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Tempting Her Reluctant Viscount
A Lady Lancaster Garden Society Mystery
By Catherine Hemmerling, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Catherine Hemmerling
All rights reserved.
Hear all, trust yourself.
~The Duke of Lancaster
Aside from her odd love of all things numerical, Hope Stuckeley led a fairly normal life. She had just turned the grand age of twenty. Grand, because she was not so green and naïve as she had been at eighteen and nineteen and yet she was not so old as to be considered hopelessly on the shelf ... which was a good thing, because although she had received a fair number of proposals in previous seasons, she was holding out for one proposal in particular, and this year, she was determined to make it happen.
She felt confident that this would be the year, because this was her third season out, and thus far, it had been the best one yet.
First of all, this year Hope was a member of the Young Ladies Garden Society, hosted by the estimable Lady Lancaster (as the lady preferred to be called despite being a duchess, dowager or otherwise); and, as an added bonus, the other four members of the Garden Society had become her very best friends. Secondly, she was finally on speaking terms with the secret love of her life, Michael Ashmore, the Viscount Lichfield.
Michael — as Hope thought of him, but only to herself — was the best friend of Lord Pembroke, her cousin's fiancé, but it was not through her or, by extension, him that she had met the lord. Lord Lichfield, surprisingly enough, was a friend of Lady Lancaster's. She wasn't exactly sure how the two knew each other, but something made Hope think it was more than as just two members of the aristocracy.
Still, it was thanks to Lady Lancaster that Hope had been officially introduced to the viscount, and she tried to make the most of it whenever she could.
Just the other day, she and her cousin Hannah had run into Michael while out shopping. Hope remembered giggling with Hannah over how cute the man was as he approached. Tall, dark, and eminently charming. Hope sighed in remembrance. And although he spent most of his time chatting with Hannah about William's whereabouts, at one point he'd turned to her and commented on her "fetching" new hat. The sincerity in his eyes nearly made her swoon. And that was how it had been for the last couple of years. Just a stray comment here and there (he seemed strangely struck silent around her most of the time), with her learning about him and his character through his conversations with others. It was frustrating that they couldn't seem to have a full conversation themselves, but still, Hope wouldn't give up those moments with him for anything.
Hope felt sure she would be a nice complement to Michael's rugged good looks. She knew that she was not a raving beauty like her friend Emily, nor could she compare with the extreme loveliness of her aforementioned cousin, Hannah, but she was reasonably attractive with her light brown hair, golden brown eyes, and softly rounded figure. She wasn't as thin as was fashionable, certainly, but frankly, she thought girls who ate like birds just to impress society were a bunch of ninnies.
However, Hope's appetite wasn't anywhere in evidence the morning of Sunday, February 20, 1814. In fact, she was practically ignoring her plate and wearing a rather uncharacteristic frown — that is to say, uncharacteristic for Hope when sitting at the breakfast table scouring the newspaper for news of the Stock Exchange (the frown was worn quite frequently during other less agreeable pursuits).
"Why the frown, sweetheart?" Mr. Stuckeley asked after filling his plate with eggs and sausages from the sideboard and sitting across from his daughter at the table.
"Hmm? Oh, nothing really," Hope replied, looking up to greet her father with a small smile. Seeing him always put a smile on her face. Aside from Lady Lancaster and the girls, her father was her best friend. When her mother had died, Hope was just seven years old, and she and her father had become inseparable. Then, after Mr. Stuckeley had discovered her gift with numbers, the two became even closer; their relationship being built on more than just that of father and daughter, but of a mutual respect.
Two years after the death of her mother, Hope's father re-married, as was expected of a man still considered in his prime. Her stepmother, a quiet, unassuming woman, was nearly fifteen years her father's junior at the time of their marriage. Almost immediately, she became pregnant and she stayed in that condition on a regular basis for pretty much the next five years. Now, she spent most of her days with the children or with her embroidery or watercolors.
It was safe to say, the marriage did not impede much on the relationship Hope had with her father. Her stepmother seemed perfectly happy leaving her husband and Hope to their own devices. It wasn't that she didn't care about Hope, precisely, but she was never given the opportunity to be a mother to her.
In the two years that Hope was the only "lady" of the house, she had taken the role very seriously. Having grown up much too quickly in that time, Hope had felt in no need of a mother when one had suddenly been presented to her, and her indifference to the new Mrs. Stuckeley had set the tone for their relationship from that point forward. One of acknowledged acquaintance, but not much more.
Hope supposed that was why she had gravitated toward Lady Lancaster and the Garden Society. The love and support of strong and wonderful women was exactly what she found she needed now, and being unsure of how to broach the subject with her step-mother after all these years, she had turned to outside sources to heal the hole in her heart she so recently discovered she had.
"Just some strange activity on the market recently," she told her father now.
"Strange, how?" Mr. Stuckeley asked.
"There seems to be a lot of movement in government-based stocks recently," Hope replied. "I suppose it could have something to do with the rumors of Napoleon's death that have been going around for the last few months but still ... something doesn't quite add up."
"Well, I wouldn't worry about it overmuch," Mr. Stuckeley said a touch too off-handedly. "Someone is always following one hunch or another. No one of any real intelligence would believe those rumors."
"I suppose not," Hope replied, wrinkling her forehead in doubt. For the most part, the stock market followed a kind of logic that she was able to understand and even forecast, but the last few days had her confused.
Shrugging, she folded the paper and set it beside her. Surely whatever was going on would make itself clear in time.
In fact, the best piece of advice she could give anyone about the stock market — if anyone bothered to ask her — was to be patient. Most investments, if chosen correctly, would pay off sooner or later.
However, aside from her father and Lady Lancaster, very few people paid a lot of heed to her advice. It was generally thought that a woman could not have a head for figures and certainly should not be responsible for handling money, other than a limited household allowance, of course ... and sometimes not even that.
And if Hope found these thoughts and beliefs irksome, she knew well enough that there was not much she could do about it. Truth be told, Hope was not a troublemaker. Even she could admit she was a people pleaser. At home, she may be a little unconventional — with her father's permission, of course — but out in public, Hope lived by the rules of society, however ridiculous they may be.
Of course, being proper, timid, and coy had not gotten her very far in her first nineteen years, she acknowledged wryly, so perhaps it was time to try something new, something different. And nothing was more new and different than the Young Ladies Garden Society.
To outsiders, the Garden Society was a weekly get-together for a handful of privileged young ladies of the ton. It was a very select group of girls, much to the dismay of most society mothers — for gaining the favor of the dowager Duchess of Lancaster was a coup of epic proportions.
Lady Lancaster was widely respected and generally feared among the ton. The widow of the Duke of Lancaster — a gentleman who was rumored to have worked for the war office as a spy — the dowager did not suffer fools lightly and she seemed to have an innate ability to know exactly who the fools were and who they weren't.
To that end, Lady Lancaster had invited a small number of debutantes to join her Garden Society, and these girls were made privy to the private side of the grand lady. And there was much to keep private.
As it turned out, the duke had been a spy for the war office, as had his wife. Together they had solved hundreds of war crimes across several countries. The duke was an enlightened man whose quotes were often heard and even more oft repeated as rules by which to live. Unlike most gentlemen of his time, he recognized the abilities and talents of women — in particular, his wife — and he considered it positively imprudent to discount a perfectly reasonable and often surprising asset in the field.
Hope knew that she would probably never be as forthright and brave as Hannah, but she certainly could learn a thing or two from her. And Emily, who was deeply concerned about others and regularly posed as a maid to deliver food and goods to the underprivileged, had already inspired Hope to use a disguise so that she could loiter around the London Stock Exchange building — otherwise known as the Stock Subscription Room — without drawing undue attention to herself.
Not quite the same altruistic motives as Emily, but handy nonetheless.
Rose Warren and Sarah Jardin were probably Hope's closest friends in the group. With Emily so popular and Hannah feeling the need to be in the middle of, well, everything, Hope spent a lot more time with Rose and Sarah.
In any case, Hope was thrilled to be the last young lady to round out the dowager's little assemblage. There was a never-ending supply of interesting things going on in the group and that suited Hope just fine. Their meetings were always the highlight of Hope's week and she looked forward to them eagerly. There was just something so ... fulfilling ... about having a place to be and something important to do.
This winter, especially, was an exciting time, as currently the Garden Society was embroiled in not one, but two intrigues. Hannah was investigating a smuggling scheme in which her brother David was entangled, and the other case was still somewhat of a mystery. It was involving Rose and the odious Lord Shrewsbury, but that was all anyone knew thus far. However, the Garden Society's weekly meeting was this afternoon and Hope assumed they would hear more about it then.
As Hope finished her breakfast, she wondered if she should mention her concerns about the stock market to Lady Lancaster at the meeting. Shaking her head, Hope decided that she needed to heed her own advice and be patient. There was nothing truly concrete to indicate there was a problem, and her intuition alone was not enough of a reason to begin a full-fledged investigation ... yet.
* * *
Much later that same day, Michael Ashmore, the Viscount Lichfield, was on his way back to London after completing some business at one of his estates in the far reaches of England.
It was extremely late and after being on the road from very early in the morning, Michael couldn't wait to find a room in the picturesque town of Dover and get some much needed sleep. Bringing his horse to a halt in front of the Ship Inn, Michael dismounted and walked into the establishment on weary legs, making his way immediately to the front desk.
"Good evening, sir," the clerk at the front desk said. "How may I help you?"
"Do you have a room available?" Michael asked. It was such an advanced hour that it was possible the inn could've been completely full.
"Ah, yes sir," the clerk said, "however, it is not one of our best."
Michael fought hard not to roll his eyes. Although the Lichfield viscountcy was anything but new in the peerage, it was a fairly recent acquisition for him, and he still was not used to the preferential treatment. Not that, as the younger son of a viscount, he was treated shabbily by any means, but somehow it seemed every businessman from London to Timbuktu knew instinctively that the title had been bestowed upon him, and as a result, they were treating him like ... well, royalty.
"I don't need your best room, man," Michael growled. "I just want a room."
The clerk hesitated. "The only room we have is just at the top of the stairs. With the front door right there, it can become rather noisy, sir, and, er —"
"That's fine," Michael interrupted. "I'll take it." As tired as he was, he didn't honestly anticipate a problem sleeping through any noise, doors or otherwise.
"B-but, sir ..." the clerk stammered.
Michael pinned the man with a piercing glare and the clerk wisely stopped his nattering and handed Michael a key. After signing the register, Michael made arrangements for the care of his horse and then gratefully headed up the stairs. He paused only for a moment to attend to his toilette before falling face-first onto the bed. Within seconds, he was fast asleep.
Unfortunately, what felt like just minutes later — but was in actuality closer to an hour — Michael was awakened by a loud pounding on the front door of the inn (situated, as he was warned, directly below his room). Cursing under his breath, he tried to drown out the racket by covering his head with a pillow. When that didn't work, and the knocking could still be heard minutes later, Michael decided there was nothing to do but go answer the door himself.
"The innkeeper must keep his quarters in the next town," Michael muttered to himself, as he yanked the door open and peered down the stairs. Apparently, he wasn't the only one roused by the pounding, even in light of his abominable room placement (his own fault, he acknowledged), as he counted no less than four other guests peeking out of their rooms, as well.
Reaching up to tug on his non-existent hat, Michael indicated that he would go check on the trouble. As a thank-you, the rest of the guests disappeared into their rooms without even a "how-do-you-do." Shrugging, he headed down the stairs to open the door.
Just as Michael stepped onto the middle landing of the stairs, the innkeeper's wife — resplendent in a rumpled robe and slippers — stumbled out from behind the front desk.
The fact that the woman was opening the door at all was, frankly, a bit curious. Didn't establishments such as these keep a night staff for just this reason? One would think that travelers could arrive at any time, day or night.
Of course, now that the knocking had come to an end, all he wanted to do was return to his bed and sleep. Yawning widely, Michael was halfway up the stairs when he heard something that caused him to stop in his tracks.
"I am Lieutenant-Colonel De Bourg, aide-de-camp of Lord Cathcart. I need to speak to the innkeeper immediately."
Michael turned around and peered down the stairs toward the front door. Standing in the entryway was a man wearing a richly embroidered scarlet uniform, dripping with sea spray, and adorned with medals on his breast and a dark fur traveling cap, banded with gold, on his head. Even Michael could find nothing about this man that belied who he said he was, and yet, something was not quite right here.
Before his brother had died unexpectedly of the influenza two years ago, Michael had been a soldier in the British Army. He had just been promoted to the rank of captain and he had foreseen a long illustrious career in the service of his country; however, that was not to be.
It had taken him some time to settle into the life of the "idle rich" — though honestly, he probably did more with his estates than most property owners did — but finally, after two years, he had learned to respond to the address of Lord Lichfield, rather than look over his shoulder for his brother or father.
However, two years as viscount did not erase his memory of nearly eight years in the army, and Michael remembered very much about his time in service, including a brief period of commission with Lord Cathcart at an encampment in France. In fact, Michael recalled being introduced to his aide-de-camp, Du Bourg, a number of times while he was stationed there.
Excerpted from Tempting Her Reluctant Viscount by Catherine Hemmerling, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2014 Catherine Hemmerling. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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