Friday, June 22, 2018

Kissing the Lass



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Kissing the Lass
A MacGregor and Other Trents Novel

CHAPTER ONE

Anagburn Manor, Bonnybridge, Scotland - 1815

Happiness and melancholy lingered within Arabella MacGregor’s heart. Oh, she was overjoyed that Uncle Aiden had fallen in love and married Rose, the former Dowager Countess of Bentley. However, as much as Arabella was enjoying her uncle and new aunt’s wedding celebration, her disappointment lay in the fact that none of the bachelors in attendance had given her any further consideration or attention beyond a polite greeting when they arrived.
Why didn’t any of them wish to engage her in conversation in the manner in which Camden Breckenridge was conversing with Rhona Murry? They were so focused on each other that they barely acknowledged that anyone else was present? Arabella wasn’t so unattractive, was she? Or was Uncle Aiden correct in that no man would be interested in her because she preferred golfing and falcons to any other genteel entertainments?
Well, if that was the case, she’d rather do without those men anyway. Besides, falcons were much preferable to be around. They didn’t order her about.
 “Who is that?” Sheena, her younger cousin, asked as she reached Arabella.
Arabella glanced around. “Who is who?”
“The man who just arrived. He’s speakin’ with Davina.” Sheena pointed to her older sister who was standing at the entrance leading from the ballroom to the terrace.
Goodness. She’d thought Camden was handsome, but the man who stood with Davina put every other fellow at the wedding to shame.
“I wonder where Davina is takin’ him?” Sheena asked after the two disappeared inside.
“Perhaps he’s lost and in need of direction.” Though Arabella hoped he wouldn’t leave too soon.
“Possibly,” Sheena agreed thoughtfully. “Though a servant could have provided any direction and wouldna require the attention of my sister.” At that, Sheena let out a sigh. “I’m not enjoyin’ myself as much as I enjoyed the ball.”
“Neither am I,” Arabella admitted.
“Why doona the men ask us to dance? We were barely without a partner at the ball, but not one man has asked me today.”
A few weeks ago, Uncle Aiden had held a ball with the intention of making matches for his nieces. Though Arabella and Sheena had danced nearly every set, not one man had come to call in the days that followed.
Arabella glanced around at their guests and frowned. “Apparently Uncle Aiden’s plans did work out well, just not for us. Did ye note how many of the bachelors appear to be courtin’ other lasses.”
“Aye,” Sheena agreed with disappointment. “Perhaps we’ll find someone in London.”
Now that the former Rose Trent was married to Uncle Aiden, their new aunt intended to take Arabella, along with her cousins, Sheena and Davina to London next season. As thrilling as the holiday might sound, and as much as she wished to visit London, Arabella did not want to end up with an English husband. “Why must it be London?” Arabella found herself asking.
Sheena tilted her head and stared at Arabella as if she were daft. “It’s where the Season is held.”
Of course she knew that. “What of Edinburgh instead?” Arabella warmed to the very idea the more she considered the option. “We’ve visited Edinburgh only a few times, doona ye think we should become more familiar with what Scotland has to offer over the English?”
“I suppose…” Sheena answered in confusion.
“Fanella and Jesse Grant have both had at least two Seasons and not come away with a groom. Why should it be any different for us?”
“Aye, but their sister, Mary, found a groom right away.”
“And, she’s not been home since,” Arabella reminded her cousin. “I have no wish to be so far from my family or Scotland.”
Sheena opened her mouth to speak, but no words were spoken. Then she frowned.
“Besides, doona ye wish to see New Town? So much has been built since we last visited, at least according to Donovan.”
Donovan was Arabella’s oldest brother and loved to tell her of his visits to Edinburgh. He often traveled there for financial reasons, but his description of the newer shopping thoroughfares made Arabella fairly itch to explore. Which shouldn’t be a surprise as they rarely left Annagburn, let alone the town of Bonnybridge. Any place outside of her narrow world sounded exciting—especially London, as long as she could manage to visit and not end up with an English husband. But, she feared Rose had every intention of seeing her new nieces married next spring.
“Rose spoke of the lovely shops she visited.”
“And that is what we shall do,” Arabella determined. “Convince Rose to allow us a Season in Edinburgh instead of London.”
Again Sheena frowned. “Does Edinburgh even have a season?”
Arabella dismissed her with a wave of her hand. “It matters not. There are still lairds, ladies and all manner of gentry who live there who also hold balls. Uncle Aiden is well connected, as is Rose, so we shouldna have any difficulty obtainin’ invitations. And, if Edinburgh doesna favor us, then we will travel to London the followin’ year.” Though, Arabella was determined to find a husband in Edinburgh. She could not, under any circumstances, marry a man from England. She was a Scot and she was determined to remain in Scotland.
“If ye say so,” Sheena finally agreed, though she clearly did not hold the same convictions as Arabella.
“Who do ye believe he is?” Sheena asked after a moment and nodded to the back of the manor.
Arabella turned her head. Davina had just appeared with the stranger once again.
“Instead of wonderin’, I believe I will find out for myself.” With that, she picked up the hem of her skirts, walked past Camden and Rhona, whom she completely ignored, and made her way toward her cousin and the very handsome stranger.

***

Nobody at Grant Manor had warned Lord Gideon Trent that he’d be walking in on a wedding celebration when he arrived at Anagburn Manor. However, this wasn’t like any wedding breakfast he’d ever attended. It more resembled a picnic or house party. Tables were loaded with food, couples danced on the terrace, families sat beneath trees or on blankets and some guests participated in croquet. Though he spotted a few Trents among the guests, he had not seen John or Elizabeth since he arrived.
Why were they attending a wedding when their step-mother had been kidnapped? Shouldn’t they be looking for her? Unless, she’d been found. If that were the case, this had been a wasted trip.
A lovely brunette with dark brown eyes approached. “May I help ye?”
“I need to speak with Mr. John Trent,” he announced. “I was told he’d be here.”
“And ye are?”
“My pardon.” He bowed quickly. “Lord Gideon Trent.”
Her dark eyebrows rose in an instant reaction. “There are more of ye? I thought all the Trents were here.”
 “A distant, distant relative, I assure you.” He chuckled.
“It’s a pleasure to make yer acquaintance.” She dropped into a quick curtsey. “I am Miss Davina MacGregor.”
“I happened to be in the area when I learned my cousins were here, and I do need a word with John, if it is convenient.” He couldn’t very well tell her the truth, though he’d like to find John so he could address the reason he’d been sent north and then be gone. “I apologize. I did not realize I would be interrupting a celebration.”
Miss MacGregor grinned. “My uncle, Aiden MacGregor married Rose Trent today.”
Gideon blinked, Rose Trent as in Lady Bentley? The woman who had been kidnapped almost a month ago and now she’d just married some Scot? How the blazes had that occurred? Then again, matrimony did tend to move quicker in Scotland since they didn’t require three weeks of reading of the banns or a special license. But how had Lady Bentley gone from being kidnapped to being a bride in so short of time?
The young woman slipped her hand into the crook of his arm and led him back inside.
“Did ye come to help rescue her?” Miss MacGregor whispered the question.
So, this young woman knew of the kidnapping, but Gideon was not ready to reveal what he knew of the matter. “I’m certain I don’t know what you mean.”
“Ye are a poor liar, Lord Gideon.” She laughed. “But Rose is no longer in need of rescuin’ and is quiet happy with her circumstances.”
Actually, he was a very good liar. Or had been at one time, but as he’d put his former professions behind him, Gideon no longer schooled his features as he once had. There was no reason to hide his thoughts any longer. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather confirm your observation with my cousins.”
“Of course.” She smiled. “But how did ye even ken…?” As she trailed off, her dark eyes grew wide. “Ye received the letter, dinna ye?”
Miss MacGregor knew far more than she should, unless the Trents had already told her everything. Or she had been part of the kidnapping, which Gideon found rather ridiculous to contemplate. But she did speak the truth. His family had received the ransom demand intended for Bentley, the dowager’s step-son, which was the only reason Gideon knew about the kidnapping in the first place. Gideon cleared his throat. “We may have received a certain correspondence.”
“Aye, well it was my foolish brother who delivered it. But it has all worked out well.”
Her brother? The MacGregors had kidnapped Lady Bentley? “Worked out well?” he nearly choked.
“Aye. The two are married, as ye can see, and there is no need to rescue anyone.”
In the few years that he’d worked for the Home Office, Gideon had never come across such a bizarre set of circumstances. “Forgive me if I don’t simply take your word on the matter.”
“Of course. Yer cousins are out there, though I suspect most of them are over by the distillery tastin’ whisky.” She smiled and then led him back to the terrace.
“Davina, would ye care to introduce me to our new guest?”
Gideon glanced toward the sweet, lyrical voice and forgot to breathe. Auburn curls framed a delicate face, gentle brow, full lips and the bluest eyes he’d ever encountered.
“Arabella, this is Lord Gideon Trent, he is searchin’ for John Trent.” Miss MacGregor turned to Gideon. “My cousin, Miss Arabella MacGregor.”
The young woman dipped a quick curtsey as Gideon bowed, unable to take his eyes from her.
“Would ye be a dear and help Lord Gideon find John?” Miss MacGregor asked her cousin. “I need to speak with the cook.”
“Of course,” Miss Arabella assured her and then offered her arm to Gideon.

Friday, May 18, 2018

His Christmas Match (A Gentleman’s Guide to Once Upon a Time #4) (A Gentleman's Guide to Once Upon a Time)


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ONE 

Berkshire, England, November, 1814

Rosalind Valentine jerked her head up at the slam of the door. Goodness, who would do such a thing? From her place on the floor at the far side of the room, she glanced over to her employer, Lady Sandlin, who frowned and shifted toward the entrance. Heavy, booted feet pounded toward their sitting room, and Lady Sandlin stood. Rosalind returned her attention to her two charges; the soon-to-be four-year-old twins were completely undisturbed by the unusual interruption. 
Where were the servants, and why hadn’t they announced the new arrival? Had the intruder barged into the manor without knocking and waiting for the door to be answered?
“Phoebe, where are you?”
Rosalind sucked in a breath. That wasn’t Lord Sandlin’s voice. What gentleman would dare storm into the Sandlin household in such a manner yelling for Lady Sandlin by her given name? Rosalind placed a doll in Heather’s arms and a soldier into Campbell’s pudgy hand and prepared to sweep the children up and out of the room if necessary. Whoever was stomping toward this room was angry by his tone, and it was her duty to protect her charges.
“I’m in here, Noah,” Lady Sandlin called, and Rosalind’s heart ceased for a moment before it began pounding anew. Noah? As in Marques Felding? Lady Sandlin’s older brother? Rosalind hadn’t seen him in since last Christmas when he attended services with his family at her uncle’s church.
Rosalind looked for a way to escape the room to shield her presence from him, but Lord Felding charged into the room thrusting a piece of parchment out in front of him. “What exactly is the meaning of this?” he demanded. 
He was still the most handsome gentleman Rosalind had ever encountered. His sandy blonde hair was windblown, probably because he had ridden over instead of taking a carriage such a distance, and his light brown eyes were darker than normal. Was it from anger? Odd, she had never known him to show anything but kindness and often, when with her brothers, laughter. In those situations, his eyes were always a rich brown and warmed her to her toes. Not that he ever noticed her. She had dreamt about him for years. He was the one who played center role in her pretend world of what if I was a lady? It was silly of course because she wasn’t a lady and had no hopes, or any real desire, to become one. Though, if Lord Felding were to happen to take notice of her, Rosalind would not mind in the least.
Lady Sandlin smiled innocently. “I assumed it was self-explanatory. What do you not understand?”
“Why you cannot attend the house party and hunt that Lord and Lady Meadows are hosting.”
Phoebe stood back and held out her arms. “Is my reason more clear now?”
Felding’s eyes grew round and his jaw dropped. He looked his sister over from head to toe. “Are you having twins again?”
Lady Sandlin laughed and braced a hand on the arm of the chair before slowly lowering herself into the seat. “I don’t believe so.” She glanced down at her protruding belly. “Though, one does have to wonder. The babe isn’t to arrive until sometime in February.”
Rosalind should leave the room so the brother and sister could visit in private, but she didn’t want to draw attention to herself. The only way out was through the door Lord Felding just entered. So far, Lord Felding hadn’t even looked in her direction, and as much as she may wish he would notice her, in truth, she did not. It was easier to pretend that he might one day look upon her with more interest than that of the sister of a friend than to face him and receive only a nod in greeting.
“Who is going to keep an eye on Penelope if you are not there?”
Penelope was their younger, second sister and only twenty. She was closer to Rosalind’s younger sisters than to her, though as children, they often played together.
“Is that what this is about?” Lady Sandlin scoffed. “Penny has had two full Seasons without incident. She no longer needs someone watching over her like a mother hen.”
Felding crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head. “She certainly showed more sense than you.”
Lady Sandlin straightened. “I wasn’t as bad as you imply.” A small smile formed on her lips. “Besides, if I had been less impetuous, I might not be married to Taylor now.”
Felding snorted and Rosalind bit her lip to keep from laughing. She had heard a number of rumors of how Lady Sandlin conducted herself during her one and only Season and a few more stories the lady herself had repeated. With distance, they were rather entertaining. At the time, Lady Sandlin could have been ruined beyond repair on more than one occasion.
“Normally, it wouldn’t matter. I would easily be able to keep track of Penelope, but this house party is different.”
“Oh?” Lady Sandlin asked with a raised eyebrow. 
Rosalind tilted her head to study him hoping Lord Felding would explain his comment.
“A lady will be present that I may be interested in courting.”
A knife through her heart would have been less painful, and Rosalind quickly looked away and tried to busy herself with the twins. She should have left the moment he entered; then her world wouldn’t be tumbling down like the stack of blocks Heather just knocked over. The twins laughed, and Rosalind forced a smile. She was a nursemaid to four-year-old twins. It was her lot in life, and she was happy for it. Had Vicar Grant and his wife not taken her and her siblings in her life would not be nearly this pleasant, and she should not wish for things that were above her reach.
Besides, it wasn’t her actual world that crashed . . . just the one she liked to escape to.
“Who has finally caught your attention?” The excitement in Lady Sandlin’s tone drew Rosalind’s attention. Just last week, when Lady Sandlin’s three sisters visited, they had sat in this very room ruminating about the fact that their older brother had not yet taken a bride when most of his friends were already married, and he was two and thirty.
“Lady Jillian Simpson.”
“The Duke of Eldridge’s daughter?”
Did she hear disappointment in Lady Sandlin’s tone? 
“Yes,” Felding confirmed.
Lady Sandlin settled further back in her chair and rested her hands on her protruding belly.  “I am sure your presence will discourage any unwanted attention, and Penelope isn’t the type to run off.”  Lady Sandlin insisted. “And it is the Meadows household, and I am confident they have not invited anyone with whom you would object to.”
Felding stared at his sister as if dumbfounded. “Have you forgotten that it was at a Meadows house party that nearly saw you ruined.”
Lady Sandlin simply shrugged and grinned.
Felding shook his head and turned away to pace. “I don’t want the distraction,” he argued. “I suggested she remain home, but Penny refused.”
“Of course she did!”
“So what am I to do?” He pushed his fingers through his hair and paced at the end of the room. “I must have someone who can watch over Penny and not be distracted.”
Lady Sandlin lifted and eyebrow in humor. “A companion? We no longer have a governess at our disposal.”
He stopped and stared at her with hope in his eyes. “Do you think we might hire one?”
“For a simple house party?” Lady Sandlin laughed. 
“Then what do you suppose I do?”
“Nothing. It is a simple house party. Penelope will have a grand time, and you will be able to court Lady Jillian.”
“It is not that simple,” Lord Felding ground out and began pacing anew. “I will not be able to give attention to the matter as I wish if I have to worry about what Penny is up to, or who may wish to pursue her.”
Lady Phoebe leaned forward with interest. Her eyes narrowed and she tilted her head. “Why the sudden hurry to court Lady Jillian?” Lady Sandlin asked with curiosity? “Are you in love with her?”
Felding shook his head but said nothing.
“If not love, then why the rush, unless you hope to make a Christmas Match?” Lady Sandlin chuckled and relaxed back in her seat. “I had no idea you were so romantic.”
“I would like the matter for my future settled,” Felding grumbled. “The quicker that is done the better, and I don’t want to endure another Season without a betrothal or marriage.”
“You sound like a miss facing her third Season with no prospect of a husband in sight.” Lady Sandlin laughed.
“Are you going to help me or not?” Lord Felding demanded.
Rosalind bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing. The two of them reminded Rosalind much of her and brothers on the rare occasions they were together. She missed the teasing and bickering siblings shared.
“I still don’t think it is necessary that you have someone attend Penelope,” Lady Sandlin insisted.
Lord Felding turned and stared at his sister. “House parties can be very dangerous, as you well know.”
Rosalind looked away again, heat infused her cheeks. Nobody needed to tell her how dangerous they were. It was the reason she was no longer with her last employer. A simple mistake, gossip, and innuendo had ruined her. Thankfully, Lady Sandlin didn’t put stock in what she heard, and believed Rosalind’s version of the events involving her and Mr. David Thorn. Shortly after the incident, Lady Sandlin offered her a position within this household despite the rumors.
“If it is that important to you,” Lady Sandlin began, “why don’t you ask Rosalind to watch over Penelope? I can assure you that Penny would prefer Rosalind over an old, strict matron you are likely to employ.”
Rosalind’s head jerked up. Surely, Lady Sandlin did not mean her. There must be another Rosalind she didn’t know about.
“Rosalind Valentine?” Lord Felding asked. 
At least he thought of her first when the name was mentioned which warmed her heart. Though, she could very well be the only Rosalind of his acquaintance.
“Yes,” Lady Sandlin brightened.
Lord Felding pushed his fingers through his hair and blew out a breath. Perhaps she should make her presence known before he said something she did not want to hear.
“She would be perfect,” he said a moment later nodding his head and settled on the seat beside his sister. “She knows very well the dangers a house party can offer.”
Inwardly, Rosalind cringed. Surely, Lord Felding didn’t believe those horrible rumors; the very ones that saw to her ruination so that she could never show her face in society again. Not that she had been part of society only a governess in a lord’s household. Not only was her reputation ruined because of that one night, but all employment possibilities as well. Thank goodness Lady Sandlin believed her.
“The rumors are not true,” Lady Sandlin said.
Lord Felding’s head jerked up. “Of course not.” He seemed almost offended that Lady Sandlin might think he actually believed the gossip.
Rosalind blew out a sigh of relief. She would hate for him to think she had succumbed to a rake’s seduction.
“Thorn was bloody drunk but not so drunk he didn’t remember the night. He tried his best to deflate the gossip but it did no good.”
A small smile pulled at Rosalind’s lips. Thorn had told the truth over and over but those at the party were more interested in potential scandal than the truth.
“I’ll call on Valentine House when I return home. I assume Rosalind has returned to live with Vicar Grant and his wife.”
“She is right there, Noah.” Lady Sandlin gestured in Rosalind’s direction. 
Rosalind’s face flooded with heat when Lord Felding came to his feet. Clearly, he had not noticed she was in the room. Drat, she should have somehow alerted him to her presence before now. What would he think of her sitting quietly as they discussed Lady Penelope and Rosalind’s debacle of last spring before the Season had even begun?
She slid the toys from her lap and came to her feet and offered a quick curtsey. “Good afternoon, Lord Felding.”
***
Why was Miss Rosalind Valentine sitting on the floor in the back of the room playing with the twins?
Noah hadn’t seen Miss Valentine since last winter during Christmas Eve services to be exact. Even then, he only glimpsed her in the front pews with the rest of her family. They hadn’t spoken. A few days later he learned from her older brother that she had left for Cheshire to be a governess to the daughters of Lord and Lady Filpott. 
Thank goodness he had not said anything else about what happened to her last spring. Not that he ever believed she would allow Thorn to seduce her or that she had set about to trap Thorn into marriage as Thorn’s aunt, Lady Filpott, had insisted. If Noah had been at that house party, he would have seen to it that all rumor, gossip, and innuendo were stifled. 
“Miss Valentine, I did not realize you were visiting Phoebe.”
The blush on her rounded cheeks grew darker. “I am not visiting, Lord Sandlin. I am the nursery maid.”
So his sister had given her a position when nobody else in society would dare. Good for Phoebe.
“I apologize. I hadn’t realized you were in the room, or I would have greeted you.” He barely noticed the young maid, head bent down and sitting with the children when he entered. He was too angry at Phoebe’s letter to let the presence of a servant bother him, and then he completely forgot anyone else was in the room.
“I should have announced my presence, but I did not wish to interrupt.”
“I’ve known you since you were a child,” Noah reminded her though she was far different than the skinny, red-haired girl that had once teased her brothers. “You have no reason to stand on ceremony especially in my sister’s home.”
Before him stood a remarkable young woman. Her once red hair was closer to a warm auburn. Why hadn’t he ever noticed her eyes were a deep blue? Miss Valentine was a beautiful young woman. She should not be hidden away in the country as a nursemaid. If he remembered correctly, she would be five and twenty now. Why hadn’t she married?
He already knew the answer and didn’t really need to ask. Those in Valentine House had secrets. Some he had been speculated on, and the Valentine brothers had let slip on occasion.  Because of those very secrets, he doubted any of the sisters would ever marry or allow themselves to be in a position to marry. 
Phoebe cleared her throat, bringing Noah out of his thoughts. Goodness, he was staring at Miss Valentine and not saying a word. When had he become so rude and inconsiderate? Miss Valentine’s complexion took on a deeper hue of pink. He should not have embarrassed her, but he certainly couldn’t voice his thoughts.
“Would you act as Penelope’s companion at the house party being hosted by Lord and Lady Meadows?”
Miss Valentine worried her bottom lip and blinked at him. “I should remain with my charges.” She gestured to the children still playing quietly on the floor beside her feet.
Lady Sandlin shifted in her seat. “The children will get by without you for the week or two,” she insisted. “This will give you the opportunity to see to a young woman and not need to wipe a nose every few moments.” Lady Sandlin grinned. “I assure you, Penelope can attend her own nose if necessary.”
A small smile graced Miss Valentine’s full lips. “It is kind of you to think of me, but my duty is to you.”
“And I am insisting you attend my sister.” Lady Sandlin pushed herself up off of the settee.  “If I know my brother, he will not give Penny a moment’s peace and be with her constantly.” She came forward and grasped Rosalind’s hands. “I am sure she would be grateful for your presence.”
Though Noah didn’t appreciate how Phoebe viewed him, he didn’t argue. He needed Miss Valentine to chaperone Penelope so he was free to purse Lady Jillian.
“I don’t have the proper wardrobe, and I am not sure exactly what a companion does,” Miss Valentine said to both Noah and Phoebe.
“I am sure your clothing is perfectly acceptable,” Noah insisted. His friends weren’t such high sticklers that they would deny her entrance because Miss Valentine wasn’t in the height of fashion. Besides, this was to be a casual house party with much of the time spent hunting.
Sadness clouded Miss Valentine’s eyes. “What would others think if I was chaperoning a young woman?” 
She didn’t have to add after what occurred last spring, but Noah assumed that was what she was thinking. “There will be a different set of guests than those you encountered earlier in the year,” he assured. “Besides, if anyone were to say anything to you, I would make my displeasure known.”
“It is not your place to defend me, Lord Felding, but I thank you just the same.”
He smiled gently down at her. Miss Rosalind Valentine was always a sweet, good-natured girl with a bit of mischief. “As I said earlier, I’ve known you since you and your siblings came to live at Valentine House. I do feel it is my duty to defend you if one of your brothers isn’t present.” He glanced over at Phoebe who was smiling sadly at Miss Valentine before he looked back at the young woman. “And, I can assure you that your brothers would do the same for my sisters if it was necessary.”
A memory tickled in his brain of seeing the guest list and Noah brightened. “As a matter of fact, I believe two of your brothers are invited guests.”
Miss Valentine blinked in surprise. Perhaps this would convince her to attend as Penelope’s chaperone. She could even be considered a guest as long as she knew her first duty was to see to Penelope though he didn’t suspect Miss Valentine ever shirked a duty in her life. 
“Demetrius and Benedick are both invited,” he added.
Her brow furrowed. “Will they be attending?”
Noah rubbed his chin trying to recall if Meadows had received a response from the brothers.  “Demetrius will certainly be there. I am not sure of Benedick.”
She bit her lip again and looked over at Phoebe. Was Miss Valentine finally considering the possibility? This would be a perfect opportunity for her. She would be able to visit with those who were friends with her brothers, make new acquaintances, and hopefully put the rumors of the past to rest. Noah also knew that she would remain by Penelope’s side during their entire visit freeing him to pursue Lady Jillian. “Please?” he asked.
Her shoulders lifted and dropped with a sigh. “If Lady Sandlin believes I should . . .”
A smile burst on Phoebe’s lips. “Of course I think you should. You will have a wonderful time.”
Miss Valentine tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “I will be attending Miss Penelope not attending a party,” she reminded them.
“And my brother will make his Christmas match,” Lady Sandlin teased Felding with a laugh.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Her Muse, His Grace (Muses #4)



Fresh from the Caribbean, Mark Easton, the new Duke of Roxburg, returns to London to secure a bride. It’s expected of his new station, after all. Unfortunately, he knows just what will meet him once his presence in Town is known. Sycophantic and cloying debutantes at every turn and matchmaking mamas behind every potted palm. If only there was a way to know the true nature of each girl beforehand. Then brilliance strikes! Masquerading as a lowly dancing master before the season begins should give him a very clear picture of London’s eligible ladies.

Bianca Valentine has never been under the illusion that any decent man would look past her family’s secrets. So a life of independence is her best shot for a happy future. If she can provide for herself, she won’t have to be a burden on her aunt and uncle any longer. After an advertisement for an accompanist at a dancing school catches her eye, Bianca finds herself enjoying more freedom than she’s known, but it’s the new dancing master that takes her breath away and inspires the most beautiful music she’s ever written.


Her music first enchanted him, but her smile and kindness captured his heart. A masquerading duke and an accompanist is scandalous enough, but will Bianca’s secrets be too much to overcome? 

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Her Muse, His Grace
Copyright © 2016 Jane Charles



London - March, 1816
“Bloody hell!” Mark Easton, the Duke of Roxburg, tossed the gossip rag onto the table and lifted his tankard of ale. The Season hadn’t even begun and there was already speculation as to whether he would return and do his duty and marry.
He pulled his greatcoat tight and wondered if he would ever get warm again. The damp air of London shot through him, right to his bones and he’d give anything to be back in Barbados, on his sugar plantation or walking the beaches. Not only was it warmer in the Caribbean, but the sun shined most of the time too.
And, it didn’t stink.
“I’m ready to board the next ship headed back to the Caribbean.” Lord Samuel Storm rubbed his hands together. “I don’t think I’ll be warm until I get there.”
A barmaid placed two more tankards in front of them, bending low enough for them to see down her bodice. As tempting as it would be to find warmth between her thighs, Mark didn’t have the luxury at the moment.
“Why the bloody hell did we come back here?” he asked Samuel after the barmaid left them be. The two had been living peacefully in Barbados until recently. Both managing their separate sugar plantations and enjoying the freedom of being wealthy bachelors on an island filled with beautiful women. Both had left accommodating mistresses behind, breaking from them as they weren’t sure when they’d return, but not before a proper send off and expensive baubles to remember them by.
“We are here because you have a duty and didn’t want to face it alone,” Samuel ground out. “Though, why you needed me is the question. Thorn is here and if anyone can navigate society and remain free, it’s him.”
“We heard Thorn married, remember?”
Samuel frowned. “Won’t believe it until I hear it from the gentleman directly.”
“Yet, you believe your brother, Benjamin married.”
Samuel frowned. “From what I understand, he didn’t have much choice. Not with our Great Uncle insisting on seeing as many of his grandchildren and great nieces and nephews leg-shackled before he kicks up his toes.” He took a deep drink of ale.
Mark grinned. “Does this mean you will not be calling on His Grace, the Duke of Danby?”
Sam shot him a look that would kill a lesser man.
As neither one of them wanted anyone to know they’d returned to London, they’d taken rooms above this tavern. Nobody would ever dream that the new Duke of Roxburg or Lord Samuel Storm, the brother to Marquess of Kenley, were living along the waterfront, which suited their purposes perfectly.
But, Mark couldn’t remain in hiding forever. He needed to put his plan into place. One that would keep him from being hounded by matchmaking mamas and debutantes alike.
“Maybe I’ll take the pretty one back up to my room.” Sam nodded to the dark haired barmaid. “Send for me when Thorn arrives.”
 “I’ll not be able to pull you from bed if you do.”
“If he doesn’t show shortly, I’m going to find a way to keep warm,” Samuel warned. “And those generous hips are sure to heat everything.”
Mark ignored Sam. As much as he’d like the pleasure of tossing up the skirts of an eager woman, he had more pressing matters to consider. He hadn’t been in London for five years, but he assumed nothing had changed. What he needed was a wife before the Season ever started, or at least, an idea of who he wanted to marry, so he wouldn’t have to waste endless evenings at functions being fawned over.
He hated all the bowing, scraping and flattery all because he was titled. As if he deserved it when he hadn’t done anything spectacular except just being born to the right parents.
The door of the tavern opened and Mark looked up. Finally!
David Thorn stepped inside and glanced around, then smiled when he spotted Mark and Samuel at their corner table.
Thorn took a seat, leaned back and grinned at him. The barmaid appeared almost instantly, her bodice barely containing her assets, which she practically shoved in Thorn’s face.
“Bring a pitcher and another mug, would you, dear?” Thorn smiled up at the young woman.
She fluttered her eyelashes and gave him a wink before sauntering off to do his bidding.
Some things never changed no matter how long Mark had been gone. Women were still drawn to Thorn like a moth to a flame.
“Where’s Chetwey and Delaney?” Mark asked.
“Still rusticating with their wives. They’ll be along eventually, I’m sure. Chetwey’s little witch is not too keen on being absent during the spring plantings for a second year in a row.”
The barmaid returned, leaning over Thorn, her breasts practically pressed against his face  as she placed the pitcher and mug on the table.
Thorn turned his head and muttered a thank you. Disappointed in not getting a reaction, or an offer, the woman slouched away.
“What do these people have against bathing?” He poured the dark ale into his mug and sat back.
“So, it is true,” Sam laughed. “You married. The David Thorn I know would never turn his face away from such a bountiful display.”
“Happily leg-shackled, I assure you.” He grinned.
Mark could only stare at Thorn. “Did you just call Chetwey’s wife a witch?” Did the gentleman know Thorn thought this? He couldn’t imagine Thorn surviving such a comment, not that Mark knew the woman, but one did not call his friend’s wife a witch, not if one wished to keep the friendship.
Thorn blinked up at him and alarm flashed in his eyes before he laughed. “I mean it with utmost respect and affection. Brighid is a healer of sorts, concocting all kinds of medicines from her herbs and plants.” He grinned. “It’s quite endearing, by the way.”
“Does Chetwey still have spells from the malaria? I brought cinchona bark since I doubt it is easy to come by in these parts.”
“He has, and Brighid has been able to help him through. I’m sure she’ll appreciate having the bark.” He took a drink of his ale. “Right now Chetwey is cozy at his estate with his wife and Delaney’s at his with Laura, though I hope they can bring themselves to London.” He frowned, “Anna would appreciate having their wives about this Season as she’s never participated in one herself.” Then he shrugged and took another drink. “Though, I suspect her cousins will be here as well.”
Mark didn’t really care if Thorn’s wife was comfortable or not. He had more pressing matters.
“Anna was living with her uncle and two cousins when I met her. The oldest cousin, Lila Southward, married Lord Quentin Post. The younger, Matilda, married Sidney Garrick”
“Bloody hell,” Samuel exclaimed. “First Delany, Chetwey, Bradenham and Wolverly were caught in the parson’s trap. Now You, Post and Garrick have as well!” He took a deep drink. “It’s not safe in this country.”
Thorn only laughed. “It’s well worth being caught, if it’s by the right woman.” He took a drink and leaned back in the wooden chair. “When did you get in? I’ve been watching the house to see if you’d show.”
“You and all of London,” Mark grumbled.
Thorn laughed and poured ale into the mug.
“They are going to hound me, aren’t they?” Mark asked.
“Think rather highly of yourself, do you?”
Mark glared at him. “Not me! The bloody title. That, and I won’t be thirty until this summer, have all my teeth, not suffering from gout, and am bloody rich. Just a couple of those is enough to draw the attention. The combination is lethal to any bachelor.”
“Well, there isn’t much you can do. I suggest you enjoy it.” Thorn grinned and raised his mug in a toast.
“Yes, there is,” Mark answered, much more serious than Thorn was finding the situation. “I intend to find my wife before the Season begins.”
Thorn arched an eyebrow in humor. “Exactly how are you going to accomplish that?”
Mark tossed the newssheet on the table. “What do you know of the Mirabelle School of Dance?”
***
Bianca Valentine stared out the window of the carriage as it entered London. She hadn’t been here since she was a child. Not that she remembered living in Seven Dials, which was far different than the Mayfair home her brother-in-law owned. She’d only been about two when Vicar Grant saved her and her nine siblings from a life of poverty, thievery, work houses and quite possibly prostitution, once she was older. She shivered, just thinking how different, and horrible, her life could have turned out if not for him. She may call him uncle, but in her heart, Uncle Osborn was her father, and Aunt Mary, was her mother. Bianca had no memories of the woman who actually gave birth to her, even though that woman raised her the first two years of her life. Or, at least she was alive the first two years, but Bianca suspected it was Demetrius and Benedick, her oldest brothers, who really took care of her.
She rarely saw her brothers after they went off to school and then settled into their professions in London, but now that she would be living in London for the Season, she might be able to visit with them more often. Something she was very much looking forward to.
But first, she needed to find a position. Her sister, Rosalind, Lady Felding, insisted on Bianca and their two sisters, Isabella and Perdita, coming to London for the Season. All three had agreed, but none of them intended on being involved in Society. They simply did not belong, even if their sister was a marchioness.
While she’d enjoyed the kindness of her sister, the real reason Bianca was in London was to find work. At five and twenty, she could not continue to live off the charity of Uncle Osborn and Aunt Mary. They were getting on in years and it was time she supported herself. Bianca hated the idea of being a burden any more than she already had been. They’d already given her so much. Much more than she could ever possibly repay. Nor did she wish to become a burden to her older brothers once her aunt and uncle passed. As a female, she had but two options available to keep that from happening: Marry or work, and since she could never consider marriage, it was time to find a position.  
Lord Felding might have been able to overlook her family’s background when he married Rosalind, but most gentlemen would not feel the same. Not that Bianca would ever dream of setting her sights on a lord. But even a respectable man of trade would have misgivings about marrying the bastard of a whore.
“You are just going to love it here,” Rosalind said from beside her. “I thought I’d hate it when Noah insisted I attend the Season after we married, but that wasn’t the case.”
Felding could probably put Rosalind in a tent in the middle of the desert and call it home and her sister would be quite happy. All she really required was to be with her husband. Bianca wasn’t so hopeful that she’d love London as much as her sister. But, as long as she found a position, it really didn’t matter where she lived.
“I can’t wait to introduce you to some of my friends.”
Bianca, Isabella and Perdita stiffened and looked over at their sister. Surely she wasn’t expecting her to go about with the ladies her sister now called friends. Did she forget who they were? Where they’d come from?
“We’ve decided to host a ball at the beginning of the Season and we must get you properly outfitted.”
Bianca glanced at Felding, her brother-in-law. He just shook his head and smiled before glancing back out the window.
“I don’t think it’s right or proper that I attend functions.” Bianca refocused on her sister. “Isabella and I are to keep you company while Felding attends Parliament, or whatever else he does, while Perdita watches over Henry.” Henry was a year old, but Rosalind couldn’t bring herself to leave her son in the country. Bianca also didn’t dare tell her sister the real reason for coming to London. Well, at least not until she had found employment.
“Of course you will.” Rosalind smiled. 
“It’s not right that we go into society, you know that as well as we do,” Isabella argued.
Rosalind arched an eyebrow. “Then I should not be there either.”
“That’s different. You’re married to Felding now,” Perdita reminded her. “It gives you respectability. We cannot claim the same.”
Rosalind turned and grabbed Bianca’s hand. “You mustn’t think that.” Then glanced at her other two sisters. “None of you. You’ll meet all manner of gentlemen in London. You might very well fall in love.”
She couldn’t believe what her sister was saying. If they were to have had the same conversation a few years ago, they would have agreed to remain spinsters and not dream of love or marriage. It was why Rosalind became a nursery maid in the first place, and ended up taking care of Felding’s sister’s children. Rosalind had changed so much since marrying Felding. But, just because Rosalind found a lord to love her, despite the circumstances of her birth, did not mean the same would happen for Bianca or their sisters. “If any man wished to marry me, he’d need to know the truth of my birth first. That should send him running so I don’t wish to put myself in a position to be humiliated.”
“A man of character would not care,” Felding nearly growled.
Did he believe she just insulted him? That was not the case. “Few gentlemen are of your character, Lord Felding, so I will not hold out hope that I might meet one of them.”
The carriage rolled to a stop and Bianca looked out the window, and up at the four story townhouse. Her home for the next four months.
After being escorted into the house, Rosalind led Bianca and her sisters into the parlor to take tea while they waited for their belongings to be brought in and unpacked. It was odd having servants do so much for her and Bianca wasn’t sure if it was something she could become accustomed to. At home, each of the children did their part at the vicarage: preparing meals, tending the garden, cleaning the house, doing the laundry and anything that was required. The only staff employed was a housekeeper who also cooked for them. The task was too large for one woman and the girls learned at an early age how to prepare meals for the family. If she were at home, she would probably be helping prepare luncheon right now. Instead, she was taking tea with her sisters while a servant unpacked their trunks.
“The first thing we must do is visit a modiste.”
“It is lovely how your husband likes to keep you in fine dresses.” Perdita smiled. “I can’t wait to see how you look when turned out for a ball.”
None of them had beautiful gowns growing up, nor did they need them. Bianca had always been happy with her serviceable wardrobe and one nice Sunday dress.
“It’s for you too,” Rosalind insisted.
“We don’t have the funds,” Isabella reminded her.
“That is not a concern,” she dismissed her sister’s comment away with a wave of her hand. “Felding has offered and I’m not about to turn him down. Penelope and Patience shall be arriving in a few days and we shall all go shopping together.” Penelope and Patience were two of Felding’s younger sisters. Neither had married much to his irritation.
“What did I offer?” Felding asked as he came through the door, carrying newssheets.
“To help outfit Bianca, Isabella and Perdita for the Season.”
Felding smiled and nodded. “I’m happy to do so.” He took a seat beside his wife while she poured him a cup of tea.
“It is not necessary, Felding,” Bianca insisted. She already owed her aunt and uncle so much. She did not wish to owe her brother-in-law as well. Besides, it was a waste when she had no intention of wearing the fine dresses.
“My wife would like the three of you to participate in the Season. It would make her happy.” He turned and smiled lovingly at Rosalind. “And, as her happiness is my only concern, you shall be dressed for all imaginable occasions.”
Since Bianca couldn’t argue with Felding under his own roof, she fully intended to argue with her sister later. If that didn’t work, she’d simply refuse to be fitted. That should put a halt to all of Rosalind’s plans.
“Is there anything interesting in the newssheets?” Rosalind asked.
“I haven’t begun to read them yet.” He took the top newssheet and put the rest on the table. “Enjoy, ladies, I’m sure there is something about fashion, or perhaps gossip, that you will find of interest.”
None of them had ever enjoyed gossip. She and her sisters were of the opinion that if they didn’t gossip about others, hopefully others would not gossip about them. Heaven knew they had enough secrets that they didn’t want discovered. Even if they were lying about who their actual parents were, at least the four oldest, Demetrius, Benedick, Orland and Mercutio, had comfort in the knowledge that Mother had been married to their father. It was after he was killed that their mother had to find another means to support her young family and gained five illegitimate children in the process. It didn’t matter that they only shared a mother because Bianca loved each of her siblings equally and with all of her heart.
“Well, that’s interesting?” Felding said before taking a sip of his tea.
“What?” Rosalind asked her husband with interest.
“A school chum, who I haven’t seen in years, has inherited.” Felding paused and looked up. “I had forgotten that his uncle died last summer and his cousin a few months ago. Mark wasn’t ever to have gained the title.”
“I thought it was the women who were interested in the gossip?” Rosalind teased.
Felding lowered the newssheet just enough to see his eyes, which he narrowed on his wife.
“Which title would that be?” Rosalind asked.
“The Duke of Roxburg.”
Bianca choked on her tea. Felding had a friend that was a duke and just called him by his first name. Her brother-in-law had loftier connections than she ever imagined. And, all the more reason she must find a position. Felding certainly would never consider introducing her to a duke, would he? That would be beyond the pale.
Instead of saying anything, however, Bianca picked up one of the newssheets. She skipped over fashion and other titillating tales and went right to the advertisements. She was beginning to become discouraged until she read the last newssheet and her heart began to pound when she found a position that was perfect for her.