About the book
A mysterious maid. A secret. A terrible choice...
Groomed to be her estranged father’s ticket to social ascent, Miss Emma Hoskins lives in a cage. When her father, Lord Calber, announces that he bet and lost her hand in marriage to a heinous man, she does the first thing that comes to mind. She flees.
There are few things Leo Brady dislikes and being Duke of Menhiransten is at the very top of his list. Especially when hiring a new maid nearly lands him in the grave.
Accused of kidnapping Emma by the man hunting her, Leo is willing to do anything to protect her. Even dig up the most painful aspects of his past.
As they quickly realize, crashing a wedding is not nearly enough. The only way to unmask the greatest treason London has ever seen is by staying apart forever.
The former Admiral Leo Brady didn’t want to be the next Duke of Menhiransten; he had other goals in mind. He had risen quickly through the ranks. But here he was, back in London and about to return to the ancestral home.
The grim irony of all this is that my father all but threw me out the door of Menhiransten the last time I was home for refusing to lend him the blunt for a new carriage. Now I shall be obliged to take care of Menhiransten and all her people. She was a lot more profitable as a figurehead on my last ship.
Garth, his older brother, had been the result of the late Duke’s first marriage, which had doubled the size of the estate and given him connections to the King. The Duke’s first wife had birthed Garth readily enough, but her second lying in had not gone as well. She died of childbed fever along with her infant daughter.
Leo was son to Lady Miriam, the late Duke’s second wife, a gentlewoman of impeccable breeding but little fortune. Or, to put it another way, the late Duke had fallen in love with her. His father and his mother had a wonderful relationship. She had gladly extended her love to the Duke’s oldest son and heir apparent. Unfortunately, Lady Miriam had gone into the arms of the grim reaper some weeks before Leo declared his independence and ran away to sea.
I am not sure whether I am more grieved for the loss of my kin or the loss of my ship. Damn, but I miss her deck already. And if one more schmoosing nincompoop approaches me about “good investments,” I’ll find a yardarm to hang him from.
Wooden faced, Leo took up a handful of earth from the mound beside the graves and sprinkled some over first his brother’s then his father’s casket. Garth was a good man. He just had a little too much tutelage from my father. Had my mother been able to sway him just a tiny bit more, my brother would have done well. I believe I shall miss him after all.
Leo walked away from the ceremony, leaving the priest, his cousins, and the retainers to finish decently burying his father and brother. It was rude, but he could bear no more of the false wailing of the mourners, the worried faces of the servants, and the general air of uncertainty.
Leo was not poorly dressed. His impeccable mourning attire was from Scott, the tailor who did for many military men. The black broadcloth of his coat fit his broad shoulders perfectly, narrowing to a slim waist that required no corseting to look trim. The skirts of his coat shrouded neatly fitting breeches that were by no means as tight as was fashionable but were still well made and nicely fitted. The clocks on his stockings were modest gray silk, depicting the standing stones from which his estate took its name. His shoes had sensible heels. The buckles were well burnished but plain. His dark brown hair was neatly cut militarily and topped with a well-made stovepipe hat of modest height.
He did not stroll, but neither did he hurry toward the somber carriage that awaited him at the edge of the graveyard. Each footfall was placed with calm authority. When he reached the carriage, he stepped up into it and settled himself on the comfortable leather seats. Taking his hat from his head, he leaned back against the cushions and closed his eyes. This was his third funeral of the day, the other two had been to pay respects to members of his crew lost in his last battle at sea. They had won, and he had brought home both his own ship and the one they boarded, but it had been bloody hard work, with the emphasis on bloody.
“Are you well, Your Grace?” a small man clad in the self-effacing modest clothing of a personal secretary asked.
“As well as can be expected, Hamilton. Too many graveyard visits today. What is next on my itinerary?”
“You are expected in chambers to discuss naval and military efforts, Your Grace. The Prince Regent will not be in attendance, but . . .”
“Thank heaven for small favors. How did you manage to wrangle that, Hamilton?”
“I? How could I possibly arrange such a thing? It seems that His Highness was called to an exceptionally important dinner across town. A certain lady has a new cook and called upon him for his opinion.”
“Hamilton, you are a complete hand. But I thank you. This meeting will go much better without Prinny’s input. In fact, if I pace it just right, I might get to lay my head upon my pillow before daybreak tomorrow.”
“Oh, no, Your Grace. Your presence is required by her Majesty, Queen Charlotte. It seems that tonight is presentations.”
Leo groaned. “Did you not tell her that I am in deep mourning, having only just buried my father and brother today?”
Hamilton permitted himself a small smile. “You must realize, Your Grace, that I did not speak with Her Majesty myself. Rather, I spoke with her secretary. He assures me that you need not dance, but merely attend. I believe the Widow Pearthorne will be in attendance.”
Leo sat up in astonishment. “Jemmie Pearthorne is dead?”
“I am sorry, Your Grace. I thought you knew. He fell last fall, not long after you sailed.”
“Well, that explains it. I am sorry to hear it. Captain Pearthorne was a good man. I’ll be sure to say a word or two to his widow. How is she carrying on?”
“Rumor has it that she is writing a memoir. Everyone is in a twit because she has a very caustic way of looking at things, and all the members of the court are sure that they are about to be lampooned by her rapier wit.”
“That somehow does not seem quite like her.”
“You would be amazed, Your Grace. But as it happens, I have spoken with her. While she is not above letting the courtiers fret, she is actually writing about her experiences in France.”
“Well, well, that does sound like her. Hamilton, if you would, please see if you can find some excuse that I might come away shortly after dinner. It will not do to leave before since that would upset Her Majesty’s table arrangement.”
“Quite so, Your Grace. I believe that after brandy is served, you could handily make your excuses. Her Majesty is worn to a thread with His Majesty’s illness and Prinny’s antics.”
“His Majesty grows no better?”
The little secretary shrugged. “It is not my place to say, Your Grace.”
“Ah, Hamilton. You were more outspoken as my first mate.”
“Other times, other places, Your Grace. We must don our masks and dance the social quadrille.”
“True enough. True enough, my friend.” Leo leaned his head back and closed his eyes. The carriage swayed, but it was nothing like the HMS Menhiransten as she rode the waves. Nor was he likely to be back onboard a sailing vessel any time soon.
Miss Emma Hoskins surveyed herself in the dim, crackly mirror. Her sunny blond hair was neatly done up in a figure-eight knot, which was not at all modish but easy to manage on her own. She scarcely needed to wear a corset and was, therefore, able to get away with one that was only lightly boned and that laced up the front.
Her gown was of her own design. The neckline was higher than was fashionable, cut well above her modest bosom. The lace edging was starched and pressed, creating a neat frill that framed her delicate skin. The soft, sprigged muslin of the gown was also starched and pressed in an effort to refresh the fabric that had, in truth, seen better days.
Emma’s skin was lightly tanned, and there was a dusting of golden freckles across her pert nose. She had high cheekbones, a generous mouth that seemed ready to laugh, and her blue eyes were framed in long, dark eyelashes that curled just a little at the corners. These features were set in a delicate, heart-shaped face. The effect was such that she could have easily been cast as an angel or an abandoned castaway had she been inclined to take to the stage.
Alas, such an undertaking was unlikely, even though Emma fancied that she might enjoy it. As the only daughter of Gilbert Haskins, Baron of Calber, becoming an actress was undoubtedly one of her many ambitions that were proscribed.
“Although,” Emma remarked to her mirror, “I’m not sure he would notice. I might as well still be in the nursery with a governess.”
It would hardly be charitable to say that the Baron was a stingy nipcheese, but it would be accurate to say that whatever fortune he had rarely trickled down to Emma. She received a tiny allowance from her mother’s dowry investments, and the occasional largess when her father had won at cards or when betting on the horses. Otherwise, he tended to ignore her.
Since there was rarely a lot of money for new gowns, Mrs. Able, the housekeeper, taught Emma how to mend and eventually how to make her own clothing. The Baron might have been mortified to learn of this, but since he blamed Emma for her mother’s death in childbirth, he avoided her as much as possible. Therefore, he was unlikely to be aware of any domestic arrangements.
She carefully inspected her kid slippers, making sure Rags, her nondescript, pint-sized terrier, had not nibbled any holes in them and lightly hopped down the grand front stairs just as she had done since she was ten–at least when no one was looking. Emma liked the way her soft slippers tapped on the marble stair, and the spring in her ankles as she jumped down from one step to the next. Usually, Rags was right there with her, his shaggy coat displacing the dust on the steps. But he was shut in his kennel tonight so that he would not try to follow her.
At the bottom of the stairs, she shook out her skirts, making sure that the point lace on the hem had not picked up any dust or dog fur. Then she stood in the foyer to wait because one of her father’s recent economies had been to dismiss the butler.
In a few minutes, a very fine coach drew up in front of the house. Emma mustered up her dignity and walked down the steps from the front door in a proper, sedate manner as was appropriate for a young lady of nine and ten years of age.
A liveried attendant let down the steps to the coach, opened the door, and offered his hand to assist Emma up the steps. Although she did not need it, Emma placed one gloved hand in his. “Thank you for your help,” she said, with a sweet smile. It was all she had to offer, although she was sure that the man really expected a coin for his efforts. However, he let his eyes flick down and up, taking in her attire, and said, “You are welcome, Miss.”
Once she was inside the coach, her Aunt Alicia made the introductions. “Emma, this is my dear friend, the Honorable Janet Pearthorne. Janet, my niece Emma Haskins.”
Aunt Alicia’s friend was dressed all in black, from the lace scarf draped over a high comb to the immaculate little kid boots that peeked from beneath the hem of her lovely silk gown. It was clear that the friend was in heavy mourning.
“Ah-lee-cee-a,” said Janet Pearthorne drawing out the syllables, “She is wearing a walking dress.”
“What do you propose, Janet? We shall be late. There really is no time.”
“We shall make time.” Again, the woman spoke in soft, drawn-out syllables that made the most of each word. “It would be better to be slightly late than to give offense. I believe she and I are of a size. I have a sweet rose silk that I had set aside for Jemmie’s homecoming.” There was a little tremble in her voice, and she dabbed at her eyes.
Aunt Alicia’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you certain? What if she soils it or spills something on it?”
The Honorable Mrs. Pearthorne shrugged. “Then, she does. I do not believe I shall ever be able to bear wearing it. Just as well that it should do someone some good.” And she dabbed at her eyes again. “Dear me,” she added with a smile, “You must have such an impression of me. I do not ordinarily go about crying.”
“It is quite all right,” Emma said. “I can clearly see that you are in mourning.”
“Yes, well, actually it has been long enough that I could simply be in black gloves, but I find being in mourning rather useful. I do miss Jemmie dreadfully, but being a widow gives one a certain amount of personal freedom. I have been writing my memoirs,” she added, leaning toward Emma as if imparting a confidence. “My publisher assures me that I am likely to gain some interest. Jemmie and I were living in Calais when Napoleon began his campaign. While I cannot impart anything of confidence, my publisher thinks our personal adventures will garner interest. Even though it is difficult to write of those times, for a little while I can imagine that Jemmie and I are together again.” She dabbed at her eyes once more, then gave them both a bright smile.
Without waiting for anyone else to say a word, the little widow tapped on the roof of the carriage. The driver pulled over to the curb, then opened a little aperture that let him peer back into the cab. “Yes, m’lady? Did you forget something?”
“I did. Or I might. We need to stop by the townhouse for just the briefest moment. You can walk the horses up and down or whatever.”
The man harrumphed, and there was the sound of spitting on the sidewalk. “Old family retainer,” Mrs. Pearthorne said. “And one of the members of my husband’s regiment. He lost a foot in the same skirmish that cost Jemmie his life.”
Amazingly, considering that Janet Pearthorne never stopped talking, they were in and out of her townhouse in less than half a candle mark. It turned out that she and Emma were indeed of a size, so the rose-colored silk did not need to be altered.
The gown was not a deep rose color, but instead a rosy off-white with the slightest bit of blush about it. The cut was of a style two years old, but still quite elegant. Mrs. Pearthorne’s abigail managed to work three modest ostrich feathers into the edge of the figure-eight knot on the back of Emma’s head so that they almost had the effect of a cap, with the one closest to the top draping over her head and tickling her brow.
“You are beautiful!” Mrs. Pearthorne exclaimed.
“Of course, she is,” Aunt Alicia affirmed. “Did I not say so?”
“Oh, you did. And now she meets the criteria for being presented. I shall be the envy of everyone for having secured her to my circle first.”
“Your circle?” Emma asked. “I don’t understand.”
“Everyone at court has a circle of friends. The more influential, lovely, or well-spoken the members of your circle, the greater your standing.”
“But I’ve never been to court. I cannot imagine what anyone would see in me.” Emma felt quite bewildered and more than a little flustered between the quick costume change and the widow’s intense scrutiny.
“My dear,” said the widow, “You designed quite a lovely walking dress. It is no fault of yours that you did not realize that even though it might be appropriate for a country ball that you could never carry it off at court. I suspect that this means that you are quite clever. I am surprised, however,” and she raised her eyebrows at Mrs. Brown, “that your aunt did not give you better instruction.”
Mrs. Brown flushed a little, obviously embarrassed. Emma quickly interceded.
“I told her I would take care of it out of my allowance. Only . . .” Now it was her turn to flush a little pink.
“Only?” Mrs. Pearthorne quirked one eyebrow at her.
“Only there was this wonderful book of natural history and another about the language of flowers. Then I found a new book by the author of Sense and Sensibility. I simply could not resist them. After that, I hadn’t the price of silk yardage.”
“Tsk.” Mrs. Pearthorne clicked her tongue against her teeth. “I quite understand the exigencies of living on an allowance. I have a similar constraint since my dear Jemmie was torn from me. Perhaps I will be able to instruct you in some of the ways to look as if you shopped at the most tonnish establishments without straining your purse. But now we must hasten back to the coach for if we stand about talking, we shall indeed be late.”
They arrived in good time, for people were still entering the palace and being ushered down an immensely elegant hall. Emma looked all about her, trying not to stare. She had always thought the main hall at home quite grand, but this immense space was utterly awe-inspiring.
“We are fashionably late, and have missed the crush at the main door,” Mrs. Pearthorne pointed out. “And I cannot begin to tell you how envious everyone will be when I introduce you at Almack’s. Lady Jersey will be here tonight, and I am certain I will be able to wheedle a voucher from her for each of us.”
“No need for me,” Aunt Alicia began to say.
“Of course, there is need! While I would be more than willing to chaperone her, I am not of a sufficiently respectable age to manage it. You must come to keep us both in good stead.”
“Very well, I shall act as gooseberry for both of you. But do not expect me to hover over you. I believe I shall have some other friends in attendance tonight, and it will be a rare opportunity for me to visit with them. Mr. Brown and I are so seldom in London, this is quite an occasion for me as well as for Emma.”
“Fair enough. But if our behavior becomes outrageous, you will only have yourself to blame.” The merry little widow shook her finger at Mrs. Brown and grinned in a most unladylike manner.
Emma placed one white-gloved hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle.
Mrs. Pearthorne drew Emma and her aunt to a line of young ladies who were slowly advancing toward a doorway to the Queen’s withdrawing room. As they went, Emma noticed that the young ladies went in one at a time, and then backed out of the room.
“What are they doing?” Emma whispered to Mrs. Pearthorne.
“They are backing out of the room. You must not turn your back on the Queen. And do not take up her time with aimless chatter. You want to make a good impression.”
When Emma went in, it was all she could do not to gape at the wonders she beheld. The walls were hung with tapestries, with gilt-framed landscapes hanging in front of them. The ceiling overhead seemed to be painted with a celestial scene made of sky, clouds, and winged beings. Chubby cherubs danced around the top of the dark wood wainscoting.
Her Majesty, Queen Charlotte, sat in an ornate chair, dressed in a dark gown with a gauzy white apron that was so filmy Emma knew right away that it never saw service even as protection against dust. Somehow, the gown helped the Queen look both regal and motherly all at the same time. Her retainers were clustered on both sides of her.
As Emma approached, she realized that far from looking grand as she had first thought, Queen Charlotte looked sad and a little tired. It was at that moment that Emma decided to truly be on her best behavior. When she reached just the right spot, one of the ladies in waiting gave her just the slightest nod, and Emma executed the best curtsy she knew how to make. The queen beckoned to her to approach.
When Emma drew near, she repeated the curtsy. Queen Charlotte put out her hand, drawing Emma even closer.
“You look very much like your mother,” Queen Charlotte said. “I met her once when we were both very young, before she was wed.” Then the Queen leaned forward and kissed Emma on the forehead.
Emma was so astonished, she scarcely knew what to do next. But one of the retainers slightly behind the Queen made little shooing motions, so Emma dropped another curtsy and almost whispered, “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Emma then began backing away, which was not the easiest thing to do in the elaborate dress. The helpful retainer made little steering motions to her until she managed to back out of the door and away to the side so the young widow could take her turn.
Once Mrs. Pearthorne had made her way out of the withdrawing room, she also gave a sigh of relief. “That was not as much of an ordeal as I feared it might be,” she said. “I think there is a light supper laid out in the ballroom, with dancing to follow after. Shall we go see what might be had?”
Emma immediately assented. She realized that in her haste to be ready when her aunt and friend called for her that she had quite forgotten about eating. While making her curtsy to Queen Charlotte, she had been far too nervous to eat. Now she was ravenous.
Just then, Emma’s aunt spotted an old friend, and true to her word, went off with a cluster of older ladies, all twittering together like a flock of sparrows.
The tea laid out for the guests was modest, in keeping with wartime economies. There was tea, of course, white bread and butter, an assortment of small cakes and a delicate ice sculpture that was already melting in the warm air of the closely packed room.
Mrs. Pearthorne drew Emma over to a row of chairs against the wall, and they both sat, grateful for the opportunity. Emma had entirely loaded her plate with bread and butter, and three dainty little cakes. Mrs. Pearthorne had one small cake on her plate. Both had a cup of tea.
Emma bit hungrily into one of the slices of bread and butter.
“Small bites,” Mrs. Pearthorne murmured. “No doubt you are starving, but we do not want to appear as ravening wolves. Besides, you want to save some room for when your swains bring food to you.”
“Swains? What swains?” Emma asked, glancing around. “I see a large amount of space all about us.”
Mrs. Pearthorne took a sip of her tea. “Just wait, my friend’s dear niece, and they will shortly appear.”
Emma took smaller bites, but she still managed to clear her plate down to the cake in record time.
Just as she was biting into the first little cake, a lanky man in regimentals with a captain’s insignia came over to Mrs. Pearthorne.
“Mrs. Pearthorne!” he exclaimed. “Are you finally out of mourning?”
“I shall always be in mourning for Captain Pearthorne,” she replied. “But I felt a breath of fresh air would do me good, Captain Arnault.”
The captain snorted. “Fine chance you’ll have of drawing a breath of fresh air in here. I don’t suppose I could beg the honor of a dance?”
“No, I’m afraid not. Out of respect to my late husband, I shall remain on the sidelines. But let me introduce you to the niece of my dear friend. Emma, this is Captain Roger Arnault, who was on the Continent with my late husband. Captain, this is Miss Emma Hoskins, niece of Mrs. Herbert Brown, and daughter to Gilbert Hoskins, Baron of Calber.”
“Surely I might beg of you a dance, Miss Hoskins?”
“I only know country dances, Captain Arnault.”
“What good fortune it is that one is starting up right now.”
Emma looked at the widow for guidance. Mrs. Pearthorne made little shooing motions with her hand.
By the time Emma returned, a little breathless because the dance was a fast one, Mrs. Pearthorne was surrounded by quite a crowd of young men. Most of them were in regimentals, but a few were in the quiet clothing worn by country squires, while one or two others were resplendent in the black and white favored by Almack’s. One tall gentleman bowed graciously and moved away as Emma approached. He was dressed all in black, as if he, too, were in mourning.
In a very few moments, Emma’s dance card was completely filled, with Captain Arnault having claimed her as his dinner companion. Mrs. Pearthorne was accompanied by the gentleman clothed in black. She introduced him to Emma, but she was in too much of a whirl with all the dancing and names to remember it.
After dinner, there was more dancing. Mrs. Brown came back from talking with her friends, and Mrs. Pearthorne went off to make up a fourth at playing cards. As the last dance was ending, Emma returned to discover Mrs. Brown speaking with a lean man who was clad in the highest fashion. He carried a walking stick, and bright gems flashed from every finger.
“ . . . have to apply to her father,” Emma heard her say. “I am only her chaperone, not her guardian.”
“I shall be sure to call on him,” the man said. “She has quite caught my eye, but I was too late to claim a dance. Mrs. Pearthorne’s military friends had completely filled in every space on her card.”
“I am sorry,” Emma said. “Have I done something wrong?”
“No, no.” The gentleman turned to her, “Au contraire. It is marvelous to see a young lady enjoying herself. I am only regretting that I was too slow to claim a dance. Perhaps,” he added, addressing her aunt, “you could introduce us?”
The expression on Mrs. Brown’s face was wooden, but she unhinged her set jaw enough to say, “Emma, allow me to introduce Percy Harlow, Earl of Cleweme. He has announced his intention to call on your father to ask for your hand in marriage.”
Emma’s mouth dropped open in a most unladylike fashion. “B-but, this is only my first dance. I thought I would have a whole season of dances.” She realized that she was nearly whining like a schoolroom miss and lifted her chin. “You are welcome to apply to my father, but I do not feel that I am ready to make a choice at this time.”
“Spirit as well as beauty,” the Earl said with a smile. “I like that. I shall be sure to apply to your father at the earliest opportunity.”
Mrs. Pearthorne floated up to the group. “Your Lordship,” she said with cloying sweetness, “What a surprise to find you here, fluttering around the brightest light at the ball.”
“You have always said that I had good taste,” the Earl said, “I am amazed that you have allowed yourself to be eclipsed.”
Mrs. Pearthorne sighed. “Alas, my time is done, my ship has sailed and taken my one true love on it. No other could rival him. Now, if you will please excuse us, Your Lordship,” she somehow managed to put a bitter twist on the title, “the hour is growing late. I have come only to collect my companions that we might travel home.”
The Earl gave them a shallow bow, “Then I will wish you Godspeed and safe journey. Miss Hoskins, I hope to be calling upon you soon.”
Mrs. Pearthorne folded in her lips and said nothing at all. For a lady who could keep up a non-stop flow of chatter in nearly any situation, this was ominous indeed.
When they were safely in the coach, the widow burst out, “Alicia, you cannot be contemplating that slime for Emma.”
“I am not. However, I could scarcely refuse him, so I directed him to my brother.”
“Father won’t care,” Emma said. “He would be happy to be rid of me. I am only an embarrassment and an unfortunate reminder to him.”
“Can this truly be so?” Mrs. Pearthorne turned to Mrs. Brown. “How could any father be upset at having such a lovely daughter?”
“Unfortunately,” Mrs. Brown looked down at her gloved hands in her lap, “Emma closely resembles her dear mother, who was lost to us in childbirth. My brother blames Emma for her mother’s death and can scarcely bear the sight of her.”
“Oh, dear. That is, indeed, unfortunate. I see why you might fear that he would marry her off to the first eligible bachelor to ask for her hand. In most cases, that would be a way for Emma to escape an intolerable situation, but I fear that Lord Percy would hardly fill the bill.”
“Why so?” Mrs. Brown looked worried.
“He has a certain,” Mrs. Pearthorne made a slight moue, “reputation. The ink was scarcely dry upon my marriage lines before he came around, insinuating that he could keep me entertained while Jemmie was abroad. Nor am I the first soldier’s wife to suffer such attentions. Fortunately, Jemmie had already made arrangements for us to live in Calais. I was never so glad for a ship to sail as the one that took us to the Continent. We were just in time, for it was not long after that the ports closed, with Percy Harlow firmly on British soil.”
“I don’t think I like him, Aunt Alicia. Can you intercede for me with Father? He is highly unlikely to listen to anything I say.”
“I will see what I can do, dear Emma. But I will tell you that my brother is more likely to do what I ask him not to do than to do as I request.”
“Then I’m doomed,” Emma said sorrowfully. “I meet Prince Ugly at my first ball and my Season is over before it is even begun.”
“Perhaps it shall not be so bad as all that,” Mrs. Pearthorne comforted her. “Perhaps your father will not like the cut of his jib any better than I.”
But Emma could tell that the words were empty. With heavy heart, aching feet, and a head that was beginning to throb, she got out of the carriage at her father’s townhouse and went up the stairs to bed. Why is it that just as I think something good might happen, it seems likely that Father will take it all away?
By the end of dinner, Leo had satisfied himself that Mrs. Pearthorne was not in dire straits financially or emotionally. Captain Pearthorne had been a man with a solid head for business, and he had left his widow well provided for. She was saddened by his absence, to be sure and even more regretful that there had been no children. But she was, indeed, writing a memoir.
“With which I shall not bore you,” she announced with a wicked little laugh. “But you, of all the people who fear they might appear in its pages, actually do play a role as our stalwart sea captain.”
“Do I, indeed?” he drawled. “I hope you have not pierced me through with that wicked wit for which you are so famous.”
“Oh, la, no! Your Grace, you are portrayed in the most propitious light. We had such a lovely time on your boat . . .”
“Ship,” he corrected gently.
“Whatever. We had a lovely time, and I shall treasure those moments forever.” The little widow dabbed at her eyes with a white handkerchief edged in black lace. “I had high hopes of sailing home with Jemmie on the same boat. Alas, it was not to be.”
Seeing that her grief truly was genuine, Leo forbore twitting her about calling his lovely ship, the Menhiransten, a “boat” as if it were a wallowing tub of a freighter or a fishing vessel.
Leo nearly choked on his wine, when the Earl of Cleweme perched on a chair a little way down the table. “What is it?” the perspicacious Mrs. Pearthorne asked.
“Nothing. It is nothing,” Leo growled. “Just someone I had hoped not to see tonight. But there he is, the scoundrel.”
“Oooo, La! So fierce!” she commented. “Perhaps I should add him to my book.”
“Don’t. He would spoil the whole thing for he has neither grace nor charm,” Leo growled.
Mrs. Pearthorne glanced down the table, then gave a delicate little shudder. “No, I don’t want him in my book. I was quite glad to be on your sailing vessel rather than in our little cottage. Even France was better than spending month after month repulsing his advances.”
“Advances? And you a married woman?”
She nodded. “But only to a mere Captain. He outranked Jemmie, so we chose to run away, and I became a camp follower. It was quite interesting, really.”
“I’m sure,” Leo said, a somber scowl on his face.
“Oh, do not look so! He will see and make life difficult. Right now, I think he is on the . . . oh, how do you say it? Hunt? Prowl? For a rich wife, or at least one with advantageous land.”
“And what kind of land would he find advantageous?” Leo asked quietly.
“Oh, a bit of seacoast, I believe. Cleweme is quite landlocked, you know.”
“Yes, I know. And I am grateful for it. Seacoast, is it? That is quite an interesting tidbit, my dear Mrs. Pearthorne.”
“It is, is it not? One almost wonders what he might be up to.”
“Yes, one does wonder. Still, I am out of it for now. I’ve made my leg in Parliament today and hope to soon go home to Menhiransten. I have had to give up command of one ship of that name, now I shall go see what sort of mess my father made of the other.”
“Was he not provident?”
“Well enough, very much a man of his day. Thank goodness neither he nor my brother were part of Prinny’s inner circle. I’ve heard that it can be quite ruinous.”
“Since I do not move in such rarified society, I really have no idea. But I do understand that there are those who profit from their behavior. Truly, I do believe it best to stay away, if at all possible.”
“You are a wise woman, Mrs. Pearthorne. Now, I must go bid adieu to Her Majesty, for it is my hope to make an early start for Menhiransten in the morning.”
“Must you go so soon? I have a young protégé here tonight. I had hoped to make her known to you.”
“I am sorry, m’lady, but I truly must go. It has been a trying day and attempting small talk with a miss fresh out of the schoolroom is not on my agenda.”
“Very well,” said Mrs. Pearthorne. “Another time, perhaps.”
“Perhaps,” he agreed and went to make his excuses to the Queen.
Leo had not quite made it to the Queen’s chambers when he was accosted by Captain Arnault. “Admiral!” the captain called jovially. “You are just the man I want to see.” Leo groaned inwardly but turned to face the man with a polite smile on his face. “Captain. To what do I owe the honor?”
“To chance, that fickle servant of fate, but I could use your help.”
“In what way can I serve you, Captain?”
“Is it true that you are now the Duke of Menhiransten?”
Captain Arnault opened his mouth, then closed it. “Pray excuse my boorishness, You Grace, but I’m flummoxed as to whether I should congratulate you or offer condolences on your loss.”
“I believe condolences would be correct, Captain, since I only just came from my father and brother’s funeral this morning. And for acquiring the title as well, since I suspect that having it will be a dead bore. Again, how is it that I might serve you?”
Captain Arnault reddened slightly at the rebuke. “Begging your pardon, Your Grace, I’m just a plain army captain come up through the ranks. It was not my intent to give offense.”
“Roger, that is a bit too ripe. You’ve never been ‘just’ anything. Tell me now, what is it that you need?”
“Horses, sir. I’ve caught wind of an estate that is being auctioned off, and that has some prime ‘uns. What with battles and all, my cavalry unit is all but riding on each other’s shoulders. But if I go nigh it, the prices will shoot sky-high because they know that the army is a reliable buyer.”
“Now it all begins to make sense. Well, Captain, for such a cause I am yours to command. When do you want to make a dicker for these steeds?”
“Tomorrow, sir, ah…that is, Your Grace. The auction is to be tomorrow. Down in Cheapside. They are putting up a temporary paddock and auction tent. Some merchant or other went bankrupt, and all his goods are being put on the block to pay his duns.”
“It will delay me a day, but I understand your desire to get mounts for your men and not leave it to chance. I’ll be glad to meet with you in the morning. For now, I’d like to pay my respects to Queen Charlotte and be on my way to my bed.”
“Of course, Your Grace. I am in your debt.”
Leo’s stiff expression softened a little. “Think nothing of it. I am glad to see our brave men well mounted if it is possible to do it.”
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