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Carla Kelly

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SIGNET REGENCY ROMANCE

One Good Turn

Carla Kelly

 

 

INTERMIX BOOKS, NEW YORK

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

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. The publisher does not have control over and does not have any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

ONE GOOD TURN

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Signet Books edition / December 2001

InterMix eBook edition / November 2012

Copyright © 2001 by Carla Kelly.

Excerpt from
The Lady’s Companion
Copyright © 1996 by Carla Kelly.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

ISBN: 978-1-101-57297-9

INTERMIX

InterMix Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

INTERMIX and the “IM” design are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To Nick, whose help made this book appear in timely fashion. Thanks, Nick, for this and other things.

Patience, and shuffle the cards.

—Spanish proverb

Prologue

Pray, do not beat yourself with too many stripes because you are yet in love with my wife.

Benedict Nesbitt, seventh Duke of Knaresborough, sighed and looked out the carriage window at the endless rain, thinking of his last conversation with Tony Cook. “Damn you, Dr. Cook,” he murmured under his breath, careful that his niece Sophie did not hear him. “If you were not such a good man and a kindly friend, I could certainly despise you. So what if I love your wife still?”

“Uncle, we cannot quite hear you,” Sophie said, looking up from the page she was coloring with the French crayons he had bought her yesterday morning before they set out for Knare.

He looked down at her as she leaned so comfortably against him, using his bulk to steady her as she drew in the carriage. “I wasn’t talking to you, Empress,” he said. “I was talking to myself.”

“Mama says you are an eccentric” was Sophie’s only comment, as she directed her attention to the page again. “She would call that proof.”

I suppose I am an eccentric, he thought, as he looked out the window again. I gave away my wine cellar—famous through three shires—to my stupid friend Eustace Wiltmore on the occasion of his marriage to my Libby’s equally stupid cousin Lydia. (No, no, she is Tony’s Libby, and not mine. You think I’d remember.) I have not drunk a drop in a year, which my friends think odd. I take my meals belowstairs at Knare instead of at that ridiculous table in the dining room, which could probably seat the whole drooling, doddering House of Lords. Of course, I only eat belowstairs so my former private Amos Yore will feel at home talking to me about the Knare armory that he is refurbishing. Nothing eccentric about that; I am merely practical. Besides that, the food is still warm when it doesn’t have to be traipsed through a quarter mile of corridors.

“So, my dear Empress, what’s an eccentric?” he asked with a wink to his butler Luster, who sat opposite in the carriage.

She thought a moment. “Uncle, we believe that eccentrics are people who cause Mama indigestion.”

He smiled. “Don’t you mean indignation, love?”

She thought a moment more as she colored in the tree she was drawing. “No, we mean indigestion, Uncle. Mama always asks for soda and water after you leave, so she can belch and feel better.”

I wish I could take soda and water, belch and feel better, Nez thought, as Sophie returned her attention to the tree in her lap. Yet in love with your wife, Tony? Guilty as charged.

He had to admit that Tony had been nice enough about it during his recent visit to Kent. The visit was brought about by the combined effects of missing Libby so much that his sleep was troubled, and his eagerness to see some corner of England, where spring, after a long winter, had taken hold with a vengeance.

He shifted uncomfortably, which earned him a glare from Sophie, when he bumped her elbow and turned the grass she was drawing into a tall, rather palm-like frond. “We are not happy when you do that, Uncle,” she said, sounding remarkably like her mother.

“We wish you would get over this phase, Your Royal Highness, and treat
us
with a little more respect, Sophie,” he replied. He smiled when he said it, thinking as he did so that she was a wonderful child, and not a lump like her brother Clarence, who was throwing out spots, mercifully back in London.

As the carriage moved slowly along through the rain, he remembered what a winter it had been, dreaming of Libby and desperately unhappy each morning. He even went down to his wine cellar after an especially bad night, just to stand there and stare at the empty racks. He wanted the bottles back, wanted just to sit on the floor in the cellar and drink, and not come upstairs until he was cured or dead. His butler had found him there, miserable and silent, and had done something unthinkable for a butler. Nez smiled just remembering. Luster had watched him a moment, then knelt down and touched his master’s cheek. That was all. It was the smallest gesture, but it kept Nez from the wine cellar again.

His mother died after Christmas, but there was no reason to mourn her from inside a brandy bottle. She had outlived many of her contemporaries, and much of her usefulness, according to his sister Augusta, who could be even more censorious than he.
Sic transit glorious mumsy,
he had thought at the time from his own apartment on Clarges Street. He closed his apartment, and moved into the family house on Half Moon Street and assigned his footman the task of refurbishing the house. He accompanied Mama’s coffin back to Knare and placed her beside his late father. The sixth duke had died while Nez recuperated in Portugal from a concussion received during the second siege of Badajoz. He remembered still the odd sensation of reading the letter from his solicitor over and over again as he lay on his cot, trying to get his eyes to focus.

And now Mama was gone, too, where all good Knares went, and where he would rest someday. Aye, he thought, first we’re on the wall in the gallery, to glare down on future generations, and then we’re worm’s meat in the vault. He stayed at Knare then, spending time settling Mama’s tangled accounts, and staring out the window that overlooked the formal gardens, his mother’s last bit of extravagance, if he could believe the neighbors when they came to offer condolences.

“Damn this rain,” he murmured, careful to speak more softly than before. After a glance at Sophie, he returned his thoughts to Libby, dragging out the memory of her two turndowns of him last year, her marriage to the bumbling and thoroughly kind doctor, Anthony Cook, and the guilt he felt when he still dreamed of her in his own bed. The welcome sight of her last week, opening the door to his knock, and then standing there a moment before flinging herself into his arms, was not calculated to ease his pain. And then to take a second look and see how gloriously, abundantly with child she was made the matter worse. Why did she still have to look so beautiful, even with her apron riding so high now, and her face rounder than he remembered? She positively glowed with love, and he knew it wasn’t for him.

Maybe that’s why no one chooses to partner me at whist, he told himself. I cannot hide my feelings. Instead of calling him out and shooting him dead, dear Tony had merely walked him to the nearly completed hospital being constructed with that vulgar wad he had laid down as a wedding present, and cheerfully admonished him not to flog himself because he still yearned for Libby Cook. Of course, it hadn’t helped that he had cried then in Tony’s arms, weary of his inability to forget, sick of the long Yorkshire winter that had driven him south, missing his mother, tired to his very soul of the effort of resisting another drink. It was all too much, and what did Tony do but let him cry, and then kiss his forehead, which only made him sob again?

“Oh, lad,” Tony had told him, “I would cry, too, if Lib had turned me down for keeps.”

That should have made him mad, but it didn’t. In the oddest way, Nez knew that Tony understood, and chose to be generous rather than jealous. He took comfort from Tony’s arm around his shoulder as they walked back to the house together. The pain became almost bearable when they both stood in the sitting room, sheltered now in shadows, to look at Libby, asleep in her chair, but with her hands curved so protectively around the baby she carried inside her. His heart stopped when she opened her eyes, and gave her husband such a look of love that he felt as though he watched them in the intimacy of their bedchamber. And then her smile extended to him, and she sat up and became the excellent hostess, but never his own wife.

Somehow the moment made it easier to want to be away from the Cooks the next morning, even though he had promised he would stay a week. He was the guest, and he knew it now; an honored guest, to be sure, but just someone who would come and then go—someone to be missed, but not yearned over.

He had been amazed all over again at Tony’s diplomacy in going on to the stable ahead and leaving him behind to say good-bye to Libby in private. She had stood awkwardly sideways in his arms, and the bulk of her made him smile instead of sigh. It was easier now to tease her and tell her that since she danced, she’d have to pay the piper. Easier to leave her blushing and laughing, her hand on her baby again. If it was going to mean nights of no sleep, maybe some of his desperate unhappiness was gone now, in the face of Libby’s joy in her husband and baby to come. She was in good hands, even if they weren’t his.

Trust Tony to advise him. As he mounted the horse that he had ridden all through Spain and even at Waterloo, Nez accepted with pleasure Tony’s request that he be the baby’s godfather. “You’re sure I’m the right person?” he had asked.

“None better, Nez.” Tony tugged on his horse’s cinch to make sure it was tight. “Next time you come to see us, though, bring a wife along.”

He had returned some reply, and gathered the reins in his hands. Still Tony hung onto his stirrup. “One thing more, lad.”

“My Lord, Tony, you ask me to find a wife this coming summer?” he teased. “Isn’t that enough labor for one rather spoiled, lazy man?” The smile left his face when he saw how intense was Tony’s expression. “Now, Mr. Cook, you know I’ll do what you ask, if the bill isn’t too high.”

He owned to a real start when Tony bit off his words with precision. “You are neither spoiled nor lazy, Nez.”

“Oh, but I am. You can ask anyone.”

“You are not,” Tony insisted, “but obviously this is something you have to discover for yourself. It is this, then, my friend,” Tony had said as he released the stirrup and stepped away. “Make some peace with your sister. That would be a good turn.”

I wish it would stop raining, Nez thought, as he pulled himself back to the present. I hope Yorkshire will be green when I get there. I wonder how on earth I can make peace with Augusta?

“Your Grace, are you well?”

Surprised, he looked across at his butler, who was eyeing him with an expression that could only be solicitous. “Never better, Luster, never better,” he replied. What an amazing bit of fiction that is, he thought. I imagine Luster can see through it like gauze. “Never better,” he repeated, thinking that if he said it often enough, perhaps it would be true.

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