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The carriage bounced across two deep ruts as it passed between Westcourt Park's stone gates. Architect John Lascar barely noticed. He leaned forward, anticipation roiling his stomach.
"Relax," he ordered himself. "Be calm."
But he couldn't. His hands trembled. His ears buzzed. His mouth felt caked in dust. Too much depended on this commission.
For a man who took pride in a practical, stoic nature that exhibited little emotion even with the most condescending patrons, his current state was puzzling. Even earning his first commission hadn't made him dizzy.
For ten years he'd pursued and won increasingly prestigious patrons. Now, finally, he'd found the one who could install him at the Office of Works. Once the Duke of Westfield recognized John's architectural genius, he would support John's bid for a seat on that powerful board. The years of study and constant care for his reputation would finally pay off. He could hardly wait. With the war finally over, the government was turning its attention to constructing new public buildings and expanding old ones. The Office of Works needed professionals with vision and style.
Perhaps banishing this unseemly excitement would be easier if he indulged it for a moment while no one could see.
With the thought, he perched on the edge of his seat, nose pressed to the window, and waited for a glimpse of the house. Grounds designed by Capability Brown guaranteed that the first view would be spectacular.
Westcourt Park occupied a rolling valley, protected from cold north winds by a forested ridge. Specimen trees dotted open parkland, and pockets of woodland provided shelter for the fallow deercurrently dozing beneath a massive cedar of Lebanon a hundred yards from the drive. Drifts of daffodils carpeted the turf, dancing merrily in a brisk breeze. Sunlight glinted from a distant lake--typical of Brown landscapes. A hint of green lurked among last year's reeds, but their graceful curves barely registered on his mind. Nor did the Ionic temple perched picturesquely on the far shore.
He quivered in anticipation.
"Soon," he murmured as they crossed the Palladian bridge spanning the lake's outlet. Very soon ... the first glimpse should be just beyond...
"Dear God!" He thrust the window open to better see the image shimmering in the distance.
The house was ugly as sin, perched above the park like a gargoyle. Yet even as his mouth sagged open in shock, the structure thrust stony fingers into his chest and confiscated his heart.
It needed him.
Heedless of the icy air whipping through the coach, he collapsed on the seat, panting. Never had he felt such a powerful connection to a building. And to feel it for a monstrosity...
John shook his head.
"What the devil were the dukes thinking?" he grumbled, forcing shock aside to cast a professional eye over the façade.
A lord's seat should radiate power, majesty, and wealth. Westcourt didn't. Why hadn't Brown fixed it? The man had designed more than landscapes.
Some houses blended multiple styles into a fascinating whole that commanded awe, but not Westcourt. A child combining bits from several builder's models would produce something that better pleased the eye. And the roof! Half a dozen styles jumbled together, their junctions so tangled it guaranteed leaks.
The walls weren't much better. A baroque façade overpowered a Palladian portico that belonged on a building half Westcourt's size. A tower reared oddly from the right front. An oriel sprouted at the left center. The Tudor wing to the west seemed ready to collapse, its stucco sloughing off in unsightly chunks.
At least it had plenty of windows, but the--
A grove of trees obscured his view.
Sighing, John closed the window and rubbed out his nose print. Excitement returned, dampening his palms. This could be the largest commission of his career, for the house needed far more work than he'd expected, offering a fabulous opportunity to exercise his talents and win the patronage he so badly needed. Surely the duke would agree.
Or would he? How often did the duke visit his seat? So far John had dealt solely with Westfield's secretary. Derring had understated the house's size to a remarkable extent--which raised warning flags. While Derring had hinted at extensive renovations, John's contract covered only leak abatement. And now that he'd seen the house...
Questions crowded his mind. Why had the duke allowed his seat to deteriorate so badly? Was he in debt? Was he a miser? Was he too selfish to care about aught but his own pleasure? If so, John would be unable to rescue the house and would have no hope of patronage.
Pain sliced his chest.
It was insane to feel so strongly about a building he'd not yet entered, but he couldn't help it. Though he could find another patron, there would never be another Westcourt. Surely the duke would listen.
The house returned to view, closer now.
A few external changes would unify its design. John's fingers itched to try. He could make it more impressive than Blenheim, warmer than Chatsworth, more desirable than any other estate in England. With a little effort, Westcourt would raise envy even in the royals. He had to do it. Had to.
Every nerve tingled with awareness. Panting, he fought his body under control. This was no time to acquire an artistic temperament. Unless he displayed calm competence and fawning deference, he would accomplish nothing. Aristocrats took advantage of any eagerness to serve. And they disdained emotion.
Steady, he warned himself as trees again blocked the view.
His master, Soane, taught more than design and engineering. He also made sure his students learned proper demeanor. An architect must always defer to patrons, even those who were social equals. It was possible to lead a stubborn owner into making reasonable choices, but only if he thought the ideas were his own.
John had learned the lesson well, though he hated deferring to idiots. But he'd not had an emotional stake in the outcome until now.
The drive twisted, offering a longer look at the house.
It was sited atop a low rise, providing an excellent view across the park. If he had a free rein, he would heighten the tower, give it a more interesting parapet, then duplicate it on the left corner, removing the oriel in the process. That tumbledown wing had to go, and not just because of its condition. It destroyed Westcourt's symmetry. The portico needed replacing, as did--
"Water damage first," he reminded himself. Stopping the leaks would likely require a new roof. If the damage was as extensive as the current roof suggested, it might be cheaper to tear the place down and start from scratch.
Disappointment screamed through his head. The house deserved more respect.
But if anyone could save it, he could. He reveled in projects that challenged his creativity. Solving puzzles provided hours of pleasure. If he could do that with structures that didn't stir his senses, how much more could he accomplish with one that had already burrowed into his soul?
The battle to wrestle his emotions under control lasted to the doorstep. But even his enthusiasm dimmed as he mounted the stairs. Westcourt was in serious disrepair, with peeling paint and crumbling mortar. Either the duke was clutch-pursed in the extreme--postponing maintenance always cost more in the long run--or he was in debt.
Neither condition boded well. Before John broached the subject of renovation--or even committed himself to repairs--he must learn more about the duke's finances. Lords were notorious for ignoring bills, so John refused any commission that might leave the laborers unpaid. Few of them had savings they could draw on in lean times. Thus he must first judge the duke's sincerity. Since lords were exempt from debtor's prison, no threat could force them to meet their obligations. Appealing to their honor rarely worked because in their eyes honor applied only to their peers...
He stifled memories of the invoices he'd been sending Lord Moxley for eight years now and concentrated on his upcoming meeting with the duke. Discovering a lord's financial condition was tricky in the best of times. Most took pains to conceal any lack, and all of them considered questions to be impertinent. So he must step carefully. A duke who could advance his career could also destroy it.
His knock drew no response. No one had appeared to help his coachman, either. Yet he was expected...
He was raising his hand to try again when the door opened, revealing an ancient butler in a threadbare coat and scuffed shoes.
"Mr. Lascar, by appointment, to see His Grace," John announced, raising his voice in case the man was hard of hearing.
"His Grace is not at home," the butler announced, starting to close the door.
John's arm shot out to halt the motion. "Nonsense. We have an appointment for two o'clock."
The butler frowned as if deep in thought. "I do not recall--" His head shook as he backed to let John step inside, keeping hold of the handle to steady himself. "I will see if you be expected." Leaving John in the hall, he shuffled off, muttering.
John inhaled sharply. Something was seriously wrong.
Relax, he repeated, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The butler seemed unlikely to recall his own name, let alone orders about expected callers.
He checked his coat for dust, examined every inch of his hat, used his handkerchief to buff his boots, then concentrated on his surroundings. He hadn't been this nervous since he'd approached Soane about an apprenticeship at age thirteen.
The hall was large, with the ornately painted ceiling typical of baroque decor. But the painting was too encrusted with smoke to discern its subject, and the linenfold paneling was more appropriate to a seventeenth-century manor house than a ducal seat. The fireplace had not been lit for some time, leaving the air dank.
He was squinting into a high corner when the butler returned. John followed him to a small office.
"Mr. Lascar, sir," the butler announced.
John stepped inside, keeping his face blank though he nearly passed out from the unexpected heat. The duke might not squander coal elsewhere, but he didn't stint on fuel for his own comfort.
The man put artisans firmly in their place, though. The office was tiny and stark, probably where the steward met with tradesmen, for it was hardly suitable for a duke. Yet here the man sat behind a battered desk.
John froze in his tracks, terror balled in his throat as he fought the urge to flee. What was wrong with him today?
Westfield was a study in contradictions. Despite the laugh lines that marked him as a genial man, he stared down a haughty nose, making no attempt to rise. Iron gray flecked thinning brown hair. Signs of dissipation were everywhere--florid complexion, sagging jowls, and a bloodshot gaze that spoke of considerable brandy last night. The depths of his amber eyes were cold enough to send shivers down John's spine.
Curses burst through John's head. Westfield had lived hard and recklessly, probably squandering fortunes on every vice available to men of power and leisure, for he was utterly selfish.
Westfield's thin lips pursed, then announced, "I am Lord Chester Willowby, Westcourt's steward."
"Lord Chester?" John quickly shuffled his impressions, stifling fury that he'd again been passed off to an underling. The urge to flee increased tenfold, but he ignored it. "Has His Grace been delayed?"
"My nephew isn't here, not that it matters. I run the estate." Lord Chester took in John's appearance with a slight frown.
"I see." He didn't, though he could hardly demand clarification. Lord Chester might be Westcourt's steward, but he was also an aristocrat. The social gulf separating them prohibited personal questions.
Would he ever meet the duke? Did it matter? There was no evidence that the duke cared for his property or his responsibilities. Such a man would never exert himself to help others. So John could bid any hope of patronage goodbye.
Disappointment weakened his knees.
Lord Chester was on the shady side of fifty, so the duke was likely young, which boded ill for the question of payment. Aristocratic cubs gamed far too much, often with disastrous consequences.
Yet the house called, louder than ever, practically screaming in his ears. Even the little he'd seen strengthened his need to address its problems.
And perhaps his instincts were wrong for once. Lord Chester might raise John's hackles, but he seemed amiable. As steward, he would know what was due the duke's consequence, so he would surely rectify Westcourt's problems. And he might even convince Westfield to support his aspirations. All John needed was a letter requesting that the government consider him for a post with the Office of Works. Soane was already a member, so half the battle was won...
"I trust your journey was smooth." Lord Chester relaxed.
Curbing his impatience, John responded with the social banter the upper classes used to fill any silence. He hated the pretense of friendliness, especially when Lord Chester kept him standing, hat in hand, as if he were a supplicant.
"Derring explained the problem, I presume," Lord Chester finally said.
"He mentioned leaks, but offered few specifics. I would prefer to hear the details from you to prevent misunderstandings."
Lord Chester nodded. "Water damage is a continuing problem, but there is no point in making repairs until the leaks are corrected. The local builder is incompetent. He suggested I hire an architect."
"When did the problem begin?"
"No one knows." He shrugged. "Much of the house is closed, some of it permanently. Some of the damage dates back five years."
John bit back a sigh. No wonder the west wing was buckling. It had likely been under siege for a decade or more. "How many leaks do you know about?"
"Three. One each in the north wing, east wing, and Tudor wing."
"There are likely more. Small ones go unnoticed until they create extensive damage. I must study the roof before I can determine the scope of the problem. Identifying all the damage in a building of this size could take days. The repairs will likely be extensive. Have you considered other renovations?"
Lord Chester nodded.
"It will cost less to address everything at once. From what I've seen, it appears the house has not been redecorated in some time."
"True. My mother did the public rooms sixty years ago, but nothing structural was done then. My grandfather added the portico, but the last serious renovation occurred in 1697. Westcourt will see more use once the duke weds, so the public rooms must be updated."
"Will his wife not address decoration?"
"He wants it done now so it will be ready. He also wants to add several water closets and two bathing rooms. And his crest must appear prominently in all the public rooms."
"What about the kitchens?" If Westcourt had not seen improvements in decades, they would be hopelessly out of date.
"Cook's problems are mostly water, so addressing the leaks will solve them. A bell system would be good, though, reducing the number of footmen we must employ."
"How many rooms do you wish to include in such a system?" John frowned at this hint at pinching pennies. Bells were useful, but few households cut the staff when they were installed. Footmen had too many other duties.
"The duke's apartments and all the public rooms. Perhaps more."
"Very well. That detail can wait until later, as can the specifics of decoration. Once I know the general layout of the house, I will need several days of close study before I can produce suggestions and estimates. At that point you can decide which changes you want implemented."
"Excellent. Westfield's ward understands his desires. She will conduct your tour and answer any questions. We will speak again tomorrow." He gestured to a woman sitting in the corner. "Show him everything, Miss Harper. We want no more trouble." His tone terminated further discussion.
John stiffened, for he was unprepared to meet a lady, especially one he hadn't realized was there. Forcing a passive expression onto his face, he turned. An architect must reveal no interest in the females of the household, either family or servant.
But he nearly staggered as Miss Harper stepped into the light. Not now! he silently cursed as electricity sizzled between them, more powerful than the jolt he'd received from the house.
The fates ignored his plea. Lust rolled through him in a powerful wave. Totally inappropriate lust. Damnation! He couldn't think about women when he was working. What had he done to deserve this?
He'd battled a powerful libido from his earliest days with Soane. An architect could not afford a reputation as a rake, for few would allow such a man in their homes. He couldn't even satisfy his needs in a brothel, for the clean ones were patronized by potential patrons, and he wouldn't risk the others. Over the years he'd enjoyed a series of discreet widows, but the most recent had begun eyeing his income rather than his body, so he'd had to dismiss her. He'd yet to find a replacement.
Now he would pay for his procrastination. Lust would put him through the torments of the damned. Relieving it was impossible. Even the duke's servants were off limits. A ward was as high as the duke himself.
London would not consider Miss Harper a diamond, but she was arresting, with huge green eyes made larger by high cheekbones and a pointed chin. Her crowning glory was rich auburn hair that made his hands itch to touch. Absolutely fascinating. He'd always had a penchant for auburn hair.
Again he cursed his inattention. He wouldn't have noticed her hair if he hadn't been reeling with disappointment because the duke wasn't here.
And why she was unwed? She had to be approaching thirty.
He stifled speculation about her purity. If he was to gain anything from this commission, he must remain a model of propriety. Anything less could not only lose this job but tarnish his reputation for years to come.
Miss Harper smiled absently as she headed for the door.
John's head whirled as the half-smile forced his gaze to her lips. Sumptuous, sensual lips ripe for kissing. He wanted them all over him, hot, moist--
He reined in his runaway thoughts, cursing fashion's tight pants that revealed inappropriate reactions. Fantasy was fine during the wee hours of the morning when he couldn't sleep. But not while working.
Never confuse fantasy with reality, John. His mother's voice echoed in his mind. Fate rarely lets men choose their paths. Every position comes with duties that cannot be ignored...
He'd bucked fate by becoming an architect despite his low origins, but this time she was right. A duke's ward was as far above him as Lord Chester. Even gazing on her with lust was inappropriate. If he indulged in air dreaming, he could too easily slip, destroying his career even as he heaped unforgivable insult onto a lady.
He could not risk it.
So he focused on her gown. It screamed another warning to him. Despite being Westfield's ward, her clothing would shame a housekeeper. Even her gloves were frayed. More evidence of ducal penury? Why would she wear something that even the poorest merchant's wife would disdain? Especially to meet a caller. Granted, an architect was little higher than a servant, but he knew of no other lady who would dress so poorly.
The anomaly renewed his fears. Miss Harper was long past the age when girls made their bows to society. Unless she had ruined herself--and oh, how tempting that thought was--the duke's sponsorship alone should have won her a husband. Many men would do anything to gain approval from a duke, even wed a ward who was a wart-riddled hag or carried another man's bastard. A beauty like Miss Harper should have had her pick of suitors--unless the duke was drowning in debt.
Instead of agreeing to survey the damage the moment he'd heard the magic word duke, John should have followed his usual practice of studying the family before committing himself. In truth, he knew nothing about Westfield and couldn't recall seeing his name in the newspapers--a suspicious lack now that he thought about it. Had Westfield fled the country? It might explain why his steward controlled the estate. Perhaps the imminent marriage--about which the papers were also oddly silent--involved an heiress...
He followed Miss Harper into the hall, still fighting to banish lust. A slight limp imparted an alluring sway to her hips that washed him with heat. His fingers itched to rip away that hideous gown and replace it with something more suitable. Even a modicum of effort would turn her into the most arresting female in London--just as Westcourt could be arresting with a little help.
Tearing his mind from where it had no business straying, he concentrated on business. He knew all too well the consequences of forgetting his place. A fellow student had succumbed to temptation with a patron's flirtatious daughter. When her father caught them kissing, he'd charged Nigel with assault, sending him to Botany Bay for ten years. A lasting lesson to anyone tempted to look too high, for a lord's word always prevailed in court...
John shook away the memory. Miss Harper would know the duke's whereabouts and financial state. Once he learned the details, he could decide how to approach this commission--or whether to risk aristocratic wrath by declining it.
But his gaze stubbornly returned to that swaying rump.
Faith Harper led Mr. Lascar to the entrance hall, praying for time to catch her breath and restore her composure. Never had she been so startled by a male.
Startled? Talk about understatement!
She knew better than to look at gentlemen with interest. Doing so guaranteed heartache, for none would return her regard. But this time she'd had no time to prepare. The moment she'd met his gaze, hundreds of icy fingers had raced across her skin, followed instantly by blazing heat. Then the trembling had started.
She'd clasped her hands to hide it, but it hadn't helped, especially after he brushed against her as he pulled the door shut behind them. The quaking from that single touch had nearly knocked her to her knees. Her legs remained limp. She hoped he wasn't speaking, for buzzing deafened her ears, even to the click of his boots striding across wooden floors.
At twenty-eight, she was firmly on the shelf and ought to be long past girlish idiocy. But the paralyzing shock had tossed her sense out the window. Never had she felt so powerful an attraction, not even for Lord Pomfrey, whose visit had set every female heart in the neighborhood fluttering eight years ago. A baronet's disowned granddaughter was far too low to have attracted Pomfrey's notice, of course, even without her other handicaps, but that hadn't kept her from dreaming for several weeks afterward. He'd had warm brown eyes and long, delicate fingers...
Stop this! She rounded one of the many corners that turned Westcourt into a maze. Concentrate on duty.
Chester's decision to address Westcourt's problems was a surprise. He had never cared a whit for the house. Since his announcement, everyone had speculated wildly about what else the future might hold. But they couldn't ask. His temper was chancy at best. Whatever his real plans, they would learn of them in due course. The one certainty was that life would never be the same.
Especially for her.
Faith inhaled deeply. Inciting Chester's wrath would see her tossed out with no money and no reference. A terrifying prospect, and not just for her. Without her protection, Westcourt's staff would suffer badly. Thus she must control her reaction to Mr. Lascar. It ought to be easy. At least he posed no threat.
But no matter how she tried, she could not ignore him. Her fingers wanted to touch, to find out if his hair was as silky as it appeared, to discover whether his muscles were real or produced by judicious padding. Again, she clasped her hands to prevent any mischief.
Part of the problem was Mr. Lascar's youth. He didn't look much past thirty. That couldn't be right, of course, for he had a well-established practice. Since few architects finished their training before their mid-twenties and took even longer to build a reputation, he had to be at least forty--not that her body believed it.
Yet even youth could not explain why he left her breathless and tingling. Reginald never affected her that way, and he was about the same age. Not that Reginald could make anyone tingle...
Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!
She couldn't. Mr. Lascar was handsome as sin, radiating a more intense masculinity than any of Chester's rakish friends. And tall! He must stand over six feet, with shoulders broad enough to brush the sides of a doorway. His sable hair waved deliciously, the errant lock that dangled over his forehead begging her to comb it back.
Then there were his eyes. Their brilliant blue pierced clear to her core, making it impossible to look away. It was the clearest blue she had ever seen, clearer even than a summer sky. But more than color froze her breath. Emotion swirled in those eyes. And heat. And something that sent excitement rippling along her skin until the mere touch of her gown was too much to bear.
Her hand actually moved to rip it off before she recovered her senses.
The rest of his face was equally entrancing, with rugged planes that made his beauty wholly masculine. No one would ever consider him pretty or weak. When added to impossibly sensuous lips, a squared chin with an intriguing cleft, brows that hooked up slightly at the ends, adding an exotic look...
Stop this at once!
She clenched her teeth. One glance could not possibly have pierced her heart. There had to be another explanation.
Familiarity niggled at her mind, as if she'd seen him before, though it seemed impossible. He was not a man anyone would forget. Besides, the only men who called at Westcourt were Chester and his dissolute friends, and since Chester preferred the pleasures of town, even they were rare visitors. But she could swear she'd seen Mr. Lascar. Perhaps...
"Did you design the renovations at Coulter Manor?" she asked as they reached the entrance hall.
His eyes blinked, then brightened as he smiled. "Yes. Are you familiar with the work?"
"No. I've not met the man, but I heard that he'd hired a London architect." Relief left her weak. She had seen him, though not consciously. Coulter Manor lay just beyond the market town of Great Marlow. She'd likely passed him on the street. One would think she would recall so dashing a figure, but she tried to avoid notice when she was out, rarely looking directly at anyone lest she be caught staring.
"Mr. Denning mentioned Coulter Manor when he first approached me," he continued, clasping his hands behind his back as he pivoted to study the cornice. He nodded twice, then produced a small book and made a note.
Professional to the bone.
At least he'd not sensed her silliness. Ignoring how his voice brushed her skin like a caress, she adopted a businesslike tone and set out to acquaint him with Westcourt, its problems, and Chester's renovation plans. Whatever her own feelings, her assignment was clear. Chester never forgave an insult, so she could not afford to irritate him.
"As Lord Chester mentioned, aside from the ducal apartments, which were redone by the eighth duchess, the house has seen no changes since the seventh duke assumed the title in 1766. The only change to be made in here is to add a ducal crest opposite the door where it will be noted by all who enter. He wants it carved from mahogany, at least eight feet across. We've seen no leaks."
"Then you haven't looked. There is water damage above the door." He pointed.
She squinted upward and sighed. He was right. The painting disguised it from all but the sharpest eyes, but the plaster was blistered and the paneling slightly buckled. Not badly, but it boded ill. This wing had seemed intact.
"Will he insist on a carved crest?" Mr. Lascar continued, making another note.
"I hope not. He has abominable taste."
"Then perhaps I can suggest something more elegant. Wood has been passé for a century, and while plaster remains acceptable, Coade stone is even better. I would also change the walls. Plain wood is disdained in every household with even faint pretensions to fashion. A duke's seat deserves marble. If finances don't allow marble, then the paneling must be painted. And this must be the only ducal seat in England that greets callers with a wooden floor. Marble would be best there, too, or at least carpet."
"Good luck. He is quite set in his ways." Sighing, she led him toward the drawing room. The afternoon promised to be long. Westcourt contained a hundred rooms. Even at two minutes each, they would be late for dinner. Mr. Lascar had just spent four in the hall after standing there for ten on arrival.
Would her hip hold up? She rarely managed to stand an hour before the pain started--not that Chester cared.