Authors: Grace Burrowes
Copyright © 2014 by Grace Burrowes
Cover and internal design © 2014 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover illustration by Jon Paul
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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.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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Also by Grace Burrowes
Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish
Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal
Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight
Lady Eve’s Indiscretion
Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait
The Courtship (novella)
The Duke and His Duchess (novella)
Morgan and Archer (novella)
Jonathan and Amy (novella)
The Bridegroom Wore Plaid
Once Upon a Tartan
The MacGregor’s Lady
Mary Fran and Matthew (novella)
The Lonely Lords
This book is dedicated to those teachers and students for whom the traditional classroom has been a battlefield.
The bullet whistled past Sebastian’s ear, coming within an inch of solving all of his problems, and half an inch of making a significant mess instead.
“Die, goddamn you!” Lieutenant Lord Hector Pierpont fired his second shot, but rage apparently made the man careless. A venerable oak lost a few bare twigs to the field of honor.
“I shall die,
,” Sebastian said, a prayer as much as a promise. “But not today.”
He took aim on Pierpont’s lapel. An English officer to his very bones, Pierpont stood still, eyes closed, waiting for death to claim him. In the frosty air, his breath clouded before him in the same shallow pants that might have characterized postcoital exertion.
Sebastian cocked his elbow and dealt another wound to the innocent oak branches. “And neither shall you die today. It was war, Pierpont. For the sake of your womenfolk, let it be over.”
Sebastian fired the second bullet overhead to punctuate that sentiment, also to ensure no loaded weapons remained within Pierpont’s ambit. When Pierpont opened his eyes, Sebastian gazed into loathing so intense as to confirm his lordship would rather be dead than suffer any more of Sebastian’s clemency or sermonizing.
Sebastian walked up to him and spoke quietly enough that the seconds could not hear.
“You gave away nothing. What little scraps you threw me had long since reached the ears of French intelligence. Go home, kiss your wife, and give her more babies, but leave me and mine in peace. Next time, I will not delope,
He slapped Pierpont lightly on the cheek, a small, friendly reminder of other blows, and walked away.
“You are not fit to breathe the air of England, St. Clair.”
This merited a dismissive parting wave of Sebastian’s hand. Curses were mere bagatelles to a man who’d dealt in screams and nightmares for years. “
, Pierpont. My regards to your wife and daughters.”
The former captain and his missus were up to two. Charming little demoiselles with Pierpont’s dark eyes. Perhaps from their mother they might inherit some common sense and humor.
That, from Captain Anderson, one of Pierpont’s seconds. Anderson was a twitchy, well-fed blond fellow with a luxurious mustache. Threaten the mustache, and Monsieur Bold Condescension would chirp out the location of his mother’s valuables like a nightingale in spring.
Michael Brodie snatched the pistol from Sebastian’s grasp, took Sebastian by the arm, and led him toward their horses. “You’ve had your fun, now come along like a good baron.”
“Insubordinate, you are. I thought the English were bad, but you Irish give the term realms of meaning Dr. Johnson never dreamed.”
, lest we forget the reason yon righteous arse wants to perforate your heart at thirty paces. Get on the horse, Baron, and I’m only half-Irish.”
A fact dear
had kept quiet until recently.
Sebastian pretended to test the tightness of Fable’s girth, but used the moment to study Pierpont, who was in conversation with his seconds. Pierpont was in good enough weight, and he was angry—furious—but not insane with it. Nothing about his complexion or his eyes suggested habitual drunkenness, and he had two small, adorable daughters who needed their papa’s love and adoration.
Maybe today’s little exchange would allow them to have it.
, and one wants to strike you for it. The English are violent with their servants,
? Perhaps today I will be English after all.”
“The French were violent with the entire Continent, best as I recall, and bits of Africa and the high seas into the bargain. You ought not to begrudge the English some violence with their help from time to time. Keeps us on our toes.”
Michael climbed aboard his bay, and Sebastian swung up on Fable.
Burnished red eyebrows lowered into a predictable scowl. “You would have to ride a white horse,” Michael groused. “Might as well paint a target on your back and send a boy ahead to warn all and sundry the Traitor Baron approaches.”
Sebastian nudged his horse forward.
“Fable was black as the infernal pit when he was born. I cannot help what my horse decides to do with his hair. That is between him and his God. Stop looking over your shoulder,
. Pierpont was an officer. He will not shoot me in the back, and he will not blame you for sparing all others the burden of seconding me.”
Michael took one more look over his shoulder—both the Irish half of him and the Scottish half were well endowed with contrariness.
“How many duels does that make, your lordship? Four? Five? One of these honorable former officers will put paid to your existence, and where will Lady Freddy be, then? Think on that the next time you’re costing me and Fable our beauty sleep.”
He took out a flask and imbibed a hefty swallow, suggesting his nerves were truly in bad repair.
“I am sorry.” Such flaccid words Sebastian offered, but sincere. “You should not worry about my early outings. These men do not want to kill me any more than I wanted to kill them.”
Michael knew better than to offer his flask. “You didn’t kill them, that’s the problem. What you did was worse, and even if they don’t want to kill you—which questionable conclusion we can attribute to your woefully generous complement of Gallic arrogance—the rest of England, along with a few loyal Scots, some bored Welshmen, and six days a week, an occasional sober Irishman, would rather you died. I’m in the employ of a dead man.”
“Melodrama does not become you.” Sebastian cued Fable into a canter, lest Michael point out that melodrama, becoming or not, had long enjoyed respect as a socially acceptable means of exposing painful and inconvenient truths.
In Millicent Danforth’s experience, the elderly, like most stripes of human being, came in two varieties: fearful and brave. Her grandmother had been fearful, asking incessantly for tisanes or tea, for cosseting and humoring. Like a small child, Grandmother had wanted distracting from the inevitability of her own demise.
By contrast, Lady Frederica, Baroness St. Clair, viewed her eventual death as a diversion. She would threaten the help with it, lament it gently with her many friends, and use it as an excuse for very blunt speech indeed.
“You are to be a companion, not a nursemaid. You will not vex me with your presence when I attend my correspondence after breakfast. You will appear at my side when I take the landau out for a turn in the park. Shall you write this down?”
Milly returned her prospective employer’s beady-eyed glower calmly.
“I will not bother you after breakfast unless you ask it of me. I will join you when you take the air in the park. I believe I can recall that much, my lady. What will my other duties involve?”
She asked because Mr. Loomis at the agency had been spotty on the details, except for the need to show up at an unseemly early hour for this interview.
“A companion—you keep Lady St. Clair company!” he’d barked. “Step, fetch, soothe, entertain. Now, be off with you!”
The way he’d smoothed his wisp of suspiciously dark hair over his pate suggested more would be involved, a great deal more. Perhaps her ladyship tippled, gambled, or neglected to pay the trades—all to be managed by a companion whom the baroness might also forget to regularly compensate.
“You will dine with me in the evening and assist me to endure the company of my rascal of a nephew if he deigns to join us. What, I ask you, is so enticing about a rare beefsteak and an undercooked potato with a side of gossip? I can provide that here, as well as a superior cellar, but no, the boy must away to his flower-lovers’ club. Never mind, though. He’s well-mannered enough that he won’t terrorize you—or no more than I will. Are you sure you don’t need to write any of this down?”
Yes, Milly was quite sure. “I gather you are a list maker, my lady?”
Blue eyes lit up as her ladyship reached for the teapot.
“Yes! I am never so happy as when I’m organizing. I should have been a general, the late baron used to say. Do you enjoy the opera? One hopes you do, because nothing is more unendurable than the opera if one hasn’t a taste for it.”
Her ladyship chattered on about London openings she’d attended, who had conducted them, and what she had thought of the score, the sets, the crowd in attendance, and the various solos, duets, and ensemble numbers. Her diatribe was like a conversational stiff wind, banging the windows open all at once, setting curtains flapping, papers flying, and lapdogs barking.
“You’re not drinking your tea, Miss Danforth.”
“I am attending your ladyship’s recitation of my duties.”
The baroness clinked her teacup down on its saucer. “You were estimating the value of this tea service. Jasperware is more practical, but it’s so heavy. I prefer the Sèvres, and Sebastian likes it too.”
Sebastian might well be a follower. Milly had stolen a moment while waiting for this audience to glance over the cards sitting in a crystal bowl on the sideboard in the front hall. Her ladyship’s social life was quite lively, and by no means were her callers all female.
“The service is pretty,” Milly observed, though it was more than pretty, and perfectly suited to the pastel and sunshine of her ladyship’s breakfast parlor. They were using the older style of Sèvres, more easily broken, but also impressively hued. Her ladyship’s service boasted brilliant pink roses, soft green foliage, and gold trim over a white glaze. “Meissen or Dresden aren’t as decorative, though they are sturdier.”
The baroness used silver tongs to put a flaky golden croissant on a plate. “So you are a lady fallen on hard times?”
She was a lady who’d blundered. Paid companions did not need to know that fifteen years ago, Sèvres was made without kaolin, fired at a lower temperature, and capable of taking a wider and more bold palette of hues as a result.
“My mother was a lady fallen on hard times. I am a poor relation who would make her own way rather than burden my cousins any further.”
“Kicked you out, did they?” Her ladyship’s tone suggested she did not approve of such cousins. “Or perhaps they realized that underneath all that red hair, you’re quite pretty, though brown eyes are not quite the rage. One hopes you aren’t delicate?”
She passed Milly the pastry and shifted the butter a few inches closer to Milly’s side of the table.
“I enjoy excellent health, thank you, your ladyship.” Excellent physical health, anyway. “And I prefer to call my hair auburn.”
The baroness snorted at that gambit, then poured herself more tea. “Will these cousins come around to plague you?”
They would have to bother to find her first. “I doubt it.”
“You wouldn’t be married to one of them, would you?”
Milly nearly choked on soft, buttery pastry. “I am not married.” For which she might someday be grateful.
“Then I will regularly scandalize your innocent ears and enjoy doing it. Eat up. When Sebastian gets back from his morning ride, he’ll go through that sideboard like a plague of locusts. If you prefer coffee, you’d best get your servings before he comes down in the morning. The man cannot abide tea in any form.”
“The plague of locusts has arrived.”
Milly’s head snapped around at the mocking baritone. She beheld…her opposite. Whereas she was female, short—
, when the occasion was polite—red-haired, and brown-eyed, the plague before her was male, tall, green-eyed, and sable-haired. The divergence didn’t stop there.
This fellow sauntered into the parlor, displaying a casual elegance about his riding attire that suggested time on the Continent. His tailoring was exquisite, but his movement was also so relaxed as to approach languid. The lace at his throat came within a whisker of being excessive, and the emerald winking from its snowy depths stayed barely on the acceptable side of ostentatious, for men seldom wore jewels during daylight hours, and certainly not for so mundane an undertaking as a hack in the park.
This biblical plague had…sartorial éclat.
Again, the opposite of Milly, who generally bustled through life, wore the plainest gowns she could get away with, and had never set foot outside London and the Home Counties.
“Aunt, you will observe the courtesies, please?”
This was the rascal of a nephew then, though as Milly endured his scrutiny, the term
struck her as incongruously affectionate for the specimen before her.
“Miss Millicent Danforth, may I make known to you my scamp of a nephew, Sebastian, Baron St. Clair. St. Clair, Miss Danforth—my new companion. You are not to terrorize her before she and I have negotiated terms.”
“Of course not. I terrorize your staff only
you’ve obligated them to a contract.”
If this was teasing, Milly did not regard it as humorous. Her ladyship, however, graced her nephew with a smile.
“Rotten boy. You may take your plate to the library and read your newspapers in peace.”
His lordship, who was not a boy in any sense, bowed to Milly with a Continental flourish, bowed again over Lady St. Clair’s hand, tucked some newspapers under his arm, and strolled from the room.
“He’s been dueling again.” The baroness might have reported that her nephew had been dicing in the mews, her tone truculent rather than aghast. “They leave the poor boy no peace, those gallant buffoons old Arthur is so proud of.”
For all his smoothness, something about St. Clair had not sat exactly plumb, but then, what did it say about a man if he could face death at sunrise and appear completely unaffected by the time he downed his morning coffee?
“How can you tell he was dueling?” For ladies weren’t supposed to know of such things, much less small elderly ladies who lived for their correspondence and tattle.
“He’s sad. Dueling always makes him sad. Just when I think he’s making some progress, another one of these imbeciles finds a bit of courage, and off to some sheep meadow they go. I swear, if women ruled the world, it would be a damned sight better place. Have I shocked you?”