London, March 1818
Every English heart mourns the loss of Princess Charlotte and her stillborn son last November. But the royal succession is in question, so it's tallyho and off to the "Hymen Race Terrific" for King George's three unmarried sons. No stakes could be higher for Their Highnesses, the Dukes of Clarence, Cambridge, and Kent. Which royal duke will be the first to wed, bed, and breed? Whose offspring will one day wear the crown?
Only time and a lady's consent will tell.
From Le Dernier Mot,
The Final Word on News That Everyone
Who Is Anyone Should Know
Lady Serena Osbourne uncrossed her legs and barely resisted the urge to rub her burning inner thighs.
Drat these trousers!
She'd planned this exploit for weeks. She committed the map of London in her father's study to memory so she could walk to Boodles, exclusive haunt of the country squire and horse set, without asking for directions. She commissioned the beautifully tailored masculine ensemble she was wearing, though bribing her modiste to do it secretly had cost the earth. She determined the right time for slipping away from the watchful eyes of her footman.
But she hadn't counted on chafing.
Men must have cast-iron undergarments.
Unfortunately, Serena couldn't wear her usual pantalets beneath the blasted gray wool without spoiling the line of the trousers.
But other than the chafing, she found wearing men's clothing as exciting an adventure as she'd hoped. When she walked down the male dominated section of St. James Street to the gentlemen's club, she reveled in a newborn sense of freedom. Ordinarily, a woman walking without an escort on that block would be castigated as a wanton, but she strolled it freely, albeit itchily, in her trousers, waistcoat, tailcoat, and greatcoat. Plenty of layers to conceal her true form.
There'd been a moment of panic at the ornate door of Boodles when she wasn't sure her disguise as her cousin Rowland would hold. They favored one another strongly, being blessed with fashionable coloring as blue-eyed blondes, and had the same delicately chiseled features, down to the small dimple on their chins. She and Rowland were both Osbournes to the bone.
Rowland was not gifted with unusual stature or broad shoulders, so that made the disguise easier to pull off. But if the doorkeeper at the club had looked too closely when Serena removed her topper, he'd have seen that her blond hair was bound by a pale ribbon and secreted down her back beneath the stiff collar and cravat. Evidently, Rowland hadn't put in an appearance at the club recently enough for the differences between them to be noted, and she was admitted readily.
Now Serena was ensconced before a cozy fire with a cup of fine Arabica bean coffee on the small table beside her wing chair, a freshly ironed copy of the Times on her lap, and the low hum of masculine conversation all around her. She relished being surrounded by the rich mahogany paneling, brass fittings, and undeniably masculine scent that was a combination of damp tweed-for it had rained early on-spicy bergamot, and old leather.
She'd done it. She was the first woman to invade Boodles since its establishment in 1762. All Serena wanted was a taste of Boodles' brew and the chance to flout the rules while she could. Once she became the royal duke's bride, her life would no longer be her own. She'd be hard-pressed to have any sorts of adventures then.
Now all she had to do was drink her coffee and make good her escape without engaging anyone in conversation and she'd be-
"Osbourne, isn't it?"
Serena gulped and looked up into a pair of speculatively narrowed green eyes. They belonged to Sir Jonah Sharp.
Her friend Lysandra always had plenty of gossip to share about this particular gentleman, and none of it the least complimentary. The raw-boned, wickedly handsome fellow was said to be a rake of the first water. With the face of a vengeful archangel and the broad shoulders of a dock worker, Sir Jonah was destined by nature to turn feminine heads everywhere he went.
There were more than a few evil rumors floating around about his less than exemplary military service, though he was reputedly lethal with a sword. He didn't wear one now, but Serena wondered if his thick cherry walking stick might conceal a blade.
Something about the man made her insides quiver like a plate of aspic. She realized with a start that he'd asked her a question. "Yes," she said, pitching her voice as low as she possibly could. "I'm Osbourne."
It was no lie. As Lady Serena, the only child of the Marquis of Wyndleton, she was an Osbourne. Just not the one Sir Jonah thought.
"Sir Jonah Sharp, your servant, sir," he said, removing his beaver hat and offering his hand. His hair was seal dark and his equally dark brows made his green eyes all the more striking. They weren't the deep mossy hue of a shaded glen. They were the icy green of the Irish Sea, but they warmed her strangely. "You may not recall me. I was a few forms ahead of you."
Drat! Not only did he know her cousin Rowland, he'd gone to school with him. She took the man's hand, gave what she hoped was a hearty shake, and tried not to wince at his grip. Thank goodness she'd thought to have elegantly masculine gloves made to match her outfit.
Heaven help her if Sir Jonah started reminiscing about schoolboy pranks. She took a big gulp of her coffee while her mind churned furiously. She couldn't help grimacing at the hot, dark liquid. Normally, Serena laced her coffee with cream and at least three sugar lumps, but she figured a man would take it black.
It was horrid.
Sir Jonah settled into the wing chair opposite her and motioned to the servant for coffee to be brought. Even though he was obviously a member of the club, he seemed out of place. Too big, too raw, too...blatantly male to blend in with the other dandified patrons. "I wasn't certain it was you at first. You've changed a good bit since Eton."
Serena hoped her cousin had a reputation for being a man of few words. She didn't dare speak too much for fear of giving herself away. "You've changed too."
"Don't believe everything you hear," Sharp said. "Do you see much of Easterly these days?"
Who the devil was Easterly? Probably one of Rowland's friends. "Not as much as I'd like."
"Truly? You must have called Pax with him then, since the two of you didn't get on when we were in school. I always figured if ever you and Easterly buried the hatchet it would be in each other's skulls."
The brutal imagery made Serena more than a little queasy. Was this really how men talked when women weren't around?
"So, I understand the Duke of Kent is considering making your cousin his royal duchess." Sir Jonah tugged off his gloves and laid them aside as he accepted his coffee from the hovering servant. His hands were far too large for fashion, which required a man have small, neat hands to match his small, narrow feet. Nothing the least diminutive about Sir Jonah's polished Hessians either. Serena's palms began to feel clammy inside her kid gloves, but she wasn't about to remove them. "How do you rate Lady Serena's chances in the race for a royal heir?"
Crude as well as violent. Male conversation was definitely not what it was cracked up to be.
Irritation fizzed in Serena's belly. It was bad enough to be an object of speculation over her possible match with the duke. The tabloids first coined the vulgar phrase "Hymen Race Terrific" to describe the sons of King George's dash to the altar in order to provide their mad father with a legitimate grandchild. Seeing it in print was infuriating enough. Hearing it spoken of in public made her quietly livid.
"I think Lady Serena stands a better chance of becoming English royalty than some German-speaking upstart of a princess," she said staunchly.
Rumors that Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, was sending envoys to the duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld infuriated her father to no end. "We're English, demmit!" he'd say over the dinner table when the subject of a possible alliance with the sister of Prince Leopold arose. "The future monarch of England should not be raised speaking Deutsch!"
Perhaps if her mother were still alive, she'd have tempered the marquis's propensity for swearing, but Serena doubted it. One of her earliest memories was of sitting on her father's lap, listening in horrified fascination while he spouted words her governess had assured her would lead to eternal damnation. Eventually, she assumed coarse language was merely a masculine trait. Based on her experience with her father, she'd expected to hear a good deal more profanity at Boodles than she had. Perhaps it was time to cement her male identity with a bit of the vulgar tongue.
"If the Duke of Kent would move his royal arse and offer for Lady Serena straight out instead of dancing about the issue, the match could be made by this time tomorrow," she said.
"It's seems you know your cousin's mind on this matter." Sir Jonah's lips twitched in a half-smile. "The lady's willing, is she?"
"Not that it's any of your business, Sharp, but yes, she is. What woman wouldn't accept the suit of a royal duke?"
"One who values herself for more than her ability to conceive an heir."
That stung. She was much more than her gender. Hadn't she chafed at the limits placed upon her by virtue of her sex so much she was willing to endure a little real chafing in order to pierce the male sanctuary of Boodles?
"A royal heir. That makes all the difference in the world," she corrected, clutching her coffee cup so tightly she was sure her knuckles went white beneath her gloves. "Becoming the wife of a royal duke is not the same thing as becoming the wife of, say...a mere baronet."
Sir Jonah splayed his hand over his chest. "You wound me, Osbourne."
Serena doubted it. He wasn't taking her seriously at all. It was suddenly very important to make him understand why she'd accept the Duke of Kent's proposal without a second thought. "Any woman can bring a child into the world. Only a very few can give birth to a future king. Just imagine the opportunity to mold and shape the child who will one day reign."
"Careful. It almost sounds as if you'd be willing to bear the duke's child, Osbourne."
Would her cousin think that an insult to his manhood and demand satisfaction? Masquerading as Rowland was much more complicated than she'd expected. She decided to take Sir Jonah's words as a joke and laughed, careful to keep the pitch of her voice low.
"Very droll, Sir Jonah. I don't remember you being so clever when we were in school." She hoped he hadn't been the school's resident wag, but she couldn't resist delivering a verbal slap.
"Another blow. You must give me a way to get even." He set down his coffee and skewered her with a penetrating gaze. "Will you make a wager?"
A bet could be a dicey proposition. Suppose she lost. Would Sir Jonah search out her cousin and demand he pay? "It depends on what you have in mind."
"A question about which you have definite ideas. You say Lady Serena will wed the Duke of Kent. I say she will not."
She tamped down a sigh of relief. It couldn't even be considered gambling since she had some control in the outcome. She'd make sure the duke chose her. The day an English maiden couldn't best some German lady hadn't dawned. "Very well."
"Good." Sir Jonah leaned forward, balancing his elbows on his knees. "And now for the stakes. Since you're Lady Serena's cousin and have inside information, it seems only fair that the odds reflect that. Say, ten to one?"
Even at those odds, it was actually unfair for her to make this wager with the man, but something about Sir Jonah's smug smile made her want to smack it off his face. He deserved a drubbing.
"Done. Ten to one."
He signaled to a man dressed in light blue livery. "Mr. Filbee, bring the book if you will."
Serena had heard tales of Boodles' infamous wager book. Countless gentlemen had lost homes, lands, and fortunes simply by signing their names in that ledger. No matter the cost, a lost wager was a debt of honor that would be repaid, even if it meant turning one's family out on the street.
Mr. Filbee disappeared into a back room and returned bearing a leather-bound volume, quill, and ink. Once he was prepared to take dictation, he gave Sir Jonah a quizzical look. "The nature of the wager, if you please."
"Let's keep this discreet since a lady is involved," Sir Jonah said to Serena. He gave her a pointed look and for a moment, her belly squirmed, fearing he'd realized she wasn't her cousin after all. Then he turned back to the liveried servant. "Take this down, Filbee. ‘On the question of whether or not a certain young lady, known to us both, will wed a certain gentleman who shall remain nameless, Mr. Rowland Osbourne is of the opinion the match will be made. Sir Jonah Sharp disagrees. The stakes shall be one hundred guineas to ten.' There. That should do it."
Serena sputtered. "One hundred guineas?"
"You agreed to ten to one odds," he reminded her. "I thought we'd make it interesting."
She'd have to sell some of her jewelry, while being careful not to sell the larger pieces her father might notice missing, to make good on a wager of that size.
"Thinking of a higher amount?" Sir Jonah rubbed his chin, considering his options. "As your uncle's heir apparent, money is probably no object for you. Having the expectation of becoming the Marquis of Wyndleton someday probably means there are plenty who would advance you any sum you'd care to name. It would be a stretch for me, but I could go a thousand to one hundred if you like."
"No, no, one hundred to ten is fine." Her voice had crept up half an octave in excitement. She bridled herself to pitch it lower. "Perfectly fine."
Mr. Filbee finished recording the wager in his book, then handed it to Sir Jonah for his signature. He signed with a flourish and handed the quill to Serena.
She couldn't sign her cousin's name. Forgery was considered a crime on par with murder, and was dealt with just as harshly. And even if it wasn't a crime, she didn't want to commit a lie to pen and paper. So she simply signed "Osbourne."
It's true, she reassured herself. She wasn't the one who named her as Rowland for Mr. Filbee. If there was a discrepancy with the facts in the Boodles Book of Wagers, she hadn't been the one to introduce it.
She was slicing her conscience with a mighty thin blade, but she had managed to sign her name in the exclusively male ledger. A warm glow of accomplishment surged through her. This was much more satisfying than drinking the bitter black coffee.
"Thank you, Mr. Filbee; that'll be all," Sir Jonah said. Then he settled back into his chair and grinned at her. When she didn't return his smile, his gaze wandered over her head toward the open door. Bracing cold rushed over them as someone entered. "I say, Osbourne, have you a brother I don't know about?"
"No." The Osbournes were notorious for small but hearty families. Few children were born to them, but those who were tended to live to maturity and a ripe old age. At eighty-two, Serena's Grand-mère Osbourne could still cut a respectable reel, but even she had been an only child. "I have no brother," Serena said.
"Then you have a doppelganger, my friend. That fellow yonder has a wispy attempt at a mustache, but otherwise, your twin just walked in the door."
Serena twisted to peek around the tall wing of her chair. Drat! It was Rowland. He wasn't supposed to be in Town until the Season started. She shrank back into the chair, wishing she could seep into the tufted cushions.
"Looks like the doorkeeper is reluctant about admitting him," Sir Jonah said calmly. "As he should be. One Osbourne at a time is enough for any establishment. Well, my lady, how would you like to play this?"
"My lady? I'm not-"
"Spare me your denials. You haven't time. If you wish to quit this place without being found out, follow me." He rose and began walking toward the door to the kitchen where servants were coming and going, bearing trays heaped with steaming caffeinated bliss and small glass bowls of the club's famous Orange Fool.
If she were apprehended in Boodles and exposed as herself, she could kiss any chance of a royal betrothal good-bye.
Serena scrambled to her feet and broke into a trot after Sir Jonah Sharp.