not where. "Tattled, regarding your headache? What kind of gentleman would I be if I bruited a lady's distress all around the clubs? How would that-?"
Eve shook her head. Men were obtuse. Her brothers claimed that women were too indirect and subtle, but it was a bona fide fact men were thickheaded about certain important matters.
"At Christmas," she said very quietly. The walls had ears, after all. "You didn't"-she stared at another section of orange-"kiss and tell. I appreciate that."
She felt compelled to state her thanks for his discretion. The words put something right between them that Eve had been allowing to drift in the wrong direction. The spatting and skirmishing was all well and good, but this needed to be said too.
"Now this is interesting." He addressed a luscious strawberry, red-ripe all over, the exact shape and size a strawberry ought to be, but when had his chair shifted so close? "I am trying to do the pretty without being caught in parson's mousetrap, I suffer a small lapse of propriety while under the influence with a lady whom all esteem, and you think it's your name I'm protecting?"
He popped the strawberry into his mouth and considered her in a lazy-lidded way that had Eve's insides pitching in odd directions.
"Why are you bristling, Deene? I'm offering my thanks."
He finished chewing the strawberry, though his blue eyes had bored into hers as he'd consumed it. "Did you enjoy our kiss, Evie?"
Evie. Only her family called her that-and him. He said it with a particular intimate inflection her family never used though.
She sat up very straight. "Your question has no proper answer. If I say no, then I am dishonest-I flew at you, after all, and you had to peel me off of you-and if I say yes, then I am wicked."
"Because if you did enjoy that kiss," he went on as if she hadn't spoken, "for I certainly enjoyed it, then perhaps you might be thanking me for the kiss and not for keeping the silence any man with sense or manners would have kept."
With him staring at her like that, it was hard to grasp the sense of his words, but Eve made the effort.
He was offended that she'd thanked him.
Any man admitted under her parents' roof would have been discreet about such a moment.
He had enjoyed that kiss.
He leaned forward, so close Eve could catch the scent of his lavender-and-cedar soap, so close she could...
Feel his lips, soft and knowing, against her cheek. Oh, she should turn away. There was no convenient tankard of spiked punch to blame, no holiday cheer, no reckless sense of yet another sibling slipping away into marriage.
His hand came up to cradle her jaw, then to shift her head slightly so she faced him. Those soft, knowing lips teased their way to her mouth, gently, inexorably. He did not use force or even anything approximating force. He supported her into the kiss.
That other kiss had been different. They'd started off observing a silly holiday tradition and ended up breathless and-she hoped-mutually surprised.
This kiss was-God help her, it was tender, deliberate, as delicious as the strawberries she could taste when Deene's tongue seamed her lips. Her hand cradled his jaw, too, not to keep him close but to complement the sensation of his tongue easing into her mouth.
"Deene, I don't know what to do."
He said nothing, just covered her mouth with his again, openmouthed, and then his tongue came calling, teasing her to taste him in return. When she did, she felt a shudder go through him, felt him hitch closer physically, and felt her own sense of balance desert her.
Now she kept her hand on him as a point of reference, a way to keep the concepts of up, down, north, and south-his body and hers-all in an understandable relationship. He'd shaven recently, and-
He took her lower lip between his teeth and didn't exactly bite, but closed his teeth over her flesh. The sensation was not of being trapped but of being held. Eve felt his other hand, large and warm, settle on her neck. The contact was lovely, comforting, intimate, and reassuring, while the kiss was anything but.
Maybe he sensed she was reaching her limit, because he took his mouth away and rested his forehead against hers instead. "Tell me you enjoyed that, Evie. One kiss doesn't have to mean anything. It isn't a great scandal. It's just a small pleasure between two people who likely have little enough pleasure to call their own."
His hand moved around to cover her nape, as if to encourage her to remain in this forehead-kiss until he'd had her answer, while she wanted to hide her face against his shoulder. "I enjoyed it. I should not have, but I did. The other, too. At Christmas. I enjoyed that."
Such an admission was stupid, but in the privacy of their odd embrace-her other hand had come up to grasp his lapel-honesty felt safe. Honesty with him.
He eased away but kept his one hand on her jaw for a last, fleeting caress. The loss of him left Eve chilled and bewildered. What had she just permitted?
What had she just admitted?
"Have the last strawberry." He pushed the plate closer to her, his expression inscrutable. He'd tasted like strawberries.
"Perhaps a bit of ham and melon," she said, helping herself. Was this how sophisticated people conducted their kisses? Between bites of fruit while half the beau monde chattered itself insensate a few rooms away?
She was saved from having to scrounge up some credible inanity to serve as conversation by the approach of Jenny and Louisa. Her sisters should have been a welcome sight, a source of relief.
Amid all the other emotions rioting through her, Eve could not identify either relief or welcome.
Deene knew for a fact Eve Windham had been out at least a good five years. She'd had beaus, followers, and admirers, and even several offers, but she kissed like... like an innocent.
At Christmas, she'd flung herself into a kiss with such abandon, Deene had wondered who was holding onto whom under that sprig of mistletoe. When he should have stepped back and turned the moment into a holiday superficiality, she'd cupped a hand around his neck and made a sound of longing and pleasure in the back of her throat, and that-more than the rum, more than the holidays, more than too many months of celibacy-had him diving right back into the kiss.
Burgeoning lust alone had made him step back.
It was no better now. She sat across from him, eating daintily, as if all the fire and wonder shared a few moments before had never happened.
"You two are hiding." Lady Genevieve Windham smiled as she advanced down the gallery, her expression confirming that she was teasing more than accusing. Lady Louisa's-Lady Kesmore's-expression was far less congenial.
Which, in fairness, was not unusual for the fair Louisa.
Deene rose. "Ladies, welcome. Shall I fetch more chairs?"
"No need for that." Louisa still did not smile. "We've come to retrieve Evie. Mama has a breakfast to attend tomorrow, and we're taking our leave."
Eve rose, looking neither relieved nor upset to be going. When had the little hoyden he'd known turned into such a composed woman?
"Deene, good evening." She cocked her head to meet his gaze. "My thanks for a lovely waltz, and for... everything." She smiled slightly, a very different smile from any he'd seen her give out previously. This smile was sweet and a trifle mysterious. "I hope the rest of your evening is as pleasant as mine has been."
She linked arms with her sisters and departed, a petite blond bookended by taller siblings, and yet Deene had the sense Eve was the one establishing the direction of their progress.
He did not dare linger here alone in the shadows, not with the likes of Lady Staines ready to unleash their daughters on him in any unguarded moment. He picked up his plate and headed directly for the card room.
"I fear I'm going to be next."
Eve waited to make this prediction until the footmen had left and the tea trays were on the low table before the sofa.
Louisa looked up from her book-Louisa's nose was always in a book-and frowned. "Next? Next as in what? We're supposed to divine the context without any further clues, Evie?" She set the book aside and leaned forward in her chair. "Food is next, and about time too."
"What did you mean, dearest?" Jenny was sitting at the other end of the sofa, slippers off, back resting against the arm and her knees drawn up before her.
"Next to get married."
Eve's sisters were silent for a few moments, but they exchanged the most maddening of older-sister looks before Jenny leapt into the breach.
"Is Mr. Trottenham your choice then? He's a very pleasant fellow, I must agree."
"Not Trit-Trot," Louisa said, picking up a chocolate tea cake. "He's a ninnyhammer."
"He is a ninnyhammer." Eve's best decoys were always ninnyhammers. "I don't know who. I just have a feeling I'd better choose someone, or Her Grace and His Grace will start nosing about, and then all is lost."
"Lost how?" Louisa put three more cakes on her plate. "If being married means all is lost, then I'm finding it a rather agreeable end."
"Louisa, you're supposed to eat some sandwiches first," Eve observed.
"And hope there are some cakes left by then, when you two will have had at them first? I intend to eat a deal of sandwiches. What do you mean, all is lost?"
Jenny swung her feet off the sofa and set aside her copy of La Belle Assemblée. "Their Graces want only to see us happy. Maggie had offer after offer, and Papa turned every one of them down."
"Maggie's situation is different," Eve said. "She made it to thirty. She was safe. Sophie has gone and married her baron too, though, and Louisa's led Joseph up the aisle. We two are all our parents have to focus on."
"Not all." Louisa frowned at her only remaining cake. "Papa has the Lords to run. Mama has Polite Society. Then, too, they've grandchildren to consider."
"But they still have us too." Eve made a little production of pouring tea all around: plain for Jenny, sugar for herself, cream and sugar in quantity for Louisa, which was an injustice of the first order. Louisa never gained weight and never seemed to stop eating.
Eve sat sipping tea, but the sense of impending marital doom gathered like a pressure in her chest. An inkling of a solution had come to her only last night, when she'd been coming home from the ball with her mother and sisters.
A white marriage.
They were not as fashionable as they'd been in old King George's day, but Eve suspected they weren't entirely unheard of anymore either. Lord and Lady Esteridge had such an arrangement, and his lordship's brother was tending to the succession.
"Shall we help you look for prospects?" Jenny asked. "Kesmore wasn't a likely prospect, but Louisa is thoroughly besotted with him."
Louisa shot Jenny an excuse-my-poor-daft-sister look. "Kesmore is a grouch, his children are complete hellions, he can hardly dance because of his perishing limp, and the man raises pigs."
"And you adore him," Jenny reiterated sweetly. "What about that nice Mr. Perrington?" Gentle persistence was Jenny's forte, one learned at the knee of Her Grace, whose gentle persistence had been known to overcome the objections of Wellington himself.
"Mr. Perrington has lost half his teeth, and the other half are not long for his mouth," Louisa observed as she moved on to the sandwiches. "Thank God he hides behind his hand when he laughs, but it gives him a slightly girlish air. I rather fancy Deene for Evie."
"Deene?" Eve and Jenny gaped in unison.
"You fancy Lucas Denning as my husband?" Eve clarified.
Louisa sat back, a sandwich poised in her hand. "He'd behave because our brothers would take it amiss were he a disappointing husband. Then too, he'd never do anything to make Their Graces think ill of him, and yet he wouldn't bring any troublesome in-laws into the bargain. He needs somebody with a fat dowry, and he's quite competent on the dance floor. He'd leave you alone for the most part. I think you could manage him very well."
Jenny's lips pursed. "You want a husband you can manage?"
Eve answered, feeling a rare sympathy for Louisa, "One hardly wants a husband one can't manage, does one?"
"Suppose not." Jenny blinked at the tea tray. "You left us one cake each, Lou. Not well done of you."
Louisa turned guileless green eyes on her sister. "You left me only four sandwiches, Jen."
They all started laughing at the same time, then ordered more sandwiches and more cakes, while Eve wondered if she had the courage-and determination-to find herself a man who'd be a husband in name only.
"It's like this." Anthony lounged back in the chair behind the estate desk and steepled his fingers. "You aren't poor, exactly, but you haven't a great deal of cash."
Deene paced the room, wondering if his own father had felt a similar gnawing frustration. "Give me figures, Anthony. The marquessate holds at least sixty thousand acres, and I have another ten thousand in my own name. There's a soap factory in Manchester, a distillery on some Scottish island. How can I be poor?"
"Not poor, but that sixty thousand acres includes some thirty thousand bound with the entail. You can't sell it, but you have to maintain it. You must tend to the land, the cottages, the woods, even the ditches."
Deene peered at his cousin and stopped perusing a library stacked twelve feet high with books nobody read. "How does one tend to a ditch, for God's sake?"
"If it's a ditch that channels storm water, you have to keep it clear, else you'll have standing water, and that seems to lead to cholera and other nuisances."
Deene knew that. Anybody raised in expectation of holding property knew that. He pinched the bridge of his nose as a headache threatened to take up residence behind his eyes.
"Forgive me my exasperation. I should have spent the last year gathering up the reins of my estate, not rusticating in Kent under the guise of mourning." More like a year and a half, truth be told.
Anthony's smile was sympathetic. "I've been stewarding the properties for more than a decade, Cousin, and I can tell you, his late lordship had no more gathered up the reins after thirty years than you have after less than two. We'll manage, just don't take to extravagant gambling."
"Do I need to marry for money?"
The question had to be asked. Deene could see the runners in the upper floors were worn, the carriages in his mews were out of date, and sconces in more than just the servants' quarter of the house were burning tallow candles.
Sometimes, though, a man needed to hear his sentence pronounced in the King's English.
"Marry for money?" Anthony's finely arched blond brows rose then settled again. "I didn't know you were thinking of marrying at all."
"And yet"-Deene settled into a chair facing the desk-"you constantly remind me you have no desire to inherit the title. Do we let the crown have the estate then? You've certainly shown no signs of marrying."
Too late, Deene realized the words weren't going to sound like the good-natured ribbing they were meant to be. With a carefully blank expression, Anthony closed a few of the ledgers lying on the desk, rose, and tugged on his gloves.
"Don't stick your neck in parson's mousetrap just yet," Anthony said. "Your father tried to right the marquessate's fortune in just such a manner, if you'll recall."
Tit for tat. The conversation needed to move on. "You'll get me figures, then?"
Anthony gestured to the ledgers. "Here are your figures. It's a moving target, you see. We sell a few thousand spring lambs, but in the next month, we must hire a dozen crews for shearing. Until you've had a few years-a few decades-to get a sense of the problem, the figures you see can be very misleading. A place to start would be the household ledgers. They're fairly straightforward."
Straightforward. Straightforward was a quality that seemed to have fled Deene's existence on all fronts.
"Anthony, have you ever bitten lengthwise into a fat, juicy, perfectly ripe strawberry?"
Anthony tapped his top hat onto this head, his smile returning in its most patient variation. "I'm sure I have. Are we to raise strawberries?"
"Not immediately. Thanks for your time. I'll look forward to seeing what the present cash reserves are, though, regardless of how fluid the number."
Anthony took his leave. Deene sat at the desk and opened the most recent ledger for household expenses at the London residence, which Deene would use for his abode over the next few months.
God help him.
Several hours later, his eyes were crossing, his temples were throbbing, and he had no idea how he'd make sense of the expenses listed on page after page of the damned accounting book. He'd been top wrangler in math at Cambridge his final year, and he could determine nothing from looking at the columns and columns of orderly, perfectly legible entries.
Though as he sat back and tossed the pen on the desk, he suspected part of the problem was the shocking resemblance of a strawberry split lengthwise to a particularly lovely and intimate part of the female anatomy.
What People are Saying About This
"Captivating... [Burrowes] masterfully turns a simple kiss into an exceptional moment ripe with anticipation..." - Publishers Weekly
"With each volume in this popular series, Burrowes creates another strong and unique story with memorable characters." - Booklist
"An incredible read... Romantic, fraught with realistic emotions and a delightful mix of playfulness and sensuality... 4 ½ Stars and Top Pick of the Month!" - RT Book Reviews