Confessions of a Little Black Gownby Elizabeth Boyle
She spied him in the shadows
And in an instant, Thalia Langley knew the man before her was no saint. He might claim to be the Duke of Hollindrake's unassuming country cousin, but no man that handsome, that arresting, could be anything but well, he simply must be an unrepentant rogue. His cat-like grace and power leave Tally/i>/b>/i>… See more details below
She spied him in the shadows
And in an instant, Thalia Langley knew the man before her was no saint. He might claim to be the Duke of Hollindrake's unassuming country cousin, but no man that handsome, that arresting, could be anything but well, he simply must be an unrepentant rogue. His cat-like grace and power leave Tally shivering in her slippers at the notion of all the wicked, forbidden things he might be capable of doing to her.
Indeed, Lord Larken is no bumbling vicar, but a master spy there in his majesty's service to findand murdera notorious pirate freed in a daring prison escape. Devoted to the Crown, Larken's not about to let an interfering (and not entirely innocent) Mayfair miss disrupt his ruthless plans. Yet how can he be anything but tempted by this lady in a little black gown a dress tantalizing enough to lead even Larken astray.
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Sometimes when a Season fails to secure the happiness of a young lady or two, say one's sister or cousin, then the next course of action is to organize the perfect house party.
A notation found on the back page of The Bachelor Chronicles
Tally, whatever are you doing there clutching your writing desk like someone is about to steal it?" Lady Philippa Knolles asked.
"Someone is, Pippin," her cousin, Miss Thalia Lang-ley replied, nodding in the direction where Tally's sister, the former Miss Felicity Langley, now the Duchess of Hollindrake, stood in the posting inn yard, ordering the harried footman about with military precision.
"She's rearranging the luggage?" Pippin looked askance at the melee of boxes and trunks.
"Yet again," Tally sighed, sharing a commiserating glance with her dog, Brutus, who was ever at the hem of her gown. "She used to do this to Papa when we were traveling on the Continent. Order the trunks and bags rearranged over and over again. Don't you recall how she harried those poor fellows when we moved to London last winter?"
"Oh, yes," Pippin mused. "I had quite forgotten. Perhaps Hollindrake could suggest"
"I've already advised him not to waste his breath. Papa and I learned never to argue with her over it, for she only fusses all the more until it is all put to her liking."
"Is there such an arrangement?" Pippin asked, her face a mask of innocence, but her eyes sparkling.
Tally laughed. "No, but she is determined to discover one."
There was barely room for the Duke's procession of carriages and wagons in the small yard, let alone the luggage now stacked in every remaining bit of space. And worse yet, the untimely arrival of a crowded mail coach, as well as a post-chaise, had only added to the chaos as the passengers and postilions jostled for room. Add to that, the luggage from the mail coach was being divided, as some of the passengers departed and others waded through the confusion to gain their appointed seats.
"I'll not lose my sketchbook and jewelry case," Tally complained, clutching her writing box closer. "And one of us had best stand guard over our carriage, lest we find her over here ready to send our trunks to the wagons beneath a crate of dishes and insisting Aunt Minty be moved as well."
"She wouldn't!" Pippin declared, nonetheless taking a nervous glance at Felicity. "I do think she's far too busy to notice our poor possessions."
Tally's reply was an arched glance.
"Oh, dear, you're right." Pippin's brow furrowed. "Look she's sending some fellow over here now."
Muttering her favorite Russian curse under her breath, Tally planted herself firmly before the carriage she and Pippin were sharing with their aged chaper-one, Aunt Minty.
The footman's pace slowed as he neared them and found himself facing the two young misses.
"And just what do you think you are doing?" Tally asked, handing her desk over to Pippin and scooping up Brutus.
The young man hung his head. "Well, miss, 'tis Her Grace's orders. I've come for the trunks and your aunt." He stretched out his hand toward the carriage door, and Tally sidestepped into his path.
"Bother Her Grace! You're not to open that door!"
Brutus aided her cause by letting out a menacing growl. Well, as menacing as one could be when you were a dog that could fit easily into a hatbox, and a very small hatbox at that.
Still, it was enough to get the footman to draw back his fingers, for Tally's little dog had gained a reputation amongst the duke's servants as being "a nasty bit of trouble."
Tally shot a heated glance toward her sister, who was right now arguing with the wagon driver over the proper balancing of trunks, before she turned her glare on the hapless servant. "Our Aunt Minty is sleeping. She is not to be disturbed."
Yet the footman persisted. "Miss, I can't go back there without something in hand." He lowered his voice and pleaded, "She'll have my hide."
Oh, dear. Poor man. He was right. Felicity would have his hide.
Tally heaved a sigh and wished her sister's fondest desire had been to marry a tailor or a butcher, rather than a duke. Quite frankly, her twin had become a regular tyrant since she'd married Hollindrake. Not that she wasn't still loveable, it was just that well, now that Felicity actually was a duchess, she'd become utterly intractable, more so than when they'd been mere paupers living on Brook Street.
If such a thing were possible to believe.
"Please, miss," the fellow begged. "Isn't there something you can spare?"
Tally glanced around the back of the elegant barouche. "Take the larger one therethat ought to satisfy her, and it should help balance out that mess she's creating on the wagon."
The man doffed his cap and practically wept in relief to have some offering to take back to his difficult mistress.
As he happily lumbered away, struggling under the weight of Tally's belongings, Pippin leaned over and said, "You needn't have made quite that much of a sacrifice."
"What do you mean?" Tally asked, watching her sister's lips fan out in a smile of glee at the arrival of yet another trunk to move about.
"Giving up your clothes to keep Felicity at bay."
"Not really," Tally said, putting Brutus back down on the ground and retrieving her desk from Pippin.
"For if she loses it, then she'll owe me a new wardrobe."
Pippin laughed, her blue eyes crinkling in the corners. "And here I thought you had placed yourself on the altar for my sake." She tucked a stray strand of blonde hair back beneath her bonnet.
"Hardly so," Tally said, waving one gloved hand, her gaze flitting over the jumbled luggage and landing on a woman who stood in the shade of a large tree across the yard.
About Tally's height and slim build, the lady wore widow's weedsin black from head to toe. It was nearly impossible to discern her age, shadowed as her face was by the large brim of an elegant hat, but Tally found herself intrigued by the aristocratic line of her nose, and the point of the lady's chin, which lent her angular face a unique distinction.
The artist in Tally loved unusual faces, and immediately she began to memorize and catalogue the lady's features until she had time to sketch them.
But as she studied the woman, something struck her as odd. Instead of the dour, mournful expression one expected from a woman in weeds, the mysterious lady was watching the proceedings in the yard as if she were calculating something, her gloved hand gripping the gnarled, thick bark of the chestnut tree she stood beneath.
Most likely keeping her hawklike gleam on her luggage, Tally mused.
Just then the widow turned and said something to a large man behind hera servant, from his dresssnapping her fingers and speaking quickly, then pointing at the post-chaise.
Tally glanced at the dark carriage as well, then back at the lady, unable to shake the notion that something wasn't quite right herethat she was concealing more than grief beneath her black bombazine.
Besides, there was something vaguely familiar about the lady. As if Tally had seen her face before. Somewhere. But before she could place the widow, Pippin nudged her in the ribs.
"Tally, are you listening to me?" she asked. "Do you want me to get you some tea or not?"
"Um, uh, no," she said, momentarily distracted from her musings.
"Are you sure?" her cousin insisted.
Tally glanced back at her. "Oh, sorry. Yes, I would love some."
Pippin opened the door of the carriage, caught up both of their tea caddy baskets, and made her haphazard way into the inn, while Tally remained behind to stand guard.
What she would really love, she would have liked to tell Pippin, or anyone who would listen, was not to be part of this circus. Not to have to spend her summer at Hollindrake House.
She nudged a stone loose with her slipper and huffed a little sigh.
A house party. Tally begged to differ. A party implied an event filled with gaiety and amusements. What her sister had planned was nothing more than an opportunity for Felicity to lord over everyone who had naysayed her grand notions of marrying a duke.
Tally snorted in a very unladylike fashion. If that were the end of her sister's machinations, it wouldn't be so intolerable, but she knew what Felicity had truly plannedthis house party was nothing more than another way for her to work her matchmaking evil.
Oh, I should have burned that wretched Bachelor Chronicles of hers when I had the chance.
For that horrible journal of Felicity's, the one she'd kept for years now, recording all the attributes and material wealth of the lords and gentleman of society, was everything that was wrong with the notion of marriageat least in Tally's estimation.
Whatever had happened to love at first sight? With finding a man who ignited one's imagination, one's heart, one's soul?
No, instead Tally was going to spend the next fortnight surrounded by perfectly eligible partis. Men specifically chosen by Felicity for their breeding, wealth and social ranking.
Like Lord Dalderby or Viscount Gossett.
This time Tally shuddered.
She knew she should be excited and grateful for this opportunity, for what unmarried chit of one and twenty wouldn't welcome the chance to be favored with an invitation to an exclusive house party stocked from the rafters to the cellar with unmarried and eligible men?
Not Tally. For the men Felicity invited were hardly the sort she desired. Someone dark and mysterious. Who'd seen the world that existed beyond England's quaint and quiet green shores.
Unfortunately for Tally, her father's globe-trotting ways ran deeply through her veins, and the staid, predictable life her twin had chosen seemed more a prison sentence than the veritable pot of gold most viewed such an unlikely and lofty match.
No, there would be no mysterious suitors for her, no affairs of the heart, no heart-wrenching choices between the pinnacles of love and death.
She glanced once again across the frantic yard at the huge chestnut tree anchored at the corner of the stables, but the widow had gonemost likely to rescue her luggage or seek refuge from Felicity's battlefield.
Envy, sharp and piercing, stabbed Tally's heart. This widow, for all her dark and searching glances, had the one thing Tally would never haveat least not until she was lucky enough to don a widow's weeds.
Three days later
"Oh, Thatcher, there you are," Tally said, coming to a stop in the middle of her brother-in-law's study, not even having bothered to knock. She supposed if he were any other duke, not the man who'd once been their footman, she'd have to view him as the toplofty and unapproachable Duke of Hollindrake, as everyone else did.
Thankfully, Thatcher never expected her to stand on formality.
The room was cast in shadows, which perfectly matched her gloomy mood over being a pawn in her sister's outrageous plans.
"One of the maids said she saw a carriage arrive," she began, "some wretchedly poor contraption that couldn't belong to one of Felicity's guests, and I thought it might be my missing "
Her voice trailed off as Brutus came trotting up behind her, having stopped on the way down the stairs to give a footman's boot a bit of a chew. Her ever-present companion had paused for only a second before he let out a little growl, then launched himself toward a spot in a shadowed corner, as if he'd spied a rat.
No, make that a very ill-looking pair of boots.
Thatcher had company? She tamped down the blush that started to rise on her cheeks, remembering that she'd just insulted this unknown visitor's carriage.
Oh, dash it all! What had she called it?
Some wretchedly poor contraption
Tally shot a glance at Thatcher, who nodded toward the shadows, even as a man rose up from the chair there. Immediately, the world as Tally knew it tilted, because this man had the bearing and grace of an ancient god, like watching one of the Greek sculptures Lord Hamilton had been forever collecting in Naples come to life.
A shiver ran down her spine, like a forebear of something momentous. She couldn't breathe, she couldn't move, and she knew, just knew, her entire life was about to change.
It made no sense, but then again, Tally had never put much stock in sense, common or otherwise.
If only Thatcher's study wasn't so bloody dark!
Then again, Tally didn't really need to see the man, whose boot Brutus had attached himself to, to know him.
Hadn't their Nanny Jamilla always said it would happen just like this? That one day she'd come face to face with the man who was her destiny and she'd just know?
Even without being able to see his face, she supposed.
Perhaps it was because her heart thudded to a halt just by the way he stood, so tall and erect, even with a devilish little affenpinscher affixed to his boot.
Heavens! With Brutus thus, how could this man ever move forward?
"Oh, dear! Brutus, you rag-mannered mutt, come away from there," she said, pasting her best smile on her face and wishing that she weren't wearing one of Felicity's old hand-me-down gowns. And blast Felicity for her tiresome meddling, for if she'd just left well enough alone and not insisted the trunks be changed around, Tally's trunk wouldn't have become lost.
"You wretched little dog, are you listening to me? Come here!" She snapped her fingers, and after one last, great growling chew, Brutus let go of his prize and returned to his usual place, at the hem of her gown, his black eyes fixed on the man, or rather his boots, as if waiting for any sign that he could return for another good bite.
"I am so sorry, sir," Tally began. "I fear his manners are terrible, but I assure you his pedigree is impeccable. His grandsire belonged to Marie Antoinette." She snapped her lips shut even as she realized she was rambling like a fool. Going on about Brutus's royal connections like the worst sort of pandering mushroom.
"No offense taken, miss," he said.
Tally shivered at the rich, masculine tones of his simple acceptance of her apology. It swept over her like a caress.
Then to her delight, he came closer, moving toward Thatcher's desk with catlike grace, making her think of the men she'd imagined in her plays: prowling pirates and secretive spies. It was almost as if he was used to moving through shadows, aloof and confident in his own power.
Tally tamped down another shiver and leaned over to pick up Brutus, holding him tightly as if he could be the anchor she suddenly felt she needed.
Whatever was it about this man that had her feeling as if she were about to be swept away? That he was capable of catching her up in his arms and stealing her away to some secluded room where he'd lock them both away. Then he'd toss her atop the bed and he'd strip away his jacket, his shirt, his.
Tally gulped back her shock.
What the devil is wrong with me? She hadn't even met the man yet, and here she was imagining him nearly in his altogether.
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