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Authors: Pamela Labud

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“You would, would you? How incredibly shortsighted and narrow-minded of you.”

“Short—what? Narrow-minded? You certainly have a great deal of pluck, miss. Uh, it is ‘miss,' correct? It has to be. No one but a cock-a-ninny would ever let his wife, daughter, or fiancée run about insulting others in such fashion.”

“I beg your pardon, sir, but you are quite wrong about me.” Caro's temper was rising by the minute.

“Do tell. What is it that I'm mistaken about?”

Squaring her shoulders, Caro stiffened her spine. Insufferable man!

Still, it wouldn't do to ruffle his feathers quite so much. Best to get on with her plans and avoid any further discourse with this beast.

“I am here to inform you of the availability of my charge, my younger sister, Beatrice. Just turned seventeen, she is at the first blush of womanhood. She excels in four languages, adores poetry, art, and playing the pianoforte. She is also very accomplished with her numbers and is often in charge of overseeing the kitchen staff. She is, in fact, the epitome of what a man in your position needs as his spouse.”

Summerton stepped back a pace, studying her as if she were an insect on the windowpane.

“Truly? Then, with all of her virtues, she will no doubt be in great demand at Almack's this season.”

Caro drew a breath. Summerton was indeed as sharp as cut glass. He immediately saw through her attempt to get her sister in the matrimonial door before other young, wealthy women could vie for their own position.

The truth was that her sister had no sponsor for the coming season, and therefore no hope of being invited to society functions.

No matter. Caro wasn't about to give up just yet. Men fancied themselves to be rational creatures. So, she would reason with the clod, and if he'd any sense at all, he'd agree with her.

“Do you really wish to pick the woman who will bear the next Duke of Summerton based solely on how she comports herself in public? Do you not want a woman of substance? One who has the virtues of honesty, loyalty, and good sense?”

Seconds ticked by. Holding her breath, she awaited the duke's answer. She'd known since hatching this outlandish scheme that she had little chance of success. But now, his face taut with consternation, she could swear she felt the opportunity slipping through her fingers like fine sand. Panic and anxiety spun within her. What would the devil say now?

Daring to draw a breath, Caro stamped down on her fears. She was a strong woman and worthy of such a formidable opponent. Whatever else, she'd make sure that he knew he'd more than met his match.

—

Ashton watched the woman open her too round, soft mouth and worry her bottom lip with her perfect porcelain teeth. In the space of a heartbeat, she took a quick breath, lifted her chin, and looked him square in the face.

“If I were you, I'd give her every consideration.”

The duke had to smile. He'd say one thing for her—the chit was full of spit and bravado. Not to mention that she was wrapped in a very pleasing package.

What fascinated him most about this brash female was that she did the exact opposite of her counterparts. Instead of dressing to the top of fashion, displaying her most desirable charms, she chose to cover herself in a simple fabric of dowdy brown. She wore her hair back in a plain ribbon, and used neither eye charcoal—to bring out her large, chestnut eyes—nor rouge.

If he hadn't had the suspicions of an army officer experienced on the field of battle, he might have believed her to be an honest, on-the-mark young woman.

Well, try as she might to push him into a matrimonial corner, it would do no good. He was on to her game. Any man with half a brain knew there were no more hazardous challenges than those fought at the height of Almack's season. A man in his position had to have his wits about him to move unscathed through the army of ambitious mothers and their feral offspring.

“I appreciate your informing me of your sister's attributes. I will consider her, as I will all the young ladies who attend my ball. Please, send me her calling card, and yours as well if you'd like, and I shall add them to the list of eligible young women. My aunt will have the final say on the twelve young ladies from whom I shall make my choice.”

“Twelve young ladies? Make your choice?” Her face turned a most pleasing shade of scarlet. “Surely you jest. I mean, it's…”

“Unheard of? Yes, it is. But since I'm the duke, I get to choose. Now, if you will excuse me.”

“Yes, of course. I thank you for your time.”

Ash was sure he heard the sting of sarcasm in her tone. For some odd reason, her pluck intrigued him.

She turned to leave, but unable to stop himself, Ash reached out to her. “Tell me why you came to my study today, and not your mother?”

The woman paused, obviously considering her words carefully. “My mother is unable to tend to social duties.”

“Really? Is she ill?”

“Not exactly. She suffers from confusion.”

“You mean mental disease?”

She quickly covered her mouth. “Oh, no, Your Grace! She was employed as a governess after my father died. One day while attending to her duties, she fell and hit her head. Her former employer paid us a settlement, enough to care for her as well as for my sister and myself.”

“Let me guess. The money has run out and the three of you now require a caretaker.”

Miss Hawkins shook her head. “Absolutely not. I've already obtained employment as a lady's companion. But my sister is so full of life and beauty, it would be a terrible waste to consign her to employment when she would be a perfect wife to a man of substance, a man such as yourself.”

He took a breath, thinking himself a fool for asking, but the woman had pricked his interest, to be sure. “Tell me, what about you? Why don't you seek a husband?”

“I couldn't possibly!” Her face reddened at his scrutiny. “I mean, I'm far too old. Already on the shelf, you know. And, besides, I've my mother to care for and a house to run. No, it's best all around if Beatrice makes a suitable match.”

—

Damnable man. She didn't like the way he studied her, asking her questions that weren't any of his concern. But there she was, alone in his parlor, intruding upon him as though she'd had no upbringing at all.

In her right mind, Sarah Hawkins would have died on the spot had she known of her daughter's activities, and of her doing so without a chaperone, no less. Caro pushed away the emotions because any thought of disappointing her mother was too painful to bear.

Worse yet, here she was on the verge of telling him her life story as if he had a right to such knowledge. If she'd any sense at all she would have gathered her skirts and marched out of there.

However, she was determined to insist that he consider her sister for marriage. That alone was enough to keep her rooted to the spot.

And yet, as she stood there, ready to breathe fire at him, she also found him to be the most interesting man she'd ever met.

There was something about him that drew her attention. Not just his physical presence, though to be honest, he did look most impressive. Rather it was the way he moved and the low, thick tone of his voice when he spoke to her. She found him to be disturbing and fascinating at the same time. Especially unsettling was the way he looked at her through a guarded expression, his dark eyes setting off all sorts of tingling sensations throughout her body. How bizarre!

When he leaned toward her, drawing a breath to speak, Caro had a brief flash of what it would be like to be kissed by him, what it would be like in his arms, crushed against his chest, his breath warm against her skin as he spoke…

“I suppose your reasons are your own. To be honest, I've never understood the age requirements for young women on the marriage mart. Seems to me a woman with some experience and wits about her is far more appealing than a young girl just barely out in society.”

“I daresay, most of the ton wouldn't agree with you, sir. Men prefer a younger, more malleable woman for a wife.”

“Most, but not all. Still, I suppose we are both restrained by our position in society. Very well, Miss Hawkins. Leave me her card and I will give your sister due consideration.”

It was the best she could hope for. “I thank you, sir.” She turned to leave, but he reached out and touched her sleeve.

“It was a very brave thing you did, coming in here and facing down a duke. Never mind what society deems appropriate, I mean it when I say that I wouldn't mind a bit if you added your own calling card to the others. No one but my aunt and I will know who is in the mix. I promise, I would never tell.” He gave her a knowing wink.

Since she was a young girl, Caro had resolved never to let her emotions run rampant. She certainly wasn't about to let this conceited, pompous ass make them do so.

Something about his smug attitude made her want to slap his all-too-handsome face.

“I thank you for your time, Your Grace.” She curtsied and fled the room.

As if her skirts were ablaze, Caro made her way out of the mansion to her waiting carriage. Though she knew that her sister would make a far better match, she couldn't help thinking that if she were younger and not tasked with caring for her mother, she very well could have put her name in with the rest of the prospective brides.

Thankfully, it wouldn't come to that. Perish the thought! Thank heavens she was a woman with a mind and free will. She'd long decided that she would never marry—that she would be free of such constraints and that no man would ever hold sway over her life. Never.

So, why did she feel as if Summerton already had her under his thumb?

Chapter 2

“I can't believe it! How could you do such a terrible thing when you know I'm already in love?”

Caro and her sister were seated at the kitchen table, the evening meal as yet untouched and the tea in their cups growing colder by the minute. She'd known before telling her sister that her plans would not be met without argument, since the two of them were so different—she the older, more responsible sister and Beatrice the younger, carefree one.

In every aspect of their lives Caro, with her dull brown hair pulled back into a serviceable bun, her dress a faded gray gown covered by a muddied white gardening smock, was a sharp contrast to her younger sister. Beatrice was a vision in her bright jonquil dress, her golden curls falling loose to her shoulders and framing her clear-skinned, heart-shaped face.

It was often said that the younger Hawkins sister could steal the beauty from a spring morning, and Caro believed it.

“It had to be done, Bea. You need to get married. The sooner the better.”

“Marriage? How can I possibly consider marriage to anyone? You know my heart belongs to Andrew Hudgins.”

Ah, yes, Caro thought. The infamous Lord Andrew Hudgins, the youngest son of the Earl of Cransford. The ne'er-do-well rogue had promised nuptials to every eligible female of the ton for the past two years. The list of hopefuls was unending, and just about every other day there was news of another young miss to whom he'd promised wedded bliss, only to have sorrowfully begged off his suit a few days later.

Apparently, because of his family's contributions to the Home Office during the war effort, a lot could be forgiven.

Forgiven by everyone but Caroline Hawkins, of course. She felt nothing but disdain for the young blackguard and would gladly tell him so, if she ever got the chance.

“Bea, we've had this conversation before. Andrew Hudgins is the worst sort of cad for crushing the hearts of so many young ladies.”

Bea sniffed. “It's not as if he means to be cruel, you know. He has such a generous soul—he can't help but form a fondness for every girl who bats a lash at him. I know in my heart, Caro, it is I whom he truly loves. It's only a matter of time until he sees the truth of it and returns to me.”

Caro chewed her bottom lip. More than anything, she hated causing her sister more pain than she'd already endured at the hands of Andrew Hudgins. But to let her pin her hopes and dreams on such a hopeless situation was unthinkable.

“He's getting married, Bea. A week from Saturday, as I hear it.”

“Oh!” Beatrice covered her mouth with her hands. “I don't believe it. It's only terrible gossip.”

Caro shook her head. “I'm so sorry, little sister, but it's true. The invitations have been sent. Lady Talmadge told me this afternoon that she'd already received hers. The cur has even obtained a special license.” She leaned forward. “News about town is that Cransford will be gaining a new ‘lordling' come winter and that Miss Emily Travers will be going to the Continent immediately after the wedding.”

“No…” Beatrice sobbed into her kerchief.

Waiting for her sister to calm, Caro sipped her now cold tea. It wasn't the first time she had wished for another solution to their problems. Or at least a solution that wouldn't have her forcing her young sister into a marriage with a stranger.

After a few seconds, Beatrice hiccupped and sat back, dabbing at her eyes. “I suppose there's nothing to be done about it.”

“I'm sorry, Bea.”

The younger woman took a deep breath. “I can't help it. I still love him.”

“I know you do,” Caro said, “but you cannot deny yourself a chance for happiness. It hurts now, but you'll heal in time.”

Bea gave her a teary expression. “And just how shall I do that?”

“By finding another husband, that's how. That's why I've given your card to Summerton. I know when he sees you he'll offer for you immediately. How could he not? You are the most beautiful and talented girl in London, I swear.”

Caro's hopes for her sister's agreement were dashed the moment the girl's striking blue eyes met hers. “I can't do it. I can't give myself to another. I shall be like you and remain alone for the rest of my life.”

“Nonsense, Bea. You would be miserable alone. Besides, I just know the two of you will suit. He's quite handsome and clever. A man of true worth. Why, practically every girl in London is vying for his attentions.”

Bea shook her head. “I won't do it.”

Caro sighed. There was no way around it. She was going to have to tell her sister the truth, though it pained her to do so.

“We have no money left. Mother's settlement is gone.”

“Gone? What are you talking about? What did you do with it?”

Caro took her sister's hands and held them firmly. “I've been very careful with the money, I assure you. But it turns out that our dear cousin Alfred visited the bank last month. Acting as Mother's guardian, he emptied the account. We're broke.” She paused to let her sister catch her breath. “Not only that—he's sold the cottage. We must be out by the end of the month.”

It was true. Alfred Danbury, their mother's distant cousin, was the last living relative she had in the world. Black-hearted cad that he was, Alfred didn't even stop by to check on his cousin's well-being. One would think he might have a bit more care for her, but not so in Alfred's case. He was a terrible gambler, and theirs wasn't the first bank account he'd emptied.

Bea sat back, the fight clearly going out of her. “What will we do? How shall we live?”

Caro leaned forward. “It's my hope that you can attract Summerton's attention, or, if not him, at least one of the other eligible gentry.”

“And what of you and Mother? Do you think that my new husband, whoever he will be, will take on the support of my entire family?”

The very thought of such a thing burned in her chest. Caro shook her head. “It's only necessary for you to find a good match. I've already secured a position as a companion to Lady Talmadge. With the money I earn, we can rent this cottage from the new owner and pay half salary to Mrs. Danley.”

“Half salary? You must be joking. Surely she can obtain a better housekeeping position.”

“She's already agreed to the arrangement. She knows she's getting up in years and had been thinking of retiring on the monthly stipend her son now sends her, but she's so attached to Mother, she couldn't bear to leave her to another's care.”

Expecting her sister to see the necessity of their situation, Caro was surprised when the younger woman shook her head. “I'm not going to do it. I won't be forced into a loveless marriage.”

“Then you prefer starving? Because that's what will happen. The money I earn will barely be enough for the rent on this cottage and care for Mother.”

“I'm not going to get married. I can find a position as a governess, or as a lady's companion, like you.”

“Nonsense. You'd never be chosen as a governess, my love. You're far too pretty, and the society ladies would be too afraid you'd steal their wealthy husbands. And a lady's companion? You would detest being forced to endure hours of endless servitude to an old society crone.”

Defeated, Beatrice sank back in her chair. “How could things have come to this?”

“There's no point in questioning it now, sister. Believe me, I've spent long hours trying to come up with a better solution.”

Sitting up straight, Beatrice appeared to finally accept her fate. “I have no choice.” She drew in a breath. “But I won't be happy. I swear I won't.”

Caro set her cup down gently and kept silent. It was best to let her sister grieve for her lost hopes and dreams.

Of course, Bea had not yet met Summerton, and Caro knew that once she had, she'd surely see how bright her future was.

“All we need to do is choose your gown. I think the green one will do nicely. I found some lovely cream lace, and Mrs. Danley has agreed to add it to the sleeves and hem.”

Suddenly, her sister's expression changed. Bea crossed her arms and sat back in her chair, her gaze so resolute that Caro swore it caused a chill in the room.

“I'm not going to Summerton's silly ball,” Bea declared, smiling like the cat that swallowed the cream, “unless you go as well.”

“What?”

“If I have to be on display, then so do you! Think about it, Caro. If two of us are in the running, we double our chances of success.”

Caro had forgotten that her baby sister's logic was as cutting as her own.

“I can't go. It's for young women of marrying age. I'm too far on the shelf to be of any interest to the duke, or anyone else of the peerage, except of course as a servant. Certainly not as part of the marriage mart.”

“That's nonsense, and you know it.”

Caro looked away. At the advanced age of twenty-four, she'd had her chance at the marriage mart; plain old Caroline Hawkins had little hope amongst the beauties of the ton. “You know I shall never marry.”

“And yet you condemn me to it?”

“It's different for you,” Caro said, finishing the last of the bitter tea.

“Different? How so?”

“You've always intended to marry one day, while I have always planned to remain unattached. When we were young, you were the one playing mama to all of our dolls and inviting the servants to tea. I was your lady's maid, attending to your every whim. Face it, Bea. Marriage to a peer is the life you were born to.”

“Because of a few childish games you think I'm the better candidate?”

Caro chewed her bottom lip, the embarrassment of her past boiling inside her. “I was never as popular as you.”

It was the truth. Her beautiful young sister would command the room wherever she went. Boys, and now men, barely even noticed Caro. It had always been that way, and Caro had long ago accepted it.

Rather than dwell on her life's disappointments, Caro had decided to make the best of it. What once had been her biggest sadness had now become her salvation. She would never have to kowtow to anyone. No husband would rule over her—no one would tell her how to behave, what to read, or when to eat.

These days, to her mind, it wasn't an affliction to be the poor, plain sister after all.

Caroline Hawkins would be free to do as she pleased.

That would have been good enough, but lately it had come to her attention that many women were victimized by their husbands, by society in general, and by the very government itself.

It was her hope that the duke would be different, and after meeting him, Caro was certain that he would treat her sister fairly. It was common knowledge that he wanted a wife only to provide an heir. The lucky woman, once she gave birth, would be wealthy beyond imagination and have her own life in the mix.

It would be a perfect life for Bea, marriage to a man who would treat her well and give her children to raise and coddle.

Best of all, once her family was cared for, Caro would join the movement to raise an alarm about the treatment of women. A student of the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, particularly her book
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,
Caro planned to form her own Ladies Freedom Society.

Caro's thoughts of changing the plight of her gender were interrupted by her sister's insistent tapping of one foot.

“I don't care what you say. If you don't go, I'm not going, either,” Bea announced once Caro had met her gaze.

Caro opened her mouth, yet again ready to defend her stance. Unfortunately, she well knew that once her sister made up her mind, she was as rooted to her decision as a tree was to the ground.

“Oh, all right. I'll go.”

“And you will agree to the terms of the ball? You will agree to marry Summerton, as well?”

Caro bit her lip. She remembered what Summerton had told her. His aunt was going to choose twelve suitable women from among those who were to attend. Surely, she wouldn't choose the plain-faced older sister when Beatrice was in the offering.

Still, she thought it best not to give in too easily, lest her sister might suspect something.

Caro chewed her bottom lip, acting the desperate role. “And if I refuse?”

“You throw your name in the hat or we both stay home.”

It was all Caro could do to hide her smile. Finally, it looked as if she might achieve her objective after all.

—

“You do know that you're the laughingstock?”

Ash did his best not to grimace as he downed the last of his brandy. He was sitting in the library with his longtime friend, Lord Michael Carver, Earl of Bladen.

“I know what I want and I know how to get it.”

“Of course you do, Ash. You have one of the finest hunting grounds in the kingdom. The fact that you've made so many friends over the years will serve you well, now that you're among the elite.”

“You know that I don't give a damn about any of that. I only want to fulfill my family obligation and get back to Slyddon.”

“Ah, the infamous Slyddon Castle, the most popular hunting lodge among sporting men in every corner of England.”

“I've only been in London for a month and already I feel as if I'm in a cage. I need that lodge as much as I need air to breathe.”

“Then go back and the devil with them all.”

Ash laughed. “As if I could.” He sighed. “My aunt and uncle raised me after my parents died. It's a small price to pay if it makes Amelia happy.”

Michael laughed. “So, you give up your happiness to be leg-shackled to a woman you hardly know. It does sound rather odd, don't you think? As far as you're concerned, one female is much the same as another?”

“I never said that. You know, a plucky young woman appeared in my office this evening, demanding that I consider her sister for a wife. She was very insistent.”

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