Authors: Darcie Wilde
Regency Makeover Series
Part I: The Bride Behind the Curtain
Part II: The Stepsister's Triumph
Part III: An Exquisite Marriage
A Useful Woman
Lord of the Rakes
The Accidental Abduction
Part III: An Exquisite Marriage
INTERMIX BOOKS, NEW YORK
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REGENCY MAKEOVER PART III: AN EXQUISITE MARRIAGE
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2016 by Darcie Wilde.
A Useful Woman
copyright Â© 2016 by Darcie Wilde.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-40814-2
InterMix eBook edition / May 2016
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
New Year's Eve 1817
Lord Windford was not accustomed to being ambushed by stray girls in his library. But this particular evening, no sooner had he finished poking up the fire and pouring himself a glass of whiskey, than the doors opened and a young woman in a plain blue dress marched in carrying a workbasket.
Windford stared, the glass halfway to his mouth. The girl lifted her chin and returned his frankly surprised gaze in a manner that went past cold into the positively arctic.
It took a moment for Windford's manners to rally. “Can I help you, MissÂ .Â .Â .Â ?” He cast about frantically trying to remember her name. His aunt, Mrs. Kearsely, had filled the house with guests for the annual Christmas party, and now that it was the night of the New Year's ball, there wasn't a corner of the place that wasn't stuffed full of friends or strangers.
“I don't think so, no,” the girl replied. She made no curtsy or apology but rather drifted over to the shelves and began examining the books.
“Then can I ask what you're doing here?”
“I'm looking for a book,” she answered without turning around. “Isn't that what one generally does in a library?”
“I had no idea any of you girls actually read.”
“I had no idea you gentlemen did, either. I thought you were all in the billiards room trying to get drunk and steal one another's money before the ball.”
“Not all of us, as you see.”
“I do. I shall set it down as a mark in your favor.”
Marcus frowned. It was an expression that had been known to make strong men reexamine their consciences. It had even been known to work on his sisters, at least occasionally. It did not, however, seem to have any effect on the girl in front of him.
Marcus felt a stirring of curiosity. Whoever she was, she was not the run-of-the-mill society sort his sister Patience surrounded herself with, nor was she one of the shining prizes or acknowledged beauties that Aunt Kearsely was continuously throwing into his path.
To begin with, she was taller than average. Tall enough that her eyes were almost level with his chin. She also eschewed the fashionable ringlets and instead wore her hair in a severe knot at the nape of her neck. Like her hair, her dress was unfashionably plain and an unrelieved dark blue. Windford might have taken her for a governess if he hadn't seen the telltale sheen that indicated the simple gown was indeed silk. The hands that held the workbasket were, he noticed, fine and slim.
If he hadn't known such a thing to be impossible, he would have thought she had deliberately tried to make herself look plain. It would have been a futile task in any case. While her expression might approach the severe, her eyes undid her. They were large and brilliant and a most unusual shade of amber.
The girl bore his scrutiny without flinching or apparently feeling any need to fill the quiet. She simply ignored him and concentrated on the books.
“Well, as we are to share my library, do you suppose you might tell me who you are?”
She cocked her head toward him, her brow furrowed as if she was considering some deep intellectual problem. Finally, she shrugged one shoulder. “I am Lady Helene Fitzgerald. And yes, before you feel the need to remark on it, I am that Lady Helene who is the infamous bluestocking, the Lady Helene who has all but disappeared from society altogether, and the Lady Helene who is the hysteric who publically and shamefully broke her engagement to the Marquis of Broadheathe three years ago.”
“That's rather a lot of Lady Helenes to be.”
“I have set up a rotating schedule. We manage.”
Marcus felt the corner of his mouth twitch. “Well, I'm afraid I can only lay claim to being Marcus Endicott.”
“You are too modest, sir. You forget to add that you are the notoriously unyielding and impervious Duke of Windford, and my nominal host for this so very charming party.”
“I never heard myself called notorious.”
“You must not listen to the right people.”
Marcus worked his jaw back and forth. It was becoming very hard to keep from smiling. Lady Helene herself did not smile. Her face and her tone were both as bland as if they had been discussing the weather. But there was something, a spark in those bright amber eyes, perhaps, or a sardonic twist to her wide mouth, that told him she was enjoying a very dry joke.
Which was not at all what he would have expected, given the gossip surrounding Lady Helene. She was supposed to be a harridan, a wild girl whose screaming rejection of Lord Broadheathe had become as notorious as Caroline Lamb's public hysterics in her pursuit of Lord Byron.
It was impossible to picture the simply dressed and blunt-spoken young woman in front of him engaging in any sort of hysterics, let alone public ones.
Marcus almost wished he hadn't agreed to meet Rutherford. He had a feeling here was one of Aunt Kearsely's female guests that he might actually enjoy talking to. But he had agreed, and Rutherford would be here any minute, and, if nothing else, Marcus needed to go close the windows. There'd been a rustling behind the curtains earlier, and he'd meant to check as to whether one of the panes in the window seat alcove had been left ajar.
“Well, I imagine you'll be leaving now?” he suggested. “To dress for the ball and so forth?”
“I'm afraid that is not on the schedule just yet,” replied Lady Helene. “It is, after all, more than an hour until the gong sounds, and I've not found my book. And anyway, I can't leave.”
Marcus felt his eyebrows lift. “Why not?”
“Because it might be seen I was alone in here with a man.”
Marcus wiped at his face. She could not be serious, except it seemed that she was. That joking tone he thought he'd detected before was entirely gone from her voice.
“I thought you were infamous?”
“I am. But I'm not ridiculous, or stupid. You will have to be the one who leaves.”
“Why? It's my library,” he pointed out, “and I'm not the one who is afraid of compromising my reputation.”
“Those are valid points, however, you will still be the one to leave.”
“Because despite your insults, you're a gentleman, and you won't take advantage of a guest.”
She said it with the air of one who knew they'd won their argument. Marcus should have been irritated. He was not used to being talked to this way. Even Patience knew better. And yet, irritation was not the emotion that was rising in him. Quite the opposite, in fact. Marcus found he was rather enjoying himself.
He wondered how this challenging girl would like to be challenged herself.
“Are you sure?” Marcus moved forward. Frowning had not worked, and neither had glowering. It was time to advance matters to looming. That seldom failed to render the other conversationalist at least uneasy. And, he had to admit, that portion of his nature that was still a schoolboy wanted to mar Lady Helene's cool self-confidence.
It didn't work. Lady Helene held her ground, and she did it without showing any sign of nervousness, never mind flirtation or coquetry. There was simply a determination not to be moved. The only indication she gave that she was the least uneasy was a hitch in her breath as he moved too close for propriety, close enough, in fact, that he smelled her scent of clean skin and vanilla. It was unexpectedly appealing, as were her delicate face and her wide, curving, highly colored mouth. It was a mouth made for smiling. But Lady Helene did not smile much at all. Why was that?
“Yes,” she replied, meeting his gaze with the same steadiness she'd possessed since she'd walked into the room. “You're trying to intimidate me, but you are not a cad.”
Marcus not only smiled at this, he laughed. He couldn't help it. This, at last, made her blink and wiped away enough of that placid expression that he could see some genuine surprise. Probably she was more used to irritating people than amusing them. She certainly worked at it.
Marcus sighed. “Unfortunately, you happen to be right. I do, however, find it interesting that someone who so openly prides herself on her rebellion cares when she's seen coming and going.”
“My pride is not the sticking point here,” she answered. “You, Your Grace, do not want me causing talk and disturbance at your aunt's party, something we both know I'm quite capable of.”
Considering that the tales of how Lady Helene broke off her engagement included hurling unprintable abuse, as well as a sapphire necklace worth thousands of pounds, in her would-be groom's face, he was ready to believe it. He glanced at the door. He really should just order her out. The whole situation was ridiculous, and he was beginning to get the feeling it was not entirely safe, not for her, but for him. In addition, that damned rustling was starting up again. Before Rutherford arrived, Marcus needed to check the windows or chase out whoever had hidden back behind the curtains for their tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte. Possibly both.
The problem was, if he did order Lady Helene away, she'd probably just refuse to go. He could propel her, or summon a servant, or do any number of things, all of which would be far more embarrassing for her than for him.
And she knew that, which was why she knew he wouldn't do it. He was her host, and it was the duty of a host to ensure the guests in his house were comfortable.
She was lifting an eyebrow at him. She was also folding her hands at him, indicating her perfect willingness to continue to wait.
“You will do me the favor of finding your book quickly, Lady Helene,” he said in as dry and bland a tone as he could manage. “I have business that needs doing here.”
“I will do my best. Please go now.”
Marcus bowed. “Your servant, Lady Helene.”
As he turned, he thought he heard a rustle and a hint of a whisper. It was impossible. It must be the schoolboy in him, because for a moment he could have sworn he heard Lady Helene breathe, “If only.”
As Lady Helene watched Lord Windford stride from the room, she tried very hard to remember two things. The first was that she really ought to breathe. The second was that she had come into this room with a distinct purpose in mind.
As soon as the door closed, Helene hurried over and slipped the latch. She sincerely hoped the color in her cheeks would fade quickly as she turned around and faced the set of velvet curtains drawn over the library's bowed window.
“It's all right,” she said. “You can come out now.”
The immediate answer to this was a vague rustling behind the heavy velvet draperies.
“Oh, honestly.” Helene rolled her eyes. “You needn't be afraid, Lady Adele.”
Helene had not yet formally met Lady Adele, but as she had been walking up the corridor, Lady Adele had come running out of the parlor, her workbasket clutched in her hands and the sound of unpleasant, jeering laughter following her. They had abruptly collided, and Adele's workbasket had spilled across the floor. Helene had seen the girl's eyes shining with tears.
“What onÂ .Â .Â .” Helene had begun. But Adele hadn't waited. She had simply run past Helene and ducked into the library.
Helene, uncertain what else she should do, had begun gathering up the threads and bits of work that had spilled from the fallen basket.
“Well, well,” said a voice form the parlor. Helene looked up to see Lady Patience Endicott smiling down at her. “How very appropriate,
Helene. After all, I understand you're here as a paid companion. You should be doing the maid's work.”
Helene straightened. She lifted her chin and met Patience's eyes.
“At least I have something useful to do.”
She turned her back and marched down the hall. She'd come into the library with the intent of discovering and consoling Lady Adele, and, of course, returning her basket.
But she'd found something quite different in the form of Lord Windford. The very handsome and unexpectedly intriguing Lord Windford.
Now was decidedly not the time to think about that.
“I've got rid of your brother, and the door's locked,” Helene said to the curtains. “Do come out.”
She heard another rustle and, very softly, what had to be a whisper. A man's whisper.
Helene felt her eyebrows arch.
The curtains parted the barest fraction of an inch, and Lady Adele slipped out. Her cheeks blazed bright scarlet. If Helene had harbored any doubt about hearing a man's voice, that doubt was wiped away. Adele looked both dazed and ashamed.
She held out the workbasket Adele had dropped in the hallway earlier. “What on earth were you doing back there?”
“Hiding from my sister,” Adele replied.
“As well as from your brother? Not that I blame you.”
Lady Adele was strongly curved girl when fashion dictated that a proper girl must be slim. She did possess a pleasant face and the family's famously blue eyes. But from what Helene had been able to observe, Adele was not only teased mercilessly by her sister Patience, who was the acknowledged beauty of the family, she was constantly hectored and bullied by her managing aunt, who seemed determined to destroy what self-confidence the girl had left by dressing her in the most unattractive gowns available.
The injustice of it burned, and Helene felt her jaw tighten.
“Well, come on.” Helene started for the door.
“What?” Lady Adele exclaimed. “Why?”
“Because if we're seen leaving together no one will think I was doing anything untoward in here with your brother. Or that you wereÂ .Â .Â . whatever it was you were doing behind that curtain.” Helene frowned. “It was your idea to be back there, wasn't it?”
If that gentleman back thereâwhoever he might beâhad been importuning this girl, he was going to find himself pitched out the window into the snow. Helene had recently read a new paper on the physics of leverage, and it had contained several theories she'd be happy to test on such a person.