Authors: Christie Kelley
He opened his eyes and saw tears in her green eyes. This wonderful, sensitive woman was crying over his pain. And that wasn’t right. He couldn’t move his gaze away from her eyes, her lips, that pert little nose that he wanted to kiss.
And why couldn’t he? Abigail didn’t want him any longer, if she ever had wanted him. Right in front of him stood a beautiful woman who openly flirted with him, teased him, and seemed to desire him.
Slowly he lowered his head toward hers. He paused barely an inch away from her lips. If she moved, he would let her go. But she did not.
He curved his hand around her neck, bringing her closer, until their lips met. Shock and desire soared throughout his body as they kissed. All he’d wanted was a little comfort from her. Something to make him forget his pain. And now, all he wanted was to lay her down on the sofa and make love to her all afternoon. He wanted to leisurely explore her body and kiss every freckle, wherever they might be.
He let his tongue glide across her lips, hoping she would open for him. And she did. But he never expected the all-encompassing passion as her tongue touched his, met him, and caressed him. He moved his hands to cup her face.
She tasted sweeter than he ever imagined. A combination of honey and cinnamon, and it drove him mad. He trailed his hands down her back, pressing her closer to him, to his rising erection. Damn, how he wanted her…SOMETHINGSCANDALOUSCHRISTIEKELLEY
ZEBRA BOOKSKENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
This book would never have been, if not for the wonderful people in my life. To my writing friends, Kate Dolan, Kathy Love, Kate Poole, Janet Mullany, and Sheryl Fischer, thanks for letting me call and whine about my characters and plot.
A special thanks to Allison Lane who assisted me greatly with answers on British citizenship. And more thanks to the Beau Monde Chapter, whose members can answer all my silly questions faster than any reference librarian can.
To the Romance Bandits, thanks for being such wonderful friends and understanding when I forget to write my blog!
Finally, to the men in my life, Mike, Stephen, and Tommy, thanks for understanding when I need to be alone in my office with the door shut. I love you all!Contents
About the AuthorChapter 1
As the door to Elizabeth’s home slammed shut, she braced herself for the inevitable confrontation. They hadn’t even waited for the butler or footman to open the door and announce them. Loud footsteps preceded their entry. Her heart raced as she attempted to rein in her emotions. Glancing up from her needlework, she watched Richard enter the salon with his wife Caroline following behind him.
“Elizabeth, we have given you six months and still you have refused to comply with my—our simple request,” Caroline said as she sank to the sofa with a deep sigh.
“You have no claim here.” Why must she have this conversation with them every month? And worse, why did it distress her so terribly each time? He had no claim here…at least not yet.
“Actually, I just might,” Richard said, and then sat in the chair across from his wife.
“You are not the duke, Richard.”
“Not yet,” he added softly.
Her attempts to keep the greedy couple from taking over her father’s house had only made them more determined. They only wanted the house and the estates in the country for their ambitions. Mostly, Caroline’s ambition. Without her, cousin Richard would have been happy with his manor home in Dorchester. But Caroline wanted more. She would never be satisfied as the wife of a baron. She wanted the duchy and all that went with it, including Kendal House.
Only the house didn’t belong to them…or her.
“Do you have any new proof that Edward is dead?” Elizabeth asked, staring at him. “Don’t forget he had at least one son who would inherit over you.”
“It has been ten months since your father died,” Richard said harshly. “The solicitor sent several missives to Edward, but received no reply. And he has yet to arrive. Everyone knows about those heathen savages they have in America. Edward and his family were probably killed by them.”
“Edward has been in Canada for the past five years.” Elizabeth inhaled deeply, trying to keep her patience. “And until you know for certain about his death, you have no right to live here. Kendal House and the estates belong to the duchy until such time as his death is confirmed.”
She prayed she was right. Richard and Caroline would squander the income from the estates on gambling, gowns, and balls. Neither appeared to have an interest in putting forth the effort to ensure the tenants were cared for and the lands remained profitable.
“That is where you are wrong,” Caroline said with a tight smile. “Our solicitor is drawing up the paperwork right now.”
“That shall be nothing but a waste of his time—and your money. It means nothing. This is the duke’s residence, and Richard is not the duke.”
“Edward refuses to return and claim his rightful inheritance,” Richard added.
“That still makes no difference,” Elizabeth explained. “Heis the duke, whether he chooses to return home or not. Besides, ten months is no time at all. He most likely had to pack up his entire house in York and arrange passage over here. Plus the voyage time. I have heard the winters in Canada are dreadful, so they might not have been able to leave as expected.”
“Then he should have sent a missive to that effect. Something acknowledging his inheritance,” Richard replied.
Caroline shook her head. “For all we know, Edward is dead.”
“Then his son would inherit.” Dear God, they were driving her mad. It seemed as if they were far more determined than in previous months.
“Ah, yes,” Caroline drawled. “But if he and Edward are both dead, then Richard inherits.”
“True enough. However, if they were both dead then someone else in his family would notify the family solicitor here.” Elizabeth clenched her fists in frustration.
“Unless the entire family was wiped out by those savages they have over there. Besides, it really should not matter to you,” Caroline commented. “You will either be a burden on us or the new duke.”
A fact not lost on her. Elizabeth had only the very small allowance left to her from her fath—the late duke. “I realize that, Caroline. I suppose I shall live with one of my sisters once the duke is installed.”
“As if they want you,” Caroline sneered.
“It is nothing to concern yourself over,” Elizabeth snapped. Her sisters were so much older that she barely knew any of them, save Jane. And none of them had ever taken the time to invite her to stay with their families for more than a week.
“And I don’t,” Caroline retorted with one brown eyebrow arched. “But if I were you, I would be looking at all the eligible gentlemen.”
Self-serving Caroline would only be looking for the richest and highest titled gentleman she could hope to snare. Elizabeth didn’t want that. If she found herself in a position that required marriage, then she wanted to find a man who would love her for who she was…or who she wasn’t.
“Nonetheless, Elizabeth,” Richard started in a slow, warm voice, “we only want what is best for the estates. Your late father’s steward could be robbing the family blind, for all we know. Someone must take over things until we hear from the new duke. My solicitor will petition the prince so that I may oversee the estates until such time as Edward either makes an appearance here, or is deemed deceased.”
Elizabeth stared at Richard. With gray hair and tired lines creasing his forehead, he looked every bit his sixty years. She released a long sigh. “I have been checking over the books from each estate every month, Richard. My father’s steward is an honest man.”
Caroline gave a quick shake of her head. While her husband looked on the verge of elderly, Caroline was only six years older than Elizabeth’s twenty-six years.
“You are looking after the books?” Caroline asked in a high-pitched tone. “I thought you were a lady.”
“I am quite competent when it comes to mathematics. Unlike either of you, I grew up on the estates. Who better to know what they need?”
“Of course, cousin,” Richard said quietly.
Elizabeth knew she was defeated. Unless she petitioned Prinny himself. But she doubted the prince would even listen to her. He would want what was best for the estates, and that meant a man controlling the lands, not her. She was a bit surprised the prince hadn’t managed the situation before now.
“If your sisters refuse to take you in, I suppose you could stay here,” Richard said.
“Richard!” Caroline’s voice pitched higher. “In a few months, there won’t be room in the house.” She rubbed her rounded belly.
Richard shook his head and rolled his eyes. “This house is large enough for a passel of children, Caroline. I cannot have my cousin on the streets.”
Elizabeth might have felt a spark of hope, except Richard’s tired tone was scarcely convincing.
“And yet, we all know she isn’t truly yourcousin,” Caroline muttered before standing to leave.
Before Elizabeth could think of one decent retort, the couple left. It wasn’t surprising that they knew about her past. The rumors regarding her lack of inheritance had been the talk of thetonfor months now. Most assumed it was due to a disagreement with her father over a suitor—a rumor she had started and encouraged.
But a few might have guessed the truth.
Silence finally filled the house as Elizabeth sat on the brocade sofa with a sigh. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt this tired. Picking up her small glass of sherry, she took a sip, letting the fruity essence rest on her tongue a moment before swallowing. Her head lolled back against the fabric as she stared at the ornate ceiling of her small salon. She closed her eyes and listened to the sound of horses clomping past her home.
Only it wasn’t her home any longer.
She had to do something, but at this point, her options had just about run out. Tomorrow, Richard and Caroline would return. This time with a solicitor in tow, no doubt. Elizabeth understood their desire for the house—greed and position. Nevertheless, the house wasn’t theirs, and she would do everything in her power to make certain it stayed that way. She’d never trusted Caroline, and lately, Elizabeth questioned Richard’s reasonableness. In the past four months, he had been spending more time at the gaming hells, and according to the gossips, losing serious amounts of money. Money she knew he didn’t have.
Some days, she even wondered if the new duke had ever attained notice of his inheritance. Her father had died ten months ago, and she had never received one word from her distant cousin, Edward.
Of course, he wasn’t truly her cousin.
Elizabeth opened her eyes and stared at the empty fireplace. She had to find her mother’s diary before Richard and Caroline found a legal way to have her removed, or Edward arrived from Canada. Her mother had kept several diaries, and none held the information Elizabeth desired. After finding those journals in drawers, she discovered none contained anything too personal. However, one book made a mysterious reference to a hidden diary, and that was the one Elizabeth needed to find.
She had to uncover the truth.
After all this time, she wondered if the diary even existed any longer. Her father might have found the journal and burned it. Or her mother might have given the diary to a close friend to keep it away from Father. Elizabeth doubted both ideas. Her mother had died quickly following a carriage accident. She would have had no time to give the diary to a friend, and her father never seemed to care enough to look for it. Perhaps he had no need and had already learned the name of her mother’s lover.
Elizabeth had only five rooms left to recheck. It made the most sense that the diary had been stashed somewhere in this house, since her mother rarely traveled to the estates. After checking every room in the townhome, she’d performed a thorough inspection of the other estates and uncovered nothing. Not one clue to her real identity.
Furiously, she blinked away the tears welling in her eyes. She refused to cry one more tear over something as silly as her real father’s name. In the eyes of Society, she was and would always be Lady Elizabeth Kendal.
There had to be something she was missing in her search. Perhaps there was a secret compartment in a desk, or a hidden room that she had overlooked.
She turned at the sound of the footman. “Yes?”
“Miss Reynard is here to see you.”
Why would Sophie be here at this late hour? “Send her in and bring some tea and cakes.”
Elizabeth sat up and composed herself while waiting for her dear friend.
“Elizabeth, thank goodness you are here and not at Lady Tavistock’s ball.” Sophie rushed into the room and flopped to the sofa. Black tendrils clung to her forehead as she removed her damp hat.
Sophie shook her head. “Lady Tavistock would never have invited me to her ball and then I wouldn’t be able to speak with you. I do apologize for the lateness of the hour, though.”
“Is something wrong?”
“I am not certain. I had a vision and needed to see you immediately.” Sophie picked up Elizabeth’s hand and clutched it tightly in her own hand. Closing her eyes, she went still. “I was right,” she whispered.
“Right about what?” Elizabeth pressed her friend for an answer.
“Something is about to happen,” Sophie started, then paused and frowned.
“A man is going to enter your life,” she said softly.
Elizabeth smiled. Sophie had gained quite the reputation as a medium and matchmaker in the past year. She had even matched Elizabeth’s dearest friends, Avis and Jennette, with husbands. “Are you certain?”
Sophie glanced away from her and shook her head. “Not in that way, Elizabeth.”
The serious tone of Sophie’s voice made Elizabeth say, “Oh?”
Sophie shook her head again. “I cannot be sure but I feel there is something dreadfully wrong. This man will upset your entire life. I fear he will bring you great pain.”
Great pain? “How do you mean?”
“Oh, how I wish my visions were clearer.” Sophie looked back at Elizabeth. “This man comes with children. Many children.”
The duke. Elizabeth’s shoulders sagged. She’d heard the stories that Edward had numerous children and stepchildren. Obviously, he was on his way here. Once he arrived with all those children, she would have to find other accommodations.
“It must be the new duke, Sophie.” Elizabeth pulled her hand out of Sophie’s grasp. “Do you have any idea when he will arrive?”
Sophie shrugged. “I really have no way of knowing. With Jennette, it was that very evening. However, with Avis, I knew in advance. My visions don’t give me schedules.”
“You don’t think he would ask you to leave here, do you?”
Elizabeth waited while the footman brought in the tea and cakes on an ornate silver tray. After he left, she poured tea for them both and then rested back against the sofa.
“I don’t believe I ever met Edward, the new duke. My father never had a pleasant thing to say about the man. Then again, he rarely had a good thing to say about anyone.”
“You know my home is always open to you,” Sophie commented. “My aunt would say that it lends credence to our social position to install a duke’s daughter in our home.”
Elizabeth blew on her tea before taking a sip. “Thank you, Sophie. I am praying it won’t come to that.”
She needed time to perform a meticulous inspection of the remaining rooms. It shouldn’t take too long, a few days at most. Then she would be happy to leave the house to the duke. Not that she had any ideas on how she would survive. She only had a small allowance to live on, and despised the idea of being a burden on anyone.
“What will you do if he asks you to leave?” Sophie asked quietly before sipping her tea.
Elizabeth sighed. “I suppose I could find work.”
“Elizabeth, you shall do no such thing.”
“I won’t be a burden, Sophie.”
“You have some income from your father.”
Elizabeth shook her head slightly. “It’s not enough to survive on my own.”
“You cannot even think about working. It is beneath you,” Sophie said with a nod.
“Not any longer,” she answered. “Besides, I have quite a talent for gardening. Perhaps I can find work taking care of someone’s flowers.”
“True. But do you think anyone would hire a woman gardener?”
“Perhaps not,” Elizabeth said flatly. “I suppose there is always a governess position.”
“Yes. But the lady of the house might be suspicious that the daughter of a duke needs to look for work. She might even believe her husband is installing you as his new mistress.”
Elizabeth slammed down her teacup. The hot liquid spilled over the edge, just missing her fingers. “Then what am I to do?”
She barely kept from rolling her eyes at the ever romantic Sophie. “I do not need a man.”
Sophie giggled softly. “Of course you do. Just not for what you’re thinking.”
This time she did roll her eyes. “Now you are as bad as Avis.”
“A good man in your bed cannot hurt,” Sophie replied with a slight shrug. “Think about what I said. My aunt and I would love to have you stay with us.” She stood and reached for her damp hat. “I should take my leave now.”
As Sophie left, her words remained with Elizabeth.
The last thing she needed was a man interfering in her business. Most men liked nothing better than to stick their noses, and other parts, where they didn’t belong. Therefore, until she uncovered the truth of her parentage, she refused to suffer through any man’s attempt at courtship. Even then, Elizabeth doubted she would desire any man.
It just wasn’t in her.
While she found some men attractive, mostly she found them annoying. Sometimes she wondered if there was something wrong with her. After watching two of her dearest friends fall madly in love and marry, she thought she might feel as if something was missing in her life. Yet, the only thing she yearned for was the knowledge of her background.
Not knowing her father’s identity seemed to be eating at her more and more lately.
Perhaps because she knew her time in this house might soon end. Even if her cousin took over control of the house, she couldn’t stay. She wasn’t one of them.
Her heart constricted with pain. All her life, she’d been Lady Elizabeth. The daughter of the Duke of Kendal. Since the duke had never disowned her in public, no one knew the truth, except the few people who might have guessed. Even Richard and Caroline couldn’t know for certain. All they had were the obvious clues—her father had left her barely enough to survive, and with her red hair and freckles, she looked nothing like her sisters or late brother.
Elizabeth reached for her forgotten sherry and sipped a bit of the liquid. She had to come up with a plan for her future. There had to be something she could do with the little money the duke had left her.
Her only skills seemed to be mathematics and botany. Neither proficiency would bring her any income unless she taught them to young ladies. Perhaps that was the answer. Find a school for gentlewomen and teach. It would not be an exciting life but she’d had the glamour of thetonfor the past eight years. Society became more tedious with each passing Season.
The small mahogany mantel clock chimed eleven times. Elizabeth rose to retire for the night. Most of the servants had already departed their posts for bed, but she could hear a footman in the hall. She kept one man on duty all night to protect her and her aunt.
Thankfully, her aunt had left last week for a visit with her ailing sister. That had given Elizabeth the opportunity to search her aunt’s room. Aunt Matilda had become quite impatient waiting for the duke, and wished to leave and live with her three sisters in Kent. Of course, Elizabeth would be welcome to stay with the cantankerous elderly women—a thought that made employment sound very attractive.
She walked into the hall and smiled at the tall footman. He turned and unlocked the front door.
“Is everything all right?” she asked.
He looked back with a smile. “Nothing to worry about, Lady Elizabeth. I just heard a strange noise out on the street, and thought to investigate.”
“Very well, then. Good night, Kenneth.” Elizabeth stepped on the first marble tread and remembered she’d left her book in the parlor.
“Is everything all right, Lady Elizabeth?”
“I forgot my poetry book.”
“Did you leave it in the salon? I shall fetch it for you immediately,” he said before she could even reply.
She walked down the hallway behind him but stopped as the front door hurled open.
“Unbelievable,” a huge man said at the threshold. “They just leave the place unlocked at night.”
Elizabeth screamed as the strange man and several others walked in the house. “Kenneth, we have intruders!”
“Intruders?” the stranger said, shaking his head. “Lucy and Ellie, take the children upstairs and find rooms for everyone.”
“Of course,” said one of the women.
Elizabeth shouted, “Kenneth, where are you?”
“Right here, my lady,” he said from behind her. “I’m going to need some help with all of them.”
“Go wake the others,” Elizabeth said quickly. What was wrong with everyone? She walked closer to the huge man with dark brown hair and a scraggly beard wet from the rain. She stepped back quickly when she smelled him. “Get out of this house!”
Instead, the children followed the two women up the stairs.
A few of them glanced down at her and giggled. One dark-haired boy of about ten looked down at her and whispered, “Will’s gonna have to let her go. She’s just mean.”
Elizabeth glared at them all and then turned her stare to the man leaning against the banister. “You had better get those children and leave the premises before I call the night watch.”
“Call whoever you damned well want.” He took a step toward her. “Is this not the Duke of Kendal’s London residence?”
“Yes, but certainly you’re not…” her voice trailed off. No, it was inconceivable. This ruffian was far too young to be Edward.
Finally, she heard the loud stomping of footmen coming upstairs like a herd of cattle. She leveled the thug a smug look. He raised an eyebrow at her and smiled. His smile took her completely by surprise. With even white teeth and small crinkles by his eyes, the man’s smile made her heart pound.
“Get this man and his children out of my house,” she ordered the footmen.
Two of the burliest footmen in service came forward and walked toward the man.
“Your house?” he said with a stifled chuckle.
“I thought this home belonged to the Duke of Kendal,” he said as the two footmen pulled his arms behind his back. “Not so rough, boys. At least not if you wish to continue to serve in this household.”
“What are you blathering about?” Elizabeth asked.
“This is the home of the Duke of Kendal. Allow me to introduce myself. William Atherton, at your service.”
Elizabeth grabbed for a baluster of the handrail. Hearing the giggles of children, she glared up at them. At her hard stare, they ran toward their rooms. All but the two eldest women, who held her glare.
William Atherton was indeed Edward’s son. His only natural born son. Edward’s heir.
While hard to determine his features with his hair to his shoulders, a beard that desperately needed a shave, and a stench that would make a seaman proud, she didn’t doubt his claim. His dark brown eyes were almost black, the exact shade of the former duke.
“Where is your father?” she asked softly.
“The good Lord took him nine months ago.”
She breathed in deeply in an attempt to gain some measure of control. Finally, she stepped away from the stairs and curtsied to him.
“Welcome home, Your Grace.”Chapter 2
Will finally broke away from the footmen’s tight hold. “Thank you…”
The woman’s face flushed pink. “Elizabeth, Your Grace. I am the former duke’s daughter,” she replied in a halting voice.
“I see. A cousin of mine, then.”
“Very distant, but yes.”
“Wonderful.” The last thing he needed was one more mouth to feed. The past two years had been a struggle as he attempted to keep his family from falling apart during his father’s long illness.
“Those children,” she started, glanced up the stairs, and then paused.
Watching her freckled face cringe, he almost laughed. “Yes? The children?”
“They can’t all be…”
“Well, yes. I had heard you were eight when you left for America, and that was only twenty years ago…”
He walked toward a large room as she attempted to determine the source of all the children. Glancing around the room, his gaze focused on the gilt furnishings. He remembered very little of his life in England, and this was one part he must have forgotten. The opulence of the room astounded him. Red silk wallpaper lined the walls of the room, vast gilt frames with oil paintings and portraits hung from the walls. He had only heard of such wealth. Not even Abigail’s family had this much.
God, he missed her already. He had to get this nasty business completed as quickly as possible.
“Oh, yes, the children. Perhaps I had an early start,” he said with a smile. His innocent cousin’s eyes widened.
Slowly, her lips tilted upward. “That must have been an extremely early start.”
“Considering Ellie’s nearly twenty, I do believe eight is just a bit young.”
“Your siblings, then?”
“All seven of them, plus Alicia, who stayed behind with her new husband.” Will walked farther into the room and ran his hand over the soft velvet of a wingback chair.
“Nine children? And they all survived infancy.”
He only nodded at the sound of amazement in her voice. He chuckled softly. “They include four stepbrothers from my father’s second wife.”
“Would you like something to eat, Your Grace?”
He turned back toward her and frowned. “Why do you keep calling me that?”
“Because you are the duke. If you were an earl, I would have addressed you as ‘my lord’.”
He shook his head. “Well, stop. I will never understand this country and its odd penchant for titles.”
She stood upright and quickly brushed a red lock back from her forehead. “It is not an odd system of titles. How long did you live in Virginia before moving to Canada?”
“Ten years. Then my father was reassigned to another diplomatic position in York near Lake Ontario, just before the war broke out.”
“I think you must have forgotten how English Society works. After all, you lived in that heathen country where no man needs a title.”
“Perhaps. But at least there, every man has the chance to better himself without needing a title to get ahead,” he said before sitting in the wingback chair.
“Your Gr—” She halted abruptly when he glared at her. Throwing up her hands in the air, she said, “Then what do I call you?”
“William, or better yet, Will.”
“Very well, William. Would you like me to awaken the cook for a quick meal?”
“I wouldn’t wish to disturb the servants.”
“The servants are here for your every convenience. Besides, I must wake the maids to make up the bedrooms. Mine is the only one ready.”
“Then yes, I would love a little something to eat. The food on the ship was not the best.”
She smiled and two small dimples creased her freckled cheeks. The woman was quite pretty with her red curls and green eyes, but when she smiled, she became absolutely radiant.
“I will return in a moment,” she said.
As she left, her slim hips swayed under the muslin of her amber gown. Listening to her give orders to the footmen, he smiled. She was obviously used to assigning tasks for the servants.
God, he hated the idea of being back in this country. If he had only surrendered his citizenship and moved to America before his father’s death. Then he would not be here. He wouldn’t be eligible for the title. Instead, he would be in Virginia with Abigail, enjoying the warmth of a late May evening.
Being an American, his stepmother had ingrained in him the ideals of freedom from tyrannical forces. How no man had the right to call himself king. The people had the right to choose their leaders, and titles should mean nothing.
While she preached to him about the importance of freedom, his father continued to speak of the duchy and their responsibility to it. Or more importantly, the opportunity it would give them financially. Once the title fell to either of them, they could give their family wealth and respect. In order for that to happen, Will had to keep his British citizenship. He’d only done it to make his father happy. What Will wanted remained in Virginia.
For the past five years, he and Abigail had faithfully written to each other monthly. Every six months, he would propose to her again, telling her that he would give up everything for her. Each time, she had another reason he shouldn’t give up his citizenship for her. During the war, their correspondence had been sporadic, but she had told him of her love for him. When the war ended, Will had begged her to come to Canada, but she told him she could not disregard her father’s feelings. After losing his only son in the war with the British, he could not lose his only daughter to an Englishman.
Not that any of that mattered. Now that he was the duke, he could do what he wanted. He was here for only one thing. Once finished, he and his siblings would be on the first ship out of England forever.
After telling the footman to awaken the servants, Elizabeth quickly walked up the stairs to organize the children. In the first room, she found the two oldest women, and a young girl who couldn’t have been more than five. The little girl gave her a shy smile.
“Good evening, ladies.”
The two older women folded their arms over their chests in unison. “Good evening,” the woman with blond hair said.
“I am your cousin, Elizabeth.”
“I’m Sarah,” the littlest girl said excitedly.
Elizabeth walked over to the girl on the bed and said, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Sarah.”
Sarah giggled. “I’m not a lady yet.”
“Oh, but you are, at least I think you are. Will is your half brother, right?”
Sarah shrugged, but the other two nodded.
“Well, since your brother is now the duke, that makes you a lady,” Elizabeth replied with a smile.
The little girl giggled again and looked over at her sister. “See, Lucy. I am a lady.”
“You won’t be a lady for a very long time, Sarah,” Lucy retorted.
Elizabeth turned toward the young woman named Lucy. “And it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Lucy.”
“Thank you, Elizabeth.”
“I think she must also be a lady, Lucy,” the woman with blond hair stated.
“Are you Ellie?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yes, Lady Elizabeth.”
“Well, it is a pleasure to meet you all. I have to admit, I’m a little confused about who is related to whom.”
Ellie smiled. “It is a little difficult. Will, Alicia, Lucy, and I are from the same parents. James, Michael, Ethan, and Robert are my stepbrothers. Sarah is the youngest, and she is my half sister.”
“That clears it up a little. The servants are on their way to make up the beds for you. Tomorrow we shall see about setting up a nursery for the younger children, which will free this room for you both to share.”
“You mean we don’t have to make up the beds?” Lucy whispered.
Elizabeth smiled at the sound of awe in her voice. “No, Lucy. We have servants here to attend to our needs.”
All three girls gave each other amazed looks.
“We don’t have to help cook?” Ellie asked.
“We don’t have to wash the clothes?” Lucy said at the same time.
“No. We have several servants to do all those chores.” It finally dawned on Elizabeth that they were used to doing these chores themselves. She had assumed her cousin Edward must have had money, but perhaps he hadn’t.
“Good night, ladies. I shall see you tomorrow morning.” Elizabeth walked slowly toward the door.
“What time is breakfast?” Ellie asked.
“Whenever you want it,” Elizabeth replied. “Just let the maid know if you will eat in the breakfast room, or if you want a tray in your room.”
“We can eat in our bedroom?” Sarah exclaimed.
“Yes, I do most mornings,” Elizabeth commented.
“Good night, Lady Elizabeth,” Lucy said.
Elizabeth walked out of the girls’ room and toward another room. Hearing loud voices, she knew before she opened the door that the boys were inside. She walked into the bedroom and found two of the younger boys investigating a bug in the corner of the room. They both turned as she entered the room.
“What are you two about at this hour?” she asked.
“There’s a spider,” the younger of the two answered. His hair was sandy brown and he had large blue eyes.
“And you are?”
Glancing toward the older boy with blond hair, she asked, “And you?”
“I see. Have you two decided which bed will be yours tonight?” She walked over to where they still stood in the corner. Spying the spider, she lifted her skirts and stomped on it.
“I can’t believe you did that!” Ethan said. “It was a poor little spider. He wasn’t going to hurt anyone!”
Elizabeth inhaled deeply. She had no idea how to deal with children, especially boys. “That spider might have bitten you. And that is no way to speak to an elder.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they muttered together.
“Now, tomorrow we shall settle everyone into their permanent rooms, but for tonight, you will have to make do with the beds that are in here.”
“It doesn’t matter about the beds,” a sullen voice from the doorway said.
Elizabeth turned and looked at the older boy. “Why is that? And who are you?”
“I’m Michael. And it doesn’t matter about the spider or you or the beds or anything else.” Michael moved toward one of the beds and flopped on it, facedown.
Elizabeth stood there, unsure of what to do. Should she call for William? She had never been around young boys before now.
“Michael, we’re not going anywhere,” said an older adolescent from the corner.
Had he been in the room the entire time? She was in completely over her head. “What do you mean, Michael?”
He turned his head slightly from the pillow. “As soon as Will sells off everything, we’re moving back to America.”
“What did you say?” The boy had to be wrong. William could not sell off everything and then leave. The estates were entailed and he had responsibilities to attend to here. If he left, who would care for the tenants? Who would care for the lands?
Michael rolled onto his side and stared at her. “We’re going back. Will is going to sell off everything.”
“Oh, no, he is not,” Elizabeth said, striding toward the door. “The servants will be up in a moment with bedding. Good night.”
She slammed the door on the way out. Picking up her skirts, she raced down the marble stairs. Did the man know nothing? He couldn’t sell off the estates and return to America.
She strode into the parlor to find the duke with his feet on the mahogany table and his head tilted into the corner of the wingback chair, with his dark brown eyes shuttered and his breathing even. Her anger should have dissipated at the sight of his obvious exhaustion, but it did not.
“Get your filthy feet off my table!”
One dark brown eye stared at her. Slowly, the other eye opened and one brow arched. “Yourtable?”
She swatted at his feet. “Yes, my table.”
He placed his booted feet on the floor and sat up straight. After folding his arms over his chest, he continued to stare at her.
“Last I checked, I was the duke,” he said in a low tone. “I believe that means this house and everything in it belongs to me.”
“Hah! You are incorrect on that matter. Some of the things belong to the title, not to you.”
“It’s all the same to me,” he said with a dispassionate shrug.
“Well, you would be wrong.”
“Perhaps I am. I may have been born in this country, but it isn’t my home and never will be. For all I care, some other cousin can inherit this damned title.”
She glared at him as her anger rose higher. “But they cannot.”
“Oh?” He arched one eyebrow slightly.
“As long as you are alive,youare the duke. Whether you like the idea or not,” she retorted.
How dare this man think he could dismiss centuries of family history? Did he have no idea of what his relatives did to gain that title? The battles fought over land, the marriages brokered over money and land. All done to increase the family’s position and fortune. All done to give them the wonderful and secure life they had now.
Meeting him almost made her wish Richard had inherited the duchy. At least he would have respect for the title and the history that went along with it. Although, he would gamble away the money. The situation was bewildering. She had one cousin who would gamble the estates to ruin, and another who would sell off everything. Well, she wasn’t about to allow either of those things to happen.
“But again, I am the duke,” the arrogant, uncivilized man stated. “Therefore, I can do as I wish with the assets.”
“You might be the duke,” she replied, balling her hands into tight fists. “But you cannot sell off this family’s properties and belongings.”
He leaned his head back into the corner of the chair and smiled. “I don’t believe you have a say in the matter.”
She smiled sternly at him. “Perhaps not. But I do know you cannot sell off any entailed property.”
Watching his eyes widen and his mouth drop slightly, she knew she had caught him off guard. He knew nothing about the laws of inheritance in England. She could use his ignorance about the subject to her advantage.
“What can’t I sell?”
Ignoring his demanding question, she walked toward the door. “Good night,Your Grace. Pleasant dreams.”
Will watched the aggravating woman walk out of the room as frustration seeped into his bones. What did she mean? Not everything he owned could be entailed. Could it?
All his plans hinged on his selling some of the properties and finally returning to America. It had been his dream for the past five years. Without the money, he was no better off than he had been in Canada.
He combed his fingers through his long hair. He desperately needed a shave and a haircut. Nevertheless, that could wait until tomorrow. He would question the little shrew about her comments then.
The idea of staying in this godforsaken country for more than a moment necessary bothered him terribly. He had to get back to Virginia before Abigail’s father married her off to another man. A wealthy American man. Something Mr. Mason was certain Will was not. While many would consider Will wealthy now, in no manner would Mr. Mason consider an English duke an ally to the United States.
“Your supper, Your Grace.” One of the footmen who had attempted to throw him out of his new home stood at the threshold.
“Thank you, Kenneth.”
The footman set down the tray on the table where Will’s feet had previously been settled. “Your Grace, I must apologize for earlier. I was only doing as Lady Elizabeth requested. She had no idea who you were.”
“I understand, Kenneth.”
“It’s just that…”
Will glanced up at the footman’s terrified face and understood. “You will not be turned out.”
Relief washed across the young man’s face. “Thank you, Your Grace.”
The man hurried from the room as if he feared Will would go back on his word. What a rigid society. Everyone concerned about not insulting a man because of his title. A rush of homesickness came over him. He hoped Alicia and David were doing well. His sister had always had a tough exterior but was a sentimental, softhearted woman. She would miss them all dreadfully.
Almost as much as he missed her already.
He reached for the bowl of stew and sighed. The aromas floated past his nose, bringing back memories of his stepmother’s wonderful cooking. She would have hated the idea he was here, but would have enjoyed the thought that he planned to sell off as much as possible. After he finished the delicious stew, he walked to the stairs, determined to find his room and finally sleep in a nonswaying bed.
“The maids just finished in your bedchamber. Your room is the first door on the right.”
“And the children?”
Kenneth smiled. “They are on the third floor. Good night, Your Grace.”
“Good night, Kenneth.”
Will walked up the stairs and opened the door to the first room. Peering inside, he found the girls soundly asleep. Thank God. He wanted no more conversations for the night, only his soft bed. He departed the room and walked farther down the hall to the next room on the left. The boys were all asleep, except Michael.
“Are you all right, Michael?” he whispered.
“Go away, Will.”
Will smiled. When Michael told him to go away, it meant come talk. Will sat on the edge of the bed and glanced about the room. “Nice to have a bed again?”
Will reached out and rubbed his stepbrother’s head. “We won’t be here for long.”
“James said that once you see all the money you have here, you won’t wish to leave.”
“Your brother is a fool.”
“I know that.”
“What I want is in America,” Will said, thinking of Abigail’s sweet, innocent face. “Selling off everything will enable me to have what I want, and give you all a better life. So chin up, boy. I just need a couple of months.”
“James said you could have all that here, and more. Being a duke is a really important thing.”
“I thought we already established that James is a fool.”
“We did,” Michael replied with a giggle.
Will still hadn’t become accustomed to the lower register of Michael’s voice. At fourteen, Michael was a gangly jumble of half boy and half man.
“Many of your elder siblings have idolized the idea of what England is truly like,” Will whispered.
“No, you haven’t. But James, Ellie, and Lucy certainly do. That is why I insisted that all of you come with me. You need to see the England I remember. The poverty, the class system, the fact that people don’t get ahead here without a title…like your father, and mine.”
“But youhavea title, Will.”
Will sighed and rubbed his stepbrother’s hair. “And if I didn’t, I would be nothing here, which is why I cannot stay.”
Michael nodded. “Good night, Will.”
He walked back downstairs, reached for the door-knob, and stopped. Had Kenneth said the second door on the left, or on the right? Will was so beyond tired he couldn’t remember. He opened the door to the left and a light, feminine gasp sounded from near the fireplace. She turned around and glared at him.
“What are you doing in my bedchamber?”
The small fire behind her displayed the shadows of her modest curves, and the glow flamed her long hair into beams of crimson. Her heart-shaped face, while covered in freckles, was completed with a pert nose and lips that were not too full and not too thin. Perfection. Her green eyes looked like emeralds shimmering in the dim light.
He truly hadn’t taken an account of her beauty this evening when he’d been too preoccupied with other things. Or perhaps her irritable behavior had been the only thing he noticed.
“Your Grace?” she squeaked.
“I apologize, Elizabeth. I was looking for my room.”
“It’s across the hall. The duke’s bedchamber is a full suite.” She crossed her arms over her chest as if to hide the fullness of her breasts. Instead, it only seemed to plump them.
Desire flared but he attempted to tamp it down as quickly as it had fired. He was not attracted to the shrew. No matter how her lush body seemed to call to him. His heart had settled on Abigail.
Not that his body seemed to note that fact. His erection pressed against the cotton of his drawers, desperate for release from its cloth prison.
He swallowed hard, attempting to gain a measure of control of his sudden yearning. “Good night, Elizabeth.”
He forced his feet to move toward the door, when all he really wanted was to step closer to her.
Elizabeth sipped her chocolate and then broke off a bite of toast. He had seen her in her nightclothes last night. She’d felt the heat of his gaze, hotter than the fire behind her, burning into her. While she’d tried her best to cover her erect nipples from his view, she doubted her success. His gaze appeared to settle on her breasts.
And she’d liked it.
For the first time in her entire life, she felt something odd and strangely appealing when a man looked at her. Not a man, a ruffian. He smelled foul, like a man who hadn’t bathed in weeks. Of course, he probably hadn’t the chance to clean much on the ship.
She was ill, that was surely the cause of this sudden departure from her normal manner. All this worrying over finding her mother’s hidden diary had caused her to lose her senses. Most notably her sense of smell, if she found that barbarian attractive, she thought with disdain. Hopefully, he would have enough intelligence to bathe this morning.
Now with all the children in the house, she had no idea how to complete her search. Two of the last five rooms she had left to investigate were the children’s rooms. She’d also wanted to check the ducal bedchamber once more. With William in there, she would never be able to search the room again. She had to find a way to get in that room. It made the most sense that the diary was in there. The only option was to wait until he left the house some time.
At least, he hadn’t mentioned her leaving the house now that he was installed here. But she had to find out what William’s intentions truly were, because even though she wasn’t the duke’s true daughter, the family name mattered to her.
She could never let him ruin the family name.
She pushed away the rest of her chocolate and toast, then strode from her room, determined to confront him. After searching various rooms, she found him in the study, huddled over the old desk.
He glanced up quickly and mumbled, “Good morning.”
Elizabeth gripped the leather chair in front of her. He had bathed and shaved. At least now she didn’t have to doubt her sanity. The man was beyond handsome. While his dark brown hair was still too long for the current style, his clean-shaven face showed a strong jaw and a chin with a slight dent in it. Even his nose was beautiful. Long and just a little crooked, as if it had been broken once.
“Can I help you with something?” he asked roughly.
Heat streaked across her cheeks. “I apologize. You look different this morning.”
A slow smile moved his sensual lips upward. “As did you last night.”
The heat on her cheeks burned her entire face. “I assume you found your bedchamber.”
“Indeed. Is this what you came to discover? That I found my room?”
“No. I wanted to speak with you about what you said last night.” She moved to take the seat in front of the desk when he remained quiet.
“You won’t change my mind.”
He let the quill drop from his hand, and it landed with a plop on the ledgers in front of him. “Why what?”
“Why would you wish to sell off what you can? Why would you leave the lands, the estates, the tenants, and the title?” The man had no idea of the history if he thought to leave without any consideration for the effects it might have on others.
“My reasons are not your concern.” He sipped his coffee slowly and then stared at her again.
“I see. You do realize that you cannot sell off three of the estates.”
His eyes narrowed. “So you informed me last night. I never understood this archaic idea that land can only go to the eldest male.”
“It’s actually quite simple,” she said. “The reason is so the land always stays in the family. A person cannot sell off everything, and leave nothing to his heir.”
“And yet, the only person of importance in this system is the eldest male. The rest are sent off with a small allowance.” Will reached for his coffee again.
“That hasn’t been a major concern as this family has never been blessed with an overabundance of males. The College of Heralds had to search back five generations to find your father’s connection to the family.”
“So I am able to sell off any property not entailed?”
“Yes,” she answered reluctantly.
“I see. This entailment was a method of protecting the family.”
Elizabeth smiled. He finally understood why it was so important to keep the family lands. Perhaps getting him to comprehend the important history of this family wouldn’t be so difficult after all. “Exactly,” she commented.
“And as long as I’m alive, I remain the duke.”
Elizabeth nodded. “Yes. And as long as your sons are born here or one of the English colonies, then the eldest living son would inherit upon your death.”
“And if my sons were born in America?”
A flicker of doubt fluttered through her. “Your eldest son would be considered an American. Therefore it has been determined that our cousin, Richard, would stand to inherit. Or of course, one of his children.”
“I see,” he said, then stared down at the paper in front of him. Slowly, he looked up at her. “What about you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What happens to you?”
Elizabeth chewed her lower lip. “It is not my welfare that concerns me.”
“Of course it is,” he said with a smile. “It’s only human nature to be worried about your personal welfare.”
Rage infused her veins. “You think I am only concerned about myself?”
He leaned back against the leather desk chair in a casual manner. “What other reason would you have for interfering with my business?”
She scraped back the chair, stood, and glared at him. “Not because it is my life you are turning upside down. Do you even know how many tenants the estates have? Or how many servants work for this family? Do you realize that every one of them might be turned out if you sell the lands?”
“That is not my concern.”
Elizabeth did her best not to run from the room. She had to stand up to the man—make him grasp the lives he could be ruining.
“Indeed it isyourconcern. One of the duke’s main responsibilities is the welfare of his tenants.” She placed her hands on her hips, waiting his next rejoinder.
He leaned back further and crossed his arms over his chest. “We both know I am not suited to be the duke. Nor do I wish to play duke. My concerns are only for my family and their well-being. The rest of the world can go hang itself.”
“You are a selfish man. You would turn out innocent women and children so you can have your way.”
Will had taken enough of her waspish mouth for one morning. He rose to his full height, forcing her to look up at him.
“I am selfish? Because I put the interests of seven children first? Because I inherited a title that I had no desire for? Because I was forced to come to this detestable country and settle an estate I know and care nothing about?”
She cringed. “I’m sorry.”
Slowly, she returned to her seat and stared at her hands. “I didn’t think about how much all this must have upset your life.”
“Not just my life. My entire family’s life.”
“True.” She licked her lips. “But…”
“What?” he asked as he returned to his seat.
“This could make their lives so much better,” she replied in a soft voice. “I can only assume you have more money as the duke than you did in Canada.”
His fists instinctively tightened. “Perhaps,” he bit out.
“Staying here would give all the children opportunities they would not have in York, or even in America. As the sister of a duke, the girls are inherently accepted into Society. The boys will be welcomed at Eton. They will all have the ability to make great matches.”
“As you have?” The moment the words left his mouth, he regretted them. He knew nothing about her. She could be a widow, after all. But for some reason, he had to know more about her. He found her strangely intriguing.
She glanced down at her hands. “I could have made any number of matches,” she mumbled.
“Of course,” he said in a disbelieving voice.
She looked up at him with fire in her emerald eyes. “I most certainly could have. I haven’t found a man who suited me yet.”
“Ah, being selective.”
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
Will shrugged casually. “It really is none of my concern. However, as I understand these books,” he said, looking down at the desk, “this house is not entailed, nor is it leased. I will be selling it as quickly as possible, so you might wish to decide where you will live. Perhaps with a relative?”
He watched the emotions play on her tight face and felt a stab of remorse. He didn’t want to hurt the woman, but she had to understand that this country was not for him. He also knew that his brothers would never be welcomed at Eton, not as the sons of an American.
“I have four sisters, but I am not close to any of them. They are all much older than I.” She clenched her jaw tightly as if attempting to control her emotions. “My aunt is normally here but departed for a visit. She will go live with her sisters.”
“I suppose I could live with a friend of mine.”
He was being completely insensitive to her plight. Her eyes blinked furiously as if she were attempting to hold her tears at bay.
“What about cousins?”
She looked away from him. “Apart from Richard, there is Nicholas, who is unmarried and lives with his young daughter. It might look improper if I moved in with him.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” she said, blinking away tears. “After all, you are the duke and you have the final say in all that matters in your house.”
“Elizabeth,” he started as she rose from her seat. “Please don’t leave angry.”
She looked at him, tears filling her eyes. “I am not mad at you, William. Only very disappointed. I thought that you or your father would make a much better duke than my cousin, Richard. I now see I was very wrong on that account. At least Richard would have had respect for the title and the lands.”
She walked slowly toward the door and then turned. “I just need to know one thing.”
“What is that?”
“Why is it so important that you return to America?”
“My future wife is there.”
She frowned but nodded. “I see. And she can’t travel to England?”
“Her father lost his son to the last war with the British, so the last thing he wants is for her to marry an Englishman. Not only an Englishman, but a lord of the realm.”
She shook her head slightly as if confused. “You will always be the duke. If she loved you, it would not matter to her.”
Will closed his eyes against the pain. “She would never disobey her father.”
“If she truly loved you, her father’s wishes would not matter,” she whispered, then left the room.Chapter 4
Will tried his best to put the frustrating woman out of his mind for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to work. The fresh fragrance of her rosewater perfume remained in the room long after she’d departed. But her parting words ate at him.
If she truly loved you, her father’s wishes would not matter.
Abigail loved him. She only hesitated to go against her father due to…
Will blew out a breath. She had to have a good reason. Was it money? Could Abigail be afraid he wouldn’t be able to provide for her and their children? By staying in her father’s good graces, she might be able to persuade him that Will was a good man. If her reasons truly stemmed from money, that issue would be out of the way now. Even if he couldn’t sell off all that he’d wanted, according to Elizabeth, all of this was his. He could do as he pleased with the profits from the estates.
But his mind couldn’t stop wondering if there was something else holding Abigail back. Had he been wrong about her feelings toward him? She was one and twenty now. If she had truly wanted to go with him, they could have married and left for England. Unless she despised England as much as he did. Her grandfather had fought the British for their freedom, and her brother died in the fight for Fort McHenry only three years ago. With a nod, he realized this reasoning made the most sense. She was most likely waiting for him to return so she could marry him.
Will stared down at the ledgers and papers in front of him and knew he was in over his head. He needed the professional assistance of a trusted solicitor to help him wade through the legalities of his inheritance. Except he didn’t know a soul in London. He barely remembered any one of his acquaintances from when he was eight.
This, of course, meant he would be required to speak with the termagant again. Well, there was no time like the present. He pushed back his leather chair and walked to the front hall.
“Elizabeth!” he yelled from the banister.
“Your Grace, if I may…”
Will waved off the footman and shouted once more, “Elizabeth, get down here.”
Soft footsteps sounded from the hall upstairs. She glared down at him. “Did you just shout for me to come down as if I were a servant?”
A quick rush of heat crossed his cheeks. He had forgotten that he wasn’t in a small home without servants. “I suppose I did.”
“Well, that is not how we speak to people in a civilized country.” She turned on her heels and walked back toward her room.
“I don’t think so,” he muttered and then raced up the stairs. The door to her room shut just as he reached the hallway. He stormed to her room and rapped on the door. “Elizabeth, I need to speak with you.”
“Then I suggest you use a nicer tone of voice.”
Will clenched his fists and looked up at the high ceiling. “Elizabeth, may I have a word, if you please.”
The door slowly opened and her smug face smiled back at him. “Do you need my assistance with something, Your Grace?”
“Can we talk in the study? I have a few questions only you can answer.”
She nodded. “As you wish, Your Grace.”
Every time she called him that, he fought against the annoyance he felt. “I believe I asked you to call me Will.”
“Yes, you did, Your Grace.” She opened the door to leave, and he noticed the valise on the bed.
“Are you leaving?” he asked softly.
“You did ask me to do so.”
She couldn’t leave yet. He had no idea how to survive in this country without her guidance. But he couldn’t tell her that.
“You don’t need to leave today.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” A flash of relief passed over her face.
Will followed her into the study and shut the door behind them. Elizabeth sat in the seat in front of the large cherry desk as he sat in the leather chair.
“What do you need my help with?” she asked in a slightly harsh tone.
At least she’d stopped calling him your grace. “I believe the only way I can sort through all this mess is to find a trusted solicitor.”
She smirked. “And why do you need my help with that?”
Will narrowed his eyes on her. “I don’t know of any solicitors here. I thought you might be kind enough to assist me.”
She shrugged and rose from her seat. “You might be wrong.”
“Elizabeth, I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Do not be sorry. You are only doing what you think is right for your family. Personally, I believe you are very mistaken.”
“I know how you feel,” he tried again.
She walked to the threshold and turned back at him. “You have no idea how I feel. You’re a man. You can do as you please. You don’t have to worry about what people will think of you if they find out no one in your family wants you.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth gaped. Quickly, she raced from the room.
Will stared at the empty doorway, unsure of what to do to help her. But he knew he had to do something.
Elizabeth grabbed her reticule and strode from her room. Bloody stupid man making her say something so appalling. Even if it was true. Her sisters didn’t want her. They most likely either knew or suspected the truth. Her aunt would grudgingly take her in but then she would become nothing but a nursemaid to a group of old ladies.
“Are you going out?”
Elizabeth looked up from her fuming to see Ellie and Lucy walking up the stairs to their room. “Yes. I am off to pay a call on a friend.”
“You’re going visiting?” Lucy asked.
“May we join you?” Lucy asked, and then received a quick jab from Ellie’s elbow.
“It’s not polite to ask such a thing, Lucy,” Ellie whispered.
“Your sister is right, Lucy.”
Lucy’s face fell with disappointment. “Of course. Ellie is always right.”
Even though Elizabeth had four sisters, she’d only lived with Jane, and that was only for a few years. Elizabeth didn’t understand how to handle the sisters.
“Lucy, you are not ready to face anyone yet,” Elizabeth started softly.
Ellie bristled. “We’re not good enough to meet a friend of yours?”
Oh dear, now both of the sisters were upset. “We need to prepare you for Society. Before you go out, you will need new gowns, shoes, bonnets, undergarments, everything. And you need to learn the rules of Society.”
They both looked at each other and then at Elizabeth. Ellie’s gaze moved toward the floor. “There is no point, then. My brother will only say it’s a waste of money when we won’t be staying.”
“I shall talk to him when I return.” The idea of speaking with that man made her blood boil. She had never met such an insensitive, arrogant, handsome man. Handsome! Dear God, no. She refused to be attracted to such a man.
“What are we to do all day?” Lucy asked. “At home we would be doing chores the majority of the day.”
Elizabeth smiled. “Work on your music or your needle-point while I’m gone. Monday I will have Madame Beaulieu here to fit you for your new clothes.”
Both girls grinned.
“What about Will?” Ellie asked.
She shook her head. “I will take care of your brother. But now, I must go call on my friend.”
Elizabeth walked outside and smiled. The deplorable rain of the past few days had finally stopped, and now the sun shone brightly and the air smelled clean. While she should have waited inside for the carriage to be brought around for her, she couldn’t stand being in that house another moment.
When she finally arrived at Sophie’s home, Elizabeth discovered all her friends were there. While they used to be known as the Spinster Club, even with Avis and Jennette now married, the women remained the closest of friends.
“Elizabeth!” Sophie announced, and then moved to give her friend a hug. “Is everything all right?”
Elizabeth sat in the floral chair by the window and shook her head. “As you predicted, he has arrived.”
“Who?” Avis and Jennette asked at the same time.
“The duke.” Elizabeth glanced outside at the carriage rumbling down the street. “Only it’s not Edward. It’s his son, William.”
“What about all the children, Elizabeth?” Sophie asked. “Does the new duke have a few children?”
She glanced back at her friends and shook her head. “He is unmarried but he did bring his seven siblings with him.”
“Seven?” Victoria said with a smile. “That should bring a little excitement into your home.” Victoria ran a home for orphaned children, so she would know all about the noise children could bring into a home.
“Yes, and I have no idea what I’m doing with them all.”
Victoria reached over and patted Elizabeth’s hand. “I will call on you, and together we will get them organized and settled. You will have to hire a tutor for them. But I can assist with that as well.”
A wave of relief slowly rolled over her. “Thank you, Victoria.”
“Now,” Sophie said, “what about the other issue?”
“What issue?” Avis asked, rubbing her extended belly. With only two more months until her first child was born, she looked more vibrant than Elizabeth had ever seen.
“Has he asked you to leave?” Sophie asked softly.
“I certainly hope you refused,” Jennette said.
“Of course, I did no such thing, Jennette,” Elizabeth replied. “It’s his home now. I have no right to stay.”
“But youneedto stay,” Sophie whispered.
Avis looked at them both and narrowed her eyes. “All right, what is going on between you two? There is no reason Elizabeth shouldhaveto stay in her father’s home.”
“But there’s no reason she should have to leave either,” Jennette pressed. She inhaled sharply and rubbed a spot on her belly. She and Avis would both be delivered of their children in about two months. Considering the infants would be first cousins, Elizabeth thought it sweet that they would be so close in age.
“Why do you need to stay, Elizabeth?” Victoria asked before taking a sip of tea.
Elizabeth sighed. She probably should have told her friends about her problem months ago. Maybe they might have helped her. “I need to find a diary I believe my mother hid in one of the houses. I have thoroughly checked the estates and found nothing. The townhome is my last chance.”
“What is so important about this diary?” Avis asked.
Even knowing that her friends would never speak of the matter, Elizabeth hesitated. If word ever got out, she might be ruined.
“You can tell us, Elizabeth,” Victoria said. “We won’t speak of the matter outside of this room.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I believe the diary will tell me who my real father was.”
She watched the reactions of the women. Avis and Jennette both stared at her and nodded slowly as if confirming their suspicions. Victoria looked down at the Aubusson rug as if memorizing the patterns in it, while Sophie sent Elizabeth a sympathetic look. Of all the women, Sophie would understand the most. She was the daughter of an actress and an earl who wished to remain anonymous.
“Well, then,” Jennette started, “you must do what you have to in order to stay in the house until you find the diary.”
“But how? The man has seven siblings. I’m just an unwanted piece of baggage to them.”
Sophie smiled. “Then you must prove to him that you are not an unwanted piece of baggage.”
Jennette laughed. “Seduce the man.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes at Jennette and Avis, who both nodded at the suggestion. “I cannot do that.”
“Not very handsome, is that it?” Avis asked before breaking into giggles.
Too handsome, Elizabeth thought. Far too handsome. And obviously in love with another woman. “He’s practically engaged.”
“Engaged, not married,” Sophie added, stifling a chuckle.
Only Victoria didn’t seem to find anything amusing about her predicament. “You most certainly will do nothing of the sort.”
“Of course I won’t,” Elizabeth replied. “But what am I to do?”
Sophie tilted her head and stared at Elizabeth. “You need to use your wiles to get your way. You wish to stay in the house. Make him understand that he needs you there. You can organize the children, you can assist him with the paperwork and invitations, and only you can completely understand his needs.”
“Exactly what needs are we discussing?” Elizabeth asked as heat crossed her cheeks.
“He must learn how to go about in Society even if he only plans to stay here for a few months. If the children are old enough, they will also need your assistance,” Sophie replied.
“The older girls desperately need my assistance. They actually wanted to come with me today, dressed in some distressingly worn-out cotton dresses.” Elizabeth finally reached for the tea on the table next to her. She could do this.
How hard could it be to smile and be flirtatious to gain his acceptance?
Sophie tapped her foot against the rug with impatience. She glanced up at the clock on the mantel and fisted her hands. He was doing this deliberately. It had been over five hours since she sent that missive to him. He wanted to make her wait just as he had waited so long for his request.
She rose and crossed the carpet to the far side of the salon and back again. What if he wouldn’t help her this time? She needed him more than ever for this plan.
“You wanted me?”
Sophie sighed and turned toward the sound of Somerton’s voice. He leaned in a nonchalant manner against the doorframe as if he had nothing better to do with his time.
“You kept me waiting,” she replied before sitting back down on the sofa.
“It’s a wretched feeling, isn’t it?” Somerton moved from the doorway, and took the seat across from her.
“Very well, Anthony. The time has finally come to help Elizabeth.”
“No,” he replied with a shrug.
“I’ve decided not to help you until you answer my question.” The impertinent man crossed his arms over his chest in defiance of her wishes.
But Sophie knew the gambler was bluffing. “Very well, then. You may leave.”
Somerton blinked and slowly his lips tilted upward in understanding. “Then I believe we are at an impasse.”
“How so? I do not need your help—”
“Of course you do,” he interrupted. “If not, why am I here?”
She hated it when he remained calm. He was so much more malleable when angry. “No one else can give you what you want, Anthony.”
A dimple slowly creased his cheek. “I’m not so certain you can give me what I need, Sophie. If you could, why make me wait over a year for it?”
“I promised you the woman’s name after we help Elizabeth.”
“That was six months ago.” Finally his voice rose, illustrating his true feelings.
“I never expected it would take this long for the duke to arrive.” Sophie had started to doubt her own powers of prediction.
“Tell me something, Sophie,” Somerton drawled. “Do you really know the woman’s name?”
“Yes,” she answered honestly.
“And you promise you will give me her name once we finish with Elizabeth?”
“Yes,” she replied, looking down at the rug. He didn’t need to know that it might take a bit longer for him to figure out her true identity.
“Before I agree, I want one answer.” Somerton stood and walked toward the window. Drawing the curtain back, he glanced out.
“Very well,” she whispered.
“What is the real reason you made me wait this long?”
“Because neither of you are ready.”
“Ready for what?”
She stared at his hazel eyes, which appeared greener when he was angry. “For what is between you.”
“You have no idea what is between us,” he retorted.
Sophie continued to stare at him until he looked away. A touch of redness tinted his cheeks.
“I know exactly what is between you.”Chapter 5
Elizabeth waited until after dinner to approach William. She’d been so appalled by the children’s manners during the meal, she almost left before finishing. These children needed more than just nice clothing. While Lucy and Ellie took control of the younger ones, Elizabeth followed Will to his study. She inhaled deeply before walking over to the table in the corner.
“Would you like a brandy, William?”
“Yes.” He never even looked up from his papers.
How was she to use her wiles and flirt if the man ignored her? She poured a glass of brandy for him and a bit of sherry for herself. Perhaps the sherry would give her courage. Clearing her throat, she waited for him to look up and take the snifter.
He leaned back and appeared to notice her for the first time tonight. His fiery gaze burned her, making her mouth gape. Slowly, she reached out with the glass in her hand. His fingers grazed hers when he touched the glass and a spark of excitement skipped up her arm.
Why, after all these years, did the first man she felt an attraction to have to be this mulish man? He grabbed the snifter quickly and stood to his full height.
“Let’s sit by the fireplace tonight,” he said, and then walked toward two velvet chairs close to the fire.
So much for having a desk between them. She’d assumed the gap would make her feel more comfortable. Now she would be able to see all of him. From his wide shoulders to his muscular chest to his…
Elizabeth shook her head to clear her thoughts away. After a brief moment of hesitation, she followed, and took the seat across from him.
“I believe you wished to speak to me about something?” he asked, then sipped his brandy.
She watched as he moved the glass to his full lips, and then her gaze moved to his throat. Never had she felt so mesmerized by a man before now. She had the oddest desire to touch his face, feel the heat of his body, and kiss his lips. Oh, dear!
“Yes,” she said abruptly. Remembering Sophie’s advice, she smiled at him in her most enticing manner. “I wished to speak with you about the children.”
She glanced at the open door and frowned. Anyone might come upon them and overhear their conversation; she walked to the door and closed it.
“Is there a problem with the children? Did Ethan put a frog in your bed?”
“No,” she exclaimed. “Would he do such a thing?”
William shrugged. “More likely to one of his sisters than you.”
Now she needed to remember to check her bed every night. Sitting in the chair again, she said, “It is their manners. And their clothes. And their education. And—”
“There is nothing wrong with those children.”
Oh, dear, she’d raised his anger. “Not entirely. But there is room for improvement. Children always need guidance, and to learn from adults.”
He rose and paced by the fireplace. “It certainly isn’t the boys’ fault that their mother died when Sarah was three. Nor is it their fault that my father neglected them after their mother’s death.”
“Of course not,” she whispered. Her heart went out to him and his siblings. “It must have been very hard on all of you when she died.”
“My father’s health declined shortly after my stepmother’s death. Personally, I think after he lost my mother and then my stepmother, he wanted to be done with life. He’d loved them both so much.”
“I am sorry,” Elizabeth whispered.
“The last two years of his life were spent mostly in bed. I suggested we return to England to get better care for him, but he refused.” He glanced away. “He wanted to die near his wives. After he died, I took over the care of the children, with Alicia’s help.”
“It must have been very difficult.”
“I did my best,” he muttered.
“I am certain you did,” she replied gently.
She stood and placed her hand on his arm. Ignoring the sensation of touching him, she added, “But now you are in London and no matter how much you might not want to be, you are the duke. Even if you only stay a few months, Lucy and Ellie need proper clothing so they are not confined to the house all the time. They all need to learn better table manners, especially the boys. They were chewing with their mouths open at the dinner table.”
“I suppose they could use some assistance.” He stared down at her hand on his forearm.
Elizabeth knew she should remove her hand, but remembering Sophie’s advice, she squeezed his arm instead. With what she hoped was a flirtatious smile, she said, “I can help you.”
His brown eyes darkened. “Oh?”
“I can assist you so you are ready to face Society, too. You need a valet to cut your hair.” Slowly, she reached up and touched the dark strands. His hair felt coarse to her fingertips but she loved the sensation. She’d never felt so bold in her life.
He reached for her wrist and held it tight. “Elizabeth, I am practically engaged.”
Oh, God, he must think she was nothing but a strumpet. “I’m sorry,” she said, pulling both her hands away. “I didn’t mean anything by…”
He turned to face her fully, and gently clasped her shoulders. “Perhaps if I wasn’t almost engaged…”
“No, I truly meant nothing,” she said, disconcerted at being caught flirting with him, and more disturbed by the feelings of his hands on her shoulders. Her heart pounded in her chest as she fought for some semblance of sanity.
No matter how she tried, she couldn’t look away from him. Why did she have to be attracted to him?
He shook his head slightly and removed his hands from her. “Elizabeth, what do you think I should do about the children?” he asked in a strangely hoarse voice.
Elizabeth moved back to her seat and sipped her sherry. “I can assist you so they get the proper clothing and education they need while here. But…”
She stared down at her hands and said, “I would need to stay here to show them a proper example.”
Will sat down in his seat with a smile. Now he understood exactly what she had been up to with her contagious flirting. She wanted to stay in the house. An idea that made him cringe, and yet warmed him at the same time. The thought of her sleeping across the hall from him was a worry. The woman was pure temptation.
But she was right. The children needed a better example, and proper clothing and manners. He would resist her flirtations by thinking of Abigail.
Elizabeth pressed her pink lips together and looked down at her hands. “I guess I have my answer. I shall pack my things tomorrow.”
“Elizabeth, you don’t need to leave.” But she did. Every move she made tempted him in a way he hadn’t felt for a long time. He tried to imagine Abigail’s face, but the only image in his mind was of Elizabeth lying naked in a bed.
“I believe you say that purely to ease your conscience. It is not necessary. I shall leave tomorrow.”
“No,” he said firmly. “You are right about the children. They need guidance in a way I can’t give them.”
“Lucy and Ellie really should make their bow before they enter Society. It’s a rather large undertaking.”
Elizabeth smiled at him. “They must be presented to the queen.”
That was a terrible idea. A presentation to the queen would only make both girls want to stay here. They would see only the advantages of being wealthy and titled.
“William?” Elizabeth quizzed softly. “Should I make the arrangements?”
“Yes.” That was not what he was supposed to tell her. He should tell her to leave right now and not to involve his sisters in anything to do with Society.
She rose gracefully from her seat and smiled down at him. “Thank you, William. Good night.”
He watched the gentle sway of her hips in the pale green silk. What was it about her that made him say the exact opposite of what he should?
He loved Abigail. At least he thought he did. For the past five years, he’d waited for her to either disregard her father’s objections or help him overcome those doubts. Still, Will’s feelings had not changed for her. Had they?
During the past year, her letters had come less frequently, and there had been a distance to her writing. Why hadn’t he fought harder for her hand in marriage? Why hadn’t she done more for him after his father’s death?
One full day in this damned country and already he felt confliction running through his veins. Abigail was the one for him. Even if he still felt some anger toward her for not marrying him. He couldn’t want another woman. And yet, even as he had that thought, his erection pressed tightly against his trousers.
There was something about Elizabeth that stayed with him long after she’d left the room. Perhaps these lustful feelings were merely from denying himself for so long. When he’d first met Abigail, she’d only been sixteen. He’d promised himself that he would never dishonor her by asking her to give herself to him before marriage. They had only shared a few stolen kisses.
Will stood and moved to the small cherry table in the corner holding the spirits. Not much of a brandy drinker, he found a bottle of whisky. After pouring a small glass, he drained it in one gulp. He had to get out of this house…but he had nowhere to go. And according to Elizabeth, he would be ridiculed on the basis of his clothing.
A sense of incompetence filled him. The only other time he felt this inept was the first month after Father died. Only then, he had Alicia to help guide him with the younger children. Now, he had no one.
The next afternoon Will sat at his desk shuffling through his newly inherited huge stack of papers and ledgers. He’d barely slept last night with all his tossing and turning and dreaming of a woman he shouldn’t even think of.
“Lord Somerton is here to see you, Your Grace.”
Will shook his head and looked up at the footman. “Who?”
“Viscount Somerton, Your Grace.”
Will frowned, thinking back to his short years in England. “Do I know him?” he muttered.
“I could not say, Your Grace.”
He shrugged. “Show him in.”
The footman nodded and then left. The loud sound of footsteps followed. A tall man with short light brown hair stood in the threshold.
“Will Atherton, as I live and breathe. You truly don’t look any different.”
Will stood and stared at the stranger. “Do I know you?”
The man rolled his head to the side. “Somerton. When you were six, you came to my father’s home in Suffolk for a few weeks in the summer.”
He did? Why did he have no memory of that summer? “Well then, welcome to my home, Somerton.”
Somerton handed him a bottle of fine whisky.
“How did you know I drink whisky?”
“Just a feeling.” Somerton sank into the deep leather chair by the fireplace. “How are you settling in?”
“Very well,” he lied.
Somerton tilted his head with a slight smirk. Staring at the papers on Will’s desk, he inquired, “Indeed?”
Will sat back down in his chair and blew out a breath. “No. I don’t have a clue what to do with most of this stuff. The only thing I’ve figured out, thanks to Elizabeth, is that I’m not allowed to sell off most of my inheritance.”
“Ah, yes. The joy of entitlement.”
“You know something of this?” Will asked quietly.
“Of course, I do. But why do you want to sell off anything? The late duke was rumored to be as wealthy as—”
“He was, and apparently left the estates in perfect condition.” Will stared at the bottle of whisky and wondered if two in the afternoon was too early an hour to open it.
“Then why…?” Somerton halted as if he realized the question he asked was terribly improper.
“I need to sell things off and return to America.” Why the hell was he telling this complete stranger about his life?
Somerton leaned back and smiled. “I understand.”
“Someone is awaiting your return, and you want to show her what a success you are over here.”
“Something like that.”
Somerton rose and grabbed the bottle of whisky. “I believe this conversation needs a little nourishment.”
He waited while Somerton poured two rather large glasses of whisky. Will reached out, took the glass from Somerton, and raised it to his lips. Before he could sip, Somerton stopped him.
“A toast,” Somerton said with a genuine smile. “To friendships rekindled.”
Will saluted him with his glass and took a long sip of the smoky liquid. “Damn, that is some fine whisky.”
“Nothing but the best.” Somerton returned to his seat. “Now, tell me more about this need to go to America.”
Before he knew it, Will had explained everything from Abigail, to his sister, to Elizabeth. Although he did leave out a few details, especially with regards to Elizabeth.
“So Elizabeth has decided to stay and help you get your sisters ready for Society?” Somerton asked.
He smiled. “Excellent. Now how can I assist you with this?” He pointed toward the stack of papers on the desk.
“I need the advice of a good solicitor.”
“I happen to know of an excellent man.” Somerton paused for a moment as if struggling with his words. “But you will need more than that.”
“Oh?” What else did he need? A solicitor would be able to help him sort through this mess and possibly find him a buyer for some of the land not entailed.
“Let me just say you don’t look like a duke. And you don’t act like one, either.”
“I’m not a duke.” Lord, the man was sounding like Elizabeth now. That stopped him short. Had Elizabeth asked Somerton to come here?
“Well, while you are in England, you are the Duke of Kendal. People will expect you to act a certain way.”
“And if I don’t?” he asked casually. Personally, he didn’t care if Society accepted him or not. He wouldn’t be here long enough for it to matter.
“You said you wanted to sell off some of your estates and land.”
“Yes,” Will said impatiently.
“Then you must look and act the part. You will need to make acquaintances with these people, even if it’s only a superficial friendship. The men you meet will be the ones most interested in what you are selling. You will need to join White’s for this purpose.”
At least Will didn’t need to look like a complete incompetent—he did know about the gentlemen’s club. Of course, he had no reason to tell Somerton that his own father was rejected because he wasn’t deemed the right sort of man.
“And how do you suggest I go about making these changes?” Will asked as his eyebrows drew into a frown.
“I would suggest you speak with Elizabeth. She can help you hire a valet, and teach you some of the more proper protocols of Society.”
Will tightened his muscles. The little minx was the reason Somerton was here. She must have decided to get some reinforcements to help keep her in this house. He gulped down the rest of his whisky and decided it was time for this conversation to end.
Will turned at the sound of Elizabeth’s voice. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought she looked shocked to see the viscount.
“Lady Elizabeth, it is a pleasure to see you again.” Somerton rose and crossed the room to bow over her hand. “It’s been months.”
She smiled tightly. “Since Jennette’s wedding, I believe.”
Somerton nodded. “November, then.”
Will shook his head. Was he really supposed to believe this scene?
“Why are you here, my lord?” she asked softly.
“Renewing an old acquaintance,” he replied.
“You know His Grace?”
“Only slightly. We met as children.”
“How did you know he was here?”
Will watched the two interact and briefly wondered why Elizabeth seemed to be interrogating Somerton.
“Lady Elizabeth,” Somerton said with a smug grin, “everyone knows he is here. Most have just been more polite than I and are giving him a few days to settle in. We both know in a few days, the invitations and calls shall be nonstop.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Then I should let you go. I can only imagine the work you have in front of you.” After a nod to Elizabeth and a quick glance back to Will, Somerton left.
“Do you have any idea what kind of man you just let in this house?”Chapter 6
Elizabeth fumed as she waited for his reply. The man had no sense of who in Society could help him—and who could damage his reputation beyond repair. Somerton definitely fell into the latter category.
“I take it you don’t approve of Somerton?” William asked as he casually leaned back in his chair.
“The man is dreadful.”
“Why? He didn’t seem that terrible to me.”
Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest and breathed in deeply. She had to remember William knew nothing about Society. “Somerton runs with a bad crowd. There are rumors that he has killed several people—”
“Did they deserve to be killed?”
“What?” she asked incredulously.
“There are some people who are killed because they deserve to die. They have killed innocent people or done other heinous things.” William reached for his glass of amber liquid and drank it down. He raised one eyebrow at her in question.
“I do not know the circumstances of the killings.”
His lips drew upward into a smile. “Then you shouldn’t be spreading rumors.”
Elizabeth stomped her foot, then turned and walked away before she said something she regretted. As long as she could remain in the house, she would find time to search the remaining rooms. She strode back into the salon where Victoria sat waiting for her.
“Well? What did he think?” she asked in an eager tone.
Damnation. The man flustered her to the point that she forgot to ask him about the governess and tutor. “I forgot to ask him. We were discussing someone else.”
Victoria shook her head with a small smile. “Who?”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Viscount Somerton.”
“I do not believe I have ever met him,” she said with a shrug.
“It’s just as well. He’s not a man you would wish to know.” Elizabeth rose from her chair, and said, “Let me try this again.”
She walked back to his study wondering what to say to him. Peering around the corner, she saw him studying some papers on his desk. She gathered her courage and entered the room again.
He glanced up and smiled at her. “Did you finally remember what you wanted?”
She attempted to ignore the strange sensations his words caused. Or was it his smile? She shook her head slightly. “Might my friend Victoria and I have a word with you in the salon?”
“What is this about, Elizabeth?” His voice sounded deeper, with a hint of anger.
“Victoria had several wonderful ideas regarding the children, and I thought we should discuss them.”
“Very well.” He stood and she found herself looking up to him. The man was far too tall. And far too handsome.
And almost engaged.
Although, Elizabeth had her doubts about the woman William said he wanted to marry. If Elizabeth loved someone like him, nothing would stop her from being with him. Nothing.
“Shall we?” he asked with a questioning look.
They walked down the long corridor together. Why did she have to be attracted to him? There were so many other eligible men. Well, he wasn’t a possibility so she would stop thinking about this desire she felt.
He stopped as they reached the salon and glanced down at her. His dark eyes crinkled with humor as if she’d said something funny. Could he know? Did he realize the turmoil she was going through?
“I’m ready to face the lioness.”
“None of my friends are really that dreadful. Maybe if it was the entire Spinster Club, I would tell you to be afraid,” she said with a laugh.
“You have a club? Of spinsters?”
“No. It was a name one of my friend’s husband called us before he married Avis,” she tried to explain.
“So you’re not all spinsters?” he asked.
“Not any longer. Both Avis and Jennette were married last year.”
He tilted his head as if he were about to question her further but stopped.
“Let me introduce you to Victoria,” Elizabeth said. They walked into the room and Elizabeth noticed Victoria’s mouth gape. Seeing Victoria’s reaction to the handsome man made Elizabeth realize the effect he would have on all the unmarried ladies of theton. “William, this is one of my dearest friends, Miss Victoria Seaton.”
Victoria stood quickly and bowed before him. “Your Grace.”
William looked over at Elizabeth. “Does she have to call me that?”
“Yes. As will every one of your acquaintances. Now you take her hand and bow over it.”
“Of course.” He took Victoria’s hand and kissed it softly. “It is a pleasure to meet a friend of Elizabeth’s.” He turned back to Elizabeth and said, “I did know what to do. I was just surprised by the ‘Your Grace’ again.”
“You must become accustomed to it.”
Elizabeth sat in her seat again and knew she’d better start talking because Victoria looked terribly nervous. “Victoria and I were discussing the children’s education, Your Grace.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “And?”
“Since you don’t believe you will be here for an extended period, she suggested we bring in a tutor for the boys and a governess for Sarah. I will work with Ellie and Lucy to get them ready to make their bow. And you, of course.”
“Me?” William asked softly.
Victoria shifted in her seat as if ready to leave at any moment. Rarely exposed to the upper crust of Society, Elizabeth knew that speaking with the duke must make her friend feel uncomfortable.
“Your Grace, if I may?” Victoria paused, waiting for confirmation.
“You and your sisters must be ready to facethem,” Victoria whispered.
Victoria looked beseechingly at Elizabeth.
“Theton,Your Grace,” Elizabeth responded for her friend.
“Ah, Society. The English way of keeping people in their place,” he sneered.
“Hardly,” Elizabeth retorted. “Society is what makes us…” She stopped, realizing what she’d almost said was exactly what he had referenced. “Society is the social fabric of England. Our friends are in Society, our future husbands and wives must be in the same social tier.”
“Or what?” he asked softly. “Does the world end if someone takes a wife beneath him?”
Before Elizabeth could reply, Kenneth appeared at the threshold with a frown on his face.
“Your Grace, Baron Humphrey and his wife are here to see you.”
He glanced at Elizabeth and said, “Should I know them?”
Elizabeth felt the color from her face drain. “They are your cousins.”
“I see. A courtesy call to welcome me.”
Elizabeth couldn’t keep her head from shaking. How could she have forgotten to warn him about Caroline and Richard? Thinking upon it, she wondered why it took them two days to get here. A little smile formed as she thought about their reaction to the news. They must be so put out by this development.
“Oh?” he asked.
“I must warn you that they were attempting to take over the estates before you came.”
“Then I believe you should greet them with me.” He rose from his seat and walked over to Victoria. After bowing over her hand, he added, “You are welcome in my home anytime, Miss Seaton.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Victoria paused and glanced over at Elizabeth.
“The children’s tutor?” Elizabeth asked.
He looked at Elizabeth and said, “We will discuss that later.”
Elizabeth nodded. Now she had to prepare for more manipulation, or rather, flirtation, to get what she wanted. She hated the idea that she was using her wiles in such a dreadful manner. But she had no other choice.
William waited for Miss Seaton to leave before questioning Elizabeth. “Is there anything else I should know about the baron?”
She looked away from him. “He feels he should have been named heir.”
“Very well, then.” He asked Kenneth to show the baron into the salon. After watching Elizabeth’s ashen face, he realized there was something she wasn’t telling him. And he was determined to find out what she was hiding.
An older man with graying hair walked into the room, followed by his very pregnant wife. They both stopped and stared at him before remembering their manners. The baroness curtsied deeply and murmured, “Your Grace.”
The baron did the same, and then greeted Elizabeth.
Elizabeth only nodded at them both.
Will almost smiled as the tension in the room became palpable. “Cousin Richard, welcome tomyhome,” he said deliberately to gauge their reaction.
Richard’s face tightened visibly while Caroline’s face paled in the afternoon light.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Richard said. “We wished to call and inquire on your trip. It was a safe and swift journey, I pray?”
“The trip went quite well. Though long. I had hoped to get here before Christmas but issues arose that required my attention.”
“Of course,” Richard replied as a slight blush reddened his face.
“So you intend to stay, then?” Caroline asked boldly.
That was their game. They only wanted to know if they should continue their attempts to take control of the estates. The last thing Will needed was someone waiting for him to leave to cause problems.
“I am the duke,” he finally answered.
“Of course,” she replied. “I only thought since you have lived in the colonies, I—we thought you might wish to continue living there.”
Will leaned back casually. “True, but being a duke is quite an important position. Elizabeth has impressed upon me that fact very succinctly.”
“I’m quite certain she did,” Caroline mumbled, staring at Elizabeth. “Is she staying with you?”
Caroline smirked at Elizabeth. “That is highly improper, Elizabeth.”
“Oh?” Elizabeth replied. “We are chaperoned by his two adult sisters and, of course, the boys and Sarah.”
Caroline frowned and pursed her lips. “Just exactly how many siblings does he have?”
“Eight, but Alicia is married and stayed in Canada. Did I get that right, William?”
“William, is it?” Caroline whispered to Elizabeth.
Will watched the interaction carefully. Caroline looked as if she wanted to throw something, preferably at him. Elizabeth appeared pale and unnerved by the conversation.
“I believe we must take our leave now,” Richard said. “If you should need any assistance settling in, please let me know, Your Grace.”
“I will at that,” Will replied, stifling a smile. Richard was the last person he would go to for help. The undercurrent of tension in the room left a nasty taste in his mouth.
After the couple left, Will glanced over at Elizabeth, who looked relieved. “Are you well?”
“Yes. Richard and Caroline have been a thorn in my side for the past ten months. I should have warned you about them but it slipped my mind with all the upheaval in the house.” She stared at the carpet for a minute. “I don’t trust them, William.”
“I don’t, either. But there is nothing they can do.”
“No, there is nothing they can do as long as you stay here,” she commented. The dear woman was completely transparent.
“And yet, you know I have no plans to stay.”
She took a step closer and smiled at him. He steeled himself against the aromatic scent of roses and spices that floated around her.
“Have you thought about the children?” she whispered.
The sound of her voice caressed his skin. He shook his head quickly to clear his mind. “The children?”
“Yes.” She moved a step even closer. Her hand reached out to his hair. “They need a tutor, and Sarah a governess.”
Dear God, she was mesmerizing him. And the worst part was, he was certain she knew the affect she had on him. “I don’t think they really need a tutor for the few months we will be here.”
Her green eyes clouded. Slowly, her full lips tipped upwards into a seductive smile, and all he could think about was tasting her.
He moved his head closer…closer, until he was a breath away. Would her lips taste as sweet as he anticipated? Her mouth parted slightly as if readying herself for his kiss. He stared into her emerald eyes. He suddenly wanted so much more than a kiss. He inclined his head to kiss her.
A loud crash from upstairs broke them apart. They stared at each other as if unable to fathom what had almost happened. The sound of shouting sent him toward the stairs. He stopped at the banister and looked back at her.
“Hire the damned tutor and governess. Obviously, I can’t control them.”
And once again, she managed to get her way. While he should feel angry with her attempts to flirt with him, he didn’t. He understood her reasons far too clearly. Survival. Nothing more. Unfortunately for him, his body only wanted her closer.
He raced up the steps before one of his brothers killed the other.
She was a wicked woman. To use her wiles to get what she wanted had to be the worst thing she’d ever done. She had almost let him kiss her. The idea only stirred more sinful thoughts in her. Still, a little smile of satisfaction tugged at her lips.
Slowly, she walked up the stairs to his sisters’ room. After opening the door, she sat on the bed next to Sarah. “Did you get fitted yet?” Elizabeth asked.
“Yes! It was so much fun. Madame Beaulieu said she would make me dresses. Lots of dresses. I asked her if she would make one for my doll, but she said no.” Sarah’s legs kicked the side of the bed.
“I shall help you make a dress for your doll,” Elizabeth replied.
Sarah smiled and leaned on Elizabeth. “Thank you, Lady Elizabeth.”
The warmth of the little girl’s appreciation went straight to Elizabeth’s heart. She looked over at Ellie, who appeared overwhelmed with the choices she had to make. “I think I need to help your sister,” Elizabeth said to Sarah.
“I don’t know which fabrics to choose,” Ellie whimpered.
“The white silk and pale blue muslin to start,” Elizabeth said as she reached the table where Madame Beaulieu had laid out the fabrics. “The light fabrics will look wonderful on you.”
Ellie clasped Elizabeth’s hand. “Thank you. I could never pick all this fabric without your help.”
Elizabeth smiled. “We will have you all set with clothing in no time.” She turned to the dressmaker and added, “The white silk is for her bow. It must befit the sister of a duke.”
“Yes, my lady,” Madame Beaulieu replied. “I believe sapphires would be just the thing to set off the blue in her eyes.”
“Sapphires?” Ellie murmured.
“That is a perfect choice, Madame. Nothing too ostentatious. I believe my mother had a beautiful sapphire pendant and earring set that should go perfectly with the gown.”
Elizabeth prayed William wouldn’t be too upset over the costs, but a court gown had to be the most beautiful gown a young woman would wear for some time. And it must conform to the queen’s demands of what it should look like, no simple task.
Once they had all the fabrics chosen for Ellie, Lucy stood with a frown as Lady Beaulieu took her measurements. Madame Beaulieu and Elizabeth conferred for a few minutes on just the right fabrics for Lucy. With her darker coloring, the pastels that suited Ellie would look washed out on her.
“We cannot go too dark while she’s so young,” Madame Beaulieu said.
“I agree, but the pastels just aren’t right on her.” Elizabeth stared and wondered what Jennette did at this age and then remembered. “Ivory for her bow and light jewel tones for the rest.”
“Are you certain?” the dressmaker asked.
“Yes. Lady Jennette did the same at Lucy’s age.”
Madame Beaulieu nodded. “I remember! I will do some of the same colors.”
“Who is Lady Jennette?” Lucy asked impatiently.
“A dear friend of mine,” Elizabeth replied. “And you can meet her soon. Once we are done with the fittings, we will have a few lessons on comportment. And I must hire a dancing instructor.”
Lucy and Ellie looked at each other, then shrugged. “Comportment?”
“Manners,” Elizabeth replied with a sigh. This might just be more difficult than she imagined.
Lucy snickered. “She sounds like Abigail with her fine manners and stiff posture.”
“Abigail who?” Elizabeth asked, hoping this was the same Abigail who William regarded with affection.
Ellie shook her head. “Abigail Mason. Will actually thinks he’s in love with her.”
“And you don’t?” Elizabeth prompted.
“No,” Ellie and Lucy answered at the same time.
Elizabeth waited for the dressmaker to leave before she asked more questions. “So why don’t you think your brother is in love with this Abigail Mason?”
Lucy flopped on the bed. “She is a horrible person. He can’t possibly be in love with her. All she cares about is position and money.”
“He has all that now. So why didn’t she marry him before he came over to England?”
“Neither of us could figure that out, either,” Ellie said. “I never understood what he saw in her. She seemed very…well, selfish. Maybe she’s changed over the past five years, but I doubt a person can change that much.”
Elizabeth frowned. None of this made any sense. “Do you think Will really loves her?”
Lucy laughed. “My brother is a fool when it comes to women. He thinks because she comes from a good American family that she must be the epitome of a wife.”
“So it’s her name and connections,” Elizabeth whispered.
“Yes,” Ellie said, nodding her head.
A name was more important to him than true love.
Something she didn’t even have.Chapter 7
Richard followed his wife into their home on Cavendish Street. Caroline stormed into the hallway and threw her reticule on the floor. The ride from the duke’s house had only served to increase her anger.
“There has to be something we can do!” she shouted.
Richard picked up the small purse and handed it to a maid. He followed his irate wife into the small salon. “I’m afraid there is nothing we can do.”
“You saw the way he was looking at Elizabeth. And she called him by his Christian name! He probably has plans to marry her and have a passel of children like his father.”
Richard took a seat and leaned his head back. Why did he think a younger woman would be a good thing? She was driving him mad, and further into debt.
“Caroline, he is the duke. As long as he is alive, I shall only be a baron. You must accept that.”
“My—our children deserve better than that. Of course, you are now the heir presumptive. If something should happen to befall the new duke before he has children…”
Richard tilted his head back up and stared at his wife. “Do not even think it, Caroline.”
His wife cackled. “I most certainly was not thinking of murdering him.”
“Then what exactly are you thinking of?”
She crossed her arms over her extended belly. “As long as he does not have children, you or one of our children will become the next duke.”
The woman had lost her mind. “And how do you presume to keep him from procreating? He is only eight and twenty. Hardly an old man.”
“He must not ever marry,” she answered simply.
“I’m afraid he doesn’t need our permission, my dear. And there did seem to be something between the duke and Elizabeth.”
“Agreed. So it is up to us to keep them apart.”
Richard shook his head, exhausted from this conversation already. “And how do you propose we do that?”
“Rumors can be deadly to any relationship, dear husband. Especially amongst theton.”
“And what happens when he finds another woman?”
Caroline laughed. “I shall figure something out. If we keep his reputation in tatters, it might not matter.”
Richard only shook his head. He knew better, and she should, too. Reputation be damned, when a lady can be a duchess, she will marry the devil.
Over the next few days, Elizabeth hired a tutor and governess. She brought in a valet for Will, made sure the boys had new clothing, and attempted to teach the boys their manners at the dinner table. For the most part, they had done quite well. Her only issue was theboyin front of her.
“Try it again,” Elizabeth implored him.
William clenched his fists so tight she thought he might explode. For the past hour, she’d been attempting to teach him the complex rules of Society, starting with social rank. While she presumed he was an intelligent man, he could be as stubborn as a mule when he wished it.
“A duke is higher than all others in the social rank, except the king or queen,” he repeated.
“And what about the prince regent?”
“Of course, how could I have forgotten about the man who has to pretend to be king because his father is insane.”
He paced the confines of his study. With him striding closer to her and then retreating, her heart pounded erratically in her chest.
“But how does his rank compare to yours?”
He glared over at her until she felt forced to stare at the large Debrett’sThe New Peeragebook on her lap.
“The prince is a higher rank but other princes are not.”
She smiled at him. “That is correct. Princes can be raised to the rank of duke. Now, please list the ranks under yours.”
William narrowed his eyes at her but quickly listed the titles. “This is the most trivial thing I have ever been taught,” he said once he finished reciting the list.
“You cannot leave this house and interact with your peers until you understand and accept your position in Society.”
“And why not?”
She pressed her lips together and closed her eyes, trying to gain a measure of patience. “You will be a laughingstock, if you do.”
He sat in the chair directly across from her. “And if I am?”
“Then none of the gentlemen of your rank will have anything to do with you. They will refuse to speak with you regarding the sale of the estates. And you bring that disrespect upon your sisters…and me,” she said softly.
He released a frustrated sigh.
She stared at him for a long moment. For the first time, she believed William realized exactly what was at stake if he didn’t heed her lessons.
“When do you think I will be ready to face the world?”
“I would say another week or two.” Perhaps by then she would be so immune to him that she would not feel this strange pull of attraction.
Will shook his head. “No, too long. Is there something we could do together with Ellie and Lucy before they take their bow? We’re all going mad in this house.”
“The opera would be an acceptable outing,” she replied in a hesitant tone. “But I’m not certain you and the girls will be ready.”
“We will all be ready,” he said in a confident tone.
“I shall make the arrangements.”
“Now, back to our lessons.” He leaned back and questioned her about the condition of the king.
She answered him quickly but continued to stare at his face. The valet she had hired for him had trimmed his hair, but it was still unfashionably long. Perhaps she should ask William about it. After all, if Mr. Stevenson wasn’t doing his job properly then it was her duty to remove him.
A part of her hoped it was William’s idea to keep his hair longer. It rather suited him. He would never be a conventional duke. The sun chose that moment to peek out from a cloud and brighten his hair such that strands of red could be seen.
As the late afternoon sun hit his face, she noticed the faint shadows of a beard. She wondered what it would feel like to touch his jaw. Or kiss his jaw. Was the hair bristly or soft? She had such a yearning to find out.
Elizabeth blinked and saw the confusion on his face. “Yes?”
A deep laugh escaped him. “What were you daydreaming about?”
“Nothing important.” Well, she wasn’t about to tell him! She had a problem. Some people drank too much or used opium. Not her—she was obsessed with a man she barely knew.
“Are you certain?”
“Yes! Now where were we with our lessons?”
“I believe you were telling me about Princess Charlotte,” he replied with a slight grin.
“Yes, Princess Charlotte,” she said with a nod. “She is enceinte, and a late fall delivery is expected. Hopefully all will go well with this one…”
She continued to regale him with stories of the princess, but her mind wandered again. This time, she realized her major mistake of only moments ago. He’d wanted to know of things to do with the children and she’d only come up with the opera. There were still five rooms to recheck, and with all of them roaming the house at all hours of the day, she’d had no time to search those areas again.
“I believe we should be done for the day,” she finally said, placing the book on the table.
William looked up at the clock and frowned. “It is only two in the afternoon.”
“And a perfect time and day to take the children to Hyde Park for a ride. They must be dreadfully tired of staying in the house all day.”
He tilted his head and nodded slightly. “I believe you are right about that. I thought those boys were about to kill each other yesterday.”
“Perfect, then. I will tell them all to get ready.” She stood ready to take her leave.
“You will be joining us, then?”
Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak and nothing came out. She needed a very good excuse. “I must decline. I need to call on a friend who is with child and cannot get out much.”
Before he could say another word, she left the room. After telling the children to make themselves ready, she went to her room and stared out the window. Once they had departed, she would return to the boys’ room and examine it again. Hopefully, she would find the diary and be done with this mess.
Of course, finding the journal might just lead to even more troubles. While she wanted and needed to discover the truth of her parentage, a part of her dreaded it. She would finally learn all about who she really was, and which man among thetonhad had an affair with her mother.
Elizabeth hoped her mother’s reasons for the affair would be justified in the diary. Many women had liaisons and dalliances, but perhaps her mother had fallen in love with the man. Elizabeth closed her eyes and shut out the pain. She wondered if her lustful thoughts about William had to do with her mother’s influence. Was she just like her mother? Until she discovered the diary, Elizabeth would never know.
She glanced down and watched as the children and William crowded into two carriages. As the coaches drove down the street, she raced to the boys’ room. She would check for any panels in the walls or by the fireplace, and if she had time, she would check for secret compartments in all the bureaus.
She would find that diary, and discover who she was.
Will breathed in deeply and tried to remember his stepmother’s words about patience being the friend of wisdom, or something to that effect. “Boys, stay still or we will return to the house immediately,” he barked.
So much for wisdom today, he thought.
Michael and Ethan gave each other one more slap to the thigh.
Ethan’s blue eyes widened in trepidation. “I’m sorry, Will. Michael keeps pestering me today.”
“And what do you have to say for yourself, Michael?” Will asked, using his best father voice.
“I hate it here, Will. I want to go back home. I want to…”
Michael looked down at his legs. “I want to do chores, again. I want to go fishing and hunting with you.”
James shook his head. “I love it here. No chores, only learning.”
Will sighed. He should have realized it was boredom making the boys act out. While James, Lucy, and Ellie loved not having to do their chores, the work helped to tire the younger boys. He would have to find something for them to do that would keep them active.
“Look at the swans!”
Will glanced over at the other carriage where Sarah sat, pointing to the body of water with ducks and swans. He could feel her excitement even from this distance. A few riders passed them and nodded. He doubted any of them knew to whom they nodded and waved, but he reciprocated the gestures. He just had to play their games for a few months, and then he could return home.
And if he was lucky, Abigail would be waiting for him.
He hadn’t thought of her in days. Could he be forgetting about her? The thought was like a cold bucket of water over his head. Wasn’t the heart supposed to grow fonder with distance?
His heart wasn’t, and that terrified him.
She was supposed to be his wife. Forever. And yet the more time he spent away from her, the more he thought about her faults, and not all her good points.
Will looked over at Ellie and said, “Yes?”
“It’s getting rather dark. I think we should return before it decides to rain on us.”
He tilted back his head and realized his sister was correct. After ordering the carriage home, his thoughts returned to Abigail. Distance had to be the problem. Once he arrived in Virginia, he would call on her and court her until she agreed to marry him.
In fact, when he returned to the house, he would write her a long letter. While communicating would still be difficult with the distance, at least this would keep him in her heart.
Just as they arrived home, fat raindrops fell on their heads. The boys shouted and Sarah laughed, while Lucy and Ellie shrieked. They all raced to the door as the butler opened it for them.
A door slammed upstairs and Elizabeth raced to the stairway. “You are home already?”
Will chuckled as he glanced up to see Elizabeth’s red tresses falling out of her stylish chignon. Even from here, he could see she could not have called upon her friend. “What happened to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought you were going to call on a friend while we were at the park?”
“I…I…I tried but she wasn’t at home.”
Strange, he could have sworn she’d said her friend could not get out since she was with child. “When you have a moment, I would like to speak with you in my study.”
She looked down at her clothing and gasped. “I really must change before dinner.”
“Very well. But I would like to talk before dinner.”
“I will be down presently,” she answered, and then walked toward her room.
He turned to go to his study when his butler stopped him.
“Your Grace, I placed the post on your desk. There is quite an amount today. I believe word of your arrival has found its way through theton.”
“Thank you, Jeffers.” At least reading the mail would give him something to do while he waited for Elizabeth.
He walked into the study and his mouth gaped. His previously empty desk was now littered with letters and invitations. Never in his twenty-eight years had he seen so much nonsense. He opened the first invitation and shrugged. The note was from the dowager Countess of Cantwell. He could only assume such a ball would be an important occasion, but he really didn’t know if they would be ready to attend.
After dropping it into the “read” pile, he moved on to the next one. Another ball, this one held by the Earl of Hereshire and his wife. He tossed it into the same pile as the previous invitation. The next one contained vouchers for a place called Almack’s.
Elizabeth walked into the room, then looked at the vouchers and laughed. “Well, that didn’t take Lady Jersey long.”
“Almack’s. You and your sisters need vouchers to attend on Wednesdays.”
“So, it’s like a club?” he asked, confused.
“Well, the ladies would never say such a thing, but truly, it’s not that different. The patronesses decide who is acceptable based on social position and titles. However, even a duke can have his vouchers lost if one of the ladies deems you inappropriate.”
Will just rolled his eyes. “Yet another example of why this country is crumbling.”
She placed her hands on her hips and scowled at him. “There is nothing wrong with this country. I believe we proved ourselves quite nicely at Waterloo.”
“Elizabeth, sit down,” he said, pointing to the seat across the desk from him. “I didn’t call you down here to argue about your country.”
“Our country,” she corrected.
Will barely restrained a growl. He refused to tell her this would never behiscountry.
“So why did you call me into your study?” she asked as she finally took her seat.
“I’ve been thinking about the boys. I know the tutor will start on Friday with them, but they are not getting enough physical activity.”
“You can take them riding every morning,” she suggested.
“Yes, but they still need more. I was thinking we should go to one of the estates for a while. That would give them space to wear themselves out every day, and the girls and I would have a quiet space for our daily etiquette lessons.”
Her face drew pale. “You want to go to the estate?”
“Yes, I do believe it is a sound decision. Don’t you agree?”
“Actually, I think it is far better to stay in town. I mean, here you can slowly immerse yourself into Society without attending every function. At the estate you would be sequestered, except for the local squires who would, no doubt, pester you tirelessly to come to their soirees and musicals, put on solely for your benefit.”
How did she get that all out in what sounded like one sentence? Her eyes darted from him to the papers on his desk as if she were suddenly nervous around him.
“Elizabeth, what is the real reason you don’t wish to go to the estate?”
She opened her mouth and then shut it quickly. She pressed her lips together and then shook her head slightly. “I have two dear friends who are both with child, and I don’t wish to leave them when they might need me.”
Again, it sounded like a feigned excuse. She obviously wasn’t about to tell him the truth. “Very well, if you think of some activities the boys can do to get them out of this house to expel some energy, we will stay here.”
“I will make certain they have plenty of outside activities.” She leaned back into the chair looking very relieved.
“Would you like to help me with this?” he said, pointing to the piles on his desk. “I have no idea who any of these people are but they all seem to want me to attend a function of theirs.”
She smiled softly, making his heart beat a little faster. Her full rosy lips seemed to beckon to him. He couldn’t think of her in such manner. Abigail was the woman he wanted. Not Elizabeth.
And yet, Elizabeth was here and Abigail refused to consider coming with him. Elizabeth was the woman helping him sort through this mess. Even though doing so might make her lose her home.
“I would be happy to help you sort through the invitations. I should have mentioned that most men of your position do hire a secretary to assist them with all this.” She grabbed a pile of invitations and quickly collated them into three piles.
“I will not be here long enough for a personal secretary,” he said.
“Right,” she said with a nod. “This stack is the definite refusals.” She handed him the first mound of papers. “This is your personal mail.”
Finally, she pointed to the third stack. “These are the invitations that we will need to determine if you wish to attend. Some are balls, a few musicales, and dinners.”
Will looked at the third pile and sighed. There still had to be at least fifteen invitations to sort through. He quickly scanned his personal mail and paused at the familiar handwriting.
“All right, we’ll start in a minute. I’d like to read this letter first.”
A wave of guilt passed over him for his passionate thoughts about Elizabeth. It would never happen again. After breaking the seal, he skimmed the note and then slowly read it again.
“William, is everything all right at home?” Elizabeth asked.
Had she noticed the pained expression he knew was on his face? “It’s a note from Abigail.”
He crumpled the letter, stood, and then hurled it into the fireplace. After walking toward the window, he stared out at the courtyard but saw nothing. “Her father is pushing her to marry Josiah Harwood. She doesn’t agree but cannot disobey her father.”
“Why not?” Elizabeth whispered. She stood behind him even though he’d never heard her move.
“She could never defy him. He wants her to marry a wealthy, patriotic American.” He felt her hand on his arm and shook off the flash of desire that raced up his forearm. “She believes it might be best if I stay in England.”
“I don’t understand, William. You are all those things her father wants in a husband for his daughter.”
Pain scorched his head and heart. “No, I am not.” He turned and stared at her. “I’m a bloody Englishman. A goddamned duke.”
Her face crumpled almost as tightly as the letter from Abigail. “But once you sell everything and return, you shall be all that her father wants.”
“You do not understand,” he muttered. He closed his eyes as her soft hand cupped his face.
“Try making me understand,” she whispered. “I only want to help you.”
“I will never be good enough for them. To them I’m nothing but a poor farmer. And not even an American one at that. Nothing I do will ever convince her father that I am an American. Not even giving up this damned inheritance.”
He opened his eyes and saw tears in her green eyes. This wonderful, sensitive woman was crying over his pain. And that wasn’t right. He couldn’t move his gaze away from her eyes, her lips, that pert little nose that he wanted to kiss.
And why couldn’t he? Abigail didn’t want him any longer, if she ever had wanted him. Right in front of him stood a beautiful woman who openly flirted with him, teased him, and seemed to desire him.
Slowly he lowered his head toward hers. He paused barely an inch away from her lips. If she moved, he would let her go. But she did not.
He curved his hand around her neck, bringing her closer, until their lips met. Shock and desire soared throughout his body as they kissed. All he’d wanted was a little comfort from her. Something to make him forget his pain. And now, all he wanted was to lay her down on the sofa and make love to her all afternoon. He wanted to leisurely explore her body and kiss every freckle, wherever they might be.
He let his tongue glide across her lips, hoping she would open for him. And she did. But he never expected the all-encompassing passion as her tongue touched his, met him, and caressed him. He moved his hands to cup her face.
She tasted sweeter than he ever imagined. A combination of honey and cinnamon, and it drove him mad. He trailed his hands down her back, pressing her closer to him, to his rising erection. Damn, how he wanted her.
She moaned softly as his lips moved to her nose and then back to her beautiful lips. He could stay here all night, kissing her, making love to her.
Slowly he realized she was drawing away from him. Cool air swept between them. She stared up at him with wonder and confusion in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.Chapter 8
Elizabeth blinked several times as the reality of what they had done dawned on her. He kissed her. And she’d kissed him back.
She had only been kissed like that one other time. Only it hadn’t felt like William’s kiss. His kiss made her feel as if she were drowning in desire. The intensity of his lips against hers all but burned her into a cinder. No man had ever done this to her.
Never in twenty-six years.
And instead of chastising him for his affront, she stood there staring at him, hoping he would kiss her again. Slowly the reality of their moment together made sense. He hadn’t kissed her because she was a sensual woman. She just wasn’t Abigail.
Any woman would have done for him.
“Elizabeth, I do apologize.”
“I need some air,” she muttered, racing toward the door. She didn’t need air but she desperately needed her friends.
Before he could say any more or come after her, she walked out the front door. Luckily, the rain had stopped as quickly as it had started. But now what? Jennette’s home was the closest, but she couldn’t walk there without a maid. With a sigh, she reentered the house and called for Susan to accompany her.
She couldn’t get her mind off what had happened between her and William. His lips touching hers was the most incredible thing she’d ever imagined. For the first time in her life, she understood why Avis had gone off with her husband, Banning, before they were married. And why Jennette was always telling Elizabeth that when she found the right man, marriage wouldn’t matter.
But it did matter, didn’t it?
Her mother had impressed upon her the importance of a good marriage. Then again, her mother had had an affair and Elizabeth was the result. Perhaps it had been guilt plaguing her mother, not some sense of moral righteousness.
Finally, she and Susan reached the door to Jennette’s home with her husband, the Earl of Blackburn. Elizabeth knocked on the door, not surprised that their butler hadn’t seen her coming. Jennette was still in the process of setting Blackburn’s house and staff to rights.
“Lady Elizabeth, come inside before the rain starts again,” Mr. Woods said as he opened the door.
“Thank you, Woods. Is Lady Blackburn at home?”
“Please wait in the small salon and I will check.”
Elizabeth walked into the salon and noticed the changes Jennette had made in the past six months. Almost everything in the room was new. Not that Jennette was a spendthrift, but Blackburn’s home had been in a dismal state of disrepair when she married him. Together, they were rebuilding their home and his fortune.
“Elizabeth, how wonderful to see you,” Jennette said as she flowed into the room. Her extended belly looked even larger today.
Jennette sank into the rose-colored chair and sighed. “I am absolutely huge.”
“No, you’re not,” Elizabeth said. She sat across from her friend and stared at her hands.
“What is wrong, Elizabeth?”
“Nothing.” Now that she was here, the words wouldn’t come out. “I had hoped maybe Avis and Sophie, or even Victoria, would be here.”
Jennette smiled, then pulled herself out of her seat. “I will ring for tea.”
Elizabeth watched as Jennette spoke in whispered tones to Woods, who nodded in reply.
“I shall be right back,” Jennette said to her. “I need to let Matthew know that you need to talk.”
“Am I disturbing you two?” Elizabeth stood.
“He will be relieved. I was reviewing what colors and fabrics we shall use in the nursery.”
“Oh,” Elizabeth said, and then returned to her seat.
She sat in the room as the clock ticked away the time. Woods brought in the tea on a silver tray, and still no Jennette. What in the world was keeping her? After close to ten minutes, a flushed Jennette raced back into the room.
“I’m so sorry it took me so long. Matthew had a few issues with some of the items I had chosen. He refused to let me leave until I heard all his complaints.”
There was knocking at the front door, and then the sound of feminine voices in the hallway. “It sounds like you must have callers,” Elizabeth said with more than a little disappointment.
“Of course we have,” Jennette said with a smile. “Didn’t you notice all the teacups?”
Elizabeth glanced over and saw the five teacups on the platter. She instantly knew who was joining them. Her lower lip trembled.
“Thank you,” she whispered to Jennette as Avis, Sophie, and Victoria entered the room.
“You looked like you needed your friends,” Jennette replied. “All of them.”
Elizabeth could only nod as tears filled her eyes. “I’m so confused,” she admitted.
“Tell us what’s wrong,” Sophie said with a gentle pat on Elizabeth’s shoulder.
“My entire life turned completely upside down today.” Elizabeth wiped away a tear.
“What happened?” Avis asked with a frown. “Did you find the diary?”
“No, I checked the boys’ room today and there was nothing. No secret panels, no secret floorboards or cabinets. Nothing. I still have to recheck the study and the duke’s bedroom.”
“Then how did your life get turned around?” Victoria asked.
Elizabeth breathed in deeply to calm her frayed nerves. “He kissed me.”
“Oh, my,” Avis said.
“It’s not justthathe kissed me butwhyhe kissed me,” Elizabeth explained. “He didn’t kiss me because he’s attracted to me.”
“Then why would he kiss you?” Sophie asked quietly.
“He was upset because the woman he wanted to marry had sent him a letter telling him she was marrying someone else.” Elizabeth reached for her tea and gulped down the hot liquid.
Avis and Jennette looked at each other and shrugged. Sophie shook her head and Victoria said nothing.
“It makes no sense that he kissed you if he feels nothing toward you,” Avis explained.
“And why is this bothering you so much?” Sophie pried.
Elizabeth should have known they wouldn’t understand. “BecauseIfelt something.”
“Oh,” was the collective response from the group.
“And?” Jennette asked.
“And?” Elizabeth fought to keep her voice from rising. “He kissed me and I felt something.”
“Now, just to clarify,” Avis started with a slight grin. “This thing you felt was good?”
Elizabeth shot her friend an evil look. “Yes, it was good.” She sighed. “Too good.”
“Well, that changes everything,” Sophie said with a full smile as Avis and Jennette nodded their agreement.
“How does this change anything?” Elizabeth asked.
“Because now we know that you are both open to seduction, should it happen,” Sophie replied.
Elizabeth pressed her fingers to her temples to keep her head from exploding. Her friends had lost their minds. How could they think William kissing her was good? Even if it felt better than anything she might have imagined.
“We are not both open to seduction, Sophie,” Elizabeth commented. She was certainly not going to let him seduce her. Was she? Could she seduce him? The idea was too wicked to think about in front of her friends. “The last thing I want is a man who still believes he is in love with another woman.”
Sophie walked over to her. “Is that really the reason, Elizabeth?”
“Of course!” Not that Sophie was likely to believe Elizabeth if her skills as a medium were as strong as Elizabeth had heard. She suddenly couldn’t get the idea of seducing Will out of her head. Splaying her hands across his naked chest, feeling the warm muscles—oh, this fantasizing had to stop.
“Are you certain this has nothing to do with the diary and not knowing who your father was?” the inquisitive Sophie asked with a slight grin.
“Of course,” Avis muttered. “That makes much more sense.”
“Elizabeth would never want to get involved with a man until she knows her true background,” Jennette said.
“That is why she never married, even though she had several offers,” Victoria added.
Elizabeth walked away from Sophie and faced her friends. “Yes, you are all correct. I have no desire to look for a husband until I know who I am.”
Sophie sat back down and shook her head. “It makes no difference who you are. To the world, you are the Duke of Kendal’s daughter.”
“It matters to me,” Elizabeth sobbed. “You all know your fathers. Even you, Sophie. He might not want you to speak of him in public, but at least you know who he is. I don’t.”
Victoria stood and put her arms around Elizabeth. “I understand, Elizabeth. You won’t feel complete until you know your background.”
Elizabeth nodded on Victoria’s shoulder. “I just want to understand who I am.”
Will paced the confines of his study. He was an absolute idiot to kiss her. What was he thinking? And why wasn’t he sitting in this room drowning his sorrows over Abigail in a bottle of whisky?
For years, he’d wanted to marry her. At first, he thought her to be too young, even though many ladies marry at sixteen. Perhaps he’d hoped she would see her father for the controlling bastard he was. Then he gave her time to convince her father that he was the right man for her. But over the past year, Will had begun to realize that she might not love him as much as she led him to believe.
Could that really be why her betrayal didn’t hurt as much as he thought? Had he slowly been falling out of love with her? Strangely, he had never felt as free as he did at this moment. Kissing Elizabeth, while idiotic, also taught him that his desire for Abigail was finished.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been with a woman. Between Abigail and his father’s illness and subsequent death, a long time had passed since he’d enjoyed a woman’s body. And Elizabeth’s sensual body could satisfy any man. She had luscious curves and a slim waist. He could spend days getting to know her body.
Not that he would do such a thing.
She was a proper lady and no upstanding woman would let a man in her bed until the ring was on her finger. He really needed to stop thinking about her in such a base manner. But he couldn’t get his mind off her. It was now two hours later and she still hadn’t returned. She probably thought he was going to attack her. He would have to apologize to her again.
The front door opened and closed. Will raced out of the study and down the hall to make certain it was Elizabeth. She spoke to the footman and started to walk up the steps, until she noticed him.
“Are you all right?” he asked softly.
“I am perfectly well, thank you,” she replied stiffly.
“Can we talk in my study?”
She pressed her full lips together. “I am not sure that is a good idea.”
“It will only take a moment.” This time his voice brooked no denial.
Whether she walked toward him because she wanted to or because the duke commanded it, he didn’t know. All that mattered was that she followed him into the study. He closed the door behind him.
“I think you should open the door, Your Grace.”
Perhaps he did have his answer. The duke requested her presence and she knew her duty. Damn.
“I wanted to apologize,” he said quietly. “What I did was inexcusable.”
“You apologized earlier. Now if you will excuse me, I must get ready for dinner,” she replied in a tight voice.
“One more thing, if you please,” Will said firmly. “Tomorrow I plan to take the older children out for a drive. I would like you to attend with us.”
“I have no need to see Hyde Park, Your Grace.”
“I have no intention of going to Hyde Park, Elizabeth. We shall take a drive through some of the other sections of London. You will ride with us.”
She tightened her jaw at his demand, but nodded. “As you wish.” She stood to leave and then stopped as if to say more. Instead, she merely said, “Please excuse me now.”
He let her go. At some point, she would have to get used to being in the same room with him again. They had too much to do, between getting Ellie and Lucy ready and helping him prepare for Society. He stared up at the portrait of the former duke and knew exactly how to get her alone again.
With a smile, he walked toward the salon to wait for everyone to assemble for dinner. He poured four glasses of sherry and handed one to Lucy and Ellie as they walked into the room.
“I really don’t think I like this,” Ellie complained as she took a sip. The pursed look on her face almost made him laugh.
“I like it,” Lucy said before taking a rather large drink.
Looking around the room, Will was impressed with the progress Elizabeth had made with the children. They were all dressed for dinner, including the boys, and they had entered the room quietly.
Finally, Elizabeth walked into the room. He handed her a glass of sherry and smiled down at her. She wore a lavender gown with off-white lace that showed the beautiful swell of her lightly freckled breasts. He had such an urge to find and kiss every freckle on her body.
So much for getting himself under control.
“How did you enjoy your ride today?” She turned and asked the children.
“I saw two swans!” Sarah said as she bounced her bottom on the chair.
“You must have driven by the Serpentine,” Elizabeth commented. “It is one of my favorite spots.”
“Are there serpents in there?” Robert asked.
“No, just a lot of water fowl,” Elizabeth replied with a laugh.
The footman announced dinner and the children walked toward the dining room. Will clasped Elizabeth’s arm to stop her.
He waited until the children left the room. “Thank you for what you have done with them. It’s only been a little over a week, and yet, they are doing so much better.”
She smiled and looked down where his hand touched her bare skin. “You are very welcome. The governess and tutor will make even more significant progress.”
“I also hoped you would do me a favor.”
“Oh?” She glanced back up at him, her green eyes shining with confusion.
“I think in order for me to learn more about my position here, I need to understand my background. My family history. Well,ourfamily history. My father never really discussed how we were related to the late duke, or how my side of the family fit in.”
She blinked and nodded slowly. “I think that is a lovely idea. I can teach you and the girls the family history after our daily etiquette lessons.”
“I don’t think the girls need this information just yet. But, I do. So after dinner we will start.” He released her arm and held out his arm to escort her into the dining room.
“Yes. You noticed all the invitations. I need to start getting out into Society.”
“I agree,” she said in a hesitant tone.
“I should have mentioned this before. As you know, the girls should not go to balls until they make their bow. Their first ball should be hosted by you…and held here.”
Will stopped and looked down at her. “Here?”
“Very well,” he answered with a sigh. “Do what needs to be done.”
Now that Abigail had deserted him, Will wasn’t sure about his future. As much as he despised England, the country and his title could certainly benefit the children. But the idea of staying left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Perhaps returning to America was still the best option. There was nothing stopping him from heading out west into the territories. Yet, even as he had that thought, his gaze went back to Elizabeth.Chapter 9
Elizabeth attempted to swallow another bite of ham but the meat was completely tasteless. She was supposed to teach him about their family history. But the lessons she would teach him would have nothing to do with her background. Only his.
She could do this. The key would be remaining detached. It was just a lesson in his family’s history, nothing more. Elizabeth slid a glance over at him as he took a bite of his meal and her heart pounded. Remaining detached would be impossible.
She attempted another bite of food, then pushed her plate away. Food just wasn’t about to taste right tonight. Instead, she sipped her wine.
Why would he want to start tonight? After what happened today, she thought he would ignore her for a few days. They would have to work alone with each other in his study!
“Are you all right, Elizabeth?” Ellie asked before taking a bite of her potatoes.
“I don’t seem to have much appetite tonight,” she replied with a shrug.
William’s gaze burned her cheeks. “Would you like to postpone our lesson this evening?”
“No, I am really not hungry. There is nothing else.” She’d be damned if she let him see her discomfiture. There was no reason she couldn’t teach him about his family. He seemed completely unaffected by their kiss. This was obviously her problem.
He tilted his head and slowly his lips moved upwards. “Very well, then.”
Dinner progressed at an excruciating pace. It had only taken the children a week to learn their proper manners at the dinner table. Now, instead of rushing through dinner, they took their time and made conversation.
Not that she usually understood any of it. Michael tended to steer the conversation back to something that happened when they lived in York. Elizabeth always noticed the way William’s eyes lit up when speaking of either Canada or America. She wondered what he planned to do now that Abigail had refused him for good.
With Abigail no longer a concern, there was the one option Elizabeth had always rejected—seduction. Perhaps if Elizabeth seduced him, he would decide to stay.
What an absurd thought. She was not the type of woman to seduce a man. She glanced up the table at him briefly. After that kiss today, she could easily imagine him removing her gown, untying her stays, sliding her shift over her shoulders until it dropped to the floor. He would remove her garters and stockings slowly as she savored the feel of his rough fingers on her soft thighs.
“Are you certain you are all right, Elizabeth?” William’s voice interrupted her erotic thoughts.
Elizabeth blinked and noticed every one of the children looking at her. Heat blistered her cheeks.
“You look quite flushed,” Lucy added.
“I am well.” She pushed back her chair and stood. “If you will excuse me, I need to finish something before we begin our lessons.”
She left the room and strode to her bedchamber. Once there, she paced and paced until she was certain she had worn the old carpet to threads. One kiss and she was fantasizing about him. Utter madness. The kiss meant nothing to him and it should mean nothing to her, too. She was a fool to think otherwise.
But the truth was she’d been fantasizing about Will since she met him. That sizzling kiss only increased her fascination with him.
A light knock on the door sounded. “Elizabeth, may I come in?”
Ellie entered and smiled at her. “I hope you don’t mind if I disturb you.”
“Of course not. Is something wrong?”
Ellie walked to the window and glanced outside into the square. “It’s just that I saw that look on your face during dinner, and thought you might want to talk to someone.”
She knew! “What do you mean?” Elizabeth squeaked.
“When Alicia and David first met, she was the same way. The daydreaming, followed by the flushed cheeks. You were thinking about a man, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth closed her eyes. As much as she would love to confide in someone, she just did not think his sister was the person. “You must be mistaken.”
Ellie giggled. “I’m sure I am not. Alicia later told what had caused her to look so embarrassed. So I really do understand. Is it Will?”
“What?” Elizabeth clutched the bedpost for support. “What would make you think that?”
“I saw the look you gave him before you started woolgathering. It was almost indecent.”
Elizabeth covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh, my God! Do you think he noticed?”
“He’s a man. They are oblivious to most things. He can’t even see that Abigail is playing games with him.” Ellie sat on the end of the bed.
“But Abigail wrote him a letter stating her father wanted her to marry some other man, and that she agreed with him.” Elizabeth finally plopped down next to Ellie.
“Indeed? That’s odd,” Ellie considered. “Lucy and I have always thought she was up to no-good with Will. It was as if she was making him believe she would eventually marry him when we all knew she would never do such a thing.”
“Well, I don’t think you have to worry about her any longer.”
“Does that mean you have set your cap on Will?” Ellie asked quietly.
She could never fall in love with a man until she knew the truth about herself. “No, Ellie.”
Ellie shrugged. “That is a shame. Of all the women interested in him, I like you the best.”
Elizabeth had no idea how to reply. She couldn’t tell Ellie that William was the only man she’d ever really desired. That would only encourage her. “Thank you, but I am not interested in your brother.”
“Very well, I must get the children ready for bed.” Ellie stood and walked toward the door. She stopped and then looked back at Elizabeth. “If you do change your mind, I shall support you in any way I can.”
“No, Ellie.” Elizabeth shook her head as Ellie walked out the door.
She hoped she’d convinced his sister. Now she just had to convince herself.
Will watched Elizabeth enter the study. She looked calmer and more relaxed than at dinner. “Good evening, Elizabeth.”
“Good evening to you, William.”
Will just chuckled. “Do you think you could call me Will? The only time I was called William was when I was in trouble.”
She nodded as she took her seat across the large expanse of his cherry desk. “As you wish, Will.”
“I know we had talked about reviewing our family history, but I would rather try to make some headway on these invitations.”
“Very well,” Elizabeth said, looking relieved. She reached for the stack of invitations she had reviewed earlier. “The dowager Countess of Cantwell is a must. However, the ball is in three days so only you would be attending.”
“You are not going?” he asked.
“I had originally declined because of the upheaval in the house. Now that everything is settling down, I suppose I could attend.”
He had a strange suspicion that there was another reason she had declined. “I insist you go with me.”
“As you wish.” She glanced down at the next invitation before adding, “If you think you are ready to face them.”
“Them?” he asked.
“Society. They can be a vicious bunch.”
Will was certain her lack of enthusiasm had something to do with this. “Is that the voice of experience speaking?”
“Yes. Two of my dearest friends have had to deal with the gossipmongers of theton. Avis made one small mistake and they cut her—”
“What exactly did she do?”
Elizabeth pressed her lips together but the movement of her shoulders proved she was trying to suppress a laugh. She covered her mouth with her hand and coughed delicately. “She had a bit of bad timing.”
“Oh?” He had a feeling he knew exactly what had happened.
“She chose the wrong time to announce that she and her now husband, Banning, had gone away together to his summer cottage.”
“She said this in front of others?”
“She was attempting to save Banning from being compromised by a foolish woman. Avis thought it was just the three of them on the terrace.” Elizabeth did let a small giggle out.
“And I take it there were a few more people out on the terrace?”
Elizabeth nodded. “About twenty people, including Banning’s mother and sister.”
“Are they happily married now?” Now that he and Abigail were finished, he wondered if he would ever feel like marrying another woman again. His father loved both his wives deeply. Will wanted that same type of love from a wife.
“Yes. She is with child, and should give birth in a few months.”
“And your other friend?” he asked, relaxing against the chair. This was one of the first true conversations they’d had without a lesson in protocol or rank being thrown in.
“Banning’s sister, Jennette. But honestly, it was her husband who had to deal with the whims of Society. He accidentally killed Jennette’s former betrothed. Society rejected him, even when he inherited his father’s title. No one wanted a poor earl with the reputation of a murderer for their daughter.”
“Yet, Jennette ended up married to him?”
“They fell in love when she was trying to help him find a wife,” she said with a sigh.
“Elizabeth,” he started softly, “why haven’t you married?”
She blinked and stared at him. “What?”
“You don’t seem like the type of woman who would want to remain a spinster. You’re beautiful—”
“No, I am not.”
“You are, and don’t interrupt me when I’m complimenting you. You appear to be everything a man would want in a wife—beauty, family, money.”
Her face paled.
Damn. He must have hit a sore spot. Perhaps she had been betrothed and something happened. “I’m sorry. That is rather personal.”
Elizabeth looked away. “I just never found the right man. When I first came out, the men courted me because of my family connection and my inheritance.”
Will frowned. He’d been through the books and her inheritance was a pittance. He had even considered raising her allowance to compensate for her lack of funds.
“As I became older, I realized that I wanted more than just a man who wanted me for the duke’s money,” she added.
The duke’s money. Not her father’s money.
That was not the first time she’d referred to her father as the duke. He must have been a very difficult man if that was how she considered him. Will’s father had told him a few things about the family and none of it was good.
Perhaps it was time to get them back to the subject. He forced out a laugh. “Well, I believe the original question was whether or not I’d be able to handle Society yet. And the answer is yes. So we both should accept Lady Cantwell’s invitation.”
“Very well, we shall put this in a pile of acceptances,” Elizabeth said, handing the note to him.
They quickly sorted through the rest. Some invitations were accepted and some rejected. Before long, they had completed his correspondence.
“Shall we start on the family history?” he asked.
“I shall do my best. The family bible has most of the genealogy of the family, and that is at the estate in Kendal.”
Will listened as she told him about the first Duke of Kendal being granted his lands and titles for service to King Edward III. While Will listened, he watched her face intently. Her green eyes sparkled like emeralds as she talked about their shared ancestry. She was a fascinating woman and seemed to love her family history.
Still, he had to focus his attentions on his life. Returning to America was the only thing that made sense to him. Perhaps when he arrived, he would discover Abigail hadn’t married and wanted him again. Maybe he could convince her to move away from her father’s overbearing influence. But the more he thought about her lately, the less he wanted her.
“Should we stop for the night?” Elizabeth’s gentle voice asked.
He glanced over at the clock and noticed it was only ten. “Did you wish to retire?”
She smiled at him. “I thought since you had your eyes closed, I was putting you to sleep with my stories.”
“Sorry, I was thinking of something else for a moment. I was not bored by your stories, but fascinated. Tell me exactly how we are related.”
“As I told you, this family has not been blessed with very many male heirs. Most of the men were lucky if they had two sons who survived. The fifth duke seems to be the exception, and he had three sons who survived to adulthood. Robert, and the twins, William and Henry, were all born within five years of the duke’s marriage, with Robert being the eldest. William and Henry were given a small fortune, and each went different paths.”
“How does our dear cousin Richard fit into all this?” Will asked.
“He is a descendant of Henry, the third born, while you are descended from William, whom I believe is your namesake. That is why you were the rightful heir to the dukedom.”
He wouldn’t disillusion her by telling her that his mother named him after his maternal grandfather.
“So I am the 10th Duke of Kendal, is that correct?” he asked.
“Yes. It is an important history.”
“I suppose it is,” he said, unconvinced that being a duke was particularly important.
“You don’t think so?” she asked with a frown.
“I’m sure a few hundred years ago, having a man who gave his fealty to the king and managed large areas of land for him was important. It kept the land civilized. But today? I can see no reason for it.”
Elizabeth stared at him, unable to say anything. After all she’d told him about the service to the king, the marriages brokered over lands, and how the tenants depended on the duke’s favor, how could he believe this was not important? Anger at his apathy rose high within her.
“I cannot believe you don’t care,” she shouted as she stood. “People, your relatives, died for this country and your lands. Tenants starved under other lords, but not under the duke. The Duke of Kendal always cared for the people working for him.”
“Elizabeth, sit down,” Will said sternly.
“No, I will not. The English system of government has stood strong for centuries. The Duke of Kendal has always played an important part of that structure, and you sit there ridiculing your own history!”
Elizabeth leaned over the desk and stared into his brown eyes. There was only one thing she was concerned about now. “Are you staying here now that Abigail is marrying another or not?”
His eyes narrowed on her. “I do not believe that is any of your business.”
“It is my business to ensure the families who have depended on the duke’s grace until now are still cared for by someone.”
“I am the duke, as you so like to remind me, Elizabeth. What I do or when I do it is none of your concern.”
“While I am living in this house, it is my duty to protect this family name.”
“Then perhaps it is time to leave the house.”
Elizabeth watched in shock as Will strode from the room. She could hear his heavy footsteps march all the way down the hall, and then the front door slammed behind him. She remained in the study, frozen in place.
She let her damned temper get the best of her again. To ask such a question the very day Abigail sent him that letter was dreadful. Of course, he would have a violent reaction. He asked her to leave all because of her anger.
Oh, God! What had she done?Chapter 10
Will walked the dark London streets, wondering how to get out of the mess that was his life. He didn’t want Elizabeth to leave the house. She had a stabilizing effect on all of them that he needed now more than ever. Which meant he would have to swallow his pride and apologize for getting angry.
He understood her reasons for becoming mad at him. She only wanted to protect her family’s history. Her name. But she just didn’t realize that it meant nothing to him. Having grown up in America and Canada, it didn’t matter who he was; he could become anyone he wanted. And he wanted that for his siblings, as well.
Even if he decided to stay here, highly unlikely that it was, his stepbrothers would have to make their own way. While being the stepbrother of a duke might assist them, Will wasn’t certain that was a good thing. He only wanted the best for them.
Would having too much money and position be a hindrance to them? He doubted it.
“So what brings you out tonight?”
Will blinked and looked over at Lord Somerton, who was leaning against a building. If Somerton hadn’t spoken, Will would never have seen him lurking in the shadows.
“Don’t tell me you’ve already decided to become a member?”
“A member? Of what?” Will asked, feeling terribly confused by the viscount’s question.
“White’s? You are directly in front of the building.” Somerton casually walked closer to him.
“White’s? Oh, no. I was just out for a walk.”
Somerton chuckled. “A walk? At eleven in the evening? Even in Mayfair, you must take more care. You look like hell.”
Will shrugged. “So I assume that means White’s is out of the question.”
“They will take you as long as you pay their fee. But I happen to know a much better place.” Somerton inclined his head up the street. “My carriage is up this way.”
“Very well,” Will said, wondering exactly where they were headed.
Somerton remained quiet as they walked together toward the carriage.
“Why were you in the shadows?” Will asked, his curiosity finally getting the best of him.
“I was waiting for a friend who did not arrive.”
That made no sense, Will thought. Why wait outside? Instead of questioning him further, he kept his mouth shut. Somerton was an interesting man in a strange way.
They reached the carriage and started off for another club. Will glanced out the window as silence filled the carriage. Should he even be here with this man? Elizabeth had tried to warn him about Somerton, and he had been lurking in the shadows like a criminal.
“Have you been out to any balls yet?” Somerton asked, breaking the strangling silence.
“Not yet. I have accepted the dowager Countess of Cantwell’s invitation. Will you be there?”
“God, no. I hate those blasted balls. There really is only one reason to attend.”
“Oh?” Will asked.
“Marriage, man. The mamas are there, proudly displaying their babies for you to fawn over. Their only goal is to get those daughters off their hands as quickly as possible.”
Will considered this for a moment. Perhaps he should decline, since he had no desire to marry an English lady who could barely think for herself. Except Elizabeth. She certainly had a mind of her own.
“Ahh, we have arrived,” Somerton drawled. He climbed down and waited for Will.
“So where exactly are we?”
“Lady Whitely’s.” Somerton walked up the steps. “Come along, Kendal.”
Kendal. He would never get used to that name. The door opened and the sound of voices carried out. “Is Lady Whitely having a party?”
“Every night,” Somerton replied before entering the house.
Will walked inside and stopped. The room blazed with candlelight and scantily clad women. While he had been in a brothel before, he’d never seen one this luxurious. Red velvet chairs and sofas created intimate nooks for conversation—and other things.
A few men glanced their way and inclined their heads toward Somerton. Several of the women looked at both of them and smiled. He could hear the whispered tones debating about which girl Somerton might pick tonight.
“Somerton, this really isn’t my type of place,” Will said.
“Come along to the back room. We’re only here for a drink and to talk. If you choose to do something else when we are done, that’s your business.”
With a sigh, Will followed Somerton to the back room. The noise from the front room didn’t carry this far, and the women in here lifted trays heavy with drinks for the gentlemen. Somerton and Will took a seat that overlooked the torch-lit gardens. Will looked around and realized that even this house of sin would have put his home in York to shame.
“Can I get you a drink, Lord Somerton?”
Will looked up to see a tall woman with flowing blond hair standing next to him. The dress she wore was nothing but red sheer fabric with embroidered flowers covering her most private parts. Not that the embroidery covered all that much.
“We shall have a bottle of your best whisky, Venus.”
She nodded but glanced over at him with a wink. “Are you going to introduce me to your friend, Lord Somerton?”
“I’m not sure he would like his presence known yet, darling.”
Her full painted lips pouted slightly. “All right, then,” she replied and turned around to walk to the bar.
Will couldn’t help but watch her all but bare hips swaying under the sheer gown. “Nice place, Somerton.”
“I thought you might need somewhere you could relax for awhile.”
Venus returned with a bottle of whisky and two glasses. She leaned over Will’s shoulder to place the bottle and glass in front of him. Her full breasts rubbed against his back.
“If you needanything,” she whispered in his ear, “just let me know.” As Venus backed away, the overpowering bouquet of her perfume lingered.
Somerton reached over and grabbed the whisky bottle. After pouring them both a glass, he leaned back and said, “To titled gentlemen who can get anything they want.”
Will wasn’t sure that was a good thing or not. His parents had taught him that hard work brought success to people. And he had believed them…until he returned to England. Regardless, he lifted his glass in agreement and then swallowed a large amount.
The sound of heels clicking on wood drew his attention to the door. An older woman who looked to be in her mid-forties walked straight toward them, ignoring all the other men who greeted her. While the girls were dressed in sheer fabrics, this woman wore an elegant blue-striped silk dress. She looked far more like a woman he would meet at a ball than a strumpet.
Somerton looked back, shook his head, and muttered a curse under his breath.
“Good evening, Anthony.” The “lady” put her hand on the back of Somerton’s chair. “So now you come to my establishment and don’t greet me before entertaining yourself?”
“Good evening, Lady Whitely,” he said, taking her hand to his lips.
“Much better. Now tell me who this handsome devil is.”
“Will, this is Lady Whitely. She owns the house. Lady Whitely, this is my friend Will Atherton.”
“Good evening, Lady Whitely.” Will stood and kissed the back of her hand. He had to admit this was a first—treating a common whore like a true lady.
“Good evening to you, Your Grace.” Lady Whitely smiled up at him. “Do you think I wouldn’t have heard of you?”
“I would not know.”
“Everyone knows you are in town, Your Grace.” She turned back to Somerton. “I would like to speak with you soon.”
“Very well,” she said with a quick nod, and then departed.
Will drank another glass of whisky and then leaned back in his chair and laughed. “I guess this is one of the reasons Elizabeth warned me about you.”
“She did? I barely know the chit. Why would she not like me?”
“Something about your reputation,” Will commented. The whisky was finally helping him relax. So he sipped down some more.
Somerton shrugged. “So I have been known to frequent a brothel. I’m no different than most men.”
“True enough. But she mentioned something about killing a few men.”
“All lies to make me look nefarious in the eyes of theton.” Somerton leaned in a little closer and asked, “So how is the fair Lady Elizabeth?”
Somerton grimaced. “At you?”
“Of course at me. She gets along fine with the children, and she and Ellie seem to have forged a friendship.”
“What exactly were you two arguing about tonight?”
Will sipped his drink to gather his thoughts. “Family.”
“Yours or hers?”
“Ours. It’s very important to her that I learn all about the exalted history of the Duke of Kendal. Not that I give a damn about it.” Will gulped the rest of his whisky and poured another glass.
“Ahh,” Somerton replied. “But by not giving a damn, as you so eloquently said, you have insulted her.”
“I never insulted her.”
“The woman is a spinster. All she has is her family, and by dismissing her relatives, you are rejecting her.”
Damn the man for being so intuitive. “I think I asked her to leave tonight,” Will muttered before drinking another glass of whisky.
“You did what?” Somerton slammed his glass on the table, and everyone in the room stared at them both. “Go on about your business,” he barked to the room.
Will related the high points of the argument. “I told her that it might be time for her to leave my house.”
“You ass.” Somerton stood and pulled out Will’s chair, too. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?”
“You are returning to your home with your tail between your arse and apologizing to the lady.” Somerton pulled Will’s arm and dragged him down the hall. “She has nowhere to go if she leaves your house. Not only that, but you need her right now.”
“I don’t need her,” Will lied. He needed Elizabeth in more ways than he could count.
“Indeed?” Somerton stopped only when he reached the front step. “Could you really manage all those children alone? Could you get your older sisters ready to make their bow to the queen? Would you have managed hiring servants, tutors, and a governess?”
“No,” Will admitted.
Elizabeth knelt down and felt the underside of the desk in Will’s bedroom. No matter how she tried, she couldn’t get enough leverage without getting all the way down on the floor. Lying down on the rug, she scooted her bottom until she was completely under the desk.
“Please,” she begged the desk to give up its secrets. She pressed her hands against the underside of the desk. At least this desk had ornate legs and only one large drawer. She vaguely remembered her mother using this desk to respond to her correspondence. It only made sense that there was a secret compartment in it.
She pulled at the back and sides of the drawer but nothing budged. After skimming her hands all along the underside, she realized there were no secrets from the desk for her now. Tears welled in her eyes. She would never know who she was.
By tomorrow, she would be packing her things and living with Sophie. Elizabeth rubbed her palms against her eyes. She was such an idiot to let him draw her into an argument.
“Why didn’t I keep my mouth shut?”
“I’m really not certain. But then again, I have no idea why you are in my bedroom and under my desk.”
Elizabeth sat up so quickly, she banged her head against the desk. “Ouch!”
She inelegantly crawled out from under the desk, only to find Will staring down at her. His brown eyes were almost black with anger. So much for thinking his rage might have dissipated with time. He actually looked more irate now than when he left.
Realizing she stood in front of him in nothing more than her night rail with a dressing gown over it, she pulled the dressing gown tighter.
“Would you like to explain what the hell you’re doing in my bedroom?”
“Umm, I was looking for something,” she said.
“Under the desk?”
Elizabeth cringed at the harsh tone of his voice. “Shhh, the children are asleep.”
“They are upstairs and cannot hear a thing.” He folded his arms over his chest. “What are you looking for, Elizabeth?”
“Something that belonged to my mother.” She prayed he would stop his interrogation at that.
Will blew out a breath as if he were having trouble containing his anger. “Why would it be under the desk?”
She sidestepped him and started for the door. “It is nothing that concerns you.”
Before she could reach the door, he pulled her back toward him. “Try again.”
Her heart pounded in her chest. “I already told you it has nothing to do with you. Now if you will excuse me I must go pack.”
His lips tilted up into a smug smile. “You’re not going anywhere until I hear the truth.”
He pulled her a step closer until she could smell the stench on him.
“Oh, my God, you smell like whisky and cheap women,” she said, pushing away from him.
“I don’t think any of those women come cheap.”
Elizabeth’s mouth gaped. “You…you…” Nothing more would come out of her mouth. She had no idea what to say to a man who had just returned from a brothel.
“You might be right about Somerton being a poor influence, though,” Will said with a chuckle.
“I might have known you were with him.”
“Now, where were we?” he asked. “Oh, yes, back to why you are in my bedroom at night.” He pulled her closer again. “Not that I mind, but you should have given me some warning.”
He drew her against his chest. “I believe I must have misjudged you, Elizabeth.”
“H-How so?” She was so close to him, if she wanted to kiss him, his lips were only inches away. And blast it, she did want to kiss him again.
“I didn’t realize that you were the type of woman to enter a man’s bedchamber,” he said, then brought his lips down on hers.
This evening’s kiss was far more sensual than the afternoon version. His lips pressed to hers until she opened slightly to taste him. She savored the fine smoky whisky on his breath, and his tongue ignited a fire that burned to her loins. His hands reached for the ties on her dressing gown and released the tight knot. He spread the gown open, revealing her light cotton night rail.
He broke away for a moment to glance down. Her nipples were hardened into tight peaks that ached for his touch. With a groan, he kissed her harder this time. He brought his hand up to cup her breast and stroked his thumb across her nipple. Molten moisture rushed to her womb. Her hips rocked against his in an age-old ritual.
She moaned softly against his lips as his thumb continued its exquisite torture. He skimmed his hands down her back, flattening her to his chest.
She knew she should break away from his intoxicating body. Instead, she brought her arms around his neck tighter and rubbed her aching breasts against him. She wanted him to touch her there again. Worse, she wanted him to touch other places on her body.
How could something she knew was wrong feel so wonderful? This man was completely wrong for her. So, if that was true, why did she want to feel his naked skin on top of her? Oh, God, she was becoming a wanton. Her friends’ influence had finally rubbed off on her.
She broke away from him and ran from the room. Once she reached her own bedroom, she locked the door behind her. If he walked in here, she would have no self-control. She sat on the bed and waited, her heart pounding. Twice in one day, he had kissed her. And not just a cousinly peck on the cheek, but a passionate kiss meant to heighten her desire.
He never did find out what she was looking for in his room. Now she had the rest of the night to come up with an excuse. Was that possible? What would a lady attach to the bottom of her desk?
Perhaps that was the answer, or excuse, as it were. She could tell him that her mother had hidden some of her jewels so her father would not sell them.
Elizabeth lay back on the bed. That made no sense. Her father wouldn’t need to sell any of her mother’s pendants.
A letter? That made the most sense. Her mother had hidden a letter from her father because…she was having an affair. No! Because her mother had stashed some money in a safe place, and left the note somewhere in the house. Elizabeth thought she could find the note, and therefore retrieve the money to use for her own security.
At least it would be perfect if Will believed her.Chapter 11
Will paced the salon, waiting for everyone to finish their preparations. He needed to show the children the darker side of London. They had to realize that not everyone lived as they did now.
“Please rethink this idea,” Elizabeth begged him.
Those were the first words she’d spoken to him since entering the room. She’d made no mention of their encounter in his bedroom, and right now, he had no desire to speak of it. When they returned, he would ask her for a better reason why she’d been in his room last evening.
“I agreed not to take Sarah, Robert, and Ethan, but the others should see how England treats its downtrodden. Today we will take Ellie and Lucy, and tomorrow I will take the boys.”
“And I suppose America has no poor?”
“Of course they do. Just nothing like the severity of London’s poor.”
“I do not believe you. All large cities have issues with poverty,” Elizabeth commented. “And many people are flocking to America now. Their poverty will only grow.”
“True enough,” Will said, as he strode past her chair again. He suddenly stopped and turned back to her. “Have you ever even seen what I’m talking about?”
“I have lived in London most of my life.”
“Yes, but have you ever really seen the areas I am speaking of?”
“I have been to Covent Gardens.”
“But Whitechapel, St. Giles—have you been there?”
She glanced away from him. “Of course not! It is not right to take them there. The entire area is nothing but crime and poverty.”
“And that is exactly what they need to see,” Will said.
She stepped forward and smiled at him. “Please, rethink this, Will,” she said in a wholly seductive voice. “You would not wish to put your sisters in danger.”
As cute as her overt attempts at flirtation were, he was in no mood for them today. “No, Elizabeth.”
She lifted her hand as if to caress his cheek. He caught her wrist in his grip and she started.
“I said, no,” he said in a quiet tone. Releasing her hand, he stepped back.
Finally, Ellie and Lucy entered the room.
“Will, I really do not think I should go,” Ellie said softly. “I have a touch of a headache—”
“Then the fresh air will do you good,” Will replied.
“The air is far from fresh down there,” Elizabeth added. “It is quite putrid with the coal smoke and fumes.”
“Enough!” Will clenched his fists in frustration. Every one of them was against him.
“I can’t wait to go,” said Lucy in an excited tone. “We might see some pickpockets, or maybe even a murderer!”
“Oh, I think I am going to be sick,” Ellie whispered.
“You are not going to be sick,” Will commanded. “The carriage is waiting. We need to depart.”
Will walked out to the landau first and waited as his sisters clamored into it. Elizabeth took his hand but shook her head as she climbed inside. She would never understand the importance of this trip. His life had been nothing like this in either America or Canada. While his father had been on a diplomatic mission, the salary had barely covered the expenses.
Will had farmed to keep the food coming in, but moving to Canada had reduced his planting season. The winters were far harsher than when they’d lived in Virginia before the war. They had never starved, but he knew what it meant to be hungry.
The coach rumbled down the street toward the east end of London. Familiar sites turned to strange buildings and poorly dressed people. Will glanced out the window, noticing the air turning thicker with smoke as the fumes permeated the coach.
“Will, I really think I am going to be sick,” Ellie tried again.
He knew his sister well enough to know that she was never sick. Still, glancing over at Elizabeth’s ashen face, he had second thoughts about this trip. She stared out the window as they slowly rolled past an elderly woman sitting on the walk. People passed by her without even looking down at the poor soul.
Could Elizabeth think this would happen to her? They never had discussed their argument from last night. She might think he still wanted her to leave. And that was the last thing he wanted. Somerton was right.
Will needed her.
The scenery turned worse as they headed into the area of Whitechapel. As instructed, the groomsman turned down some of the smaller streets, and the poverty was far greater than he had expected. Children no older than his ten-year-old stepbrother Robert roamed the streets in threadbare clothing. Will watched as one child who looked to be about ten picked the pocket of an elderly man.
“Will, what is a pawn shop?” Lucy asked when they paused for a moment in front of one.
Will glanced out quickly and then turned his head back to the window. A woman who looked very much like Elizabeth’s friend, Miss Seaton, walked out of the pawnbroker’s shop with a slight smile upon her face. He slid a glance to Elizabeth, who also stared out the window toward the woman.
“Will?” Lucy prompted again.
“It’s when you give something to the man inside, who will then give you money for it.” Will again stole a look at Elizabeth. Her face was completely white now.
“Will,” Ellie started, “you are a duke now. Why can’t you do something about all this?” She pointed out the window. “Surely, you must have some influence so changes could be made.”
“Those changes could only be made in Parliament,” Elizabeth said. “Besides, you all won’t be here long enough for Will to make any real changes. Those things take time.”
“We’re not really leaving, are we, Will?” Lucy spoke up.
Will understood that Lucy and probably Ellie, too, seemed to like England better than America or Canada. Of course, for them it might have something to do with the lack of chores here and the beautiful gowns.
“I thought we had been through this already,” Will said. Why did they think something had changed? Couldn’t they look around and see how horribly this country treated its citizens? Soon they would return to their huge home in Mayfair, with more food for dinner than most of these people had in a week.
He felt Elizabeth’s eyes burning into him, waiting for an answer to Lucy’s question. “I don’t know yet,” he finally answered.
As they finished their drive and headed back to the relative safety of Mayfair, Will thought about Ellie’s questions. Was there anything he could do about the plight of the poor? He had no idea how to move about in political circles. But for the first time, he wanted to find out.
Will waited in his study for Elizabeth to enter the room. He’d summoned her over an hour ago. Hearing a commotion at the front door, he strode to the hallway to find out which boy was in trouble now.
“Have the carriage brought around once the rest of my trunks are packed and carried down,” Elizabeth commanded the footman.
“Going somewhere?” he asked, leaning against the wall.
“I believe last evening you asked me to leave,” she retorted without even glancing back at him. “Where are the children? I need to say good-bye.”
“The children are out for a walk and some fresh air. I asked you to join me in the study an hour ago.” Will moved away from the wall and stepped closer to the footmen. “Return Lady Elizabeth’s bags to her room. She is going nowhere.”
Elizabeth turned her fiery gaze on him. “How dare you! I shall do as I please.” She looked back at the footmen. “Do not move these trunks.”
The two footmen looked at each other and then back at Will. “As you wish, Your Grace.” They picked up the first trunk and carted it back up the stairs.
“Now,” Will said, clasping Elizabeth’s arm. “I believe we are scheduled to talk.”
Elizabeth pulled her arm out of his grip but walked silently down the hall toward the study. Her stiff posture spoke volumes about how she felt today. Once in the room, she sat in the chair across from the desk and folded her arms over her chest.
Will stifled a chuckle. “How are you this afternoon?” he asked politely.
“Perfectly well, thank you,” she muttered.
“Excellent.” He leaned back in the leather chair across from her. “I believe we were having a discussion last night about why you were under the desk in my bedroom. Shall we continue?”
“No, thank you.”
He smiled. “I think we shall.”
Elizabeth let out a frustrated sigh. “Very well. I was looking for a note that my mother had secreted somewhere in the house. She and the duke were having some marital problems, so she hid a bit of money in case she needed it. She wrote a note to remind herself where she put the money.”
Will almost laughed at the absurdity of her explanation. “She thought she wouldn’t remember where she hid the money, so she hid a note to tell herself?”
Elizabeth’s face reddened. “Yes.”
“And she hid this note under that desk?”
She licked her lips. “I believe so.”
“Where anyone might come across it, such as a maid?”
“I…That is what she told me,” her voice squeaked.
Will wondered exactly what it was Elizabeth was searching for last night. Obviously, she wasn’t about to tell him. “Very well, then. I believe we should get back to our family history lesson.”
“We should?” Elizabeth bit down on her lower lip. “I thought you wanted me to leave.”
“Elizabeth, even though you had several sisters, you told me they were all much older than you, correct?”
She nodded in reply.
“So I’m guessing you never had many arguments with people, did you?”
She shook her head.
“I told you to leave in the heat of anger. I did not mean those words,” he said softly, hoping she believed him. As much as she tempted him, he didn’t want to see her leave. He needed her. And he knew she needed him, too.
Elizabeth looked down at her sage gown. “I must apologize, too. I know this has been difficult for you and your family.”
“And I realize how important this family’s name is to you.”
Her face paled. “It is,” she whispered, still staring at her gown.
Will wondered at her quiet answer. Perhaps she’s just feeling a little out of sorts today because of his anger.
“Tell me about your father.”
“Yes, the previous duke. What type of man was he?”
“I cannot talk about this right now,” she mumbled. She rose quickly and started for the door.
Will beat her to the door and stood before it like a sentry on duty. “You said you would tell me about my history and the history of this family. I would like to know about your father.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “You know, don’t you?” She spun away from him and faced the fireplace. “You found it and now you know the truth.”
He approached her slowly as if he were trying to get close to a wounded animal. He gently placed his hands on her shoulders. “Elizabeth, I don’t have any clue what you are speaking of.”
“Of course you do.” She moved away from his grip and turned to face him. Tears rained down her cheeks. “How could you not know? Everyone knows, or at least suspects.”
He shook his head. “Suspects what?”
Her misery turned to anger. She grabbed his hand and pulled him with her out the room and down the hall toward the music room. Slamming the door behind them, she pointed to the portraits on the walls.
“Look at them,” she demanded.
Will did as she said and stared at the paintings on the wall. There were portraits of four women with blond hair and blue eyes, who all looked to be about sixteen when they had been painted. And then there was a portrait of Elizabeth at the same age. He smiled at the painting of her.
“What exactly am I supposed to see other than you and your sisters?”
She pointed to a large portrait over the fireplace and said, “That is my mother.”
Trying to maintain some patience, since this was apparently important to her, he nodded. “She was a very lovely woman.”
“And I look nothing like them,” she whispered. “Nothing.”
“Just because you have red hair and freckles doesn’t mean anything. You probably have another relative you look like.”
“No, I don’t. There is not one painting of anyone in any of the estates who has red hair. Just me! I am the only one.” She dropped to the sofa and placed her hands over her face.
He sat next to her and attempted to pull her into his arm. She pulled away and stood.
“Elizabeth, you cannot assume just because you have red hair that you’re not the duke’s daughter.”
“I don’t have to assume,” she mumbled. “I know I’m not his daughter.”
Will rose and drew her into his arms. “What do you mean, you know?”
Her lower lip quivered. “He told me I wasn’t his daughter. After my mother died, he told me. Perhaps he wanted to punish me for her death, I don’t know. But he told me that my mother had an affair, and I was the result. I don’t know who my father is.”
The anguish in her eyes struck straight to his heart. He pulled her close and held her tight against his chest. Her tears dampened his shirt and the edges of his cravat. He forced himself to ignore the sensual feel of her warm body touching his. Comfort her, he told himself.
Gently, he caressed her hair and several pins fell to the floor. Her tears slowed to a stop but still she clung to him. Warm lips kissed his jaw and he knew he was in deep trouble. He wanted to take away her pain, make her forget for a moment the torment in her heart. But the minute her lips touched his skin, he was lost.
This was wrong.
She needed comfort, not passion. As he tried to draw away, she tightened her arms around his neck and pulled his lips to hers. He tasted the salty tears on her lips until she opened for him. Deepening their kiss, he realized he was done for. She didn’t want his comfort any longer.
Drowning in the flaring passion, he removed her hairpins. Her glorious red tresses curled down her back and he threaded his fingers through them. God, he wanted to see her naked with all that hair flowing down her back. He wanted to see her rosy nipples, erect and ready for his mouth.
He walked them both to the sofa and brought her down on top of him. He moved her leg so that she now straddled his hips. Her warmth pressed down on his hard cock and he wondered just how much control he had left.
Grabbing her hips, he rubbed her against his trouser-covered shaft. The sound of her low moan dropped his control lower. He had to stop this madness.
“Elizabeth,” he mumbled against her lips. “We need to stop.”
Elizabeth moved away slightly. While she knew he was right, she needed him. And she did not want to stop. Not now. She wanted to feel his body in hers. She wanted the intimacy of being with him.
She cut off his words with a kiss. She didn’t care if he tried to stop her. She wanted more than just a kiss. The need to feel something other than misery was driving her to the edge. She wanted him, and she was going to have him. To hell with the consequences. For once in her life, she was going after what she wanted without fear.
She wrenched at the neatly tied cravat and loosened it until she could pull it away from his strong neck. Warmth emanated from him, and she moved her lips to his strong jaw. His head tilted back against the sofa, giving her access to his neck. As she kissed down his neck, she worked at the buttons on his linen shirt, but with his jacket still on, she had no way of removing it. Moving her hand to the bare skin revealed, she heard his hiss.
“Elizabeth, this is—”
She kissed him again before he could deny her. Finally, she drew back and placed her finger on his lips. “Don’t,” she pleaded.
For a long moment, he stared at her as if trying to make up his mind. Then he slowly drew her finger into the hot recesses of his mouth and swirled his tongue up the length. She shivered as he gave her a wicked smile. He removed her finger and moved his lips to the palm of her hand. Tiny shivers raced down her skin. She’d never realized what a sensitive spot that was until now.
He trailed his lips up her arm until blocked by the green silk sleeves of her gown. Undaunted, he progressed to the buttons on the back of her dress. As each button popped out, her dress slipped down a little more until he reached her shoulders and drew it down over her arms.
Elizabeth shivered again as he stared at her with an intensity that made her tremble with hot need.
“If we continue much further, there will be no going back,” he whispered as he kissed her neck. “I won’t stand for regrets, so if you want me to stop, say so now.”
“No,” she whispered hoarsely.
“Oh, God,” he muttered against her neck. “You have no idea how much I want you.”
“I think I do,” she replied.
He loosened her stays and then pulled her breasts out of their cotton prison. As he drew his thumb across her pebbled nipple, she shivered and moaned. Moist heat flowed to her womanly folds and without thinking, she rubbed herself against his hardness.
Hearing his groan of pleasure, she smiled. She needed more than this teasing. And suddenly, his mouth was on her breast, laving her, suckling her, driving her completely mad.
“Will,” she moaned.
“Yes,” he replied, and then moved to her other breast.
“Please,” she begged, though not sure for what. An end to this exquisite torture? “Please…”
He skimmed a hand under her skirts until he found her folds. Elizabeth almost jumped as his finger crossed over her sensitive spot. But he didn’t stop. He rubbed her nub until she shook with passion. Need spiraled within her, stronger with each caress until she didn’t think she could go higher. Suddenly she couldn’t keep her eyes open as a million stars burst behind her lids.
He kissed her as she moaned into his mouth, her body shaking with desire and spent passion. She felt him fumble with his trousers and then felt a thickness between her folds. This time it wasn’t his finger rubbing against her.
Will fought his urge to slam himself into her. Bringing the top of his penis along her slick folds, he finally found the opening he sought. Lifting her hips, he slowly brought her down on him, enveloping him with her moist heat.
He barely sensed the thin barrier give way as he filled her. Her small “oh” was the only reaction. At this point, he didn’t care. He needed her. He wanted her, and nothing would stop him from loving her.
“Elizabeth,” he moaned and then kissed her. He prayed he hadn’t hurt her. She’d been hurt too much already.
“Should it feel this good to have you inside me?” she whispered.
He stared down at her green eyes and smiled. He almost lost his control right then. “It’s only going to feel better.”
He kissed her deeply and lifted her hips slightly to test her soreness. A long moan was his answer. Her hips moved again, only this time, it was all Elizabeth’s doing. She placed her hands on his shoulders and slid up his hard length.
Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back against the sofa. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been with a woman, and never had he been with one like Elizabeth. A lady. Not a servant or strumpet. She felt right. This shouldn’t feel so damned good. It was wrong.
Feeling her tighten against his cock, he clasped her hips and moved with her. As she shivered her release, he let go to the sensations of being deeply inside Elizabeth. Never had it felt like this before. She collapsed against him, breathing hard.
What had he done?Chapter 12
Elizabeth noticed his muscles tense and wondered if he regretted their actions. She should feel terrible about it. But she didn’t. Languid with spent desire, she rested her head against his shoulder. His heartbeat echoed in her ear, strong and virile, just like Will.
“Elizabeth,” Will started slowly, “we need to talk.”
“No,” she said, and then kissed a spot of skin on his chest.
“Elizabeth.” This time his voice brooked no denial.
She sat up, still feeling him inside of her. “Yes?”
“Not like this.” He slid her off his penis and pulled his handkerchief out of his jacket. After gently wiping her folds, he glanced at the bloodstains on the handkerchief. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It wasn’t important,” she lied. Saving herself had been important until he arrived. Now she understood Avis and Jennette so much more. They could not wait for marriage, and neither could she.
Not that she was waiting for a proposal from him. She couldn’t marry him. She didn’t even know who her father was.
“I don’t believe you,” he said, pulling up his trousers. “A woman doesn’t wait until she’s twenty-six to give herself to a man unless it’s important.”
“Will, I said it wasn’t important. I was a virgin and now I am not.” Elizabeth tried to shrug casually while hiding her tears. Why did she suddenly want to cry?
She watched him button his shirt and retie his cravat. Her fingers itched to touch him again. This was bad. Very, very bad. She turned her back to him and asked, “Would you mind?”
His fingers tightened her stays and then moved to the small pearl buttons on her gown. “Elizabeth, I find it difficult to believe that you are so flippant about your virginity.”
“I am perfectly well, Will.”
Once he had finished, she glanced around the room to make sure things were in their correct places. Everything appeared normal to her. But she would never be able to look at that sofa again without remembering what they had done there.
She finally turned around and faced him. Her lover. Her heart skipped a beat. How could he look more handsome now than ever before? Was it just the concern for her etched upon his face?
“The item you were looking for last night”—he paused before continuing—“did it concern your father?”
While she hadn’t expected a return to this conversation, at least it had moved him away from the subject of her virginity. “Yes, Will.”
“Would you tell me what you were looking for? I might be able to help.”
There was no point in denying him. He knew the truth now anyway. And finding herself unable to resist the sincerity in his voice, she nodded.
“I found several of my mother’s journals. There was nothing in them about my father, but she made reference to a hidden diary. I’ve searched all the estates and just needed to recheck a few rooms here.”
“So you thought to inspect your parents’ bedroom while I was gone last night,” Will added.
“Yes,” she admitted. “It makes the most sense that the journal would be there. But sometimes I wonder if perhaps the duke found it and destroyed the evidence.” Elizabeth moved to the chair closest to the pianoforte. Somehow, the sofa just didn’t seem like the correct place for such a conversation.
“When your father, excuse me, the duke told you that he wasn’t your father, did he mention anything about evidence?” Will asked before moving to the pianoforte bench.
“No. That’s when I started to review my mother’s diaries. I thought she might have mentioned something in one of them.” Instead, all her mother left was this mess. Elizabeth had no idea which gentleman was her father. Every ball she attended, her gaze searched out some similarity between the older men and herself.
“You said you searched in all the rooms in this house, then?” Will ran his fingers up the keys of the pianoforte. The sound resonated in the room.
“As I reread the diaries, one entry made me think she might have hidden it in a secret compartment. So I checked the boys’ room a few days ago when you took the children to Hyde Park.”
Will smiled over at her and her heart jumped. “So that explains your disheveled appearance at the time.”
Elizabeth smiled back at him. “Yes. You came home earlier than I’d expected.”
“I would like to help you, Elizabeth,” Will offered.
“How could you help me?”
“I was thinking that maybe tonight instead of a history lesson, you and I could check my study. Perhaps your mother thought if she hid it under the duke’s nose, he would never find it.”
“I think it would be very helpful to have some assistance.”
And didn’t that sound like a witless thing to say.
This whole situation seemed entirely like an odd dream. They had made love, or was that sexual congress if you weren’t in love with the man? And she was not in love with Will. Period. Which meant what they just did was a simple case of lust.
She had only known the man for a little over a week. That was hardly enough time to fall in love with a person. Desire was one thing, but love another thing completely.
So if she wasn’t in love with him, why was she sitting here staring at him like an adolescent girl? Why did she think his offer to help her find the diary one of the sweetest things anyone had ever done for her?
Why did she want to take his hand and lead him back to his bedroom, lock the door, and stay in bed with him for the rest of the day?
Lust, not love.
She didn’t believe in love at first sight. And a week was first sight in her opinion.
“I believe the children have returned,” Will said, interrupting her musing. He rose from his seat and held his hand out to her. “Shall we see how the outing went?”
“Yes. I’ll be there in a moment. I need to put my hair back up.”
“Of course.” Will walked to the door and opened it before looking back at her. “Is two weeks enough time to plan our wedding?”
Will watched Elizabeth’s bemused expression and smiled inwardly. As much as she’d tried to be calm and emotionless about making love with him, he was certain it had upset her. It was only natural after a woman’s first time.
“I beg your pardon?” she finally managed to say.
“Our wedding? We need to set a date.”
“There is no date,” she said, striding toward him as she pinned her hair. “There is no wedding.”
“If you think I plan to marry a man who is still in love with another woman, you are mad!”
“So you have no issue having a child out of wedlock?” he asked.
She blinked as the reality of the situation finally seemed to hit her. “A child?” she whispered.
“Yes. That is how they are made.”
“I know that,” she cried. “But we most certainly did not make a child just then.”
Will understood her denial. “We won’t know for sure until—”
“A few days,” she cut him off. “We will know in a few days. I’m never late.”
“Very well, then. You will give me your answer within the week.”
“All right. But I will not marry you unless there is a child.” Elizabeth pushed past him and walked down the hallway. She must have made some excuse to the children because she didn’t even slow her pace as she passed them in the front hall.
The excited sound of the children made him smile. After spending the last two years taking care of them, he would have thought the idea of his own child less appealing. And yet, it warmed his heart to think about holding his little son or daughter. He had always thought it would be he and Abigail in a small farmhouse in Virginia.
But if Elizabeth agreed to marry him or truly was pregnant, all his dreams of leaving England would be for naught. She would never leave here, and he could not ask her to go with him.
“Will, were you and Elizabeth arguing?” Ellie walked up to him with a scowl on her face.
“No,” he answered.
“She certainly didn’t seem happy when she just ran up to her room.”
“We just finished our lesson on family history. That is all. Perhaps something upset her. If so, she didn’t tell me about it.” Will walked toward his study. “Now, I have work to do.”
He had nothing to do but wanted to be finished talking to his sister about Elizabeth. Sitting behind the desk, he looked at the picture of the former duke. Imposing seemed the best word to describe him. He must have been furious to discover his wife had been with someone else.
Will knew he would never stand for a wife like that. Although, if the late duchess had been anything like Elizabeth, she must have been in love with the man. He was certain Elizabeth was in love with him. He’d seen it in her eyes. And no matter what she said, she wasn’t the type of woman to be with a man without love being involved.
At the same time, he understood her reason for rejecting his proposal. Did he still love Abigail? The more he pondered the question, the firmer his resolve. Five years ago, he had loved her. Even two years ago. But after she rebuffed his last proposal, his love for her started to die.
The passage over to England had given him plenty of time to think about their relationship. Against his father’s wishes, Will had offered to become an American for her after the war ended. Doing so would have relinquished his ties to England and the title. She had told him she couldn’t be responsible for him giving up something so noble.
Another excuse, he thought. She had been full of excuses for the past five years. And while maybe he didn’t love Elizabeth, he might come to love her.
A fact that Elizabeth might not accept. She struck him as the type of woman who would never marry a man who didn’t love her.
“What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“Not quite sure. Maybe if I knew the problem I could assist you.”
Will turned his head toward the door where Somerton stood leaning against the frame. “Afternoon, Somerton. Did the footman forget to announce you?”
“He was busy cleaning up a mess the puppy left in the hall.”
Will’s mouth gaped. “What puppy?”
Somerton smirked. “The one I brought for the boys.”
“What the hell is wrong with you? A dog is the last thing I need.”
Somerton entered the room and sank into a chair. “I just assumed the children might need something to take their mind off Lady Elizabeth’s departure.”
“Elizabeth is not leaving.”
“Indeed,” Somerton said with his smirk turning into a grin. “You figured out a way to make her stay, then?”
“I apologized.” And then possibly got her with child, he thought.
“And yet, you don’t look pleased.” Somerton walked over to the bottle of whisky and poured two glasses. He handed one to Will and sat back down.
“Why are you here again?”
“The puppy.” Somerton seemed to be enjoying this far too much.
“And you can take it with you when you leave,” Will replied.
Will turned and looked at Elizabeth. His breath left him, seeing her with the children surrounding her and Michael holding a small black-and-white puppy.
“Good afternoon, Lady Elizabeth.” Somerton rose and bowed to them.
“The children have something they would like to say.” She nudged Ethan, who nudged Michael and Robert.
“Thank you,” they chorused.
“You are welcome, children.” Somerton returned to his seat.
The children ran out of the room and the puppy started to bark. Elizabeth stayed behind.
“That was a generous gesture, my lord,” she said softly.
He watched as Somerton eyed Elizabeth carefully. A sensation akin to jealousy streaked through Will. From everything he had heard and seen, Somerton was a disreputable rake. Not that Will was any better making love to her on a sofa.
“Lady Elizabeth, is that a new gown?” Somerton asked.
“No, my lord.”
Somerton rubbed his chin. “Are you certain? You look different today.” He quickly added, “In a very good way.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened and moved to Will. “Thank you, my lord. I shall leave you both in peace.”
Somerton grinned. “Never understood why she remains a spinster.”
This time, Will had no doubt about the emotion swirling through him. “Perhaps she never found the right man.”
Somerton tilted his head. “Any decent man can make a woman fall in love with him. It just takes a little courting.” He drained his whisky glass and stood. “Good day, Kendal. Enjoy the puppy.”
Will rolled his eyes. “Good day, Somerton.”
“And I have decided to attend the countess’s party tomorrow night. It’s been a while since I danced with a lovely woman.”
Did he mean Elizabeth? The sneaky bastard left so quickly Will didn’t have time to question him.
Elizabeth waited patiently as her maid put the final touches on her coiffure. Susan had placed small violets throughout her hair to match the tones of Elizabeth’s silk dress. As she sat in front of the mirror, her thoughts returned to Will. She had been avoiding him since yesterday’s colossal mistake.
But she reasoned every woman was allowed one rather large error in her life. Will was hers.
What was wrong with her? Letting him make love to her in the music room in broad daylight!
She could have stopped him but she hadn’t. Nor had she wanted to stop him. In her heart, she knew she had been the aggressor, not him. She had kissed him, untied his cravat, and rubbed herself against him like a common trollop.
Yet, all day she’d wondered if the only reason she acquiesced was to make him stay in England. Could she really have been manipulating him? She clenched her hands into tight fists. That would make her a terrible person.
No other reason came to mind. She didn’t love him. His company was pleasant enough but what she felt wasn’t love. While he did seem to make her heart beat faster, lust was the answer. Her mother had warned her about that emotion.
Sometimes she wondered if lust was what had led her mother to her affair. Elizabeth hoped that it was love. She didn’t want to believe her mother would do such a thing just for passion.
Although, that was exactly what Elizabeth had done. Unless she really had thought making love with him would make him stay in England. She did not know which was worse, lust or manipulation.
“The violets are perfect!” Susan said as she stepped away.
Elizabeth looked in the mirror and agreed. “You do know how to make me look my best.” She turned to her maid and smiled. “Thank you.”
Susan bobbed a quick curtsy. “Enjoy your night, Lady Elizabeth.”
And Elizabeth decided she would enjoy tonight. Since the duke’s death, she had only attended a few balls. She missed the excitement of a party, the sense that something wonderful might happen.
She walked to the stairs and stopped. Looking down, she saw Will and her breath caught. He wore the dark brown jacket she’d secretly told his valet to suggest. The color looked magnificent on him and highlighted his hair.
As she walked down the steps, she gripped the rail tightly, hoping she could manage the stairs while staring at him. At the sound of her footfalls, he turned.
His full lips slowly lifted upward into an appreciative smile. He held out his hand to her as she reached the bottom tread.
“Good evening, Elizabeth.”
“Good evening, Will,” her voice sounded breathy to her ears.
Without a doubt, the most talked about man at the ball would be Will. As he held his arm for her, she realized she hadn’t completed certain aspects of his lessons. They must discuss this now.
“Will,” she started as she entered the carriage.
“Do not call me that again,” she snapped. “We must talk about a few things before we arrive.”
Will sat back against the squab and sighed. “Now what?”
“First, I, along with everyone else at the ball, will call you Kendal or Your Grace. Do not for any reason allow someone to call you Will. I am to be referred to as Lady Elizabeth.”
She could just make out the humor in his voice. The dratted man was taunting her. “On to the dances,” she said and paused. “You must dance.”
“Of course, sweetheart.”
“Stop that!” She breathed in the scent of his tangy soap and sighed. “You must not dance more than twice with any lady.”
“It shows you favor that lady. She will get ideas, and so will her mother. You are a young unmarried duke. Everyone will want you to dance with their daughters.”
He folded his arms across his chest. “And if I don’t wish to dance with them?”
“You really should with a few. But don’t leave the ballroom with any of them.” Dreadful thoughts of young ladies attempting to compromise themselves with him crossed her mind. “Some of the ladies will try to get you into a position where you both will be seen in an unsavory light.”
“Why exactly would I want to be alone with any of these women?”
Her mouth opened then shut. She looked over at him and saw the slight grin on his face. “You might have urges,” she said.
“I might at that.” His smile widened and he leaned forward. “Then again, I would much prefer anothertalkin the music room.”
Elizabeth stiffened. “That will not happen again.”
“Oh, I don’t believe that.”
They rolled to a stop, effectively halting their conversation before she could give him a good set-down. He jumped down and held out his hand to her. She took his hand and walked toward the door with him.
She hoped she hadn’t forgotten to warn him about anything. Mentally she ticked off the items: titles, determined mamas, determined young ladies, number of dances, and…? There was something else.
The widows! They were the worst of the lot. She paused in her step, making him stop.
“The widows,” she said.
“Excuse me?” Will asked, looking down at her as if she’d lost her mind.
“They will proposition you just so they can say they slept with you,” she whispered.
“Indeed?” he replied with a slow grin lifting his lips. “I might enjoy this ball after all.” He gave her a little tug and led her into the countess’s home.
The liveried footmen held open the doors to them as they entered the hallway. A thrill of excitement shot through her as they walked toward the ballroom at the back of the house. The last ball she’d attended, she had ended up taking Jennette home due to an incident.
They skirted the dance floor, still arm in arm, and made their way to Lady Cantwell. The eccentric old woman sat in a purple velvet chair surrounded by her ancient friends.
“My dear friends, the new guard is approaching,” Lady Cantwell announced with a cackle.
“’Bout time,” replied Lady Shipley. “I’m getting tired of the social scene. Let the younger crowd have it.”
“Hush, Roberta,” Lady Cantwell reprimanded, and then glanced up at Will. “William Atherton, the Duke of Kendal.”
Only the cantankerous Lady Cantwell could get away with calling the newest duke by his Christian name. Elizabeth watched the interplay between them with interest.
“Yes, my lady.” Will took her outstretched hand and bowed over it.
Using her cane, she heaved herself out of the chair. With her petite stature, she craned her neck to look up at him. “I hear you spent time in the colonies.”
“I spent ten years in America when my father was there on a diplomatic mission, and then in Canada once the war started.”
“Very good,” she replied. “I would like to know more about the old colonies, so you will call on me in a week.”
“As you wish, my lady,” Will said with a quick bow.
“Now, Elizabeth, dear child.” Lady Cantwell turned her attention. “I do hope you won’t lose this one.”
Elizabeth frowned. “I beg your pardon?”
“This one,” Lady Cantwell said, tilting her head toward Will. “I expect to hear of an announcement soon.”
Elizabeth’s mouth gaped. “Lady Cantwell, His Grace is my cousin. There is nothing more than that.”
Lady Cantwell laughed again. Taking Elizabeth’s arm, she walked her away from the crowd. “My dear child, we all know that the duke is not your cousin.”
“Wh-what do you mean?”
The woman’s bony hand tightened on Elizabeth’s arm. “You know exactly what I mean. A father does not leave his youngest unmarried daughter with nothing.”
“I have a dowry,” she said defensively. Not much of a dowry, but it was something.
“When you want to speak truthfully about this, please call on me.” Lady Cantwell left Elizabeth standing by a potted palm.
Elizabeth glanced up to see Will walking toward her. Oh, God, not now. She couldn’t speak to him with her emotions in a knot. The last time she had tried, she ended up on a sofa in the music room with him.
She turned and stepped onto the dance floor in an attempt to lose herself in the crowd. Hopefully, she would find someone she knew to talk with before Will found her. If only Avis and Jennette had attended. Or better yet, Sophie.
Elizabeth could really use Sophie’s advice. Not paying attention, she walked into the man in front of her.
“I am dreadfully sorry,” she started as the man stopped and turned.
“I most certainly am not,” Lord Somerton said. “And since you are so dreadfully sorry, I believe you must repay me with a dance.”
“A dance?” she squeaked.
The crowd on the dance floor parted as the dancers took their position. She wanted to refuse his request. But glancing behind her she noticed Will coming upon them quickly.
Somerton held out his arm as his hazel eyes stared at her. “You don’t seem like the type of woman who would refuse me due to my past transgressions. Are you?”
She had no time to make this decision. “Of course not, my lord. I would love to dance with you.”
They moved together on the dance floor. Elizabeth felt as if everyone was staring at them, mostly her. Perhaps she should make conversation with him.
“I have not seen you at many balls, my lord.”
“I normally detest them. But I am finding this one quite entertaining.”
“Perhaps you are ready to turn over a new leaf. Put away your rakish ways.”
Somerton smiled down at her in such a way, Elizabeth felt as if she were about to be devoured.
“I don’t think so,” he replied.Chapter 13
Will halted his stride as he watched Elizabeth take Somerton’s arm and start a waltz. He clenched his fists as Somerton held her close and looked down at her as if she were a treat. Will would have to kill him. Jealousy raged in him as the couple danced.
A man near him chuckled softly. “Good God, Somerton, what are you up to now?”
Will turned to the man. “You know Lord Somerton?”
“Indeed I do.”
“Only as well as Somerton will let anyone know him.” The man finally turned to face him. “Do I know you?”
The man’s blue eyes shone with surprise. “Your Grace,” he said with a quick bow. “Banning Talbot, the Earl of Selby.”
Did everyone have to bow down to him like he was a god? “Selby, then. What can you tell me about Somerton?”
“He is devious, a little mischievous, and quite a rake.”
“Illegal activities?” Will asked as his gaze went back to the dancing couple.
“Rumored but highly unlikely. Although, he is a man who gets what he wants.” Selby paused and smiled. “I am curious why he is dancing with Lady Elizabeth. I’m actually more curious why she is dancing with him.”
“You know Lady Elizabeth?” Will asked.
“I married one of her dearest friends,” Selby replied with a smile.
That was right. Will remembered Elizabeth speaking of her spinster friends. “One of the spinsters, then?”
“Ah, yes. The Spinster Club. There are only three left now. Elizabeth, Sophie, and Victoria. I rather doubt any of those ladies will end up married.”
“Why is that?” Will couldn’t contain his curiosity.
“Sophie is the bastard daughter of an earl, or so everyone says. Yet, no one seems to know who the man is. Not exactly what most men prefer. Victoria is too busy running her home for the orphans.” Selby’s gaze then locked onto Elizabeth and Somerton again.
“You are the new duke—don’t you know?” Selby asked softly without glancing away from the couple.
“Only a rumor, Selby.”
“And one that has gained momentum with your arrival. It has been noticed by many that none of your sisters have red hair, either.”
“I see,” Will muttered. He could never let Elizabeth know that the rumors were increasing. “Tell me, Selby. Should I be concerned about Somerton dancing with her?”
“If he were dancing withmywife or sister, I would be more than a little worried,” Selby said.
“Is your wife with you tonight?”
“No, Avis is with child and didn’t feel she could manage a ball.”
Finally, the dance ended and Somerton brought Elizabeth back to him.
“Thank you for the dance, Lady Elizabeth,” Somerton said with a wink to Elizabeth. “Selby, good to see you.”
“And you, Somerton.”
“Lord Selby, did Avis decide to accompany you?” Elizabeth asked in a hopeful tone.
“No, she and Jennette stayed home but I needed to speak with someone here tonight.” Selby looked over at Will and then back to Elizabeth. “Did Nicholas arrive home yet?”
“No. You know how he is about coming to town when his father is here,” Elizabeth replied.
Will’s eyebrows furrowed. Who the hell was Nicholas? The name sounded vaguely familiar but he couldn’t remember why. “Nicholas?”
“My cousin. The Marquess of Ancroft.”
Of course. He had to get his jealousy under control.
“Selby, now that you are here, you may have the honor of introducing the duke to all the acceptable people,” Somerton said. “We all know that is not my forte.”
Selby and Elizabeth both laughed.
“No, we all know your specialty,” Selby commented. “I’m surprised Lady Cantwell allowed you in. Then again, she does love to stir the pot.”
Will felt as if they were speaking another language. What was Somerton’s specialty? Will had never felt so out of place as much as he did here. He knew no one. And yet, everyone else seemed to know each other.
“Come along, Kendal,” Selby said, inclining his head toward the refreshments. “It is time for you to be part of theton.”
Selby moved them through the crowd with a nod to several people along the way. They passed the refreshment table but Will managed to grab a glass of wine from a footman before they entered the next room. Several tables had been set up for cards and other games.
As they walked in, most men stopped talking and leveled curious stares at them. Selby made the introduction to some of the most powerful men in England. It suddenly dawned on Will that many would consider him a powerful man in this country.
“I haven’t seen you at Parliament yet,” the Earl of Wexford commented. “I do hope you make it soon. We have many issues that could use a new voice.”
Parliament? He could attend? He’d become so used to America where only the elected officials had anything to do with government.
“I am settled in now so I shall be taking my place in Parliament soon,” Will said to the earl.
“Excellent,” Wexford replied before continuing with his game of cards.
Selby led him back out to the ballroom. “You don’t have any idea what is involved in being a duke, do you?”
“No,” Will admitted.
Selby reached into his jacket pocket and then handed him a card. “Call on me tomorrow and I will help you out.”
“Thank you, Selby.”
Selby nodded. “Unfortunately, we are now onto the moment you shall hate.”
“It is time to meet the women.”
“And I will hate this?” Will asked.
“Trust me. You will despise them. They all have one thing on their mind: marriage.”
As Selby introduced him to several of the ladies, Will slyly scanned the room for Elizabeth. He finally found her on the dance floor again. Only this time, it was with a tall dark-haired man Will didn’t know. Elizabeth’s face lit with excitement as they danced across the floor.
Who the hell was she dancing with now?
Selby continued to walk with him and introduce him to more ladies. Will made a few requests for dances but his concentration remained on Elizabeth. When the dance finished, she and her partner headed for the terrace doors.
His heart sank to his stomach. But anger quickly swept over him. After making his excuses, he strode toward the terrace. The cool night air did nothing to diminish his fury.
Elizabeth stood near a rosebush whose buds were about to burst open. The man remained next to her, standing too close, and they appeared far too intimate.
With jealousy eating at him, he walked up to Elizabeth and said, “I believe this is our dance.”
He clasped her arm and tugged her toward him.
“Elizabeth?” the man questioned.
“It is all right,” she replied with a shake of her red hair.
As they advanced on the ballroom, she withdrew from his grip. “How dare you?”
“Excuse me?” Will grabbed her arm and led her onto the floor. “I find you out on a darkly lit terrace with a man and you are asking me how I dare?”
“The man happens to be my cousin Nicholas. He decided to surprise me by attending. I was telling him about you.” She yanked her arm out of his hold and headed for the terrace again.
“Elizabeth, wait,” he called out to her but she had disappeared. Several people openly stared at him.
Will blew out a strangled breath and walked to the door. When he opened the door, Nicholas stood there waiting for him.
“Who the bloody hell are you to make a fool out of my cousin?” Nicholas demanded.
“Also, her cousin,” Will replied. Although, if Elizabeth was correct, only Nicholas was truly her cousin.
“The prodigal duke has returned,” he sneered.
“Yes, I have. And now I must apologize to Elizabeth. I had no idea you were her cousin.”
“She is walking along the path,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas narrowed his eyes. “Do not hurt her again.”
Will accepted the warning without another word and walked away. The gravel crunched under his feet, alerting anyone who might be outside to his presence. The path twisted and turned but Elizabeth seemed to have disappeared. He stopped to listen.
A small sniffle sounded from around the next bend. The noise from his shoes warned her of his approach.
“Go away, Nicholas. I don’t want to talk.”
He turned the corner and halted. The dappled moonlight highlighted her position on a bench. He’d never seen anyone look so forlorn and yet so absolutely beautiful in all his life. The violet silk dress shimmered in the soft light.
“It’s not Nicholas.”
Elizabeth turned her head at the sound of Will’s raspy voice. She wiped away a tear.
“Do you honestly think I want to talk to you?”
He stepped closer. “I would think not.”
“Exactly. So please leave me alone.”
“I cannot,” he whispered so softly she was not certain she heard him.
“Will, you embarrassed me in front of Nicholas and half theton. Why?”
“I have no idea,” he admitted, taking another step closer. “I was furious watching you go outside alone with him.”
“He is my cousin. I love him dearly, but he is like a brother to me.” Elizabeth stared down at the violets embroidered on her dress.
“I am sorry.”
Elizabeth looked up to find him directly in front of her. His masculine presence made her feel dainty and insignificant. And she didn’t want to be that any more. She stood and faced him. She was tired of not knowing where he stood on a certain issue. While confronting him could cause even more problems for her, she knew she had no choice.
“If you knew I wasn’t carrying your child and Abigail arrived in England, would you marry her?”
Will’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of question is that?”
“A fair one, I think,” she retorted, placing her hands on her hips. “And one that deserves an answer.”
“This has nothing to do with Abigail.”
“Oh? We would never have made love if Abigail hadn’t sent you that note,” she whispered harshly.
“How can you be so certain?” He pulled her against him as if to prove a point.
“Because you are not a rake. And you would never hurt the woman you love.” Elizabeth blinked to keep her tears from overflowing. She wished he had given her an immediate rejection of the idea that Abigail’s presence would make a difference. But he hadn’t.
She wondered at the pain hammering her heart. Was it just self-pity?
“Elizabeth,” he whispered.
Don’t look in his eyes, she told herself. Instead, she kept her vision strictly on his snowy cravat. “You know it’s true, Will. What we did was a…a…”
“Don’t say mistake. Because it was not that.” He tipped up her chin, forcing her to meet his soulful brown eyes.
“It was an accident. Neither of us was ready for the passion.”
“I think you’re wrong,” he whispered.
Elizabeth frowned as her stomach pitched. “I cannot do this, Will. You still love her and I have my answer. You would go with her.”
She pushed away from him and started to walk the path to the house.
“You might be wrong, Elizabeth.”
She paused in her stride but refused to look back at him. “But I might be right.”
Will sat on the bench and stared down at the small stones. Why didn’t he just give her the answer she wanted to hear? He picked up a rock and pitched it toward the stone fence. If Abigail showed up tomorrow, what would he do?
He laughed at the idea of little Abigail doing such a thing. But seriously, would he marry her? If Elizabeth wasn’t with child, could he still marry Abigail?
“No,” he whispered.
He’d had enough of Abigail’s games and manipulations. She had toyed with him for years. First telling him she had to wait until she was eighteen, then the war was the problem. After the war, she had told him that her father would never agree. But as far as Will knew, she never broached the subject with her father. And she’d never let Will talk to him about it, either.
Why did he let this go on for so long? He had wasted five years of his life waiting for something that would never happen.
Now he had the chance to turn his life around. He could be a member of Parliament and maybe make a difference in this country. That was something he might have only dreamed about in America. Here he was an important man. While maybe his importance was due to circumstantial reasons, he could still use the opportunity as a means to make a difference for people who didn’t have a voice.
Slowly, he stood and made his way back to the ballroom. As he stood on the edge of the dance floor, he once again searched for Elizabeth. This time, he found her speaking with Lady Cantwell.
Elizabeth looked flustered by the older woman’s conversation. He decided she definitely needed saving.
“Elizabeth, have you forgotten about our dance?” he asked as he reached their position.
“Yes, Your Grace.” Elizabeth turned to him with a look of gratitude in her green eyes. “I must apologize again for stranding you on the dance floor earlier. I felt faint.”
The other ladies surrounding them all murmured about the stale air.
When Elizabeth put her gloved hand in his, a familiar yearning crept up his arm to his chest. It felt exciting and comforting at the same time. They reached the dance floor just before the next waltz started.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I would never hurt you.”
“I know that.” She looked away from him. “Have you danced with any other women?”
He shook his head.
“You must do that immediately after our dance. Otherwise people will talk.”
“What if I don’t care if they do talk?” He tightened his grip on her hand. “What if I want to dance with you all night?” he whispered near her ear. He felt her tremble slightly and smiled.
“I will not allow it,” she said and pulled away.
“I wasn’t asking for permission.”
She blinked and visibly swallowed. He knew she felt the attraction between them.
“You will not ruin my reputation or that of any other women at this party,” she replied stiffly.
“But I only want to ruin you…again,” he whispered.
“I already told you that would never happen again, so please stop referring to the day in the music room.”
“If only I could.”
Her eyes flashed a warning at him. “You had best not even think of it.”
“But I cannot stop thinking about it.” He pulled her closer again just to feel her quiver. “Can you?”Chapter 14
Two days after Lady Cantwell’s ball, Elizabeth had the answer she’d been waiting for. While she should rush and tell Will that she wasn’t with child, she decided to avoid him for one more day. After his lewd banter at the ball, she had no desire to see him again.
If only that were true.
She did want to see him. And she wanted to see him naked and lying in bed. There was something dreadfully wrong with her. Never in her life had she felt this way about a man. Now it was all she could think of, and at all times of the day and night.
Unfortunately, avoiding him the past two days had only made the yearning worse. At least for the next few days, she wouldn’t be able to act upon those lustful feelings. But she supposed she should stop ignoring him.
A light knock sounded on her bedroom door. “Yes?”
“Miss Seaton is here to see you, miss. Shall I tell her you are not at home?” her maid asked, peeking through the doorway.
“I shall be down presently.”
“I will show her to the small salon, then.”
“Thank you, Susan.”
Elizabeth wondered what might bring Victoria around this afternoon. Having not seen her friend since their outing to Whitechapel, this would give her the opportunity to question Victoria. Elizabeth doubted it could have been her friend in such a crime-ridden section of town.
After a quick check in the mirror, Elizabeth walked down the stairs, still looking to avoid Will. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to be about today.
As she reached the front hall, she stopped and asked Kenneth, “Where is His Grace?”
“Out, my lady.”
“Out? With whom?” she asked.
“Lord Selby,” Kenneth replied.
Well, at least Avis’s husband was a huge step up from that wastrel Somerton. Elizabeth continued into the small salon where Victoria sat staring at a painting Jennette had done a few years ago.
“Victoria,” Elizabeth said before sitting down on the brocade sofa. “What brings you here today?”
Victoria smiled and pushed a strand of blond hair out of her face. “I wanted to make sure Mrs. Weston was working out for little Sarah.”
“Mrs. Weston is wonderful. She has been working with Sarah to teach her to read. Sarah loves her.”
“Oh, thank God,” Victoria mumbled and quickly covered her mouth.
“Why do you say that?”
Victoria slowly removed her hand from her mouth. “I have never made a recommendation for a friend. I was worried that Mrs. Weston would not work out with Sarah.”
“She is perfect.” Elizabeth wondered why Victoria seemed so relieved. It was just a governess. Elizabeth remembered having three different ones when she was a child.
“Victoria, you will not believe this but the duke insisted on an outing to Whitechapel with the older girls the other day.”
Victoria’s brows furrowed. “Why would he insist on taking them there?”
“To show them the poverty of London, and how dreadfully we treat our poor. But as we drove past a pawnbroker’s shop, a woman walked out of the store. She looked exactly like you.”
Victoria’s face paled slightly, but then she said, “How odd. You must have been mistaken since I never go to that section of town.”
“I figured as much. I just thought it fascinating that there is another woman who looks so much like you.”
“Perhaps she is my long-lost twin,” Victoria said with a laugh.
If her laugh hadn’t sounded so forced, Elizabeth might have believed her. It could not possibly have been Victoria. But Elizabeth hadn’t convinced herself of that yet.
“How are the plans for the ball?” Victoria asked, effectively changing the subject.
“Good, but I’m getting nervous.” Elizabeth waited while a footman brought in tea for them. She poured a cup for them and handed one to Victoria.
“The ball?” Victoria reminded her.
“Yes, of course.” Elizabeth added some cream to her tea. “I have never planned a ball by myself.”
“You will do wonderfully.”
“Will you come? Please?” Elizabeth already knew the answer but hoped that for once her friend would disregard Society.
“You know I cannot. I am not one of you,” Victoria answered with a nonchalant shrug.
“You are the daughter of a vicar. Surely, there must be a lord in your background somewhere? That is all these people care about.”
Victoria smiled and shook her head. “No lords that I am aware of.”
“I cannot. But I want you to tell me all about it next week.”
Elizabeth closed her eyes. “Please do not remind me that it’s only six days away.”
“If you need my help, please, just let me know.”
“Thank you, dear friend.” Elizabeth wanted desperately to tell someone what she’d done with Will. The secret was driving her mad. But of all her friends, Victoria was the last one she could mention an indiscretion to without getting a long lecture on the sin of sexual congress before marriage.
This was one secret she had to keep to herself.
Will opened the door before the butler could reach it. He hadn’t felt this invigorated in months, maybe even years. For the first time, his life had direction. He knew what he was going to do now.
After taking the steps two at a time, he opened the door to his room. His valet walked in behind him.
“Good evening, Your Grace.”
“Good evening, Stevenson.” Will removed his own jacket while his valet opened the linen press. “Is there an engagement tonight?”
“The opera, Your Grace.”
“Of course. We are to dine here, though, correct?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Very well, then. I leave my attire in your fine hands.” Will washed up at the basin while Stevenson picked out the perfect jacket for dinner and then the opera.
Twenty minutes later, he was dressed and ready to eat. He entered the salon to find Elizabeth and his siblings waiting for him. Stopping at the threshold, he was once again amazed by the transformation of the children. The boys, while fidgeting, were well dressed and relatively quiet. Sarah, dressed in a pretty pink dress, sat on the wingback chair with a smile on her face.
“Where have you been?” Elizabeth asked, approaching him with a glass of sherry.
“I attended Parliament with Lord Selby.” Will took the outstretched glass and sipped it. The fruity essence of the liquor teased his tongue.
Before he could take another sip, the footman announced dinner.
“Are we still to attend the opera tonight?” he asked Elizabeth as she walked past him.
“Yes, I think Ellie and Lucy will enjoy it.”
“And tomorrow we work in my study.”
She paused and then agreed. “Very well.”
They rushed through dinner to get to the opera. Ellie and Lucy could barely contain their excitement during the carriage drive.
“Are you certain we look all right, Elizabeth?” Ellie asked, looking down at her saffron dress. “I’ve never worn anything as exquisite as this gown.”
“You both look beautiful. I expect many gentlemen will stop by our box during intermission.”
Will didn’t like the sound of that. His sisters were too young for suitors.
As if she’d read his mind, Elizabeth said, “Don’t worry, Will. They have not made their bow yet. Most of the gentlemen will respect that and only call after.”
“Then perhaps we should postpone their bow,” Will muttered.
“No, Will!” Ellie and Lucy said in unison.
Elizabeth laughed. “He will not cancel on the queen.”
“I might,” Will replied with a smile.
“No, you will not.”
“If you say so,” he said with a chuckle. The carriage stopped and they all clamored out. As they walked inside and to their box, Will heard the whispered murmurings of their arrival.
They took their seats and he couldn’t help but notice the people covertly pointing to their box. He sensed the eyes of several women both young and old on him as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Never in his life had he felt this out of place.
“Do sit still, Your Grace,” Elizabeth said sharply. “Everyone is staring.”
“Of course. You are the duke. Your position demands respect and admiration.” Elizabeth smiled at him. “And there is that fact that you are an unmarried duke.”
“Maybe I should alter that state quickly,” he replied with a meaningful glance at her.
“Perhaps you should decide if you are staying in this country or leaving,” Elizabeth retorted.
“Leaving?” Lucy looked over at them. “You are not still thinking of leaving England, Will. What more could you want than this?”
He had no chance to reply as the musicians started playing. Athough, it gave him more time to think. What else could he want? Until a week ago, he would have said America has everything he could ever want. But America didn’t have Elizabeth, and she would never leave England.
Should that matter? He had known her for just over a fortnight. That wasn’t enough time to know her or to love her. If he left, she would stay behind. And while that should not bother him, for some reason it did. He liked her companionship, even when she became waspish when he did something wrong.
He slid a glance over at her. She stared down at the stage, entranced by the performance. The opera did nothing for him. He found the music too shrill, and his mind continued to wander.
The emerald dress she’d worn tonight complemented her eyes. The lower cut bodice allowed him a perfect view of her rounded breasts, and he steeled himself against the sudden rush of desire. He wanted her again. Only this time, he wanted to strip off each piece of clothing and lay her nude body on his soft bed.
Far too quickly, intermission started and the door to their box opened as the footman announced their first guest.
“Lord Hampton, Your Grace.”
A young man with jet-black hair and blue eyes bowed to them all. “Your Grace, it is an honor to finally meet you.”
“Hampton, good to meet you.” Will watched as the man blatantly stared at Lucy. “This is my cousin, Lady Elizabeth,” he said, looking over at Elizabeth. “And my sisters, Ellie—”
“Eleanor and Lucia,” Elizabeth finished for him with a glare.
“You may call me Lucy,” Lucy said.
Elizabeth groaned softly. Her frustration at his sister’s manners was clear.
“Lady Lucia, it is a pleasure,” Hampton said, bowing over Lucy’s hand. “And yours also, Lady Eleanor.”
Ellie appeared rather put out by Hampton’s obvious favoritism of Lucy. Within five minutes, Ellie had nothing to be envious of, as the entire box filled with young men vying for her attention, as well.
Will noticed Elizabeth’s color and wondered why she looked so uncomfortable. He leaned over and asked her, “Are you well?”
“Yes, I am perfectly fine,” she snapped.
Oh, yes, any woman who answered like that was fine, he thought sarcastically. “Why are you uncomfortable?”
“I am not!” She stood and made her way through the crowd to the door.
Unable to leave his sisters alone with all the young bucks, he was forced to sit through another excruciating ten minutes without Elizabeth’s company.
Elizabeth stood against the wall trying to catch her breath. Inside that box she’d felt as if she were suffocating. She was a fraud. Ever since her father’s declaration that she wasn’t his daughter, she considered herself a sham. Tonight, watching all the men pour into the box to visit with Ellie and Lucy, all those painful sensations had returned.
She wanted to be Lady Elizabeth in truth.
The only way for that to happen was to marry Will and become the duchess. She couldn’t do that. If she had only wanted a title, there had been plenty of men during her first two Seasons who would have married her just to be associated with the duke’s name. She wanted more than just a title. She wanted love.
She had watched Jennette’s parents and had seen how much they loved each other, even with their huge difference in ages. That was Elizabeth’s aspiration. She wanted love, and to forge a union that would last, with no infidelity.
She was certain a love like that existed. Perhaps just not for her. Her stomach roiled. Why not for her? Her friends seemed to have such a love. What was wrong with her that she could not have that too?
“Are you unwell, Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth looked up to see her cousin, Richard, staring down at her with concern on his face. “I am all right. The box filled with young men looking for an introduction to the duke’s sisters. I needed a little air.”
“Queasy, then?” Richard asked, looking even more worried.
“Only slightly. I am perfectly all right now and will return to the box.”
Richard held out his arm for her. “Let me escort you back.”
“Thank you, Richard.” Perhaps now that Will was here, Richard had given up on his idea of being duke.
“You must take better care of yourself, Elizabeth. Have you thought about taking a husband?”
“A husband? You know I have a very small dowry, Richard. Who would want me?” Elizabeth hated how pathetic she sounded.
“There must be someone you might have an interest in,” Richard continued.
Elizabeth felt heat scorch her cheeks. “No, there is no one.”
Richard returned to his seat next to Caroline. He had a terrible feeling about Elizabeth.
“Well?” Caroline asked.
“We cannot discuss it here.”
“Then we shall depart now,” Caroline commanded.
They slipped out of their seats and waited impatiently for their carriage to be brought around. As soon as he sat down across from her, the interrogation began.
“Elizabeth was standing outside the box against the wall with her hands on her stomach.”
“Why?” Caroline asked.
“She said she needed air because of all the young men in the booth seeking an introduction to the duke’s sisters.”
Caroline tilted her head and then nodded. “Well, that makes sense. Those boxes are a bit confining.”
“Yes,” Richard drawled.
“But you don’t believe her?” Caroline’s brows drew downward forming a crease in her forehead.
“I cannot say why, but I think there is more going on here than she is admitting.”
“You can’t mean…”
Richard nodded. “She looked pale and had her hand on her stomach.”