Jun 28 2013 11:00am
Even in London society—where everyone knows what you did last season—you never know who’s next in line to walk down the aisle…
TRUE LOVE IS OFTEN FOUND
With her whirlwind social life in London, Lady Isabella Wharton has little interest in the customs of the country. But when her godmother asks her to pay a visit to her bachelor grandson in Yorkshire, Isabella can’t refuse. It behooves her to please the old dowager, since she harbors one of Isabella’s most scandalous secrets. So off she goes to see the newly-titled—and notoriously rustic—Duke of Ormond…
WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT IT
Trevor Carey doesn’t care about what goes on behind ballroom doors. He is content with the simple life—and isn’t ashamed to admit it to a society flirt like Lady Isabella. But the country air brings out a different side of Isabella—one full of longing and passion. Can her sophistication be hiding a desire for love? When a blackmailer from the city arrives to threaten Isabella, Trevor will shield her from harm—even travel to London. Can the duke tackle the ton on Isabella’s behalf …and manage to keep her all to himself?
Get a sneak peek of Manda Collins's Why Dukes Say I Do (available July 30, 2013) with an exclusive excerpt of the Prologue and Chapters 1 & 2.
“Your Grace,” Lady Isabella Wharton coaxed, from the other side of the Ormonde library, “really, you must put the knife down. Whatever will your grandmama think?”
But the Duke of Ormonde, accustomed to ignoring his family’s dictates, didn’t lower the knife at his wife’s throat. “Who gives a hang what that old bat thinks?” he demanded, his red-rimmed eyes devoid of conscience, his normally handsome visage turned ugly with anger. “She’s the one who made me marry this miserable bitch. And look where that’s gotten me.”
As the miserable bitch in question was Isabella’s younger sister, she could hardly be expected to agree with him. Perdita, the younger daughter of the Earl of Ramsden, had married the young Duke of Ormonde in a ceremony that had rivaled the royal wedding a decade before. Isabella had been hopeful that her sister’s marriage would be successful where hers had failed. Yet here they were now, a few years later, and the groom was threatening the bride with a knife. Hardly the stuff dreams were made of.
“Won’t you let me go, dearest?” Perdita asked, her voice surprisingly calm as she held her chin up higher to escape the prick of the blade. A ringlet of her auburn curls brushed the knife’s edge as she trembled in her husband’s arms. “You know you don’t mean me any harm.”
“Put the knife down, Your Grace,” the fourth member of their mad party, Mrs. Georgina Mowbray, whose husband had also been less than ideal, said, her brisk tone honed through years following the drum. Her petite stature suggested a daintiness that the blonde’s determination belied. “Killing your wife will not make you feel any better.”
The sisters had befriended the army widow when they’d all three been on the same committee for the Ladies Charitable Society to which they belonged. Perdita had come to the meeting with a bruise on her face and a nonsensical story about falling into a door, and Georgie had guessed the truth of the situation at once. When she’d revealed her own history with the celebrated war hero who had been her husband—a history in which the hero had battered his own wife in every possible way before dying in glory on the battlefield—the three women had forged an unshakeable bond.
“She wouldn’t be able to leave me,” the duke said with the twisted logic that only madmen and drunkards could understand. “She was fine before the two of you got hold of her with your lies about me.”
Isabella nearly screamed in frustration. This was her fault. All her fault. Because Perdita could hardly leave her husband—the laws were made by men and, as such, stacked in their own favor when it came to things like wives, who were little more than property in the eyes of the law—the three ladies had thought they might be able to approach the duke in such a way that he would agree to treat Perdita with the dignity she deserved as his wife. The idea was laughable now, of course, but Isabella had not known the extent of the duke’s madness at the time. Her own husband had been a brute, but he’d been fairly easy to understand. Ormonde’s possessive nature coupled with his brutality was far more dangerous than Wharton had ever been, she saw now.
“I would never leave you,” Perdita said, her voice trembling a little as her strength began to flag. “You know I love you.”
Isabella could see her sister was nearing the breaking point. She exchanged a look with Georgie to see if she’d noticed.
Wordlessly Georgie glanced down at her left hand, which held her reticule. With her other hand she formed a pistol with her thumb and forefinger. Oh god, Isabella thought. She’s brought her gun.
When their friend had first informed the sisters that she carried a small pistol with her wherever she went, they’d been both fascinated and slightly frightened. Neither of them had ever had anything to do with firearms. Their father had hunted of course. As did their husbands. But it was hardly something that the sisters had been interested in. To Isabella’s mind it was rather revolting to think of animals chased and killed solely for sport. But Georgie had been matter-of-fact about the weapon. Following the army, she’d often found herself in situations where her safety was in question. The pistol was a practical means of ensuring that safety. Her father, also an army man, had taught Georgie how to use it, and when she’d married he’d given her the ladies’ weapon as a gift. Fortunately for Perdita, Georgie had come for their meeting with Ormonde today ready to ensure all of their safety.
Swallowing, Isabella realized that if Georgie was to get the gun out of her reticule, she’d need to distract Ormonde’s attention away from her.
“Ormonde,” she began; then, deciding that she might need to seem more familiar, she used his given name. “Gervase, we aren’t here to take Perdita away from you. We simply wish for you to perhaps be a bit gentler with her.”
“Why?” the duke demanded, his eyes suspicious. “She’s not gentle with me. She scratched my face earlier. Damn her.” He gripped Perdita tighter, and she whimpered.
The nail marks on his cheek bore testament to his tale, but like any abuser he saw the failing as hers, not his, conveniently forgetting that he’d been trying to rape her at the time. Isabella knew that if she and Georgie didn’t get her sister out of his arms and out of his house soon, he would do worse still.
Needing to make him loosen his grip, she decided to improvise. “You should be gentle with her because she might be carrying the next Duke of Ormonde.” It wasn’t true. Not that she knew of anyway, but since one of the failings that Ormonde laid at Perdita’s door was her failure to give him an heir, Isabella guessed that he might be convinced to let her go if he thought he might be endangering his child.
She risked stepping forward as she watched the revelation sink in. “There, now,” she said, “you don’t wish to harm your heir, do you?”
But she’d miscalculated. Rather than being transported with joy, Ormonde instead became angry. “What? Is this true?” he asked, turning Perdita in his arms so that he could look her in the face. “You lied to me?” he demanded, the knife trapped between Perdita’s arm and Ormonde’s fist while he began to shake her. “You lying bitch! You told me it wasn’t possible!” he cried.
“No!” Isabella shouted, rushing forward to pull him away from her sister. “Stop it! Stop it!”
Then several things happened at once.
Surprised by the deadweight of Isabella on his back, Ormonde let go of Perdita and stumbled backward, taking Isabella with him.
Georgie, realizing that she had a clear shot at last, slipped out her pistol and took aim. The shot hit the duke in the shoulder.
At almost the same time, the knife, which had been held between Perdita’s body and Ormonde’s hand, fell to the floor, followed close behind by the duke, who had been thrown off balance by Isabella’s death grip.
Thus it was that the sixth Duke of Ormonde, husband of Perdita, brother-in-law of Lady Isabella Wharton, and of no particular relation to Mrs. Georgina Mowbray, came to be both stabbed and shot.
Though a duke, he was but human. No one was ever quite sure which wound was the fatal one.
But he was dead, nonetheless.
One year later
“You cannot simply insist I travel to the wilds of Yorkshire to fetch your errant grandson, Godmama,” Lady Isabella Wharton said with a nervous laugh. “It is the height of the season. I have social obligations.”
“Yes,” the Dowager Duchess of Ormonde said acerbically, “you are no doubt expected at one of Lucifer Dinsmore’s gatherings where the ladies dampen their petticoats and the gentlemen wear Roman togas.”
“That was one party, Godmama,” Isabella protested. “And the gentlemen wore robes like the Hellfire Club. Not togas.”
With her dark auburn hair, her voluptuous figure, and an exquisite sense of style, Isabella was in demand among the more liberal-minded hostesses of the ton. She was always to be counted upon to add intrigue to an evening’s entertainment. The fact that she was a widow whose husband had died famously in a duel only added to her mystique.
“That is beside the point, Bella,” the dowager huffed, “and you well know it. Your social schedule is filled with frivolity and scandal and little else. It will do you good to get away from the scoundrels and rakes who buzz around you like so many bees. Yorkshire is lovely this time of year.”
If the old woman had been there at all, Isabella would eat her hat.
“Then why do you not go there to persuade the new duke yourself?” Isabella asked peevishly. It was just like her godmother to pawn off such an unpleasant task on her. She’d always disapproved of Isabella and her popularity.
“Because the boy will refuse to see me!” the duchess said, thumping her ebony walking stick on the floor for emphasis. “He must be made to see his duty to the family. And as he will not see me, then he will need to be persuaded by someone else. Someone with the ability to wrap young men about her little finger.”
Isabella choked on her tea. “You mean me to seduce him into coming to London?” It was true that she had a way with gentlemen, but as her marriage proved, she was not a miracle worker. If the duke wished to remain in Yorkshire rather than come to London and take up his role as head of the family, then she had no great faith in her power to persuade him otherwise. Besides, as her sister and Georgina Mowbray could attest, Isabella had a poor record when it came to persuading Dukes of Ormonde to do what she wished.
“Don’t be absurd,” the old woman said, waving a beringed hand in dismissal. “I mean for you to cast a few lures. That hardly constitutes seduction. He must be bored silly with the provincial women of York.”
Isabella bit back a sigh. Since receiving the heavily embossed notecard earlier in the week she’d been dreading this encounter with her godmother. It wasn’t that Isabella was not fond of the old girl. The duchess had served as a surrogate parent to Isabella and her sister, Perdita, since their mother’s death when they were children. Their father, being a typical gentleman of his class, was not up to the task.
And when the dowager’s other grandson, Gervase, also a duke, had fallen in love with Perdita on sight, and their subsequent marriage made both sisters true members of the Ormonde family, they’d all been pleased as punch. The duke’s bad treatment of Perdita, which the dowager still denied even after his death during an attack on his wife, had soured Isabella’s relationship with the matriarch. And she was hardly in a position to take orders from her anymore. She was a grown woman and had endured her own abusive marriage for long enough to appreciate her freedom to such a degree that she resented anyone—especially someone who called her sister a liar—who tried to curb it.
“Perhaps the new duke has his reasons for refusing to come to London,” Isabella said mildly. She had said her peace about the late duke to the dowager. She knew there was nothing she could say to sway the old woman’s opinion and she’d decided to stop trying. She had come here today as a courtesy, but the dowager’s attempt to manipulate her was tiresome. “You did, after all, cut off his father without a cent. That has a way of dampening one’s familial feelings.”
As did accusations of murder, she thought to herself. The dowager had kept the circumstances of Gervase’s death secret solely because she did not wish the family to be wreathed in scandal along with the funeral crepe. That did not stop her from haranguing Perdita in private. Which was ironic considering that Isabella and Georgina, if one was technical about the matter, were the ones responsible for the duke’s death.
“My late husband cut Phillip off,” the duchess said crossly, referring to the present, reluctant duke’s father. “And I spent a great deal of time attempting to dissuade him from doing so. For the little good it did me.”
Isabella looked up from picking at a thread on her primrose morning gown. “You did?” she asked, surprised despite herself. “I never knew that.”
The dowager’s cheeks turned pink beneath the old-fashioned powder she insisted on wearing. “He was my son, Isabella. I hardly wished for him to be thrust out into the world without two pennies to rub together. Much less to never see my first grandchild. Ormonde was as stubborn as they come, however. And when he made his decision, I could do little more than go along with it.”
Which perhaps explained why the dowager had clung so tightly to the notion that Gervase could do no wrong. Deprived of her first grandson, the dowager had taken the one she had access to and tried to mold him into the sort of man her husband would not dare cast off. Unfortunately, she’d also molded him into a selfish, haughty brute of a man who had beaten his young wife black-and-blue on more than one occasion. And because he’d been told by the grandmother who all but raised him that he was always right, he’d been unable to see what he did as wrong.
“I didn’t know,” Isabella said, feeling a bit sorry for the old woman despite herself. “It must have been dreadful for you.”
“It was,” the dowager said. “But I endured it. And I refuse to endure another separation in the family. Trevor needs to come to London to take up the business of the dukedom. He cannot simply ignore his family obligations by remaining in some provincial Yorkshire hamlet to play at being a gentleman farmer. He is the Duke of Ormonde and must be made to behave as such.”
The old woman pounded her walking stick on the floor for emphasis.
“I am hardly the best person to preach proper behavior, Godmama,” Isabella said, still not ready to accept the dowager’s orders. She was in no mood for travel. Besides, there was the matter of her reputation. “Indeed, I am perhaps the worst person to fetch him if you wish your grandson to arrive in London scandal-free.”
“I care not what his reputation will be,” the duchess said firmly. “I simply want him to be here.”
She glanced up at the portrait of her husband and sons that hung above the fireplace in her sitting room. “I am getting no younger, Isabella,” she said, her sharp eyes softening as she turned them back toward her goddaughter. “But I hope that before I go to join my dear boys I am able to meet the grandson who was kept from me. Please, Isabella. Say that you will go get him for me.”
Isabella was moved in spite of herself. The dowager was a difficult woman. But she’d truly loved the despicable Gervase. And despite that love she’d done what she could to ensure that the true story of how he’d died never got out. She might have seen to it that all three women present that day were prosecuted for his death. Instead she’d hidden the truth. That in and of itself was enough to make Isabella grateful to her.
But the dowager’s next words destroyed any goodwill Isabella had harbored for her.
“If you do not go,” she said, her eyes narrowed, “I will see to it that your sister’s match with Coniston comes to nothing.”
Isabella might have known that the old woman would find it impossible to simply let Isabella make the decision herself. Unable to wait, she’d decided to use the one bit of good to come out of Gervase’s death—Perdita’s proposed match with the Earl of Coniston—as leverage against her sister.
“You almost had me,” she said, shaking her head. “Really, Duchess, it was quite splendidly done. If only you’d waited.”
The dowager did Isabella the courtesy of not misunderstanding her. “I had to make sure you would do as I asked.”
“I was almost ready to capitulate,” Isabella said coldly. “But you couldn’t resist threatening Perdita. Could you?”
“It was not a matter of threatening your sister,” the dowager said. “It was a matter of using the right tool to make you do what I wished. And you have always been ready to do whatever it takes to protect your sister, have you not?”
Indeed, Isabella had always been protective of her sister. Not only because they’d lost their parents at an early age but also because Perdita’s sweet nature made her more vulnerable than most to the darker elements of the world. Like Gervase. And his grandmother.
“I suppose this means you still refuse to go to Yorkshire on my behalf?”
“On the contrary,” Isabella said. “Now I have no choice. Just as you wished.”
The Earl of Coniston was not, perhaps, as handsome or as polished as the Duke of Ormonde had been, but he’d managed to woo Perdita with his affable good nature and even temper. And Isabella would do nothing that would endanger her sister’s engagement. Even if it meant leaving London in the middle of the season and persuading a man with no intention of taking up his position as duke to return to town with her. And the dowager knew it.
“Sadly, it is blackmail,” the duchess said without a trace of remorse, “but needs must when the devil drives. Besides, as I told you before, it will do you good to get up to Yorkshire this time of year.”
“I’ll be taking one of the Ormonde traveling carriages,” Isabella said curtly. If the duchess was going to force her upon this fool’s errand, then she may as well be comfortable on the journey. “And I wish you to set up an account for me at Madame Celeste’s for when I return.”
The duchess, knowing she’d won, inclined her head to indicate her assent. “I do apologize for having gone about the business in such a havey-cavey manner, Isabella,” she said. “But you know how important family is to me. Especially now that Gervase is gone.”
Still cursing her own naïveté, Isabella rose. “If I’m to make an early start, I suppose I’d better be off.”
Not bothering to say her good-byes, she stormed out of the dowager’s sitting room and hurried downstairs to retrieve her hat and pelisse.
* * *
Trevor Carey, Duke of Ormonde, pulled his hat down lower over his face to keep out the rain as he guided his horse toward home. His shoulders were already beginning to ache from the effort of helping haul William Easter’s cart back up the banks of the swollen Nettledale River. Yorkshire in spring was given to rain, but this year had been a particularly wet one, which had proved to be more than the normally serene Nettledale—and the ancient bridge over it—could handle. Will had decided to risk the bridge, and as a result the cart had slipped over the edge and into the drink.
It had taken six men and nearly four hours to retrieve the cart, which had been loaded down with goods from York for Easter’s village shop. Thankfully, the bed of the cart hadn’t been submerged, so most of the stock was salvageable. But Easter had broken an arm and had been banged up quite a bit. A small price to pay, Trevor thought, considering a cracked skull might have ended with Easter drowning in the river. Now he was exhausted and wet and starving and wanted nothing more than a hot bath and a bowl of Mrs. Tillotson’s stew.
Peering up ahead through the twilight rain, he cursed at the realization that the dark shadow he’d been watching was not a stand of trees but a carriage tilted at an awkward angle.
Did no one have the good sense to stay in on a day like this?
As he approached the large carriage, which had been built for comfort rather than agility, Trevor heard a woman’s voice coming from the interior of the vehicle.
“Liston, stop fidgeting. You will do yourself some further injury.” The voice was a refined one—doubtless of some lady who was passing through town on her way to one of the neighboring estates. She had the sound of one who was accustomed to giving orders and having them followed. But it was clear from her aggrieved tone that the fidgety Liston was not an obedient servant.
“But Lady Wharton,” he heard a man’s voice say, “I shouldn’t be in here with you. ’Tain’t right for me to share the interior of the carriage with ye like I was puttin’ on airs.”
“Don’t be absurd,” came the abrupt reply. “You were injured when the carriage crashed. It’s not as if you are in any fit state to…” Trevor bit back a smile at her abbreviated words. “That is to say, you are injured and it would be foolish for you to catch your death out in the rain all for the sake of my reputation. Which, as you well know, is not what it might have been in any event.”
Reaching the listing vehicle, Trevor saw that the axle of the right front wheel was broken. The carriage horses, their heads bowed under the desultory rainfall, whickered at the approach of Trevor and his mount, Beowulf.
The occupants of the carriage must have heard him approach, for the lady’s voice rang out into the night. “Hello? Hello, out there! I warn you, do not attempt to harm us. My.… my husband has a pistol!”
As if she’d nudged him into adding the words, her companion shouted as well, “Aye! I’m armed and dangerous!”
Dismounting, the duke left Bey under the cover of a large elm tree and approached the carriage. “I mean you no harm,” he said loudly. “I’ve just come from the village and wish to offer my assistance.”
There was a long silence in which Trevor imagined the haughty lady and her groom silently argued whether to accept his help. Then, as he watched, the carriage door opened slowly.
Stepping forward, he peered into the carriage and saw a lady huddled against the squabs of the interior, her pelisse and shawl clutched tightly around her. Her companion was a man of middle years, whose wan face and arm clutched tightly to his chest indicated that he was the injured Liston.
“We were on our way to Nettlefield House when something happened to the carriage wheel,” the lady said, her lips tight. Were it not for her cool expression, Trevor was quite convinced that she would have been among the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. Even in the dimness of the interior carriage lamps, her dark hair gleamed mahogany in sharp contrast to her porcelain complexion. Her figure, what he could see of it, was buxom. Perhaps more so than fashionable, but he had never been much of one for fashion. He liked a woman with a bit of substance. “My coachman and outriders have gone on ahead to the house to fetch help,” she went on. “I assure you we will be quite well, though I thank you for stopping.”
“Are you expected at Nettlefield House?” he asked, racking his brain to remember if either of his sisters had told him they were expecting friends sometime soon. He was about to go on, to explain that he was the master of the house, when she interjected.
“I’m sure I don’t know what business it is of yours,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “Unless you are the Duke of Ormonde, which you clearly are not”—she looked him up and down, obviously rejecting the idea out of hand—“then I really would appreciate your assistance in getting us on our way. My man here is injured, as you can plainly see.”
Trevor bit his lip, fighting the urge to laugh aloud at her cutting remarks. Though he was technically the duke, he took no pleasure in the title. Clearly, this Lady Wharton was some sort of social climber who had come to Nettlefield in search of the new duke to beg some favor of him. There hadn’t been many who were willing to travel such great lengths to win his favor, but there had been enough that he recognized a supplicant when he saw one.
If she was expecting him to be a dim-witted yokel, however, then he’d give her one.
“Aye,” he said slowly, tugging his forelock in a sign of obeisance, “I can see yer man is hurt bad-like. Bu’ won’t do ye no good iffen ye catch the death o’ cold yerself, beggin’ yer pardon, m’lady.”
“Just what I been trying to tell ’er,” the unfortunate Liston said with a nod.
“Help’ll be on its way soon enow,” Trevor went on guilelessly, paying no heed to Lady Isabella’s pursed lips. “I thin’ it would be best iffen ye come up wi’ me on Bessie.”
Lady Isabella’s brows drew together. “Bessie?” she asked querulously.
“Aye,” Trevor said with an agreeable nod, getting into his role. “Bessie are t’best horse in all Yorkshire an’ make no mistake. She’ll carry you up wi’ me no trouble a’tall.”
The lady’s nostrils flared. “Is there some reason why she might have had trouble?” she asked silkily.
“Well, ye’re no li’l slip of a thing,” Trevor said, widening his eyes innocently. “Beggin’ yer pardon, milady.”
He could all but see the steam coming from her ears. And yet she didn’t raise a fuss as he thought she might. Instead, she looked back at Liston.
“Will you be well if I leave you here, Liston?” she asked the injured man. “I would send you away with this … this person if I thought you might ride with him without doing yourself a further injury.”
Trevor felt a pang of conscience at seeing her genuine concern for her servant. Still she had not yet proved herself to be anything other than what she seemed. A prickly society lady who had come to Nettlefield to prey upon the dukedom of Ormonde. Doubtless she had some sort of charity to fund. Or a sibling who needed schooling.
“Aye, milady,” Liston said, his pale face determined. “I don’t want you out here catching your death simply because I was too foolish to keep meself from taking a bit of a tumble. Go wi’ this fellow and get to the house. Jemison and Jeffries will be here with someone from Nettlefield before ye know it.”
“If that’s the case,” she said, looking uncertain, “then perhaps I shouldn’t—”
But Trevor was tired from his earlier labors and the rain was beginning to come down harder. “Come, milady,” he said firmly, dropping his guise of happy farmer for a moment. “Let’s get ye up to Nettlefield House. I know the master would have me head for keepin’ ye out here this long.”
With a grim nod Lady Isabella buttoned up her pelisse and donned the cloak that lay spread out behind her on the carriage seat, pulling the hood up over her carefully dressed hair.
Trevor offered her his hand, and though she glanced quizzically up at him, she took it and allowed him to assist her from the carriage. Fortunately, she’d worn heavy boots for the journey, because the ground was a soggy, muddy mess. To his surprise, she was taller than he’d supposed, her nose almost aligned with his own when she stepped out next to him. Their eyes locked for one heart-stopping moment, before she colored up and looked away.
Well, he thought with an inward grin. Perhaps the prickly London lady was less prickly than he’d at first surmised. He felt his body respond to her nearness in the automatic way it always did when confronted with a pretty girl. But there was something about this one that felt different. Which clearly meant that he’d been awake for far too long. He needed to get this chit back to Nettlefield so that he could reveal his true identity and send her back on her way. He didn’t like forcing a woman out onto the road so soon after her arrival, but if she’d come uninvited to beg or, worse, at his grandmother’s behest then there was no reason for him to feel any sympathy for her.
Didn’t stop him from feeling a churl, though.
“Up ye go,” he told her, gripping her around her trim waist and lifting her to sit sideways across Bey’s saddle. Without further ceremony he put his foot in the stirrup and mounted up behind her, slipping a protective arm around her waist to hold her steady.
It was a surprisingly intimate situation between strangers, and Trevor tried to steel himself against responding further to her nearness. But it was impossible to ignore her lavender-scented hair and the more natural, primal scents of female sweat and something that he knew instinctively was simply her.
Directing Bey into motion with a touch of his heel to the horse’s flank, he clenched his jaw and tried to ignore her. Which proved impossible given the way that her reluctance to hold on to him put them both in danger of falling. They might be atop the same horse, but Lady Isabella kept herself as far away from his body as possible.
“I won’t bite,” he said, unable to hide his amusement at her diffident grip. Ignoring her protest, he held on to her more tightly. “Unless you wish it, of course.”
He waited for an outraged gasp, but she had no doubt decided to ignore him. A few moments later, however, she said, “It’s funny. You sound like an unschooled peasant one minute, and then the next your voice has a distinctly upper-class accent.”
Caught out, Trevor thought with a frown. “I don’t suppose you’d believe that I received lessons from the local vicar?” he asked.
“Not for a moment,” she said grimly.
“Well, then, Lady Wharton,” he said calmly, “I’m afraid that I’ve misled you a bit.”
“Rather more than a bit, I think,” she said sharply. “Though I suppose the lack of proper introduction excuses you, under the circumstances…”—she paused deliberately—“Your Grace.”
“I do not use the title, as you would know if you’d done any sort of investigation at all.” He kept his gaze on the road ahead of them.
He felt her head shake against his chest. “I would not have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes,” she said. “I knew of course that you had been raised in the country and had some sort of foolish notion about refusing to take up your responsibilities, but I thought that it was an exaggeration. But it’s true.”
“You and I both know that it’s not possible for me to give up the title completely,” Trevor said reasonably. “And I fear that my grandmother’s tale of my refusal to take up my responsibilities is, like much of her talk, an exaggeration. I consult regularly with the stewards and secretaries of the duchy; I simply do not choose to go to London or to set myself up in grandeur at the ducal estate.”
“So you choose to remain here in Yorkshire playing at the role of gentleman farmer,” Lady Isabella said with a shudder. “I cannot say that I understand your position, because I do not.”
“I choose to remain here in Yorkshire because it is my home,” he said stiffly. “I have a responsibility to the people of Nettlefield and I intend to remain here, dukedom or no dukedom.
“Now,” he went on, “what brings you to Yorkshire, my lady? Are you perhaps a distant cousin in need of a loan? A young widow whose son wishes to attend Eton? Or did you come at my grandmother’s behest to persuade me to come down to London?”
She did him the courtesy of not misunderstanding him.
“The latter,” she said calmly, as if he hadn’t just accused her of being a toady. “Your grandmother has need of you in London. She is quite ill.”
“Bollocks,” he said, not bothering to guard his language. “She has need of my position because she does not have enough power on her own as the dowager. And if she’s ill then I’ll eat my hat. She sent you here to lure me with your looks—which are quite splendid by the way—back to town so that she can direct me as she sees fit. Which will not happen while there is breath in my body.”
“Oh dear,” Lady Isabella murmured. “You are quite averse to the notion, aren’t you?”
“I am indeed, so you may return to London at once and inform Her Grace that I have no intention of dancing to her tune.”
“I can hardly do so at the moment, given the state of her traveling carriage,” Lady Isabella said calmly. “I hope you do not mean to refuse me accommodation, Your Grace.” She put special emphasis on his title. “Rustic though I suppose it must be.”
“I can hardly do so and continue to call myself a gentleman,” Trevor returned. Though he’d like to, just to prove a point to his grandmother. But the punishment would be for Lady Isabella, not the dowager. Which would be fruitless. “And fear not. I believe you will find Nettlefield up to your, no doubt, exacting standards.”
They rode along in silence until finally they reached the lane leading to the manor. It was full dark now and visibility was such that only the front step was illuminated in the gloom. Even so, the house was not an unimpressive sight. Nettlefield had been built sometime in the seventeenth century by a prosperous squire whose descendent had sold the property off some two hundred years later to Trevor’s father, who had been in search of a place to settle his young family. The façade was grayed with age and weather and rather dour, but it was home.
“Your Grace,” Templeton, his butler, said from the top step, “we had begun to fear you’d met with some misadventure.”
Dismounting and reaching up to lower Lady Isabella to the ground, Trevor was pleased to see her mouth agape. Rustic accommodation indeed, he thought wryly.
“Templeton, see that the blue room is readied for our guest,” he told the butler, offering Isabella his arm as he led her up the steps. “Lady Isabella Wharton will be our guest for a few days before she returns to London.”
If Templeton thought there was anything untoward about the fact that his master had returned home with a strange lady on his arm, the older man didn’t mention it.
“Of course, Your Grace,” the butler said, bowing to their guest as they moved into the hallway. “Lady Wharton, may I offer you a warm welcome and offer my assistance should you need anything during your stay?”
“Please have Mrs. Templeton send a tea tray into the sitting room,” Trevor said, assisting Isabella to remove her cloak and handing it to a waiting maid who seemed to have appeared from nowhere.
He was leading Isabella toward the stairs when a whirling dervish in the form of his sister Belinda came bolting into the hallway. “Trevor! Thank goodness you’ve returned! Flossie is about to give birth and I fear that she simply won’t rest until she sees you!”
Today was obviously the day for Isabella to find her preconceived notions upended at every turn.
First the fellow she assumed was a common laborer turned out to be the Duke of Ormonde. Then the house she’d expected to have all the elegance and appointments of a shepherd’s cottage turned out to be a sturdily built manor house. Now the duke himself turned out to be married to someone appallingly named Flossie, and if that weren’t bad enough, she was about to give birth to their child. For all Isabella knew, this young woman who had just burst onto the scene was his child as well.
Isabella rubbed her forehead between her brows, though it did nothing to assuage her burgeoning headache.
But, despite the news that he was about to become a father, the duke merely shrugged. “I will be up directly, Bel, though you know my opinion about Flossie’s affection for me. She could not possibly care less whether I’m in the room with her or not. That is, I fear, a notion entirely of your own making.” He turned to Isabella, and she felt suddenly diffident under his gaze. “I wish you to meet our guest.”
The young girl had seemed about to argue with him over the unfortunate Flossie, but she stopped when she realized that the duke was not alone.
“Lady Isabella Wharton,” he said, “may I present my youngest sister, Belinda.”
Isabella felt herself being subjected to the same scrutiny the duke had given her when he’d first come upon her on the roadside. Only now her gown was more rumpled, her hair was falling from its pins, and in general she felt a fright. Not that she cared what a provincial young lady who hadn’t even made her come-out thought of her, Isabella reminded herself.
Straightening her spine, she subjected young Belinda to her own scrutiny.
Belinda’s hair was the same deep russet as her brother’s, and it had obviously not been dressed by anyone with skill at the task. Her gown, three years out of fashion, was a passable shade of deep green but was hardly anything to boast about. It was serviceable and nothing more. But it was the young lady’s eyes that were her best feature. They were not unlike the duke’s. A startling blue that reminded Isabella of the spring sky.
“Lady Wharton,” Belinda said eagerly, “how lovely to see you! You’ve come just in time to see the kittens.”
Momentarily startled by the non sequitur, Isabella glanced at her host, who shrugged. “Flossie was perhaps waiting for an audience.”
Pieces snapped into place in Isabella’s mind. “Ah, the unfortunate Flossie,” she said.
“She loves Trevor most of all,” Belinda said, tucking her arm into Isabella’s, completely unfazed by her most standoffish manner. “He pretends not to care,” the young lady confided, “but I know he loves her, too. How can he not when she is altogether the best cat imaginable?”
Isabella paused when she felt the duke’s hand on her arm. “Just a minute, Bel,” he said, not unkindly. “Lady Wharton has had a rather trying day. I think she’d probably rather forego a visit to Flossie’s bedside for now.”
Belinda paused, and Isabella paused along with her, looking to the duke for guidance. “Oh dear,” Belinda said, turning to Isabella in alarm. “I am sorry. I didn’t think. Of course you won’t wish to see Flossie now.”
“It’s no matter, Bel,” the duke said to his sister, squeezing her hand. “I’m sure Lady Wharton does not mind.” His blue gaze spoke more loudly than his voice.
“Certainly not,” Isabella said quickly. “And I should very much like to see the kittens tomorrow.”
Relief shone in the young lady’s eyes. “Thank you, Lady Wharton,” she said gratefully. “Trevor, I must get back to Flossie. You will come up and see her before you retire for the night, won’t you?”
The duke nodded. “Of course.”
When Belinda had gone, Trevor led Isabella up the stairs. She followed along, though she knew that showing her to her room was an office that a footman or maid should perform. Clearly the duke had much to learn about being ducal.
“Belinda is my youngest sister,” he said, leading Isabella down a rather well-appointed hallway. “She is convinced that her cat holds me in great affection.”
Isabella could hear the amusement in his tone even as a thread of steel sounded behind it. “I realize that you will be returning to London quite soon,” he said, “but I would appreciate it if you would not subject my sisters to your reason for being here.”
Isabella, who had been trying her best not to notice how strong his arm felt beneath her hand, glanced over. “Why ever not?” she asked, realizing that her fatigue had dulled her intelligence. Of course his sisters would be a means of convincing him to return to London with her.
“I think you know why not,” he said fiercely. “They have no concept of what life as sisters to the Duke of Ormonde would be like. Whereas now they enjoy a rather easy existence in the country, a trip to London and exposure to its excesses would change their lives irrevocably.”
“Don’t you think they should be able to make that choice for themselves?” Isabella demanded, as they paused before an open door.
“They are thirteen and seventeen,” the duke said, his expression hard. “They are too young to make that decision for themselves. As their guardian, it is up to me to decide what’s best for them. And for now, I choose to remain in the country.”
Deciding that this battle was one that she’d best fight when she was in her full faculties, Isabella gave an inscrutable nod. It could mean anything, she decided.
“I will leave you to your rest,” he said with a slight bow. “I hope you will be comfortable here during your stay.”
Leaving her to the care of her waiting maid, the duke departed. And for the first time in hours, Isabella relaxed.
“Sanders,” she told her maid, “I would like a bath, I think. And then bed.”
“Very good, my lady,” the efficient woman said, unfastening Isabella’s gown. She’d only been with Isabella for a month or so, but she was quite good at her position. “Oh, my lady?”
“Yes?” Isabella asked, sighing with pleasure as Sanders loosened the ties of her corset.
“I found a note in your case while I was unpacking your things,” the maid said, folding the discarded gown over her arm. “It’s there on the writing desk. I thought perhaps the young duchess sent it with you.”
Frowning, Isabella stepped over to the desk in her stocking feet and pulled the robe she’d donned against the spring chill tighter around her. The note was lying flat on the desk, right where Sanders had said it would be. Her name was scrawled in an unfamiliar hand across the folded page. Rather than being sealed, the letter had been neatly folded into a rectangle, the end flap tucked in to form a makeshift closure.
It was probably something the dowager had dictated to her maid, Isabella thought with a sigh. Why couldn’t she simply leave her to the business of bringing back Ormonde without overseeing every tiny detail?
Snatching up the page, she unfolded and unfolded and unfolded until the message was visible in the lamplight.
The words made the tiny hairs on the nape of her neck rise.
I know what you did last season.
Biting back a cry and grateful that Sanders had left to hurry the footmen with her bath, Isabella crumpled the page into a ball and tossed it into the fire.
If only that would erase the words from her mind as well.
* * *
His guest settled into her bedchamber, Trevor allowed himself to relax for the first time since learning who Lady Isabella was and why she’d come.
Settled into a hot bath, he leaned a weary head back against the edge of the tub while he listened to his valet, Jennings, putter around the dressing room next door. Contrary to what Lady Isabella might think, Trevor did not live an entirely rustic existence in Yorkshire. His father had been a gentleman, a duke’s son, and had not given up the comforts of his former existence entirely. He had simply chosen not to embrace the more frivolous customs of the aristocracy. He had also chosen not to return to the family estate in Sussex or mingle with the beau monde in London. That did not mean that his household in Yorkshire was barbaric. Far from it. When he had purchased the Nettlefield estate, he had set about making it the most elegant home in the county. And once the farms had begun to produce a profit, his wife had begun to fill its rooms with the finest furniture from York and a surprisingly eclectic collection of art and antiquities, in addition to the pieces that had come with the estate itself. As a result, Nettlefield truly was the most elegant house in the county.
Trevor, however, had grown up not caring a whit about such things. While his father had played at being the country gentleman, Trevor had spent much of his time at the side of the estate’s steward, Brooks, and learned all he could about the most modern methods of farming and animal husbandry. He spent his days visiting the tenants, ensuring that their homes were sound, and in general seeing to it that those activities his father was too elegant for were performed. He had never considered that the dukedom was something he need worry over. Certainly his father had never paid it much attention, and once he was gone Trevor had given it the same consideration.
Now, of course, the three men who had been between himself and the title were gone and Trevor found himself the head of a family that had turned its back on his father when he dared to marry for love instead of for monetary gain. Well, he’d be damned if he’d reward the Ormonde clan with his leadership. He would stay here in Yorkshire farming and go about his business and they could go to the devil. True, the local gentry and families of wealth would never let him forget his new position, but he had never been much for society—even the local variety—so he simply avoided them as much as he could. When his sisters were of age, he would worry about that. He didn’t wish for his eschewing of the title to have a negative effect on Eleanor’s and Belinda’s marriage chances, of course, but he wouldn’t have to consider that for some years.
Still, thanks to his grandmother’s machinations, he was burdened with the presence of the all-too-attractive Lady Isabella Wharton beneath his roof. Surely there must be some way to send the woman packing, to convince her that remaining in the country was a fool’s errand. He held his breath and ducked his head down under the water, then let the rivulets stream down his face as he rested the back of his head against the edge of the tub. He wondered what his unwanted guest thought of the Careys’ modern conveniences. She had likely assumed that the family bathed once a week in a tub near the kitchen fire. He laughed softly at the notion.
But the thought sparked an idea.
The key to getting rid of Lady Isabella was not to do her bidding, he decided. It was to offer her a bargain.
The more he considered the notion, the more he liked it. It would serve his grandmother right if her highborn surrogate failed solely because of her inability to endure the country life. After all, the dowager expected Trevor and his sisters to endure all the ridiculous hardships of life in the city. Why not prove to her that it was not so very easy for a leopard to change its spots? He had his doubts about whether the dowager would last for more than a few days in the country. It was hardly a stretch to think the same would hold true for the town-bred lady she’d sent in her stead.
Pleased with his scheme, Trevor relaxed into his steaming bath and made plans for the next day.
* * *
Despite her fatigue, the anonymous note meant Isabella had some difficulty settling down to sleep. As a result, the next morning found her fighting back an unladylike yawn as she made her way downstairs.
In the light of day the note seemed far less ominous than it had before. Obviously whoever had put it in her bag had intended to play some sort of cruel joke on her. Maybe it was the work of the dowager, who wanted to remind Isabella that the circumstances of Gervase’s death were easy enough to reveal should she fail in her quest to bring Ormonde back to London. Regardless, she was here now and no amount of intimidation would make Isabella forget her real reason for being here: Perdita’s happiness.
Fortunately for her purposes the dowager’s carriage had suffered a great deal of damage in last night’s accident, so there would be no returning to London for several days. This would give Isabella the time she needed to persuade the duke to come to London.
Or so she hoped.
She found the breakfast room with the help of a maid and was helping herself to toast and kippers when she heard a slight gasp behind her. Turning, she saw a young lady a few years older than Belinda standing in the doorway, her eyes wide and a look of unfettered delight on her pretty face.
“You are much more beautiful than Bel said,” she blurted out, dropping into a hasty curtsy at Isabella’s single raised brow. “I am Miss Eleanor Carey,” she said by way of introduction. “And you must be Lady Isabella Wharton.”
Carrying her plate to the table and nodding to the footman that she would like tea, Isabella waited for the girl to take a seat opposite her. She was not surprised to find the duke’s other sister to be as rag mannered as the younger Belinda, but she was startled by the young lady’s beauty. Surely Ormonde didn’t mean to waste this child on some yeoman farmer when she could make a wonderful match in London?
“I am,” she said, taking a small bite of toast. “I wonder, Miss Carey, that you are not in the schoolroom at this hour. Surely you have a governess to occupy your time.” It was a question but also a judgment. If she did have a governess, then the woman was hardly worth her salt if the girl’s casual manner was anything to go by.
“Oh, we don’t have a governess at the moment,” Eleanor said, eyeing the details of Isabella’s gown and coiffure with interest. “They keep falling in love with Trevor, so we have a hard time keeping one. When Miss Timms, the last one, declared her love for him, Trevor decided that we could go without one for a bit.”
Isabella had little difficulty imagining such a thing, but it was hardly a logical response for him to dispense with a governess altogether. Clearly his sisters were in need of some sort of social guidance, or Eleanor wouldn’t be introducing herself to guests and Belinda wouldn’t be accosting him about kittens. Perhaps while she was here she might prevail upon him to allow her to choose someone for the girls when she returned to London.
“Is that sleeve the latest fashion in London?” Eleanor asked candidly, her wistful gaze on Isabella’s gown. “We are sadly out of fashion here in Yorkshire, I fear, though the local seamstress, Mrs. Winters, does try to copy styles from La Belle Assemblée.”
Remembering what it had been like to be seventeen and desperate for news of the outside world, Isabella said, “I purchased this gown only last month from Madame Celeste. And she assured me that this sleeve was what every lady in Paris is wearing. Perhaps I can make some sketches for you to take with you the next time you visit Mrs. Winters? Before I go back to London, I mean.”
Eleanor clapped her hands. “That would be wonderful! I do know that Mrs. Winters tries her best, but I fear there is something sadly provincial about her work.”
Uncomfortable at the girl’s worshipful expression, Isabella decided to change the subject. “If you no longer have a governess to instruct you, how do you occupy yourself?” Surely the duke did not allow his sisters to run wild about the countryside. Even in the country it was frowned upon to allow girls who were not yet out to simply do as they pleased.
“Oh, on most days Belinda and I go to the Felshams’ for lessons with their daughters. But they are in London for the season just now, so we are left to our own devices.” Eleanor shrugged. “I practice the pianoforte. Some days Bel and I set up our easels in the garden and paint. I do try to ensure that she doesn’t run too wild. After all, we do not wish to develop a reputation. Since Mama died, I feel a certain responsibility to her. Though I know Trevor tries his best, he is a gentleman and hardly one to train one in ladylike behavior.”
After Eleanor’s earlier enthusiasms, this rather practical speech struck Isabella as surprisingly grown-up for such a young lady.
“How long has it been since your mother’s death?” Isabella asked quietly, putting her teacup down.
“Seven years,” Eleanor said. “Bel doesn’t remember her really; she was too young. But I do and I know she would not like it if we caused talk in the village. She was quite proud. Especially since Papa was a duke’s son.”
Touched suddenly by the girl’s determination to do her mother proud, Isabella made a decision. “Perhaps while I am here I can help you girls by telling you about how things are done in London. After all, you will be making your debut one of these seasons and you would not wish to be completely green when you get to London.”
“That would be lovely.” The somber mood gone as quickly as it had come on, Eleanor beamed once more. “I cannot tell you how pleased I am that you have come. I fear that Nettlefield is sometimes rather dull, and Trevor cares little for social niceties. He is a good brother, but a dismal duke. He doesn’t even really like to be called by his title. Can you imagine?”
Isabella could not imagine, but she knew that the duke’s reluctance to accept his title was the least of their worries.
They were forestalled from further discussion by the appearance of Templeton in the doorway of the breakfast room.
“Lady Wharton,” he said gravely, “several of the neighborhood ladies have called and wish to know if you are receiving visitors.
She looked at Eleanor, who shrugged. A habit that Isabella would need to warn her about.
“It is a small neighborhood,” the young lady said. “They probably learned about your accident from the servants and word spread. You cannot blame them for being curious. We get very little excitement here.”
Lovely, Isabella thought. I am reduced to being an entertainment for rural gawkers. “Perhaps you will come with me to meet them?” she asked Eleanor, thinking that this would be a good opportunity to judge how the girl’s manners were when she wasn’t overcome with curiosity.
Clearly the invitation was unexpected, because Eleanor’s eyes widened before she visibly squared her shoulders and rose elegantly from the breakfast table. “I would be delighted to perform the introductions,” she said with a gravity that almost made Isabella laugh. But she didn’t. A girl’s amour propre at that age was quite fragile. And there was no reason to mock Eleanor for behaving with dignity. If it seemed a bit stilted after her earlier frankness and unabashed enthusiasm, well, she could work on developing an easier manner the more that such introductions became commonplace for her.
Following the girl from the breakfast room, Isabella prepared herself to be scrutinized within an inch of her life.
Copyright © 2013 by Manda Collins.
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Manda Collins spent her teen years wishing she’d been born a couple of centuries earlier, preferably in the English countryside. Time travel being what it is, she resigned herself to life with electricity and indoor plumbing, and read lots of books. When she’s not writing, she’s helping other people use books, as an academic librarian.