Authors: Amanda Forester
Tags: #England, #Historical Romance, #love story, #Regency Romance, #Romance, #regency england
Copyright © 2014 by Amanda Forester
Cover and internal design © 2014 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Dawn Adams
Cover art by Robert Papp
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Scripture quotation is taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version, which exists in the public domain.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410
Fax: (630) 961-2168
To my family, who has been amazingly supportive. And to Ed, who makes me believe in love.
London, December 1810
Death came rowing up the Thames. It was time to strike—now, when their English king was at his weakest. No doubt conquering Britain would prove challenging, but it would only make the reward sweeter.
The man sitting in the stern of the small boat pulled his thick Carrick coat tighter against the cold and wet. Wind buffeted the little craft, blowing waves over the edge as rain pelted his face like tiny needles. The smuggler before him strained against the wooden oars. He had hired the man for a few shillings. The smuggler was working hard rowing against the wind and could no doubt use help, but he had no intention of providing it.
“Hurry up,” said the man in the thick coat. The sooner he was finished with this business, the sooner he could return to his warm seat by the fire—or better yet, the warm doxy he’d left in his bed. He was as much a loyal supporter of the emperor as any, but rowing up the Thames in a storm was not exactly what he had in mind.
“Me mum wouldn’t approve o’ this ’ere work,” muttered the smuggler.
“Put your back into it, man.”
“Few jobs ’round these parts for a working man. Fewer still if you be an honest one.” The man at the oars seemed to need to explain his involvement in the scheme.
“Fortunately, you have no predilection toward honesty,” said the man in the thick wool coat with no fewer than five capes.
“What’s that now?”
“We’re here. Look lively. Tie her up.” Though they were hidden beneath Westminster Bridge, the man in the Carrick coat disembarked from the tiny skiff with the elegance befitting his person. A group of smugglers were huddled beneath the bridge, waiting for their arrival, along with a young man, clearly of a different class. Johnny strolled toward him, looking too cocky by half in his footman’s livery.
“What are you doing, coming down here dressed for serving table?” the man growled at Johnny.
“It’s under my coat,” Johnny defended.
“I can still see it, you fool. Put up that collar!”
Johnny bit back a rebuke and did as he was told.
“Take these to the warehouse,” the caped man commanded the man in the boat and the other shifty-eyed smugglers who had come to help for the prospect of a few coins.
“You got something for me?” Johnny asked as the smugglers began to unload crates of French wine.
The caped man handed over a packet that contained a small note and a wad of blunt. Johnny took it with a greedy grin.
“You know what to do.”
“Yes, sir,” said Johnny with more eagerness than the man in the Carrick coat liked to see. He preferred people in a more downtrodden state. Cheerfulness was unnatural.
“What kind of wine you got here?” asked Johnny with too much curiosity. “Maybe I’ll take some back with me.”
“This ain’t that kind of wine. See you don’t drop it!” the caped man called to the smugglers, who did not give the impression of overall sobriety. “And, you”—he drew nearer to Johnny—“watch Marchford. That duke’s got more interest in our goings-on than what’s good for him.”
“Can you tell me what this is all about?” Johnny whispered.
The caped man motioned the lad closer and then pulled a pistol from his coat pocket and stuck it almost up the boy’s nose.
“W-what’s this?” Johnny stammered.
“It’s for blighters like you, who don’t know when to keep their traps shut.” The caped man returned the pistol to his pocket and dismissed Johnny with a wave. The lad took off running, the smile drained from his face.
The crates were loaded in the wagon on the road above them and a tarp pulled securely over the crates. One of the burly smugglers glanced around, but there was no one else out in such weather. He put his hand to his cap in salute and drove off into the stormy night.
“Glad to have that delivery made,” muttered the talkative smuggler.
The caped man climbed back into the rowboat once more.
“Think he knows what’s really in those wine bottles?” asked the smuggler.
“Not a chance.”
“What are they going to do with it?”
“What do you think?” asked the caped man, his hand finding his pistol once more. This smuggler was too sharp-eyed and loose-lipped.
“You think Napoleon will sit on the English throne?”
“I know it.” He gave the smuggler a smile and cocked the pistol. It was time to take care of some loose ends.
James Lockton, the Duke of Marchford, was a marked man. He heard voices coming and pressed himself against the wall, edging slowly away, careful not to make a sound. One wrong move would seal his fate.
He had tried to escape his doom, hiding at his country estate like a craven coward. It was only the pressing needs of king and country, and the early opening of Parliament to deal with a severe crisis of governance, that drew him back to London. He had hoped December would find Town desolate of company, but with the return of the members of Parliament came their families, and with their families came…
“The Duke of Marchford is sooooo handsome,” cooed a young feminine voice.
“Better yet, he’s dreadfully rich,” said another lady. “What I wouldn’t give to be duchess of this hall.”
“Do you think we should be wandering about, Mama?”
“No, of course not, but do you think we should come all this way without an introduction to the duke? Do you really think I care a whit about that spiteful old dowager? No!” exclaimed the baroness. They were growing nearer.
Marchford knew the baroness and her daughters were coming to visit his grandmother, but he hardly expected them to make a search of the house. He darted up a servants’ stairwell and into a long hallway of bedrooms. He walked quickly toward the main stairs but stopped short at the sound of their whining voices. The woman had the audacity to come up to the private rooms! If they cornered him in the hallway, there would be no way to politely avoid introductions, and then he would be forced to dance with one or both of the sour-faced girls. He could think of no worse fate.
“We’ll flush out the duke,” crooned the baroness, her voice growing louder, “say we got turned around in the house and secure an introduction. I swear I’ll not set foot from this place until you both have been asked to dance at tonight’s ball.”
Nothing to do but run.
He spun and dashed down the hall on light feet. Taking a risk, he opened one of the doors and slipped inside, closing the door carefully to avoid the conspicuous click of the latch. Now if only the bedroom were empty, he could possibly survive the night.
A small, feminine shriek behind him laid waste to that grand hope.
“Your Grace!” demanded Penelope Rose. “What on earth are you doing in my bedroom?”
“Shhhh, I beg you, Miss Rose,” whispered Marchford, relieved it was only his grandmother’s companion and not one of those marriage-minded females. “I am glad it is only you. You gave me a fright.”
a fright!” Penelope wrapped a serviceable robe around an already modest dressing gown.
Penelope Rose was the companion to his grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Marchford, and was the only one in a series of companions who had lasted more than a week. She stood with her hands on her slender hips, and her long brown hair, which was usually pulled back in something of a severe knot, tumbled down around her.
Marchford gave Penelope a cursory glance, then looked back once more. He had never seen her with her hair undone, and the transformation was remarkable. Her hair was a lovely shade of chestnut brown and fell in loose waves all the way to her waist. It was luscious and thick and he had the sudden impulse to touch it. She had worked as his grandmother’s companion for almost a year, but he doubted he had ever truly seen her before this moment.
“I am dressing for dinner. You must leave at once!” Penelope glared at him. He may have been experiencing an epiphany regarding her true form, but the only thing he saw in her large brown eyes was irritation.
“Forgive me, Miss Rose. I would not intrude on your privacy if it were not a matter of desperate urgency.”
“What is it?” Pen’s tone changed instantly. “Is it the spymaster?”
Penelope was one of the very few people he trusted to assist him with his work for the Foreign Office. He was slow to trust, but she had proved her worth, helping him flush out French spies who had infiltrated English society. It was one of the many things he valued about her. Yet in this case, his distress was of a more personal nature. “Worse. The baroness and her daughters.”
Pen raised an eyebrow. “You are intruding on my privacy to avoid forming a new acquaintance?” Ironically, her attempt to chastise only enhanced her growing appeal.
“Have you met her daughters?” he defended, all thoughts of any other lady, save the one before him, banished from his mind.
“Would you like to spend an hour dancing with either of them?”
Penelope’s lively face struggled to maintain her general reserve until she gave up and rolled her eyes at him. “I suppose I must concede the point.”
“Besides, should you not be with my grandmother during their visit?” He stepped toward her, sensing he was gaining the advantage.
“Sudden headache,” she said quickly, on the defense. She sat on the trunk by the foot of her bed.
“Couldn’t stand them either, eh? And now, because you failed to keep them entertained, they are running amok in my house.” Marchford claimed a chair by her dressing table and stretched out his long legs; he was sitting in her private boudoir and enjoying every minute of it.
“Do not make yourself comfortable. You cannot stay here. It is highly improper!” She put her hands on her hips.
She was right, of course, he had no business being in her room, but he was finally seeing Miss Penelope Rose in a more natural state, and he had no interest in making a hasty departure. “I certainly can’t leave, not with them about.”
“You best get accustomed to female attention. After all, you are unmarried, young, and a duke.” Penelope listed his attributes as though they were an indictment against him.
“If I cannot even be safe in my own home, entering the London season a targeted bachelor…” He made a strangled sound. “Why, my life will not be worth living. I must find a wife. And soon,” he added gloomily.
“Ah, the horror of it all.” Pen clasped her hands to her breast in mock sympathy. She was teasing him, but he enjoyed it. How many others would dare to mock the Duke of Marchford? Only the adorably frumpy woman before him.
Marchford ignored her sarcasm. “I need at least a fiancée, someone who will not plague me. Someone who does not whine or cry or do other feminishy things.”
“Feminishy?” Penelope raised an eyebrow.
“Someone sensible. Someone who can stand up to my grandmother without causing a scene. Someone like…” Marchford met Pen’s eyes. Her ancient dressing gown looked every bit the wardrobe of an old maid, but her hair…that beautiful hair. Why did she tie it up in a lump on the back of her head? What other charms might her old clothes be hiding? Marchford guessed her ill-fitting clothes hid a shapely body, and those expressive brown eyes revealed intelligence and humor.
“Someone like you,” said Marchford. It was meant only as a joke, and yet as the idea turned around in his mind, it became more desirable. Becoming engaged to Penelope would solve his problem of being hunted as a bachelor, and they could continue working together to catch spies, and…he suddenly had a great desire to unwrap the rest of the questionable package before him to see what delights lay underneath the hideous dressing gown. “What do you think? It would get me out of a jam.”
Penelope’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. He had surprised her if nothing else. In a blink, her reserve returned to her face. “I beg you would not speak such nonsense.”
“I am in earnest. You are a sensible girl. You get along with my grandmother. You can hold intelligent conversation. You are…sensible.”
“You said sensible.”
“It is one of your better features.”
Penelope’s eyebrows lowered. “I thank you for that unmitigated praise.”
“Miss Rose, will you or will you not consent to be my wife?” Suddenly the question that had begun as an impulse became gravely serious. Penelope was the perfect wife for him.
Penelope flushed and sputtered. “The difference in our stations…”
“If it means nothing to me, it can be nothing to you.” He leaned forward, admiring her large brown eyes, which widened, only enhancing her appearance.
“I—I beg you would not tease me! I know you are just funning with me. Besides, if I were ever to marry, it would be for love, not to save a man from the marriage mart.”
“That is grievously unkind of you,” said Marchford lightly, careful not to let her see any true disappointment. He leaned back in his chair. It was unfortunate about her attachment to love, for love was the one thing he could never offer.
Though he had spoken the words admittedly in jest, he was surprised how much her rejection stung. He had never proposed before and had always expected that when he did, even if it was admittedly backhanded, the girl—any girl—would fall over herself to say yes.
But Penelope was not just any girl. She was apparently the only girl in society who did not wish to marry him. And now, thanks to her dratted voluminous hair, she was the only girl he could imagine sharing his bed.
“Well, must dash,” said Marchford, leaping from the chair. The voices of the baroness and her daughters had long since faded away. It was past time to make his exit. To let her see the sudden turn of his mind from playful banter into serious attraction would be fatal.
“I am sure you will find a suitable bride soon,” said Penelope with an apologetic tone. “You have much to offer.”
Was she trying to let him down softly? Did she feel sorry for him? His pride howled in pain. “Thank you,” he said stiffly, listening at the door to ensure the hallway was empty.
“Any girl would be pleased to accept your offer.”
“Not any girl apparently,” muttered the duke.
“I do apologize, but I refuse to marry any man just so he can avoid awkward conversation.”
Marchford turned on her with a desperate need to change the direction of the unfortunate conversation. “If you will not oblige me, then it is your responsibility to find me someone who will, someone who meets the criteria I delineated.”
Penelope flushed again and avoided his eye. “I can contact Madame X, the matchmaker, if you would like to engage her services to help find a bride.” She was a dreadful liar.
“Hang it, Miss Rose. I know Madame X is nothing more than a fictional character you and my grandmother created. Now I want you, not my grandmother, but you alone to find me a bride. What is your going rate?”
“A little vague, but I am certain my solicitor can draw up the papers to your liking. Good day, Madame X!”
He stomped down the hall, taking a deep breath of cool air. She would get dressed, tie up her hair, and everything would go back to normal. Yes, normal was good. Miss Rose was his grandmother’s companion, nothing more.
Yet something warned him it was too late. He would never be able to see Penelope Rose the same way again.