Authors: Kathryn Caskie
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
Quinn tossed his sodden coat over the back of a chair before the fire, then sat down and allowed the footman to tug off his wet boots. “Haven’t you ever seen something from afar, a fowling-piece, or horseflesh perhaps, and known instantly that it was perfect for you?”
“A gun is a far cry from a woman, Quinn. If I became less than
with a fowling-piece, I could sell it, or stash it away in the bowels of the house. Can’t do that with a woman. Against the law, you know. At least I think so.” Rogan rubbed his chin. “Might be worth looking into though... for future reference.”
Quinn laughed as he rose and peeled his sodden lawn shirt from his upper torso. “You know what I mean. She’s beautiful, quiet, and shy. Definitely of the Quality—I can tell by the graceful way she holds her back.”
“You can tell all of that from riding past her each Tuesday?”
“Her beauty is not up for debate, Rogan. You will see soon enough. And as for her nature, well, that is quite evident as well. When we pass in the park, she always glances up at me through her lashes. Gives me a shy smile, then blushes the most delicate rose hue and turns her face away.”
rose hue, well, that changes matters, doesn’t it? Of course, I amend my stand. You
marry her at once. A delicate rose hue, imagine that.”
Quinn tied his dressing gown closed. “How can I make you understand?”
“Doubt you can. In my mind, marriage is not about infatuation. ’Tis a business arrangement between families.” Rogan lifted two glasses of port from the footman’s salver and handed one to his brother. “Proceed with caution, that’s all I ask. Wouldn’t want to end up with a common mushroom interested only in your purse.”
“Why is it that when you, or I, meet a woman, you immediately suspect her of having her eye on our fortunes?”
“Because I am a realist, Quinn. I have seen too many gentlemen give their hearts to women who love only their money. You want to live in misery the rest of your days, go ahead, marry a commoner.”
“Marrying a commoner is not always the wrong decision, Rogan. When our father married my mother, she was a simple miss with nary a guinea to her name. Until the day Father died, theirs was the most successful of marriages.”
Rogan turned around and faced the fire so that Quinn could not see the blood rise into his cheeks.
That statement was at least ten furlongs from the truth.
How could Quinn have been so blind to his mother’s greed? She was a guinea-grabber, and nothing less!
Less than a year after Rogan’s mother had died giving birth to him, Miss Molly Hamish, a fresh-faced commoner from
, had sunk her talons deep into his grieving father. He’d been smitten, and so in need of affection that he’d married her the very moment his grieving period had been at an end.
From what his father had told him in later years, once she’d become a duchess and borne her husband a son—Quinn—she’d closed her bedchamber door to him for good. She no longer even pretended to love the duke, or to tolerate Rogan. She lavished gifts upon Quinn, bought baubles and gowns for herself, and traveled to fashionable spas with her vulgar friends.
The old duke was left in despair, lamenting his rash decision to marry the miserable guinea-grabber for the rest of his days.
Rogan swore he’d never repeat his father’s mistake. And he was not about to let his younger brother fall prey to some conniving commoner the way his father had.
No, he planned to keep a wary eye on Quinn’s budding relationship with this...
woman, just to be sure his battle-weary brother was not about to make the grandest mistake of his life.
“Brower rout tonight.” Rogan turned around and looked to Quinn. “Might
you to look your best this eve. Who knows, your nameless lady might be in attendance.”
Quinn’s whole face seemed to brighten. “Do you think so?”
Rogan shrugged. “Don’t know, but from what I’ve heard, half of
society shall be there. And since you claim she is highborn, which absolutely she is, because of the graceful curve of her back—”
Quinn laughed. “Then you must be sure to wear your blue coat, Rogan.”
“And why is that?”
“So you will look your best as well—when I introduce you to my betrothed.” Quinn grinned at him, then drained the last dark crimson droplets from his glass.
Rogan forced a chuckle, then tossed a wink at his brother and left the room. Instead of heading for his bedchamber, he turned straight down the passage and slipped into the library. There, he inked a short missive and sent it off with a footman.
He’d not leave his brother’s choice in brides to chance. In the event Quinn’s chit was indeed at the rout, Rogan intended to have a plan of contingency already in motion. And that plan included the beautiful young war widow, Lady Tidwell.
stared across the carriage cabin and smiled at Mary with full approval. “That gown skims your contours so perfectly, dear, one might imagine that it is made from a wisp of spring sky, and overlaid with lace woven from airy clouds.”
“I daresay I had the
same thought, Lady
.” Mary glanced down at the gown Lady
had sent for her—a pale blue gossamer silk confection, iced with hair-thin threads of silver.
She sighed inwardly. The gown was beautiful, she had to admit. Still, she was not at all convinced that in light any stronger than that of the interior of the carriage, the mere whisper of a dress wouldn’t be entirely transparent.
Though she had to admit that such a gown was bound to draw suitors. For modesty’s sake she made a mental note to avoid all clusters of two or more candles, or two or more gentlemen this eve.
Elizabeth and Anne sat quietly beside her on the leather bench, their backs straight and rigid. Practiced smiles were pasted firmly upon both their faces, but it was clear they were more tightly wound with nerves than she.
They were too aware of their finery to enjoy riding in such a splendid vehicle. Instead, they fretted over the possibility of the jostling carriage wrinkling their skirts before they reached the
’ grand house.
But reach it they did. Carriages lined
’ imposing home.
Through the grand lower-floor windows and the open front door, Mary could see into the crowded, brightly-lit house, where elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen moved shoulder to shoulder like dairy cows pushing through an open gate into a green meadow.
Within minutes, she, her sisters, and Lady
were part of the lowing herd moving down the center hall toward the drawing room.
The movement of the crowd was so horribly slow and the sweaty press of bodies so great that Mary could hardly expand her ribs enough to breathe. It was only owing to her stature that she was able to draw a few gasps of air from above at all.
, however, did not share her misery. “Have a look, Mary.” Her youngest sister was cinched between her and Anne, and held tight to their arms. “I can lift my slippers from the floor and still move forward. You should try it. Watch.”
Mary felt a downward tug on her arm, and sure enough,
was riding the
“Oh, good heavens. Stop that at once. We shall be inside the drawing room at any moment, and for certain there will be space enough for all.”
When her lungs felt about to burst from lack of air, at last the crowd pushed through a set of double doors, and Mary and her sisters spilled out into the expansive, glittering room.
Dozens of candles burned brightly overhead, ensconced in no less than three sparkling crystal chandeliers. The walls were pleated with blue satin.
Mary’s mouth parted in surprise. She could not look more than several feet in any direction without seeing a footman liveried in rich saffron silk serving wine from enormous silver trays.
Anne spun around, surveying their surroundings. Her nose wrinkled. “I do not see Lady
. Where do you suppose she has gone?”
“Likely trapped in the mob near the door.” Mary stood on the toes of her gleaming silk slippers, but she could not spy Lady
either. “I am certain she will be about in a moment. Do not fret.”
glanced around the room, and an excited flush rose into her cheeks. “How long may we stay?”
“Do you not mean how long
we stay?” Mary quipped.
“Well, dears, how many ticks of the minute hand we are here all depends on the three of you,” came a small, high voice.
Mary looked down at her side, where the squeak had come from, and saw that Lady
had suddenly appeared.
“And,” the short round woman added, “how quickly you make the acquaintance of the
and their guests.”
Mary’s spirit seemed to drain from her body and into the toes of her slippers. She had not wanted to attend the rout this evening. Would have done almost anything to have simply remained at home. But by the time she’d sat down for her evening meal, she’d known that declining the Brower invitation had been quite out of the question.
True to Lord
had indeed dutifully seen to every possible detail.
When the sisters had returned from the Old Rakes of Marylebone Club late that afternoon, they had been stunned to find silken gowns with matching slippers, hair brilliants, strands of gleaming pearls, reticules, and shawls lying on each of their tester beds.
Even a lady’s maid had been dispatched to help them dress and arrange their hair in classic curls atop their heads.
No, Mary could not have refused Lady
generosity without offending the kind old woman, and that she would not do.
“If you are ready, gels,” their sponsor began, “allow me to launch you into
wasted no time beginning her introductions. Within a clutch of minutes, the
sisters were formally introduced to more than a dozen ladies of the
, already Mary was more exhausted than she had been the month smallpox had stricken the parish.
Anne and Elizabeth did not seem likewise affected. Even now, they eagerly followed the short stub of a woman straight into the jaws of a rousing conversation. Mary, however, stepped backward and allowed the crowd to consume her whole. In an instant, she was whisked several feet away.
In truth, she had no other option but to slip away. Every
of her being told her she did not belong there mingling with
’s crème de la crème.
She was an uneasy, jumbled nest of nerves, so when she spotted a petite chair beside a japanned folding screen in the corner of the room, she made for it.
Turning her head, she peered over her shoulder to be sure she would not be observed, then dragged the tiny chair behind the concealing screen and plopped down to weather the rout.
For several tedious minutes, she sat quite still, eavesdropping on snippets of conversation or staring up at the ornate
edging the ceiling.
By degrees, Mary began to grow very, very bored.
She leaned back in the petite chair and yawned. Just then, she noticed a row of books sitting atop the mantel only an arm’s length from the edge of the screen.
La, why hadn’t she noticed them before?
She stood up and, keeping her body hidden behind the screen, reached out. Her fingertips barely brushed the cover of the book nearest to her.
Oh, perdition. Just... out... of... reach.
She strained; her shaking fingers scrabbled against the book leather, but they were unable to make purchase.
And then, suddenly, the book was floating before her eyes.
“Is this perhaps what you were reaching for, miss?” came an astonishingly low male voice.
The man’s face peered around the edge of the screen.
Mary’s eyes widened. “Y-you, you—”
She hadn’t meant to say anything, but of all the people in this city to find her hiding away like a child—how horrid it was that it was
The viscount’s despicable brother.
The man smiled. “I do not believe we have been properly introduced. I am Rogan
, Duke of Blackstone.” He paused for a moment and his eyes seemed to rake her body, finally settling on her face. “Forgive me for staring. Am I incorrect, or have we met before?”
Heat suffused Mary’s cheeks.
Oh yes, we’ve met. You are the ogre from the garden. And the beast who nearly ran us all down on