Lady Eve’s Indiscretion
Book 7 in the Windham series
To gain leverage in his efforts to get custody of his niece, Lucas Denning, newly minted Marquis of Deene, needs an heir, a fat marriage settlement, and a wife of impressive social standing. Lady Eve Windham‘s bad judgment where men are concerned cost her virtue, her confidence, and—because it also involved a nasty fall from her horse—her love for horses. In a weak moment, Eve is compromised into marriage with the handsome Lord Deene, who asks her to get back on the horse and stake everything on one glorious ride.
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“What you seek to accomplish, my lord, is arguably impossible.”
Earnest Hooker shuffled files at his desk 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 rarified 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 couer?”
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 curtseyed 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 Staines 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 Assemblee. “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 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 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 scones in more than just the servant’s 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.
“Having family in your employ is always a mixed blessing.”
His Grace, the Duke of Moreland, made this observation while Deene ambled along at his side in the gardens behind the Moreland mansion. “You want to provide for your dependents, and you expect they’ll be somewhat more loyal than strangers would be, but it can also get complicated.”
“Anthony has done a magnificent job,” Deene countered. “He’s never once by word or deed indicated he has designs on the title.”
His Grace paused to sniff a white rose. “Then you are fortunate indeed, since he’s all the family you’ve got.”
His Grace straightened. “There is the girl. I’d forgotten, but you likely haven’t. How does she go on?”
Upon the death of Deene’s father, Percival, Duke of Moreland, had come calling with his duchess as part of the usual round of condolence visits. The Moreland estates neighbored with the seat of the Deene marquessate, and if nothing else, His Grace and his late lordship had ridden to hounds together countless times.
What had begun as a neighborly gesture had turned into something unprecedented in Deene’s experience: A mentorship of sorts on Moreland’s part.
“The girl isn’t in poor health, from what I can tell. Dolan does not permit me to call.”
“He wouldn’t turn your wife away.”
Deene didn’t flatter himself that he was any particular friend of Moreland’s—he was a vote, perhaps, on some of the duke’s pet bills—but Moreland had been generous with advice at a time when Deene was without much wisdom of his own.
“Except I have no wife.”
This provoked a surprisingly sweet smile from His Grace. “Then you should rectify that poverty posthaste. Because I am the lone male in my household at present, I am more privy to the ladies’ views on your situation than I would be otherwise. I understand you are being stalked by the debutantes and their mamas.”
“Of course I am being stalked.” Lest this conversation continue on into the Moreland home itself, Deene gestured to a bench and waited for Moreland to seat himself before doing the same. “I am the highest available title, unless you count some septuagenarian dukes with ample progeny, and I am in need of an heir. When I am riding to hounds, I will never pursue Reynard with quite the same lack of sympathy I have in the past.”
“The fox most often escapes the hounds, because he’s running for his life. The wrong wife can make you entirely resent yours.”
How honest could one be with a man twice one’s age?
“I cannot say my parents’ union escaped such a characterization.”
His Grace stretched out long legs and leaned his head back, closing his eyes. “Times were different then. Matches were usually arranged by the parents for dynastic reasons, and expectations of the institution were different. Here is my advice to you, young man, which you may discard or heed at your pleasure: Do not marry until you meet that person whom you cannot imagine living the rest of your life without. Call it love, call it affection, call it a fine understanding. Put whatever label you want on it. You will be wed for the rest of your life or perhaps for hers, and that can be a long, long time.”
His Grace sat up and speared Deene with a look. “Take your cousin about with you socially. Have him shadow your moves so you’re not waylaid in the rose arbor by some scheming minx. I know of what I speak, young Deene, having climbed out of more than one window in my heedless youth. If it hadn’t been for my brother Tony, there’s no telling what my fate might have been.”
The confidence was surprising and… endearing. Moreland was tall, with the ramrod straight posture of the former cavalry officer and a head of distinguished white hair to go with blue eyes that could turn arctic when his will was opposed.
Just now though, the man did not look so much like a duke as he did like a husband, a papa, a hale old fellow man who valued his family above anything else.
“And here comes my duchess now to make sure I’m not lecturing you into a stupor.” His Grace rose smoothly to his feet and met his duchess on the graveled walk. “My dear, I was just coming to fetch you.”
She greeted Deene genially then gave His Grace her hand, which he tucked onto his arm.
“Deene, you will excuse us? Her Grace has requested my escort on a visit to Westhaven’s household, and this is a privilege I would not forego even to ensure I have your vote on the shipping amendments.”
Deene bowed to the duchess, who very likely fit Eve’s definition of an English beauty even in the woman’s sixth decade of life: Tall, willowy, kind green eyes, and hair shading from gold to wheat around a face still lovely and unlined.
“Your Graces, I bid you good day, and of course you have my vote, Moreland.”
“Run along into the house, then. I’m sure the girls will be sitting down to lunch. You can ask them who’s most desperate for a husband and avoid the traps accordingly.” His Grace winked, patted his duchess’s hand, and led her off in the direction of the mews.
They had a peace about them, a sense of effortless communion Deene found fascinating, even as it made his chest feel a trifle queer.
He would not be joining the ladies for lunch—the lunching hour had passed—but he let himself in the French doors leading to the Moreland library, thinking to head straight for the front door.
“Why, Lord Deene. A pleasure.” Louisa, Lady Kesmore, smiled at him, a somewhat unnerving prospect involving a number of straight, white teeth. Lady Jenny’s smile was sweeter, and Eve’s smile was forced. They sat on the sofa, to Deene’s eye a trio of lovely women showing graduated degrees of disgruntlement.
“I beg your pardon, my ladies, Mr. Trottenham. I did not realize I’d be intruding unannounced.”
“Deene, good day.” Trottenham rose and bowed, smacking his heels together audibly. “The more the merrier, I say, what? Saw your colt beat Islingham’s by two lengths. Well done, jolly good and all that. Islingham’s made a bit too much blunt off that animal in my opinion.”
Trottenham apparently had a nervous affliction of the eyebrows, for they bounced up and down as he spoke, suggesting either a severe tic or an attempt to indicate some sort of shared confidence.
“Perhaps the ladies would rather we save the race talk for the clubs?”
“The ladies would indeed,” Louisa said. “Sit you down, Deene, and do the pretty. Mr. Trottenham was just leaving.” She gave a pointed look at the clock, while Eve, who had said nothing, busied herself pouring tea, which Deene most assuredly did not want.
“Leaving?” Trottenham’s eyebrows jiggled around. “Suppose I ought, but first I must ask Lady Eve to join me at the fashionable hour for a drive around The Ring. It’s a beautiful day, and I’ve a spanking pair of bays to show off.”
Deene accepted his cup of tea with good grace. “Afraid she’s not in a position to oblige, Trottenham, at least not today.” He smiled over at Eve, who blinked once then smiled back.
Looking just a bit like Louisa when she did.
“Sorry, Mr. Trottenham.” She did not sound sorry to Deene. “His lordship has spoken for my time today.”
Trottenham’s smile dimmed then regained its strength. “Tomorrow, then?”
Jenny spoke up. “We’re supposed to attend that Venetian breakfast with Her Grace tomorrow.”
“And the next day is His Grace’s birthday. Couldn’t possibly wander off on such an occasion as that,” Louisa volunteered. “Why don’t I see you out, Mr. Trottenham, and you can tell me where you found these bays.”
She rose and took him by the arm, leaving a small silence after her departure, in which Deene spared a moment to pity poor Trottenham.
“I have an appointment at the modiste,” Lady Jenny said, getting to her feet. “Lucas, I’m sure you’ll excuse me.”
She swanned off, leaving Eve sitting before the tea tray and Deene wondering what had just happened. “Did you tell them I’ve a preference for leeks?”
“I did not, but I cannot vouch for the queer starts my sisters take. Does this mean we must drive out?”
He studied her, noting slight shadows under her eyes and a pallor beneath the peaches and cream of her complexion. He hadn’t truly intended the offer, but neither was he exactly unwilling to make good on it.
“Not if you don’t want to. My horse can develop a loose shoe. You can come down with another megrim.”
She grimaced. “I never pretend I have one if I don’t—it’s tempting fate too badly. Are you going to drink your tea?”
“No.” He set the cup and saucer down, feeling vaguely irritated to see her looking pale and peaked. “What’s troubling you, Eve Windham?”
She was silent for a moment, while Deene became aware the library door was closed and there were strawberries on the tray before her. He lifted his gaze from the damned fruit on the tray and clapped his eyes on the lady, which did not do much to stem the useless thoughts proximity to Eve Windham seemed to arouse… provoke, rather.
“I don’t believe in dissembling on general principles.” She glanced out the window to the gardens struggling to advance against a season when the nights were still chilly. “I suppose I can drive out with you.”
“As flattering as your enthusiasm for my company is, I will still oblige you with a turn in the park. Do you need to change?”
He certainly had not intended to spend an hour or two tooling around Hyde Park with Eve Windham, except His Grace’s words echoed in Deene’s head: Ask the Windham sisters about the social scene. Any former cavalry officer understood the benefit of sound intelligence.
Eve would know all the debutantes and the climbers, the ambitious mamas and the young girls politely described as high-strung. Abruptly, this little turn in the park loomed like a fine idea, despite any wayward notions Deene’s male parts might be taking.
“I can go as I am, but I must fetch a wrap.” As she rose, she picked up a strawberry and bit into it, leaving Deene to realize that no matter what they discussed, this little trip around The Ring would be a long drive indeed.
Probably for them both.
As her husband settled onto the coach seat beside her, Esther, Duchess of Moreland, tucked her hand into his.
“Husband, I must ask you something.”
His smile was the embodiment of patience. “If you’re going to quiz me on my habits at the club, I can tell you I’ve been very circumspect in my drinking. There’s nothing more pathetic than some old lord passed out in his chair, droplets of wine staining his linen, yesterday’s copy of The Times crumpled in his lap. You’d think such an example would scare the young fellows into sobriety.”
“It’s about the young fellows I wanted to ask you.”
Beside her, Esther could feel her husband waiting. The patience they had with each other was only one of the blessings reaped from thirty-odd years of marriage.
“Are you meddling a bit, Percival, by having Deene over to the house as often as you do?”
He didn’t immediately break into remonstrations and protests, which suggested the question had been timely.
“He’d do, Esther. Evie bristles when he’s about, but Jenny might suit him.”
They shared a look, part humor, part despair, before His Grace spoke. “I’ve not had Deene’s finances looked into yet, if that’s what you’re asking. I like the man, and I recall all too well what it was like when the title befell us.”
He always referred to it like that: The title befell us, not just him. Our duchy, not simply his dukedom. He was not an arrogant husband, though he could be a very arrogant duke—which Esther did not regard in any way as a fault.
“You think Deene needs a wife, then?”
He patted her hand, a slow stroking gesture that likely soothed him as much as it did her. “The fellow in need of a wife is probably the last fellow to realize his predicament, to wit, your dear and adoring husband in a younger incarnation. Deene’s antecedents did not set a sanguine example in this regard. I’ve encouraged him to choose wisely.”
“You refer to our sons when you allude to fellows not knowing they needed wives.”
This merited her another smile, one hinting of mischief. “With regard to wise choices, of course I do. They take after their papa in this. If Deene were to seek to join our family, Esther, would you approve the match?”
She needed a moment to consider her answer. To better facilitate her cogitation, she laid her head on His Grace’s shoulder.
“He was very kind to Evie when she needed help the other night.”
“Ahh.” In that simple expostulation, Esther understood that her husband divined the direction of her thoughts.
“Our perpetual darling.” His Grace sighed and put an arm around Her Grace’s shoulders. “The proposals have slowed to a trickle, but I’m thinking Tridelphius Trottenham is coming to the sticking point.”
“He will not do.”
“Of course not. Evie always engages the affections of fellows who are perfectly acceptable in any role save that of husband. She has a genius for it.”
They didn’t need to say more on that topic. Eve had her reasons, of which they were all too aware.
Esther again took her husband’s hand in hers. “She’ll get her courage back, Husband. She’s a Windham. She just hasn’t met the right fellow yet.”
His Grace maintained a diplomatic silence, which Esther was wise enough—married enough—to comprehend did not signal agreement.
The day wasn’t exactly warm, but it was sunny. Still, with a stiff breeze resulting from Deene’s horses being at the trot, Eve felt chilled.
And this had to be the reason why she sat a little closer to Deene than was strictly, absolutely proper.
“If you’re cold, there’s blanket under the seat for your lap.”
He glanced over at her. “You’re pale, Eve. Has another megrim been afflicting you?”
The shops and stately homes of Mayfair sped by, though in a couple of hours the streets would likely be too crowded to proceed at such a lively pace. “A gentleman would not remark such a thing.”
He leaned a little closer, as if imparting a confidence. “A lady would not be gripping the handrail as if her driver were about to capsize the vehicle.”
Dratted man. She relaxed her grip.
“Take a breath and make yourself let it out slowly.” He said this quietly too, still in that conspiratorial tone. Eve wanted to elbow him in his ribs. Out of deference to the welfare of her elbow, she took a breath.
Which did help, double drat him.
“We have two perfect gentlemen in the traces,” Deene said. “I traded your brother Devlin for them and got the better of the bargain.”
“How old are they?” Another breath.
“Rising six, and the most sensible fellows you’d ever want put to.”
Eve considered the horses, a pair of shiny chestnuts, each with white socks on both forelegs. “Why didn’t Devlin want them?”
“They’re quite good size for riding mounts, and but I think mostly he wasn’t looking to add to his training responsibilities.”
There was nothing in Deene’s tone to suggest he was being snide, yet Eve bristled. “You saw Devlin at Christmas. He’s doing much better now that he’s married.”
Deene drove along in silence, turning the horses through Cumberland Gate and onto The Ring. Eve kept breathing but realized part of the reason she was in such difficulties.
Since the accident, she’d driven out only with family. She didn’t know if this eccentricity had been remarked by Polite Society, but given the level of scrutiny any ducal family merited, it very likely had.
Her brothers hadn’t been on hand to drive her anywhere for ages. In recent memory, she’d driven out only with her mama. While Her Grace was a very competent whip, even a noted whip among the ladies, Deene at the ribbons was a very different proposition.
A more confident proposition, in some regards. For one thing, he was a great deal larger and more muscular than any duchess; for another, he was former cavalry; and on top of that, he was just… Deene.
“I did not mean to scold,” Eve said. “Devlin had us worried when he came back from Waterloo.”
Deene kept his gaze on the horses. “He had us all worried, Lady Eve.”
She wanted to ask him, as she’d never asked her own brother, what it was that made a man shift from a clear-eyed, doting brother with great good humor and a way with the ladies, to a haunted shell, jumping at loud noises and searching out the decanters in every parlor in the house.
Except she knew.
She must have moved closer to Deene, because he started in with the small talk.
“The leader is Duke, the off gelding is Marquis. They’re cousins on the dam side.”
“There must be some draft in them somewhere,” Eve remarked. Quarters like that didn’t result from breeding the racing lines exclusively. “They’ve good shoulder angles too. Have you ever put them over fences?”
This earned her a different glance. “You’re right, they do. I suppose the next time I take them out to Kent, I’ll have the lads set up a few jumps. Is His Grace still riding to hounds?”
“In moderation. I think you do have a loose shoe on the… on Marquis. Up front.”
“How can you tell?”
“The sound. That hoof sounds different when it strikes the ground. Listen, you’ll pick it up.”
They clippety-clopped along, though to Eve the sound of a tenuous shoe was clear as day.
“Your brothers said your seat was the envy of your sisters,” Deene remarked a few moments later. “When they talked about you taking His Grace’s stallion out against orders, they sounded nothing less than awed.”
“I was twelve, and I wanted to go to Spain to look after my brother. Proving I could ride Meteor seemed a logical way to do that.”
“I gather your plan did not succeed.”
She hadn’t thought about this stunt in ages. Meteor had been a good sort, if in need of reassurance. He was in the pensioner paddocks at Morelands now, his muzzle gray, his face showing the passage of years more than his magnificent body. Eve brought him apples from time to time.
“I had a great ride, though.” It had been a great ride. Her first real steeplechase, from Morelands to the village and back across the countryside, with grooms bellowing behind her, her brother Bart giving chase as well, and all hell breaking loose when she’d eventually brought the horse back to the stables.
“I bet it got you a stout birching, though.”
She had to smile. “Not a birching. His Grace stormed and fumed and shouted at me for an age—not about riding the horse, but about taking him without permission—then condemned me to mucking stalls for a month. Mama was in favor of bread and water and switching my backside until I couldn’t sit a horse anymore.”
“I gather you were sad when the punishment ended?”
He was a perceptive man, and he’d also known her before.
And there it was again, the great divide in Eve’s life: Before the Accident, versus, After the Accident. She forced herself not to drop the thread of the conversation, because that divide was private, known only to her.
“I learned a very great deal in that month from watching the horses, listening to the lads, and seeing them working the horses in the schooling ring. I learned how to care for my tack, how to properly groom a beast and not just fuss about with the brushes, how to tack up and untack, when a horse was cool enough to put away, what to do with an abscess or a hot tendon.”
She fell silent. In some ways that had been the happiest month of her childhood.
Of her life.
Beside her, Deene went abruptly alert. Eve followed his gaze to where a little girl was playing fetch with a spaniel. The governess or nanny was on a bench nearby, reading a book.
“Take the reins, Evie.”
Before Eve could protest that she couldn’t take the reins, she did not want to take the reins, and she would not take the reins, Deene had thrust them into her hands.
He hopped out of the still-moving vehicle and approached the child.
“Uncle Lucas!” The girl squealed her greeting and pelted toward Deene, arms outstretched. The horses shifted a bit at the commotion, making Eve’s insides shift more than bit.
“Steady, gentlemen.” Thankfully, she still had the equestrian skill of sounding more relaxed than she felt. While Deene swept the child up in a hug, Eve also made her hands and arms relax, then her middle, lest the horses pick up on her tension and decide to leave the park at a dead gallop.
She exerted the same discipline over her thoughts as she had her body.
“And, ho.” Obediently, both geldings shuffled to a halt. “Stand, gentlemen.” She gave a little slack in the reins, and thank God, and perhaps Deene’s ability to train a team, the horses stood like statutes.
“Shall I hold ’em, miss?”
The tiger—whose existence Eve had completely forgotten—scrambled off the coach and stood blinking up at her.
“That won’t be necessary. I don’t think his lordship will be long.”
The nanny was speaking to Deene in low tones, her hand plucking at her collar. Deene kept the girl perched on his hip but reached out with one hand and snatched the ball from the woman’s hands. He pitched it quite hard, then set the girl down while the dog ran off after the ball.
While Eve watched, Deene took the girl’s hand and led her over to the curricle.
“Lady Eve, there’s somebody I’d like to introduce you to. This is my niece, Miss Georgina Dolan. Georgie, Lady Eve is my friend, so please make your curtsey.”
The girl dipped a perfect curtsey. “Pleased to meet you, my lady.”
She came up grinning, as if she knew she’d done it exactly as instructed.
Eve smiled down at a pair of dancing blue eyes framed by fat, golden sausage curls.
“Miss Georgina.” Eve inclined her head on a smile. “A pleasure. Is that your dog?”
“Charles. He’s the best. My papa got him for me when I turned seven. Are these your horses?”
“They belong to your uncle.” Who remained at the child’s side, holding her hand. “Their names are Duke and Marquis. I’m sure your uncle would let you pet them.”
“Uncle?” She turned a wheedling smile on Deene. “I don’t want to pet them, I want to ride them.”
“Which would get horsehair all over your pretty dress, my dear, and render your nanny apoplectic.”
The governess, a prim blond, was looking nervous enough, standing just a few feet off, the ball at her feet, the dog sitting nearby panting mightily.
“You took me up before you a long time ago,” the child said. “When I was just a baby.”
“You were not a baby, but it was a long time ago,” Deene replied, his smile tight. “I’m sure your papa would ride out with you if you asked him.”
A mulish expression blighted otherwise angelic features, giving the girl a resemblance to her uncle. “He will not. Papa is too busy, and he says I can’t have a pony until I speak French and we’re in the country, which won’t be until forever, because the roses aren’t even blooming yet.”
Deene’s lips flattened, which was a curious reaction to a child’s predictable griping.
“I’ll bet you can draw a very pretty pony, though,” Eve suggested. “One with bows in his mane and even one in his tail.”
The child shot Eve a frown. “I thought a bow in the tail meant the horse kicked.”
“At the hunt meet, it can mean that. In your drawing, you can make it just for decoration.”
The nanny had approached a few feet closer, her expression almost tormented. Clearly, the woman wasn’t used to having her charge plucked from her care. Deene’s glance at the governess was positively venomous, but thankfully aimed over the child’s head.
“Can you play some fetch with me and Charles, Uncle?”
“Eve, would you mind?”
“May I play too?” For some reason, she did not want to leave Deene, the child, and the woman to their own devices.
“Oh, please!” Georgina shrieked and clapped her hands together. Marquis took a single step in reaction, which should have sent Eve into a blind panic.
“Settle, Marquis.” The beast flicked an ear at Eve’s voice and held still.
Deene had only to glance at his tiger, and the boy was up at the horses’ heads while Deene himself helped Eve from the vehicle.
“We can play catch, all of us,” Georgina caroled, grabbing Eve and Deene by the hand, “and Charles will run mad between us. He loves to run and loves to come to the park. I love to come to the park too, and I think Miss Ingraham does also. She reads lurid novels, though I would never tell Papa.”
Children were like this. Eve used to volunteer to watch the little ones in the nursery at church, and this startling honesty was something she’d forgotten. She’d been this honest once: I don’t want to pet them, I want to ride them.
She played catch, berating Deene sorely when he threw the ball too high over her head, tossing it gently to the girl, and keeping an eye on the fretful governess. When even the dog was too tired to play anymore, Deene went down on one knee.
“Give me a hug, Georgie. I must take Lady Eve home now, and if we play any longer, you’ll have to carry Charles back to your house.”
The girl bundled in close and wrapped her arms around her uncle’s neck. While they embraced, Deene’s hand stroked over the little blond head, the expression in his eyes… bleak.
He kissed the girl’s cheek, stood, and led the child over to her caretaker. “My thanks for your patience, miss.”
The woman muttered something too low for Eve to hear, and then Deene was handing Eve up into the curricle. The tiger climbed up behind, and Deene just sat there.
He did not take up the reins.
He did not speak.
“Deene?” His face was set in a expression Eve hadn’t seen before—angry and determined, for all she couldn’t say exactly which handsome feature portrayed which emotion, or how.
“You’ll have to drive, Evie.”
She didn’t question him. He was clearly in no state to take the reins. She unwrapped them, took up the contact with each horse’s mouth, glanced back to make sure the tiger was holding on, and gave the command to walk on.
“Is there a reason why you’re off balance, Deene?”
He snorted. “Off balance? A fair term for it, and yes, there are many reasons, the most recent being that the climbing Irish bastard who sired my niece had to go and give the damned dog my father’s Christian name. Dolan’s disrespect is about as subtle as a runaway ale wagon.”
As Eve sat beside him and drove the horses along at a relaxed trot, Deene became aware that he was grinding his teeth, which was hardly proper conduct in the presence of a lady.
“I beg your pardon for my language, Lady Eve.”
She didn’t take her gaze from the horses, just sat serenely on the bench. “I didn’t know you had a niece.”
He should have realized the child might be in the park at an odd hour. He’d set his spies loose in the mornings, when most nursemaids took children for an outing. Now he’d know to keep watch at all hours.
“I am barely allowed the appearance of being her uncle.”
“Her father is protective?”
Deene counted to ten; he counted to ten in Latin and then in French. “He is barely deserving of the name Father. The child is kept virtually prisoner in her own home, and she has no friends. I am not permitted to call on her, though I am permitted to send her presents, and she sends the occasional carefully worded note of thanks. Dolan would never look askance at material goods, but he treats that girl…”
He was nigh to ranting, but Eve did not appear at all discommoded by his words.
“He raises protectiveness to a vulgar art,” Deene concluded. Georgie was a possession to Dolan, just as Marie had been a possession, a prize.
Eve turned the horses onto Park Lane while Deene counted to twenty in Italian.
“What was that comment Mr. Trottenham made about your colt beating Islingham’s?” Eve asked.
Ah, she was Changing the Subject, bless her. Deene seized on the new topic gratefully.
“I got tired of hearing the old man brag on his colt and decided to turn King William loose for once.”
She clucked to the horses, who picked up the pace a touch. “King William is a horse?”
Deene propped his foot on the fender. “King William is a force of nature in the form of a colt rising four. He’s going to be the making of my racing stud, if only I can find the right balance of conditioning and competing for him.”
Eve smiled at the horses before them. “He has the heart of a champion, then. He wants to run even when he needs to laze about for a day or two, am I right?”
“You are exactly right. He doesn’t want to run, he needs to run, needs to show the other boys who’s fastest. Put him against a filly, and he’s greased lightning.”
She feathered the horses through a turn made tight by an empty dray near the curb. “I’d forgotten Devlin’s stud farm was originally one of your parcels. Do you spend much time there?”
Without Deene realizing exactly when or how, his ire at Georgie’s father, his towering frustration, and even—a man did not admit this outside his own thoughts—his sense of helplessness faded into any horseman’s enthusiasm for his sport. And Eve did not merely humor him with a pained smile on her features; she participated in the conversation with equal enthusiasm as Deene waxed eloquent about his stud colt.
“I’ve never met a stallion with quite as much personality as Wee Willy. The lads dote on him and cosset him as if he were their firstborn son.”
“Is he permitted apples?”
“In moderation. He’s a fiend for sugar or anything sweet though.”
“Typical male.” She gave him such a smile then, it was as if somebody had put a lump of sugar on Deene’s own tongue. That smile said she was pleased with him, with herself, with life and all it beheld—and all he had done was talk horses with her.
When they turned onto the square before the Moreland mansion, Deene was almost sorry to see the outing end. He helped Eve down from the vehicle, then paused for a moment, his hands at her waist.
“We never did broach the topic I’d intended to bring up.”
She had her hands braced on his arms, making him realize again how diminutive she was.
“What topic was that?”
He let her go and signaled to the tiger to walk the horses while he offered Eve his arm. “I’ll walk you in, but let’s go by way of the gardens, shall we?”
She took the hint and trundled along beside him quietly until they were away from the street.
“My original agenda for requesting your company this afternoon was not to talk your ear off about King William.”
She took a bench behind a privet hedge and patted the place beside her. “Your agenda was rescuing me from Mr. Trit-Trot, though I fear you’re too late. He has that blindly determined look in his eye.”
“Trit-Trot?” While he took the place beside her, Eve took off her bonnet and set it aside, then smoothed her hand over her hair.
When that little delaying tactic was at an end, she grimaced. “Louisa finds these appellations and applies them indiscriminately to the poor gentlemen who come to call. She’s gotten worse since she married. Tridelphius Trottenham, ergo Trit-Trot, and it suits him.”
“Dear Trit-Trot has a gambling problem.”
One did not share such a thing with the ladies, generally, but if the idiot was thinking to offer for a Windham daughter, somebody needed to sound a warning.
And as to that, the idea of Trit-Trot—the man was now doomed to wear the unfortunate moniker forevermore in Deene’s mind—kissing any of Moreland’s young ladies, much less kissing Eve, made Deene’s sanguine mood… sink a trifle.
“He also clicks his heels in the most aggravating manner,” Eve said, her gaze fixed on a bed of cheery yellow tulips. “And he doesn’t hold a conversation, he chirps. He licks his fingers when he’s eaten tea cakes, though he’s a passable dancer and has a kind heart.”
Bright yellow tulips meant something in the language of flowers: I am hopelessly in love. In his idiot youth, Deene had sent a few such bouquets to some opera dancers and merry widows.
Rather than ponder those follies, Deene considered the woman beside him. “I never gave a great deal of thought to how much you ladies must simply endure the company of your callers. Is it so very bad?”
She shifted her focus up, to where a stately oak was sporting a reddish cast to its branches in anticipation of leafing out. “It’s worse now that Sophie, Maggie, and Louisa are married. One heard of the infantry squares at Waterloo, closing ranks again and again as the French cavalry charged them. I expect we two youngest sisters share a little of that same sense.”
Oak leaves for bravery.
He spoke slowly, the words dragged past his pride by the mental plough horse of practicality. “I might be able to help, Eve, and you could do me a considerable service in return.”
Now she studied a lilac bush about a week away from blooming. First emotions of love.
“You already rendered me a considerable service, Lucas.” She spoke very quietly, and hunched in on herself, bracing her hands on the bench beneath them.
She’d called him Lucas. He’d been Lucas to the entire Windham family as a youth, and now he was Lucas to no one save Georgie. He wasn’t sure if he liked this presumption on Eve’s part, or resented it.
“I can have a word with Trit-Trot if you want me to run him off.”
She waved a hand. “I’ll mention the fact that I have only two dozen pairs of shoes, and the Season is soon upon us. In the alternative, I can suggest I’m never up before noon because I must have my drops every night without fail just to sleep. The tittering has slowed him down some, and if that doesn’t serve, I’ll turn up pious.”
So casual, and yet as she sat there on the bench, scuffing one slipper over the gravel, a battle-weary woman.
On impulse, he reached over and plucked her a yellow daffodil.
“What’s this?” She accepted the flower in a gloved hand, bringing it to her nose for a whiff.
Yellow daffodils for chivalry.
“You look in need of cheering up, but I see my offer was arrogant.”
“What offer was that?”
“I was going to assist you to assess the prospects of the various swains orbiting around you, and you were going to keep me informed regarding the ladies circling me.”
Now that he put the scheme into words, it sounded ungentlemanly, but Eve was not taking offense. She sat straighter and put the flower carefully to the side on the bench.
“You’ve been traveling off and on for the past few years,” she said. “This can put a man behindhand when in Polite Society.”
Egypt, the Americas, anywhere to escape his father and the man’s scathing tirades.
“I’ll be keeping to home territory for the foreseeable future, and you’re right: I have no idea who is overusing her laudanum, who owes far too much to the modistes, and whose mama plays too deep in unmentionable places.”
Now that he enumerated a few of them, the pitfalls for an unwary suitor seemed numerous and fraught.
Eve regarded her slippered toes. “Before the boys married, we used to gossip among ourselves terribly. They never told us everything, I’m sure, but they told us enough. We did the same for them, my sisters and I.”
And this was likely part of the reason no Windham son had been caught in any publicly compromising position, nor had any Windham daughters. And now the Windham infantry had been deserted by both cavalry and cannon.
While he had ever marched alone, which was a dangerous approach to any battle. “What do you know of the Staines ladies? They’re very determined, almost too determined.”
He asked the question because he genuinely wanted to know and had no one to ask whom he could trust. He also asked because he sensed—hoped, maybe—that Eve missed providing this sort of intelligence to her brothers.
“Lady Staines has a sister,” she said, dragging one toe through the gravel. “She chronically rusticates in Northumbria, but it’s said she’s quite high-strung.”
“Ah. And the daughter?”
Eve bit her lip then picked up her daffodil. “She did not make a come out until she was nineteen. Nobody knows precisely why, and Lady Staines does not permit the girl to socialize at all without her mama hovering almost literally at her elbow. We tend to feel sorry for Mildred, but she ignores all friendly overtures unless her mother approves them.”
And here he’d been half-considering offering for the girl just to trade the misery of the unknown for the misery of the known. He spent another half hour on that bench, listening to Eve Windham delicately indicate which young ladies might hold up well in a highly visible marriage, and which would not.
“Your recitation is unnerving, my lady.” In fact, what she’d had to say, and the fact that she was privy to so much unflattering information, left him daunted.
“Unnerved you in what regard?”
“I would never have suspected these polite, graceful young darlings of society are coping with everything from violent papas, to brothers who leave bastards all over the shire, to high-strung aunts. It puts a rather bleak face on what I thought was an empty social whirl.”
She did not argue. She sniffed her little daffodil. “Has this been helpful?”
She was entitled to extract her pound of flesh, so he was honest, up to a point. “You have been extremely helpful, and to show my gratitude, will you come with me to Surrey next week to make King William’s acquaintance?”
He put it purposely in the posture of compensation for services rendered, as if that particular exchange was the only one they managed civilly.
Her brows rose while she batted her lips with the flower.
They were pretty lips, finely curved, a luscious pink that put him in mind of a ripe—
The spring air was obviously affecting his male humors.
“I will come with you, provided you’re willing to take Jenny and Louisa as well, if Kesmore can spare her. They’d enjoy such an outing, and I’m sure King William would enjoy the company.”
“We have an appointment, then.”
He rose and bowed over her gloved hand, feeling a vague discontent with their exchange. As he made his way back out to the street, he turned and gave her a wave. She waved back, but the sight of her there on the bench, clutching her lone flower, left a queer ache in his chest.
Thank God, she wasn’t his type. He liked women with dramatic coloring and dramatic passions. Women with whom a man always knew exactly where he stood, and how much the trinket would cost that would allow him to stand a great deal closer.
But Eve Windham could talk horses, she was proving a sensible ally, and he did like to kiss her. She also drove a team like she was born to hold the reins.
What an odd combination of attributes.
“What did Deene say to Miss Georgina?”
Dolan kept his voice even when he wanted to thunder the question to the rafters. Miss Amy Ingraham was not a timid soul, but neither did she deserve bullying. She stood before him on the other side of his massive desk, back straight as a pike, expression that particular cross between blank and deferential only a lady fallen on hard times could evidence to her employer.
“His lordship said very little, sir. He played catch with the child and introduced her to Lady Eve Windham.”
“One of Moreland’s girls?” The duchess herself would have been “Her Grace”—never “lady” this or that. Dolan knew that much, though the entire order of precedence with its rules of address left an Irish stonemason’s son ready to kick something repeatedly.
“I believe Lady Eve is the youngest, sir.”
This was the value of employing a genteel sort of English governess, granddaughter of a viscount, no less. She’d stay up late on summer nights and pore over Debrett’s by the meager light of her oil lamp, and she’d recall exactly which family whelped which titled pups.
“How young is this Lady Eve?”
“She’s been out several years, sir, from what I understand.”
“Did she say anything to Georgina?”
Miss Ingraham took a substantial breath, which drew attention to her feminine attributes. The day he’d hired her, Dolan had noted the woman had a good figure to go with her pretty face and pale blond hair. He knew of no rule that said governesses couldn’t be lovely for their employers to behold, though knowing the English, such a rule no doubt existed.
“Her ladyship complimented Miss Georgina on her curtsey, praised the dog, chided his lordship for throwing the ball too high, and thanked Miss Georgina for giving the horses a chance to rest.”
Lady Eve had chided his lordship. Dolan gave the lady a grudging mental nod, duke’s daughter or not. Deene was in need of a good deal of chiding, though he was no worse than the rest of his arrogant, presuming…
“Was there something more, Miss Ingraham?”
If anything, her spine got straighter.
“Speak plainly, woman. I don’t punish my employees for being honest, though I take a dim view of dishonesty.”
“Miss Georgina seemed to enjoy her uncle’s company very much, as well as that of Lady Eve.”
He peered at Miss Ingraham a little more closely. She had fine gray eyes that were aimed directly at him, and a wide, generous mouth held in a flat, disapproving line.
“How much do I pay you, Miss Ingraham?”
She named a figure that would have kept Dolan’s entire family of twelve in potatoes for a year, which was more a measure of their poverty than the generosity of her salary.
“Effective today, your salary is doubled. Start taking Miss Georgina to St. James’s Park for her outings. That will be all.”
“Are you attending one of Papa’s political meetings, or did Anna shoo you out from underfoot?”
Gayle Windham, the Earl of Westhaven, smiled at his sister’s blunt question.
“Hello to you as well, Louisa.” He passed the reins of his horse off to a groom and glanced from Jenny to Louisa. “You two are up to something.”
Standing there arm and arm, the flower of genteel English womanhood, they exchanged a sororal look. That look spoke volumes, about who would say what to whom, in what order, and how the other sister would respond. Westhaven’s sisters had been exchanging such looks as long as he could recall, and he still had no insight into their specific meanings.
His only consolation was that Maggie had once admitted there were fraternal looks that caused the same degree of consternation among the distaff.
“Walk with us.” Jenny slipped an arm through his, while Louisa strode along on his other side, a two-sister press-gang intent on dragooning him into the mansion’s back gardens.
“Don’t mind if I do. I trust all is well with both of you?”
Jenny smiled at him, her usual gentle smile, which did not fool Westhaven for one moment. Genevieve Windham got away with a great deal on the strength of her unassuming demeanor, almost as much as Louisa got away with on the basis of sheer brass. He kept his peace, though. They’d reveal whatever mischief they were up to when they jolly well pleased to—and wheedling never worked anyway.
“What do we know of Lucas Denning’s marital prospects?” Louisa fired her broadside without warning.
Westhaven stopped walking and shrugged off Jenny’s arm. “Why do we want to know anything at all about such a topic? Among the five of you sisters, I’m fairly certain you could tell me how many teeth, how much blunt, and what type of cattle are associated with every titled bachelor in Polite Society.”
And how they knew such things was enough to unnerve even a very happily married man.
“He has all his teeth,” Jenny observed, linking her arm with Westhaven’s again. “We understand the family coffers are a trifle… reduced, due to the late marquis’s spending habits, and we know Deene owns a racing stud and keeps a nice stable here in Town. We want to know about his prospects.”
Westhaven took the liberty of seating himself on a bench near a patch of yellow tulips. “Haven’t a clue, my dears.”
They were his sisters. Sometimes a little deliberate rudeness was necessary in pursuit of proper sibling relations.
Louisa put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “We aren’t asking out of idle curiosity, you dolt. We need to know, and if you don’t spill, I will simply ask Kesmore. Lucas was racketing about before the old marquis died, and then he went off ruralizing for his mourning, so our usual sources know very little. Is he looking to run in double harness?”
Every prospective duke ought occasionally to be referred to as a dolt, and it was apparently the sworn duty of the man’s sisters to see to the matter.
“He has a title, Lou, and only the one second cousin to inherit. I’m fairly certain he’ll be looking for a filly to run with him in double harness, as you so delicately refer to the state of holy matrimony.”
Another look passed from Jenny to Louisa—a smug, satisfied, so-there sort of look.
“What do you two think you know?”
Jenny sat beside him. “We know, Brother, that we saw Evie driving out with Deene, which would have been remarkable enough.”
He did not ask, for Louisa’s expression confirmed she was dying to shock him further.
She took the remaining end of the bench. “We also know that when they came tooling back, there was Deene, reclining against the seat like the Caliph of Mayfair and Evie handling the ribbons.”
Evie. Handling. The Ribbons… News, indeed. Westhaven rose and turned to glower at them. “You will not remark this to Eve, and you will not tattle to Their Graces.”
“Too late.” Jenny looked worried now, and Louisa looked annoyed, which was her version of what others would call anxiety. “Mama came to the door to see us off on our perambulation, and she saw Evie driving Deene’s team too.”
“We need to warn Evie,” Westhaven muttered. This was what came from making purely social calls on one’s parents, from heeding a wife’s gentle admonitions to spend more time with his siblings.
Now the damned look was directed at him, and he knew very well what it meant. Jenny—ever anxious to be helpful—spelled it out for him anyway. “Yes, Brother, we do need to warn Evie.”
He left them there on the bench, no doubt hatching up more awkwardness for him to deal with. When it suited his family, he was the heir, the duke-in-training, and therefore called upon to handle whatever odd business nobody else wanted to handle.
He desperately hoped Their Graces lived to biblical ages to forestall the day when he graduated to the title altogether. While he was offering up a short prayer to that effect, he found Eve in the music room.
“Greetings, Sister.” She was sitting at the piano, the instrument dwarfing her petite presence.
“Gayle!” She hurried off the bench and hugged him tightly.
A man with five sisters did not dare admit to having favorites. He appreciated each of them for their various attributes: Maggie for her courage and brains; Sophie for her quiet competence and practicality; Louisa for her independence and well-hidden tender heart; Jenny for her determination and kindness.
But Evie… Evie was just plain lovable. Where Jenny smiled and dragged him about by the arm, or Louisa called him a dolt, Evie hugged him and called him by his name.
“Were you thinking to play an étude?” he asked, leading her to a settee against the wall.
“I was thinking to have some privacy. Shall I ring for a tray?”
“No, thank you. As soon as His Grace catches wind of my presence, I’ll no doubt be sequestered in the ducal study with several trays, a decanter, and such a lengthy lecture on whatever damned bill is plaguing our sire at the moment that my appetite will desert me. You’re in good looks, Evie.”
She was. Eve was an exquisite woman in a diminutive package, but today there was something a little rosier about her complexion, a little more animated in her bearing.
“I got some air, which on a spring day is never bad idea. How is Anna?”
He was ever willing to expound on the topic of his countess, but he couldn’t let Eve prevaricate that easily.
“You were out driving with Deene.”
Some of the life went out of her. “Are you going to castigate me for this? I know Lucas has a certain reputation among his fellows.”
“Every unmarried man of means at his age has a certain reputation among his fellows, whether it’s deserved or not.” Though she had a point—at least before his travels, Deene had been somewhat profligate in his appetites.
Somewhat profligate? Was there such a thing?
“He can be decent company.” Eve didn’t seem to be defending the man so much as justifying her actions to herself.
“He has been a firm friend to this family, Evie. I do not raise the subject of your outing to criticize you in any way. I’m asking, rather, because I want to know what the man did that got you to take up the reins when, for seven years, everything your entire family has done in that direction has been unavailing, hmm?”
Gayle was going to be a superb duke. He had a kind of quiet perspicacity about him that fit well with the obligations of both an exalted title and being head of a large family. But he hadn’t yet learned to hide from his eyes the hurt and puzzlement Eve saw virtually every time she caught her brother regarding her.
“I’m not sure what Deene did.” She rose from the sofa, and being a good brother, Gayle allowed her space by remaining seated. “I suppose it was what he didn’t do.”
“I should also like to not do it, then, whatever it was, as would Louisa, Jenny, and—I regret to inform you—Her Grace.”
He did rise, but ambled over to the piano bench, sat, closed the cover, and rested an elbow on it. “It’s just a ride in the park, Evie. If you want my advice, go on as if it didn’t happen.”
“Stare them down. One of Her Grace’s favorite tactics.”
She settled beside him on the piano bench, realizing that she wanted to talk to somebody about this outing with Deene.
“He simply put the reins in my hands and jumped out of the vehicle before the horses had even come to a halt.” Recalling the moment brought a frisson of anxiety to her middle but also a sense of blooming wonder.
“He assumed you were capable of handling a team, which you are.”
Gayle was frowning, as if he, too, were puzzled.
“I am not.” She got to her feet. “I was not.” Again he let her wander the room while he watched her out of curious green eyes. Deene shared Westhaven’s build—tall, a shade more muscular than lanky—but Westhaven had hair of a dark chestnut in contrast to Deene’s blond, blue-eyed good looks.
“I assumed I wasn’t capable,” she eventually clarified. “He proved me wrong, and I have never been happier to be wrong, it’s just… why him?”
“Does it matter? You enjoyed an outing and learned something wonderful about yourself.”
As usual, the man’s logic was unassailable.
“They’re a lovely team, his geldings. Marquis and Duke. His stud colt is King William.” She felt sheepish recounting these details, almost as if she were confessing to Deene taking her hand or kissing her cheek.
“I’ve met His Highness, and if he’s brought along properly, I agree with Deene he’s a one-in-a-million horse. St. Just was quite taken with him as well.”
“Devlin is taken with anything sporting a mane and a tail.”
And then, with breathtaking precision, Westhaven made his point. “You were once too.”
Rotten man. Rotten, honest, brilliant, brave man. How did Anna stand being married to such a fellow?
Eve sank onto the settee but did not meet her brother’s gaze for some time. His four little true words were underscoring something Eve had long since stopped allowing herself to acknowledge: By eschewing her passion for all things equestrian, she’d firmly closed an unfortunate chapter of her life and minimized the possibility of any more severe injuries to her person.
She’d also given up one of her greatest joys and told herself it was for the best.
“I made a small misstep in my enthusiasm to take the reins,” she said.
Gayle waited. He was an infernally patient man.
“I did not want to be in Deene’s debt, so I agreed to assist him in separating the sheep and goats among the Season’s offerings on the marriage market. He has no sisters…” She fell silent rather than further justify her actions. She wasn’t sure they could be justified, except on the odd abacus that had taken up residence between her and the Marquis of Deene.
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate your aid in this regard, Evie.”
There was something ironic in Westhaven’s comment, but not mean. Westhaven would never be mean to his siblings—probably not to anybody—but he could be quite stern and serious.
He got up, crossed the room, and paused to kiss Eve’s forehead before he left for his appointment with the duke.
A good man, a wonderful brother, and even a dear friend.
And still, Eve hadn’t told him she’d agreed to another outing with Deene. Hadn’t told her sisters either.
Deene bit into a pastry only to pull the thing from his mouth and stare at it.
Stale as hardtack, not just inadvertently left sitting out for an hour.
“Something amiss, Cousin?” Anthony lounged at the foot of the table, The Times at his elbow and a steaming plate of eggs, kippers, and toast before him.
“Nothing that a few helpings of omelet won’t set to rights.” Deene dug in, wondering vaguely why The Times wasn’t sitting at his own elbow.
Anthony glanced up from the paper. “You’re off to Surrey today?”
“I am, and in the company of three lovely ladies. Envy me.”
“Three? I’d heard you occasionally entertained two at once, but three is ambitious even for you.” Anthony topped off his teacup from the pot near his other elbow.
“My record is four, if you must know, Denning pride being what it is. And they all four had red hair. Pass the pot, would you?”
What an asinine waste of a night that had been, too. Five people hardly fit in a very large bed, for God’s sake, even when stacked in various gymnastic combinations.
“Why ever would you attempt to please four women at once?” Anthony sounded genuinely intrigued as he slid the pot down the table.
“The idea was for them to please me—which they rather did—and to prove false a certain allegation regarding that dread condition known as whiskey dick in relation to a certain courtesy earl in the Deene succession.”
“I am agog at the lengths you’ve been forced to go to defend the family honor, Lucas.”
Anthony went back to his paper, in case his ironic tone hadn’t underscored the point clearly enough. Just when Deene might have helped himself to more eggs, Anthony looked up again. “Which three ladies will you entertain today?”
“Louisa, Countess of Kesmore, as well as Genevieve and Eve Windham. We’re paying a call on King William, and I am escorting them, not entertaining them.”
“A pretty trio, but two of them are perilously unmarried, need I remind you.”
“As I am, need I remind you. When do you think you can have some figures ready for me, Anthony?”
Anthony peered at the paper and turned the pages over. “Which figures would those be?”
“The ones relating to our cash, our blunt, our coin of the realm.”
Anthony went still in a way that indicated he was not even trying to look like he was reading, but was instead merely staring at the paper while he formulated a polite reply. He sat back and frowned at his empty plate.
“You’re determined on this? You really want to wade through years’ worth of musty ledgers and obscure accountings? I’d commend you for your zeal, but it’s a complicated, lengthy undertaking, and it truly won’t yield you any better sense of things than you have now.”
“I want to know where I stand, Anthony.”
He needed to know, in fact, though he was hardly going to admit that to Anthony, cousin or not.
“Don’t worry.” Anthony’s smile was sardonic. “We’ve the blunt to keep you in red-haired whores for as long as you’re able to enjoy them four at a time.”
Deene dispatched the last of his eggs and rose. “Perhaps we can start on that accounting after breakfast tomorrow.” He’d phrased it as a suggestion between cousins, though Anthony ought to have heard it as something closer to an order from his employer.
Anthony lifted his teacup in a little salute. “Your servant. Enjoy the ladies—but not too much.”
Whatever that meant.
The day was fair, though not quite warm. In a fit of optimism, Deene had the horses put to the landau. The vehicle had been imported just before the old marquis’s death and was the best appointed of the town coaches. He elected to drive the thing rather than endure unnecessary miles sitting backward and trying to make small talk with the Windham sisters.
When he got to the Windham townhouse, he found Lady Eve waiting for him in the family parlor, dressed for an outing but sporting a mulish expression.
Her inauspicious greeting indicated they were about to spar. He kept his expression politely neutral, despite the temptation to smile. “Was I supposed to be somewhere else?”
“No, you were not.” She crossed the room in a swish of skirts. “My sisters are supposed to be here as well, ready to depart with us, but no, Louisa has begged off, and Jenny just sent Hammet to tell me she is also utterly, immediately, and incurably indisposed for the day.”
Eve was piqued. It was on the tip of Deene’s tongue to say they could simply reschedule—or better still, cancel altogether—but something in her expression stopped him.
“Would you be disappointed to miss this outing, Lady Eve?”
She swished over to the window and stood facing the back gardens. “Disappointed? Merely to miss a few hours in the country, stepping around the odoriferous evidence of livestock? Of course not.”
She was an endearingly bad liar. He came up behind her and put both hands on her shoulders to prevent any more of this swishing about, and spoke very quietly near her ear.
“You would so be disappointed.” He could feel it quivering through her, an indignation that her siblings would desert her like this.
She turned, forcing him to drop his hands. He did not step back.
“The weather bids fair to be a lovely day, my lord. I haven’t seen the countryside since we spent the holidays at Morelands, and I have every confidence Mr. Trottenham intends to speak to Papa this very afternoon.”
She was not about to admit she’d been panting to make the acquaintance of his horse, but Deene was almost certain this was her true motive. By the end of the day, he vowed he would make her admit her objective honestly.
“Come with me anyway, Lady Eve. I brought the landau, the staff at The Downs is expecting our party, and once the Season gets underway, we’ll neither of us have time for an outing.”
She was wavering. He could see her wavering in the way she almost worried a nail between her teeth but recalled at the last moment she was wearing gloves.
“Or don’t come with me.” He slapped his gloves against his thigh. “I’ll get a great deal more accomplished if I’m not forced to play host to somebody reluctant to make even such an innocuous outing with an old family friend.”
Her fists went to her hips. “Forced, Deene? Did I force this invitation from you? Did I force you to boast about the capabilities of a mere colt such as I might see on any of a dozen racecourses? Did I tell you to bring an open carriage when the weather this time of year is anything but certain?”
He stepped closer but kept his voice down in contrast to Eve’s rising tones. “You will never see the like of this colt on any racecourse, unless King William is in the field. Never. This horse has more heart, more bottom, and more sheer, blazing—”
“Excuse me.” Esther, Duchess of Moreland, stood in the doorway, her expression puzzled. “Eve, I thought you would have left by now. One doesn’t get days this promising very often so early in spring. Deene, good morning.”
“Your Grace.” He bowed to the appropriate depth and wondered if Her Grace had heard him nigh bellowing at Eve.
“I am not inclined to go without Jenny and Louisa, Mama. They would be disappointed to miss such an excursion.”
Her Grace’s expression shifted to a smile more determined than gracious. “Nonsense. If they want to indulge in a some extra rest, that’s no reason to deprive yourself of fresh air, or of the company of such an amiable gentleman as Deene. He’s practically family. Be off with you both, and, Deene, bring her home at a reasonable hour, or you will deal with me.”
Said in perfectly cordial tones, but Deene did not mistake the warning.
“Of course, Your Grace.” He winged his elbow at Eve—arguing before the duchess was not in his schedule—and was relieved when Eve wrapped a gloved hand around his arm.
“Have a pleasant time, my dears.”
As Deene ushered Eve through the door, he caught the duchess giving him a look. When their gazes collided, she must have gotten something in her eye, because it appeared for all the world as if Her Grace had winked at him.
Damn and blast Lucas Denning for needling her, for that’s exactly what he’d done. Eve drew up sharply in the mews and dropped her escort’s arm.
“Deene, where are your footmen, where is your driver?”
“Probably enjoying a merry pint or two despite the hour of the day.”
He started toward the landau while Eve resisted the urge to clobber him with her parasol. When he turned back to her a few paces away, he wore a smile that could only be described as taunting.
“Eve Windham, I am competent to drive you the less than two hours it will take to get to The Downs. For that matter, you are competent to drive me as well. You know this team, they’re perfect gentlemen, and it’s a calm day. Get into the carriage.”
The gleam in his blue eyes suggested he knew exactly what manner of challenge he’d just posed, both in referring to her driving skill and in ordering her into the carriage.
She walked up to Duke. “Good morning, Your Grace. You’re looking very handsome today.” She took a bag of sliced apples from her reticule and fed the beast a treat. This was bad manners on her part—one never fed another’s cattle treats without permission. The horse’s bit would be particularly sticky and slimy now too.
She moved around to Marquis and offered him the same attention, taking an extra moment to scratch the gelding’s neck.
“Loosen the check reins, Lucas. These horses are going to stretch their legs when we leave Town, and your grooms have fitted the harness with a greater eye toward appearances than the animals’ comfort.”
He blinked, which was a supremely satisfying response to the use of the imperative on a man too handsome and self-assured for his own good.
While Deene tended to the harness, Eve climbed onto the driver’s bench at the front of the vehicle. She was not going to sit back in the passengers’ seats all by herself, shouting at Deene to make conversation for the next two hours.
Though apparently, that would not have been his intent. Eve had been telling herself for some miles that it was exhilarating to be behind such a spanking—and not the least frightening—team when Deene finally spoke.
“Did you or did you not wear a very fetching brown ensemble just so you might also wear brown gloves, the better to be petting horses?”
She had. That he would divine such a thing was disconcerting.
“The ensemble, as you note, my lord, is attractive, and the skirt cut for a walking length so I might move about your stables without concern for my hems. Then too, I’ve been told brown flatters my blond hair.”
He glanced over at her with such a fulminating look that Eve realized she’d brought them to the point of departure for another argument, which had not been her intent. She was driving out for the second time in a week with somebody besides family, and it was a pretty day.
“Tell me about The Downs, Lucas. St. Just said you inherited the property when you were a boy.”
“I did. What would you like to know about it?”
He was going to make her work for it, but she was a duke’s daughter. If she couldn’t make polite conversation with a familiar acquaintance, she didn’t deserve her title.
“What draws you to it? You’ve many properties, and yet this is the one you take the greatest interest in.”
He looked for a moment like he’d quibble with even that, but then his shoulders relaxed. “My cousin Anthony is the Deene estate steward for all intents and purposes, and he does a marvelous job at a large and thankless task. Each property has a steward, some have both house and land stewards, and they all answer to him. The Downs is my own…”
He fell silent while the horses clip-clopped along.
“I have a little property,” Eve said, not wanting the silence to stretch any further. “It’s a dear little place not three miles from Morelands, part of Mama’s settlements.”
“Is this Lavender Corner?”
“It is. I’ve fitted out the household to my taste, and some days I just go there to enjoy the place.”
“To be alone?”
He was aiming another look at her while she tried to formulate an answer that was honest but not combative, when something—a hare, a shadow, a deer moving in the woods to the side of the road—gave the horses a fright.
Between one moment and the next, Eve went from a relatively innocuous chat with her escort to blind panic. As the vehicle surged forward, she clutched the rail and resisted the urge to jump to safety.
Except it wasn’t safety, not when the horses could bolt off at a dead gallop over uneven terrain. As the trees flew by in a blur, she was reminded yet again that nowhere in the vicinity of a horse could she ever be truly safe.
“Ho, you silly buggers.” Deene’s voice was calm over the clatter of the carriage. “That’s enough of this. It was a damned rabbit, you idiots, and you’re not getting any more treats if this is how you comport yourselves before a lady.”
His scold was lazy, almost affectionate, and to Eve’s vast, enormous, profound relief, the horses slowed to a canter, then a trot.
“Lucas, I’m going to be sick.” When had she gotten her hand wrapped around his arm?
“You are not going to be sick. If I pull them over now, they’ll understand that a queer start earns them a rest and possibly a snack. We’ll let them blow in another mile or two when their little horsey brains have forgotten all about this frolic and detour.”
Eve closed her eyes, and in sheer misery, rested her forehead on Deene’s muscular shoulder. A mile was forever, and yet what he said made perfect sense—to a competent horseman.
“I want to walk back to Town, Lucas. Right now, I want to walk back to Town.”
She felt him chuckle, damn and blast him. If he hadn’t been the one holding the reins, she would have walloped him.
“I’ve seen you ride through much worse misbehavior than that little contretemps, Eve Windham, and you did it with a smile. There’s a pretty view coming up. I typically let the team rest there.”
While Eve breathed in the lavender and cedar scent of Deene’s jacket—a cure-all for not just megrims, apparently, but a nervous stomach as well—she considered that she might possibly, in some very small regard, be overreacting.
She raised her head but kept her arm linked with Deene’s.
“You were going to tell me about The Downs.”
“You were going to tell me about Lavender Corner.”
Or they could argue about who was going to tell whom about which property. Despite her lingering upset, despite the looming challenge of the drive back to Town, Eve smiled.
Though she still did not turn loose of Deene’s arm.
From time immemorial, the horses who stayed alive were the ones who galloped off at the first sign of possible danger, and then, two miles later, paused to consider the wisdom of their flight—or to get back to swishing their tails at flies and grazing.
Deene wasn’t upset with his team for having a lively sense of self-preservation, though he was out of charity with them for scaring Eve Windham. He forgave them their lapse of composure when he realized Eve’s unease was keeping her glued to his side, a petite, warm female bundle of nerves, trying to decide whether to resume arguing with him or treat him to another round of polite discourse.
She opted for discourse—a small disappointment.
“I do go to Lavender Corner to be alone,” she said. “I always make some excuse, that I’m meeting with my housekeeper, that I want to see how the gardens are coming, but mostly…”
Her words trailed off, and Deene stepped into the breach, even as he wondered what she wasn’t saying.
“I grew up with only the one sibling, and as a child, a five-year age difference made Marie seem like an adult. I always thought a lot of brothers and sisters would be wonderful, but I suppose it has drawbacks too.”
Her grip on his arm eased fractionally. “It is wonderful, unless they go off to war and don’t come back, or have to spend years expiring of blasted consumption. Even then, I would not exchange the people I love for anything in the world.”
What could he say to that? The people he loved encompassed his niece, whom he was barely permitted to see, and Anthony, though Deene would never mistake his cousin for a friend.
“One can tell you love each other,” he said, it not being an appropriate moment for a disagreement. “It’s there in your humor with each other, your protectiveness, your honesty. We’ve reached our pull off.”
For which he was grateful. Talk of love was for women among themselves, where it could safely stray off to that most inane subject, being in love. He pulled up the team, set the brake, wrapped the reins, and jumped down.
“Let’s stretch our legs, shall we?”
He didn’t really mean it as a question. Eve’s face was still pale and she would fare better for using her legs.
“You’ll let them graze?” she asked from her perch on the bench.
“They don’t deserve it, but yes, if you prefer.” He held up his arms to assist her to the ground, and she hesitated. In the instant when he would have remonstrated her for her rudeness, he understood that forcing herself to move at all when there was no driver at the reins was… difficult for her. “Evie, come here.”
He plucked her bodily from the carriage—he was tall enough to do that—and let her slide down his body until her feet were planted on terra firma. When he would have stepped back, she dropped her forehead to his chest.
“I’m an idiot.”
“If so, you’re a wonderfully fragrant idiot.” Also lithe, warm, and a surprisingly agreeable armful of woman. He kept his arms around her as he catalogued these appealing attributes and helped himself to a pleasing whiff of mock orange.
“I panicked back there when the horses startled.”
She sounded miserable over this admission. He took a liberty and turned her under his arm, keeping his arm across her shoulders while they walked a few paces away.
“I know you took a bad fall before your come out, Eve. There’s no shame in a lingering distaste for injury. I still get irritable whenever I hear cannon firing, even if it’s just a harbor sounding its signals.”
And for the longest time, thunder had had the same effect, as had the sound of a herd of horses galloping en masse. She moved away from his side, and he let her go while he released the check reins so the horses could graze.
“Being rattled from years at war is not the same thing at all as letting one fall—one, single fall—turn me into a ninnyhammer seven years and two months later.”
She probably knew the exact number of days as well, which made him hurt for her.
“I beg to differ with you, my lady—though I realize it has become an ungentlemanly habit. Tooling around the park, nobody’s team is going to spook at anything, except perhaps Lady Dandridge’s bonnets. If this is the first startled team you’ve been behind in years, then I’d be surprised if you weren’t a little discommoded. Walk with me.” He held out a hand to her. “There’s a patch of lily of the valley that is not to be missed over by those trees.”
She shot a wary glance at the horses, who were placidly grazing on the verge.
The look she gave his bare hand was equally cautious.
In that moment, he experienced a profound insight regarding Eve Windham, the things that spooked her, and why they spooked her. He ambled along in silence with her, hand in hand, resenting the insight mightily.
He found it much easier to consider Eve a well-bred young lady with ample self-confidence borne of a ducal upbringing, a very appealing feminine appearance, and no small amount of poise. He did not want to think of her as… wounded or in any way vulnerable.
“Have a seat,” he said some moments later, shrugging out of his jacket and spreading it on the ground for her.
Another woman would have argued over this rather than the silly things he debated with Eve—argued over the impropriety of being just out of sight of the road, of sharing a coat with a lone gentleman—but Eve sank gracefully to the ground, tugged off her gloves, and drew her knees up before her.
He sat beside her for a few moments in silence, letting the burbling of a nearby stream underscore what he hoped was a soothing silence. The air was redolent with the scent of lily of the valley, but beneath that he could still catch a little note of mock orange.
Now would be a fine time for Lucas Denning to share a few of his lovely kisses, but no, he had to sit beside Eve in the grass, all solemn and gentlemanly.
She wanted to scream and lay about with her parasol.
At the ninnyhammer horses and her ninnyhammer self. Also at the ninnyhammer man beside her, gone all proper, when what she could have really used, what she would have appreciated greatly was the heat and distraction of his mouth on hers, the feel of all that fine muscle and man right next to her, his body so close—
A thought popped into her head all at once. A novel, startling thought she’d never had before: If the man was such a blockhead as not to realize this was a kissing moment, then the woman could certainly be astute enough, bold enough—
She rounded on him and swung a leg across his middle before her mind articulated the rest of this brilliant idea. The element of surprise allowed her to push him flat to his back, and perhaps some element of misplaced gentlemanly restraint meant she could get her mouth on his before he reacted.
Though it was such a wonderful reaction. He growled into her mouth, lashed his arms around her, and rolled with her, so she was beneath him amid the lilies of the valley, his kisses mixing with the lush fragrance of the flowers, the scent of crushed green grass, and the feel of the cool earth at Eve’s back.
Then he went still, and the disappointment Eve felt was so keen she was tempted to punch his shoulder… until his mouth came back to hers, sweetly, slowly, like a sigh feathering across her cheek, easing its way to her lips.
She relaxed, in her body and in her mind. He wasn’t going to deny her, and this was really a much nicer approach. She winnowed her hands through his hair, marveling at the softness of it, like light embodied beneath her fingers.
His tongue was soft too, and hot and tempting against her lips. Lovely appendage, a man’s tongue. She hadn’t always thought so and probably wouldn’t think so, but for—
Her articulate mind ground to a halt as Lucas gave her a little more of his weight, right there, where for seven years, a kind of loneliness and shame had mixed together to create an unnamable heaviness. As he pressed his body to hers, the weight inside her shifted, becoming somehow lighter and lovelier.
He sighed her name against her throat in a voice she’d not heard from him before, one imbued with longing and passion.
Ah, God, the pleasure of his open mouth on her skin. It was like horses galloping for joy inside her, like…
She arched up into him, knowing full well what that rising column of flesh was. To hold him to her and glory in his desire for her should have been unthinkable, but when his hand settled over her breast, she buried her nose against his throat and rejoiced.
It had been so terribly long, and this was what a spring day was for. This was what youth and life were for.
He closed his fingers gently around her breast, and lightning shot from her nipple to her womb. Lovely, sweet, piercingly pleasurable lightning that made her squirm for more.
And then, when she would have started tearing at his clothing, a sound intruded. A rude, wrong sound that had Lucas going still above her and shifting himself up onto his knees and forearms so he crouched over her.
The wheels of a large conveyance lumbered past on the other side of the swale. Over the clatter of the vehicle, Eve heard a man’s voice.
“…Probably off in the trees taking a piss. Pass me yon flask, Jordie…”
Above her, Deene let out a held breath.
There were men with pretty manners, and then there were men who were not always gallant, and yet they were truly chivalrous. Eve accounted Deene some points in the chivalry department when he didn’t immediately roll away from her but stayed for a moment tucked close to her, his hand brushing her hair back from her temple.
His caress soothed her and helped her settle. It kept inchoate shame from gaining a toehold over the warmth still pooling in her middle.
She might have initiated the kiss, but Deene was showing her that he’d participated in it willingly. When she turned her face into his palm, he sighed and kissed her cheek, then drew back.
“Evie, tell me you’re all right.”
“I am fine.” When he took himself away, she’d be bereft, but to hear honest concern in his voice made even that eventuality bearable.
He rested his forehead against hers then shifted away, leaving Eve lying on her back amid the lilies of the valley, mourning his loss but also consoled by his rueful smile.
“You pack quite a wallop, my lady.”
Wallop. She smiled back at him, for she had walloped him without even using her parasol.
“I was either going to kiss you or give in to some other kind of upset.” She liked lying there amid the flowers, despite what it was probably doing to her fashionable brown ensemble. “And your kisses are lovely, Lucas.”
In the spirit of chivalry, she had to tell him that much.
“As are yours. But, Eve, we’ve had a narrow escape.”
And with that one solemn comment, Eve felt not the lovely, fragrant breeze of a joyous spring day, but that she was lying in the dirt, looking a fright, very likely having destroyed whatever grudging respect Deene had felt for her.
“Don’t poker up on me.” Deene used one finger to trace her hairline, then took her hand in his and drew her to a sitting position. “I’m not displaying the crests on the landau today, and that was hardly a fashionable conveyance that just passed.”
But his warning was clear: But for those two happenstances, she’d be ruined. A party from Town who recognized the Denning family crest would have remarked to one and all that the Marquis of Deene had been off in the bushes all alone with Lady Eve Windham. A little digging might have been necessary to find out with whom he’d driven out, but somebody—many, gleefully helpful somebodies, more likely—would have seen Eve leaving Mayfair up on the bench with Deene.
“Merciful heavens.” Eve dropped her forehead to her knees. “I’m sorry, Lucas. I did not think. I wasn’t—”
“Hush.” He stayed beside her, apparently in no hurry to rise. “A near miss is by definition not a disaster, and I could never regret such a pleasurable interlude, except that it does rather contradict the trust your family has placed in us both.”
She nodded and liked that he didn’t start fumbling around, blaming himself, when she’d been the one to accost him. If he’d taken that away from her, she would have had to use her parasol.
“It was just a kiss,” Eve said. “We’ve kissed before.”
“And it has been a delight on each occasion.” He sounded puzzled and pleased, if a little begrudging, which made Eve smile despite the rest of the thought he was too kind to say:
And this occasion must be the last.
He needed to marry, and she needed to avoid marriage. If they kept up with the kisses, sooner or later their near misses and narrow escapes would yield to the inescapable forces of Polite Society.
And that she could not allow.
To be thirty years of age, an experienced man of the world, and yet utterly flummoxed by the kiss of a proper Mayfair lady was… not lowering, exactly, but astonishing—and little had astonished Lucas Denning since his first pitched battle on the Peninsula.
If he’d had sisters to ask, he might have put it to them: Was it usual for a woman well past her come out to shift from composedly sitting beside him on the driver’s bench, making conversation, to flat panic, to scorching passion in a matter of moments?
Except the insight of genteel womenfolk probably had less to do with Eve’s behaviors than did the sieges he’d witnessed in Spain. When the walls were finally breached, mayhem of the worst kind ensued. Decorated veterans became animals, their most primitive natures ruling all their finer inclinations.
To think Eve Windham was besieged by fear was not comforting at all.
What was comforting—also unnerving—was to see how King William reacted to the woman.
“If I’d taught him to bow, he’d be on both knees before you, Eve Windham. That cannot be good for a horse who’s destined to compete for a living.”
“But he’s such a magnificent fellow. How could I not be smitten?”
The smile she gave the colt was dazzling, so purely beneficent Deene could not look away from the picture she made billing and cooing with the big chestnut horse. Willy was shamelessly flirting right back, batting his big, pretty eyes at her; wuffling into her palm; and wiggling his idiot lips in her hair. It wasn’t to be borne.
“Would you like to hack out with me, Eve?”
The smile disappeared. “I’m not dressed appropriately. Thank you for the invitation, nonetheless.”
He hadn’t expected her to accept, though he had wanted to hear her reply. He shifted closer to her in the stall, close enough that he could stretch out a hand to his horse and not be overheard by the lads.
“I’d put you up on Willy here. He’s gentle as a lamb under saddle.”
“You’d let me ride your prize racing stud?” The longing in her voice was palpable.
“I don’t think he’s going to hear, see, or obey anybody else when you’re in the vicinity. Willy’s in love.”
The blighted beast nickered deep in its chest as if in agreement.
“What a charming fellow.” Eve’s bare hand scratched right behind Willy’s ear, and if he’d been a dog, the stallion’s back leg would have twitched with pleasure.
What was wrong with a man when he wanted to tell his horse: She petted me first, so don’t get any ideas?
“I’d love to see you on him, Lucas. I’ll bet he has marvelous paces.” Now the smile was aimed at Deene, and even the horse seemed to be looking at him beseechingly.
“I cannot disappoint a guest. We’ll have some luncheon up at the house, and the lads can saddle him up.”
As Deene escorted the lady from the loose box, Willy managed to look crestfallen before he went back to desultorily lipping at his hay.
“Some horses just have the certain spark, you know,” Eve said as they wound through the gardens. “They have a sense of themselves. The breeding stock have it more often, but my sister Sophie has a pair of draft horses…”
She nattered on, a woman enthralled with horses, while Deene speculated about just one more kiss, this one in the greening rose arbor. Rose arbors were intended to facilitate kissing—his own reprobate father had explained this to him not long after Deene had gone to university.
Except… Deene recalled the duchess, waving them on their way just a few hours prior, recalled the fear he’d seen on Eve’s face when the horses had startled… and recalled how long it had taken him to get his unruly parts under control after kissing Eve—being kissed by Eve—amid the lilies of the valley.
There was nothing wrong with kisses shared between knowledgeable adults, but that kiss had threatened to escalate far beyond what Deene felt was acceptable when neither party had intentions toward the other. Nonetheless, the scent that was supposed to evoke return of happiness would forever after bring to his mind a walloping passionate interlude with a lovely woman—who was enamored of his horse.
“So if we were to come back out here, say, next week, might you be willing to hack out with me then, Lady Eve?”
She paused midreach toward her tea—she preferred Darjeeling—and pursed her lips. “I want to.”
“Then, Evie, what’s stopping you?”
Now she glowered at the teacup. “Nothing.”
She was lying again, though he had to allow her the fiction. She alone knew the worst of the specifics, but it was common knowledge she hadn’t been on a horse for years.
“Tell me about your accident.”
She glanced up. “You aren’t going to taunt me by snatching away the invitation to hack out, dangling it just out of my reach, pretending it’s a matter of indifference to you?”
It was Deene’s turn to glower, for she’d just listed his best tactics when sparring with her. “Would that help?”
She sat back. “Sometimes it has helped. When you had me drive home from the park… I hadn’t even taken the reins in years, Lucas. To find myself driving a team right in the middle of Town put me quite at sixes and sevens.”
This was not an admission; it was a confidence. A puzzle she was sharing with him and only him, as intimate as a kiss and in its own way even more exquisite.
“I have faith in you, Eve Windham. You were a bruising rider, a thoroughgoing equestrienne in the making. I’d like to see you on a horse again, if that would make you happy.”
She did not beam a dazzling smile at him, which was the intended effect of such a pretty speech. She instead looked like—God help them both—she might tear up and start bawling right here on the sunny, sheltered back terrace of his country retreat.
This would necessitate that he comfort her, which might not be a bad thing if he’d had the first clue how to go about it.
“Beg pardon, my lord.”
Aelfreth Green stood, cap in hand, at the edge of the terrace.
“Aelfreth?” The lads had been as smitten with Eve as the damned stallion. Aelfreth would not have intruded on the lady’s meal for anything less than fire, loose horses, or other acts of God.
“Sorry to interrupt, milady, your lordship, but Bannister says you’d best come.”
Foreboding congealed in Deene’s chest. “Eve, you’ll excuse me?”
He rose, visions of Willy cast in his stall, with bowed tendons and incipient colic befalling the horse.
“It’s Franny, your lordship,” Aelfreth muttered as they strode away. “She’s not passing the foal.”
Behind him, Deene heard a chair scrape back.
“Come along, Lucas.” Eve seized his arm and started towing him forward. “If it’s a foaling gone sour, there’s no time to waste.”
He extricated his arm from her grip. “Eve, it isn’t in the least proper for you to be in the vicinity when a mare’s giving birth.”
“Hang proper. I’ve assisted at foalings before. We raise plenty of horses at Morelands, you know, and just because I no longer ride or drive or… any of that, doesn’t mean we have time to argue.”
She was right, blast her. An animal that historically gave birth where all manner of predators could interfere developed the ability to get the process over with quickly—and did not develop any ability to deal with protracted labor.
“Miss might be a help,” Aelfreth added. “The mares sometimes want for another female when things go amiss.”
“For God’s sake, this isn’t a lying-in party.”
Nobody graced that expostulation with a reply, and when Deene got to the foaling barn, the situation was grim indeed. Bannister, the grizzled trainer and head lad, was outside the foaling stall, his expression glum.
“T’ foal willna come, your lordship. She’ll soon stop trying.”
A black mare lay in the deep straw, her enormous belly distended, her neck damp with sweat.
Deene started stripping off his coat. “What’s the problem?”
“The foal…” Bannister glanced at Aelfreth.
“Won’t come, I know. Have you had a look?”
Another glance—at Aelfreth, at Deene, at the mare, everywhere but at Lady Eve Windham.
She laid a hand on the man’s hairy forearm, as if they were great friends. “Speak freely, Mr. Bannister. Is it a red bag? A breech?”
“I dunno, mum. But she shoulda dropped that foal nigh thirty minutes ago.”
Deene did not swear aloud, but in his mind, he bitterly railed against a staff that had let him eat tea and crumpets for half an hour while a mare was in distress.
“Bring me soap and water,” Deene said, passing his coat to Eve and starting on the buttons of his waistcoat. “Strong soap and some towels. Eve, I urge you to get back to the house. Frankincense is a maiden mare, she’s small, and this is not going to end well.”
“Sometimes it just takes them longer their first time, Lucas. We mustn’t panic.”
She was studying the mare while Deene passed her his waistcoat and stripped off his shirt.
“And sometimes, panic is the only thing that will carry the day. Bring me the damned bucket.” He did not raise his voice in deference to the horse groaning and thrashing her way through another contraction.
Eve set his clothing on a saddle rack and started undoing the buttons of her jacket. “She’s a very petite mare, Lucas. You’d best let me do this.”
Deene stopped in the process of shoving his shirt at her. “Let you? Let you put your hand… No.”
“Yes, let me. I’ve done this before, and I’m good at it, Lucas. For once being petite is an advantage. Compare your arm to mine and think of the mare.”
She thrust out a pale, slender arm—an appendage perhaps half the diameter of his.
While Deene stood there, bare to the waist, anxiety for the horse nigh choking him, Eve dropped her arm and pointed at the stall.
“There’s your problem, Deene. You’ve got a leg back, at least.”
While the mare grunted, a single small hoof emerged beneath her tail.
“Milady is right,” Bannister said. “Foals is supposed to dive into the world, their noses atween their knees. That one’s hung up a leg.”
He shot Deene a look and turned to head down the shed row—to where the guns were stored in a cabinet in the saddle room.
“Lucas, don’t try to stop me.” Eve was down to a very pretty camisole and chemise, both of which left her arms bare below midbicep.
“I will allow you to try,” Deene said. “But only because there is no time to make you see reason.”
Aelfreth appeared with the bucket, and Eve starting scrubbed her arm. “The contraction is passing, and now’s the time to investigate. Talk to the mare, Lucas, she has to be terrified and exhausted.”
That Eve would enlist his aid was a small consolation, but he hadn’t been about to leave her to her own devices in a stall with an animal half out of its small store of wits with pain. He moved to the horse’s stall, approached the mare’s head, and crouched down.
“Help has arrived, Franny. We’ll get you free of this little blighter in no time. You and Willy can admire him all you want then and boast of him to the other mares…”
He pattered on that like, stroking the horse’s neck in what he hoped was a soothing rhythm. Behind the horse, Eve was on her side, right down in the straw, her expression calm as she petted the horse’s quarters.
“No surprises,” Eve said to the horse. “Just another lady back here, and Deene is correct. We’ll have this nonsense over with soon, and I promise you—on my mother’s solemn assurances—the first one is the worst.”
Deene took up the patter while Eve examined the mare internally. When the mare began to grunt again, his heart about stopped.
“I’m fine, and it’s a leg back.” Her voice was strained, and Deene knew all too well what the tremendous pressure of a contraction did to a human appendage intruding into the birth canal. Bannister—who was a fine man to run a racing stable—swore it could break a man’s arm.
Which Deene hoped was the exaggeration of the uninitiated.
“Eve, do you think you can bring it around?”
“I can, I just need—” The mare heaved a great sigh and went still. “I need purchase to push the foal back.”
She needed strength to do that, to use the time between contractions to shove the foal back into the womb where it could get its feet untangled enough for a proper presentation.
“Hold on.” He left the mare with a pat to the neck and came around to the back of the horse. “Just give me a moment.”
For a moment was all they’d have.
She’d been a girl of fourteen the last time she’d done this, drafted into service in the same situation—a small mare, disaster for both mare and foal looming at hand, a desperate measure permitted only because St. Just had begged His Grace to allow it.
And the mare and foal had lived.
That recollection gave Eve renewed strength, but scrabbling in the straw, she had nothing to brace herself against until a hard male chest blanketed her from behind, and a strong male hand settled on her shoulder.
“You’ve got the foal, Eve?”
“I do, I just need a little… more…” Just a few inches, just an inch. With Deene applying a steady brace to her shoulder and Eve hilting her arm inside the mare, she managed—just barely—to aid the foal in slipping back into the womb from the birth canal.
“Can you find the knee or the elbow, anything to ease the leg forward with?”
Another contraction was going to hit, and any second, while Eve tried sight unseen to sort one slippery foal-part from another.
“An elbow.” She hoped.
“Pull forward gently until you’ve got the foot coming along.”
The mare was small, but the distance was at the limit of Eve’s reach, and the room to maneuver nonexistent.
“Push harder, Lucas. I can’t get any purchase.”
He applied a painful pressure to Eve’s shoulder, all but shoving her face into the mare’s sweaty rump, but it gave her the fraction of an inch she needed. The leg was slippery and the space confined. She tugged, she pulled, she yanked, and with a sudden give, the foot slid forward.
“Done.” She slumped back against Deene’s chest and slipped her arm from the mare’s body, only to find herself summarily hauled to her feet.
“Then let’s get you out of here, because any moment now Franny is going to start thrashing again.”
Eve let Deene lead her from the stall as the mare began to strain and groan again. “I’ve seen foals born before, Lucas.”
This remonstrance came out weakly, for a sudden lightheadedness was afflicting her—no doubt the result of being plucked from the straw after such an exertion.
“You’ve probably been kicked before too, which would not excuse me did I allow it to happen again.” Deene spoke briskly, and he swabbed briskly at her arm, from fingers to shoulder, with a clean, damp towel.
He needed to scold her about something; the realization made Eve curiously happy. “I’m sure you’re right, Lucas.”
When he scrubbed her arm thoroughly, he set the towel aside, grasped her by her wrist, and tugged her across the barn aisle, stopping only long enough to retrieve his coat.
“I’ve never done what you just did.” He settled his coat over her shoulders, the scent of him bringing as much comfort as the warmth. “I’ve handled cows—a single cow, one time, and sheep, but they hardly need any help—not horses, for God’s sake. You could have been kicked, or the mare might have rolled. If your parents find out I permitted this, I will never be allowed to so much as—”
She put two fingers to his lips, lest he raise his voice and disturb the mare. “My papa has permitted me to provide the same aid at Morelands, but it was only the once, years ago. Now, hush.”
He was bare from the waist up, upset, and in some sort of male taking . Eve put her forehead on his sternum and her arms around his waist. She remained like that until she felt Deene’s arms come around her, slowly, carefully, enfolding her in warmth.
She felt his chin resting on her crown. “I keep underestimating you, Eve Windham.”
Eve turned her face so she could listen to his heart—a marvelous benefit to hugging man without his shirt. “I underestimate me too.”
They remained like that, embracing, giving Eve the sense they were settling each other’s nerves as they did. Deene didn’t let her go until Bannister called softly from across the aisle.
“A right proper stud colt, we’ve got, but he be a big bugger, begging milady’s pardon.”
Deene leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Thank you. It’s Willy’s first colt, and I… just thank you.”
He slipped away and started giving orders, while Eve stood there wearing his coat and wondering which was better: kissing the Marquis of Deene or foaling out his mare.
The damned horse was showing off, adding that extra little fillip of élan to his strides, the smallest spark of additional grace, and as every lad on the property gathered on the rail, Deene had the sure conviction Willy knew Eve was watching him show off his equine wares.
But what a ride… Never had the stallion been more supple and willing, never had he flowed over the ground with quite such ease. When Deene brought the animal to a perfectly square halt before Eve where she perched on a top rail, her eyes were sparkling.
“Lucas, you were not boasting. He’s magnificent. A gentleman-scholar-poet-athlete-artist of a horse, and so very, very handsome.”
“Do you want to cool him out?”
The horse had hardly broken a sweat, but the highest standards of care dictated that he be walked after his exertions at least for a few minutes.
“Yes, I most certainly do.” She climbed down and scrambled between the rails while Deene ran up the irons and loosened the girth. When he stepped back, Eve took the reins and led the beast away on a circuit of the schooling ring.
“That’s the best he’s done, your lordship.” Bannister’s gaze followed Eve and the horse. “All that trotting about, he ain’t never looked that fine before.”
“He’s growing into himself.”
Bannister eyed Deene up and down. “Her ladyship has a way about her, more like. You should bring her by again soon.”
Bannister walked off with the rolling, bowlegged gait of the veteran equestrian, leaving Deene to watch as woman and horse ambled around the arena. Eve was talking to the horse in low, earnest tones, and the horse gave every appearance of listening raptly.
An image of Mildred Staines flashed in Deene’s mind. He’d seen her riding in the park on a pretty bay mare just a few days previous. Mildred sat a horse competently, but there was nothing pretty about the picture. Her habit was fashionable, her horse tidily turned out, her appointments all coordinated for a smart impression but…
Eve was still wearing Deene’s coat, her skirts were rumpled, her boots dusty, and she sported a few wisps of straw in her hair. She stopped to turn the horse the other direction, pausing to pet the beast on his solid shoulder.
I could marry her.
The thought appeared in Deene’s brain between one instant and the next, complete and compelling. It rapidly began sprouting roots into his common sense.
She was well born enough.
She was pretty enough.
She was passionate enough.
She was—he forced himself to list this consideration—well dowered enough.
And she charmed King William effortlessly.
Why not? Little leaves of possibility began twining upward into Deene’s imagination.
He knew her family thoroughly and wouldn’t have to deal with any aunts secreted away in Cumbria.
He was friends with her brothers, who did not leave bastards all over the shire.
The Windham hadn’t been born who lost control when gambling.
And Eve Windham was a delightful kisser.
Why the hell not? The longer he thought about it, the more patently right the idea became.
Eve was grinning openly as she brought King William back over to the rail. “I’ve found my perfect companion, Deene. He doesn’t make idle conversation, doesn’t click his heels annoyingly, doesn’t reek of leeks or cigars, and would never drink to excess. I suppose you’ll make me turn him over to the lads for his grooming?”
“You suppose correctly.” He fell in beside her as she led her charge to the gate. “I hadn’t intended to stay this late in the day, and now it looks to be clouding up.”
“I don’t care.” She gave the horse one last pat. “I made a new friend today. The entire outing has been worth it.”
Smitten, the two of them. It gave a man pause when he had to consider that his horse’s charms might be interfering with the ideal moment for a proposal of marriage. Deene ushered Eve up to the house so she might repair her toilet, and waited on the terrace while she was within.
By the time she emerged from the house, Eve was a slightly rumpled version of the picture she’d presented first thing of the day, but to Deene’s eye, also more relaxed.
“I’ve had the tops put up on the landau, Lady Eve. Aelfreth will drive us.”
Her brows knit as Deene shrugged into the jacket she’d borrowed for the past couple of hours. “That isn’t quite…” She fell silent. “I suppose it will be dark before we reach Town, and I do not relish a soaking.”
“My thinking exactly.” Though if she had insisted, he’d also been prepared to ride up on the damned box if necessary to appease the proprieties. When he climbed in beside her, she made no comment.
When he took the seat next to her, she still made no comment, confirming his sense that Eve Windham was indeed, very solid wife material. He rested against the squabs, inhaled a pleasant whiff of mock orange, and contemplated marriage to the woman beside him.
The day had been wonderful. Eve settled into the coach with a sense of contentment she hadn’t experienced in ages.
Deene lowered himself beside her—right beside her—and that was wonderful too. In the course of the day, he’d become subtly affectionate with her. He plucked wisps of straw from her hair, took her hand in his, stood a little too close…
She doubted he was even aware of such small gestures, but they left her feeling a precious sense of being cared for, however fleetingly.
“Are you nervous, Eve?” He slid an arm across her shoulders, no doubt meaning to bolster her courage.
She was feeling quite brave, in truth, though she made no protest at his familiarity. “You think I’m nervous to be in a closed carriage with dirty weather closing in, and us miles from Town?”
“I was trying to be delicate.”
She relaxed against him. “The horses are not fresh, a little rain isn’t likely to unsettle them, and…” And what? And Deene was right there beside her? There was more to it than that, though his presence was certainly reassuring.
“And something about this day has been good for me. I ought to be nervous, though I’ve never been in a coaching accident, per se, but I am no more than a touch uneasy.”
He did not tell her to put her fears aside; he did not talk her out of them; he did not do anything other than take her hand. “So you were impressed with Wee Willy?”
Ah, horse talk.
“I am enthralled with him. When will you next compete him?”
“Quite possibly at the local meet before Epsom in June, though Bannister would have me believe such decisions are a function of reading chicken entrails and tea leaves.”
“You need to work your stallion on the opposing lead in canter, Deene. Sheer speed is impressive, but he needs strength and suppleness to go with it, or he’ll end up blown before he’s eight.”
As the miles rolled by, they conducted a discussion—not a debate—regarding the merits of working the horse on hills, over fences, and on the flat. Eve found herself wishing London were twenty miles farther, and that pleased her too.
Deene still had her hand in his when he shifted the topic slightly. “What will you name the colt?”
The lads decreed she should have the naming of Franny’s foal; Deene had loudly approved the notion, and that had been that: She was godmother to a baby horse.
And that had been what put the day to rights. Being allowed to be useful, to pitch in despite the proprieties, was what had allowed Eve to climb into a carriage behind a pair of horses who had already given her a good fright.
“I haven’t named a horse in ages.” Though she used to name all the fillies at Morelands. “A stud’s firstborn son needs a substantial name, something that resounds with virtue. My sisters and I used to debate what to name our children as we practiced putting up our hair.”
That last had slipped out, a function of approaching nightfall and the pleasurable warmth of Deene beside her.
“So you want children?”
Inane question—every woman wanted children and a home of her own. The inane question put a small puncture in Eve’s sense of wellbeing.
“We don’t always get what we want, Lucas. Some things are beyond human control.” She resisted the impulse to slip her hand from his. An argument was drawing closer, one she did not want to have with him.
Not now, not ever.
“I would like the opportunity to try to provide you with children, Eve Windham. We could raise them up in Kent, not far from your parents. I have enough land that I can move the stables there if you prefer. I think we’d suit wonderfully.”
“You think we’d suit?” Her voice did not shake with the impossibility of his offer—she was the daughter of a duchess, and knew well how to maintain her composure, but, God help her, she had not seen this coming.
He was going to ruin this wonderful day, ruin it thoroughly, and all Eve could think was that she’d misplaced her parasol.
“We would manage well enough. We’re each of appropriate station, we know one another’s families, the lands all but march, and it would spare you from the importuning of the Trit-Trots of the world.”
Drat him for his common sense. Were he speaking from the heart rather than his pragmatic male brain, she might have considered what he was saying for a few moments before rejecting him.
“It would also spare you from the Mildred Staines of the world.”
“With the Season looming, that is not a small consideration. We have something else weighing in favor of a marital union.”
He was proposing without asking her to marry him. His aplomb was impressive, also… heartbreaking. Deene was, to her surprise, a man she would enjoy being married to in some regards, and he was bringing his addresses to her first, not to His Grace—and still, his proposal must be rejected just like all the others.
“What is this something else, my lord?” His politics no doubt all but marched with His Grace’s; he’d charged the French with Devlin and Bart; he wasn’t afraid of Louisa or muddled by Jenny’s sweet good loo—
Her only warning was Deene’s bare hand on her chin, gently turning her face up to receive his kiss, the most beguilingly gentle kiss so far. His lips pressed softly against hers, and his hand cupped her jaw then slid back into her hair to cradle the back of her head.
Not this again. Not this lovely, spreading warmth rising from her middle and obliterating all reason; not the raging desire to shift herself beneath him and taste his skin and breathe his scents.
Bodily loneliness swamped her as Deene’s mouth moved on hers. Nobody was intimate with her the way Deene could be; nobody touched her except for the fleeting contact permitted by Society’s rules or familial affection. She opened for him, fisted her hands in his hair, and dragged him closer.
And when she was aching for him to give her one last taste of pleasure and passion, he eased away, resting his forehead on hers.
“We have passion, Eve Windham. That is no small consideration either.”
Passionate kisses did not always tell the tale. Eve knew this from bitter experience. A man, even a very young man, could kiss like a dream and make a girl lose every shred of common sense and still, the man’s most intimate attentions could be… distasteful. Painful even.
Deene, by contrast, would be a sumptuous lover, generous, skilled, beautiful…
She cut the thought off and made herself speak in brisk, ruthless tones. “I appreciate the honor you do me, Lucas, but I am no more interested in your proposal than I am in Trit—in Mr. Trottenham’s. We would not suit.”
He pulled away, straightening beside her. To suffer the loss of him with indifference was necessary if Eve was to make her point.
“Eve Windham, if the way we kiss is your idea of not suiting, then God help the man you do suit. He’ll go up in flames the moment you bat your eyes at him.”
“There will be no such man.”
An argument would help a great deal, but no, Deene sat beside her, his arm around her shoulders, his thumb idly stroking the side of her neck. Eventually, she allowed herself to yield to the temptation he offered and rested her head on his shoulder. Soon enough they’d reach Town, she’d climb out of the carriage, and the day that had gone from hell to heaven back to hell would be over.
There was time enough to cry later.
“Where in the hell is Lord Andermere?”
Deene used Anthony’s courtesy title before the staff routinely, though he seldom adopted such an impatient tone of voice, much less profanity.
“His lordship was called down to Kent, my lord.” Gowers spoke with the studied calm of a butler who’d spent forty years in service to the Denning family.
“When was he called down to Kent?”
“Yesterday morning, I believe, my lord. He said he received a note from Mr. Bassingstoke.”
Bassingstoke was the land steward at Denning Hall. It made sense that Anthony might be called away on a property matter, but it made no sense whatsoever that he’d leave without a word to Deene, when they were supposed to spend the morning poring over ledgers.
“Send a note around to Hooker. I’ll be paying a call on him before noon.”
Gower bowed. “Very good, my lord. Will that be all, my lord?”
“No, it will not.” If Deene couldn’t start on the ledgers, he’d tackle the matter from another angle. “Send Mrs. Hitchings to me in the library in twenty minutes.”
Gower withdrew quietly—Gower did everything quietly—leaving Deene to pour himself another cup of tea, finish reading the financial article he’d started when he sat down to breakfast, and polish off the rest of his eggs and toast. Mrs. Hitchings was waiting for him when he arrived to the library.
“Ma’am, good morning.” Deene took a seat behind the estate desk, hazarding that the housekeeper would be more nervous if he instead paced the room. “You are welcome to sit, Mrs. Hitchings.”
Relief crossed her tired features as she perched at the very edge of a chair, her back ramrod straight, her gaze fixed on some point beyond Deene’s left shoulder.
“How long have you been housekeeper here?” In her white caps and drab dresses, she’d been a fixture in the townhouse as far back as Deene could recall.
“Nigh twenty years, your lordship.”
An answer, and not one word beyond the question she’d been asked. They hadn’t been easy years.
“And how many housemaids do we have?”
“Twenty at the moment, your lordship, though they tend to turn over.”
“How many footmen?”
She frowned slightly. “The footmen answer to Mr. Gower, your lordship. I would put their number at about the same as the maids.”
“And their wages?”
At that question—and only that question—her gaze flickered across Deene’s face, her eyes betraying a wary consternation. “I wouldn’t know for certain, your lordship. Lord Andermere sees to the paying of the wages.”
“What about the marketing, do you keep an account of that?”
“I hand in the sum to Lord Andermere at the end of each month, your lordship. If he’s not in Town, then I give it to Mr. Gower.”
There was no house steward for the townhouse—except Anthony, apparently.
“I would appreciate it if in future, Mrs. Hitchings, you apprise me of the sum expended as well. That will be all. Please send Gower to me directly.”
Gower’s litany was the same, though he of course remained standing while Deene interrogated him. Neither servant knew much of the household finances other than the single sum they reported to Anthony.
As Deene called for his horse to be saddled, he concluded such an arrangement was likely in the interest of domestic harmony, it being the province of the lower orders to grouse about wages, working conditions, and the tightfistedness of employers generally.
The ride into the City gave Deene an opportunity to consider yesterday’s developments with Lady Eve Windham—to further consider them, just as he’d been awake considering them for half the night.
She was attracted to him; of that there could be no doubt.
Nonetheless, she’d also unhesitatingly rejected a proposal from a very eligible catch, when her own tenure on the marriage market was growing woefully long. Her rejection stung more than it should have, but it also puzzled, which was annoying as hell.
Solicitors were annoying as hell too, but in a way that allowed Deene to vent and posture away some of his irritation.
“This is very short notice, my lord.” Hooker came up from his bow and took hold of a velvet coat lapel in each hand. “Very short notice indeed. May I inquire as to the nature of your lordship’s errand?”
Why was it the legal profession excelled in planting a sense of shame in a paying client?
Deene remained standing, requiring that Hooker do likewise. The skinny, younger associate was hovering near the fire, which Deene noted was burning cheerily on a temperate day.
And how much was that costing the already strained Deene coffers?
“My errand, as you put it, is to accept from you a status report regarding the pleadings I asked to have drawn up well over a week ago.”
Hooker pursed his lips. He turned loose of his lapels and stared for a moment at the floor. When Hooker had studied the floor long enough to make Deene’s jaw clench, the solicitor looked up and turned to his associate. “Bring me his lordship’s file.”
The associate fairly scampered out of the room while Deene let a silence extend.
“Perhaps your lordship would like some tea?”
“No, thank you.”
“Do you take coffee, then? Some sustenance? What we have on hand is modest, your lordship, but certainly available for your comfort and convenience.”
From his own father, Deene had learned that the best rebukes were offered in the most civil tones. “This is not a social call, Hooker.”
“Of course not, your lordship. Might I inquire if we’ll be looking at any marriage settlement documents in the near future?”
An attempt at cross-examination and surprise, both. If the old windbag was half as good at the law as he was at conducting himself like a lawyer, then—with a half-decent barrister added to the payroll—Deene should soon have custody of his niece.
“Have you seen any announcements in the Times, Hooker?”
“Announce—? I have not, your lordship.”
Deene turned to survey the narrow street below, allowing Hooker to conclude for himself that solicitors would no more be privy to Deene’s personal attachments than would the general public.
After a soft tap, the door opened to reveal the scholarly associate. “The file, Mr. Hooker.”
A fat, beribboned folder was passed over to Hooker with a ceremony befitting High Church on a solemn holiday.
So much theatre, when all Deene wanted was to hug his niece. To know she was happy and thriving, to see her occasionally and have all of Polite Society know she was, unfortunate paternal antecedents notwithstanding, a Denning.
“Ah, yes. Here we are.” Hooker bent over the folder, setting papers in various piles on his desk. “We are making quite good progress on the pleadings, your lordship. Bitters here is taking the lead.”
“I’d like to see the draft documents.”
Hooker straightened, his expression all benevolent concern. “My lord, you must understand, such an undertaking requires a command of arcane legal language, law Norman, knowledge of appropriate precedents, and a great deal of preparation.”
“Nigh two weeks have gone by since I indicated these papers were to be drawn up, sir. Show me the draft.”
Hooker’s look of long-suffering should have been studied on Drury Lane. He passed over a single sheet of foolscap, which Deene took in at a glance.
“This is a list of cases.” And no date. The list might have been hastily tucked into the file in the past five minutes.
“One starts with the relevant precedents, my lord, and a good deal of research into how those cases bear on the present circumstances. As I said, this is an arcane and complicated legal undertaking. Allow me to say to you we are honored to ensure it will be handled in the most thorough and competent fashion possible.”
Deene unclenched his jaw and set the single piece of paper on the desk.
“Allow me to say, Hooker, that you will not be paid for all this painstaking research—which I do appreciate, of course—until such time as I have pleadings in my hand, suitable for submission to a court of appropriate jurisdiction. I bid you good day.”
He had the satisfaction of seeing Hooker’s brows crash down.
“And, Hooker? One more thing. I dipped my toe in the law at university, at least to the extent a man likely some day to serve as magistrate ought to. Those cases listed on your precious paper relate to trade agreements and civil contracts. While not a lawyer, I’m hard put to understand how custody of a girl child involves those aspects of the law.”
For Deene to close the door softly on the way out was a small triumph and short lived. The truth of it was Hooker and his imps had been sitting on their backsides, swilling tea—or coffee—eating cakes, and doing exactly nothing to pry Georgie loose from the clutches of the climbing cit who called himself her father.
As Deene made his way to his horse, he found his mind turning to the nonlegal means of extricating Georgie from Dolan’s custody. A concocted duel, a rigged card game, a flat-out kidnapping… each dishonorable, dangerous alternative was becoming increasingly tempting.
End of Excerpt
Lady Eve’s Indiscretion is available in the following formats:
February 5, 2013