Despite her disastrous London debut, Millicent Edgebrook has proven skilled at securing matches-for every young lady but herself. Resigned to spinsterhood, and eager to gain independence from her lovable but eccentric uncle, Millie joins the Everton Domestic Society. Her first assignment: find a bride for Preston Knowles, Duke of Middleton. How difficult can it be to secure a match for a handsome, eligible aristocrat? As difficult, it seems, as resisting her own attraction to the duke...
Preston has promised himself not to be ruined by love. After being rebuffed by two perfectly respectable candidates, he'd rather remain happily single for the rest of his life...if only his mother would let him. Yet suddenly, he's fantasizing about the lovely matchmaker she's hired-the least suitable bride imaginable. Millie's past is shrouded in scandal, and the Everton Society forbids relations between employees and clients. But even with so many obstacles against them, Preston longs to convince the woman he adores that love trumps rules every time...
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.55(d)|
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Everton House was not grand by any standards, but it was formidable. Standing at the bottom of the stoop, Millicent Edgebrook was nervous for the first time in a long time. If Lady Jane rejected her, she'd be right back where she started with no options but to spend the rest of her life being blown up, smoked out and poisoned by every manner of stench. No. This had to work. It was the first step in her plan for independence, so Millie strode up the steps and knocked.
Mrs. Doris Whimple, Millie's hired companion and lady's maid, fidgeted next to her.
"What are you nervous about?" Millie asked.
"I have heard that Lady Jane Everton is terrifying. Mary McGinty told me that just a look from Jane Everton has sent more than one woman crying from the room." Mrs. Whimple shivered.
"I'm certain that is an exaggeration. Be calm. Besides, she is interviewing me, not you." Despite her brave words, a knot formed in the pit of Millie's stomach.
The door opened, revealing an ancient butler with tufts of white hair poking out from his head. "How may I help you?"
Millie handed over her card.
"Miss Edgebrook, please come in. My lady is expecting you." He opened the door wide and stepped aside, allowing them into the foyer.
Aside from a large vase of flowers adorning a round entry table, the hall was mostly wood and gave a masculine feel.
"I am Gray," the butler intoned. "Your companion may wait here. Lady Jane willsee you alone."
Mrs. Whimple stiffened.
"It's all right, Doris. I'll be fine." Millie sounded braver than she felt. Her stomach was in knots, and her palms began to sweat as she followed Gray down a narrow corridor next to the stairs.
He stopped at a set of double doors. "My lady waits for you in the office." He gestured toward the door then ambled back the way they had come.
The butterflies in Millie's stomach turned to dragons at war. Drawing her shoulders back, she took a deep breath and knocked.
"Come in, Miss Edgebrook." A strong feminine voice came from within.
Millie stepped inside a well-appointed office complete with a wall of books to the right and tall windows out to the garden on the left. Millie stifled a sigh and pulled her pelisse tighter against the cool night. Another vase of flowers stood on a small table to the right. The woman behind the desk sat straight as a board with her dark hair pulled back severely and her hands folded.
She stood. "I am Lady Jane Everton."
Both curtsied, and Millie said, "I am honored to meet you, my lady. I am Millicent Edgebrook."
A warm smile softened Lady Jane's face as she gestured toward the chair in front of the desk. "Please have a seat and tell me what brings you to the Everton Domestic Society."
Heart in her throat, Millie gulped for air. "I'm not sure what you want to know."
Raising one curved brow, Jane cocked her head. "The truth would be a good start. How did you come to the decision that a life as an Everton Lady might suit you?"
Best to start at the beginning. "I was orphaned ten years ago and taken in by a kindly uncle. Perhaps you know of him? Francis Edgebrook?"
"He does have an odd reputation," Jane admitted, her expression bland, and no disapproval rang in her tone.
A long exhalation lodged in Millie's chest. "Yes, well, my uncle is a good man. However, as a man of science, he can get caught up in his laboratory, and on occasion there have been accidents. My family home is in Devonshire, and while it is entailed to me, it has been vacant for a decade and I have little income with which to open the house. I no longer wish to be a burden on Uncle Francis. It is time I make my own way in the world. Also, I'd like to do some good."
Elbows on the desk, Jane rested her chin on her hands and leaned in. She narrowed her eyes and stared at Millie. "What is it that you feel you can offer to the clients of Everton?"
The dragons returned to her belly. "I'm not exactly sure. I can run a house, I've been to hundreds of balls and know my way around the ton better than most. After all, this is my ninth season. I did remove myself from society for what would have been my second season. I surely can assist someone needing to get over a scandalous broken engagement."
Jane returned a sad smile. "Yes, I remember you had troubles early on. But, you are an attractive landed woman, Miss Edgebrook. Why have you not found another? You surely could have married if you wanted to."
Millie released her pent-up breath and glanced out the windows at the clouds rolling in. It would rain soon. A fitting end to the day. "It always seemed the men who were interested in me were better suited to my friends."
Sitting back, Jane asked, "How so?"
"For example, Joseph Wattsby took an interest in me last season. He is kind and smart. He loves the opera and goes as often as he can. I went to finishing school with Sarah Jessep, and she too is an avid lover of opera. It seemed a shame for the two not to meet, so I made the introductions. The next month they were engaged, and now they are expecting their first child."
"I see," said Jane. "And have there been other friends you found more suitable foryour admirers?"
"A few." She realized too late she had said too much. Jane must think her an imbecile.
"Mrs. Whimple, my companion, tells me it is seven."
"Goodness. You must have a knack for matchmaking, Miss Edgebrook."
"I suppose I do. It seems quite obvious when I meet two people with common interests, they should meet. Mrs. Whimple has told me many times I should keep them for myself. I suppose if I ever loved one of them, I would."
"Indeed." Jane stood. "This puts me in mind of something, my dear. Thank you for coming to see me."
Resigned to her fate of being smoked out and blown up for the rest of her life, Millie's hope died as she rose to bid Lady Jane good day. She'd been a fool to think she had anything to offer the Everton Domestic Society. What would they want with her when they had so many accomplished ladies already? "I appreciate you allowing me to come, my lady."
"If you are amenable, and available, you should settle in then go to see the Duke of Middleton as soon as possible. He has recently had another romantic setback, and his excellent mother has contacted the society to help him find a bride. It seems to be just the first assignment for someone with your qualifications."
Millie's mind spun. She must have heard wrong. The Duke of Middleton? No, it must be a mistake. "You mean, you want me to be an Everton Lady?"
"I thought that was your wish as well, Miss Edgebrook. Have I misunderstood?" Jane cocked her head.
"No. I ... Yes. I can move in tomorrow and start right away." Excitement warred with those darn dragons, and a jolt of energy filled Millie with hope.
"Very good." She reached in her desk drawer and pulled out a booklet. "You should read through the Everton Companion, Rules of Conduct." She handed the book to Millie.
The off-white book was sturdy in her hand and made the entire thing real rather than a dream. "I shall study it completely."
"It is a guide for success, but we trust our Ladies to make smart decisions during their assignments. We will have rooms made ready for you and your companion by midmorning tomorrow. I assume Mrs. Whimple will be a sufficient chaperone for you. We do have dowagers for instances when our Ladies must be alone with the male clients, but I assume you will be more comfortable with your own. That way she will not be put out by your uncle." Jane led her back toward the foyer where Mrs. Whimple sat waiting, with Gray standing nearby.
"Gray, have Mrs. Grimsby make two rooms ready for these ladies. They will join us tomorrow."
Mrs. Whimple popped up from her chair wide-eyed.
"Of course, my lady." He made his way to the door and pulled it open.
Millie wasn't sure what to say. Making a curtsy, she said, "Thank you, my lady."
"No thanks are necessary," Jane said.
Millie should run before Lady Jane changed her mind, but the flowers caught her eye. "My lady, how is it you have such beautiful flowers at this time of year?"
"Everton's has a greenhouse, and his lordship gifts me with fresh flowers most days." Pink flushed her cheeks though her expression remained stoic.
"How lovely," Mrs. Whimple said on a breath.
With a nod of her head and the barest of smiles, Lady Jane turned and strode back toward her office.
Unable to fathom what had just happened, Millie walked out of Everton House in a daze. She had done it. She was going to be an Everton Lady and be paid for her services.
Her uncle's carriage remained in front of the house. Millie still couldn't believe she was an Everton Lady as she climbed up with the driver's help. As they rolled down the street, she looked at her companion. Mrs. Whimple stared down at her gloved hands.
"Doris, I assumed you would want to come with me, but if the idea does not suit you, I will find you another post as a companion. I'm sure something can be arranged."
Looking across the carriage, Doris smiled. "Of course I want to go with you. I'm just so shocked that they want us, both of us."
Relief flooded Millie. While she would have done it anyway, having her friend along made things easier. "Not only that, but we have our first assignment. Once we move in, we are to see to the matchmaking of the Duke of Middleton."
"A duke?" Mouth gaping, Mrs. Whimple shook her head. "You'd think a duke could find a bride without the help of the likes of us."
A thread of doubt tugged inside Millie. "You would think so."CHAPTER 2
The Duke of Middleton's townhouse loomed far grander than anyplace Millie had ever been. An elegant butler admitted her with Mrs. Whimple, and now they waited in the gold parlor. Aptly named, as it was gilded from floor to ceiling. The furniture and thick rug were a dark royal blue, but the moldings and tables were all finished with gold. The expense of the room boggled Millie's mind. A chess set, in the middle of play, graced one end of the room near the fireplace.
Despite the opulence, the room was warm and cozy. Staring down at the pieces on the board, Millie calculated the black would win in five moves. She spun around as the door opened.
A woman of middle years with dark hair streaked with gray stepped in. Elegant and looking amused, she said, "I am Phillipa Knowles, the Dowager Duchess of Middleton."
"Millicent Edgebrook of the Everton Domestic Society." She dipped into a curtsy.
Her Grace gave a nod and sat on a divan. She offered Millie the chair on the other side of a low table. "My son is not at all happy with me for contacting you. He feels capable of finding his own wife. However, I am not as confident."
With an unwilling client, her assignment would be harder than she thought. It didn't matter. She had to succeed. Making sure to keep her expression bland, Millie said, "I'm certain I can help."
"How can you help?" The overly tall man filled the doorway. He stared Millie down as if she were a pebble in his shoe that needed disposed of.
Millie jumped up.
From her chair in the corner of the room, Mrs. Whimple gasped.
Sighing, her ladyship gestured toward the man. "My son, Preston Knowles, the Duke of Middleton."
He stepped inside and bowed. It was clear in his frown and stern gaze that he disliked her on sight, perhaps even before that.
Millie made a low curtsy. Her nerves were near tattered. Besides being the handsomest man she had ever seen, his brow lowered, and his fists clenched. Of course, it was more likely his mother he was upset with, but that did nothing to calm her.
"Well?" he demanded.
"Well what?" Good gracious, she sounded petulant when she'd meant to be calmand assertive.
A perfect eyebrow rose high over his right eye. "How can you help me, Lady Everton?"
Was he trying to rile her? "While I am an Everton Lady, I am not Lady Everton. That title belongs to Lady Jane. I am Millicent Edgebrook. I shall find you a wife the same way I have found wives for most of my friends." Pleased with herself for sounding strong and competent, she sat and folded her hands in her lap.
"But not for yourself." His observation was harsh and cutting. Grimacing, he sat in the chair to Millie's right. "I apologize, Miss Edgebrook. You are not the problem. My mother should not have hired outside help for what is already an embarrassing situation."
"It is done, Preston. I expect you to make an effort to assist Miss Edgebrook in finding you a perfect duchess. I will be vexed if I hear that you have been ungentlemanly."
He took a breath that expanded his chest, and Millie pondered if his morning coat would survive the effort. With a long exhale, he said, "I shall be the perfect assistant, Mother."
Smiling, Her Grace rose. "Excellent. I will leave the two of you to your quest. Come to tea on Friday, Preston?"
"Of course." He stood, kissed her cheek and saw her to the parlor door.
"Be sure to give Miss Edgebrook the list I made."
"Yes, Mother." He closed the door behind her.
"You have tea with your mother every Friday?" Millie asked. Why, she had no idea. She hated small talk, yet she hated the silence in the room more.
He narrowed his gaze and sat. "Is there something wrong with that?"
"No. It's very nice. Many men of the ton are less dedicated to their mothers." What in the world was she blathering on about?
"I get along quite well with Her Grace, and until this little stunt of hers, I never have had cause to complain." He wiped his palms on his breeches and crossed to the window near Mrs. Whimple. "Who are you?"
Doris squeaked in distress.
Millie sprinted to her side. "This is my companion, Mrs. Whimple. She will act as chaperone during this assignment. There is no need to be sharp with her."
Eyes closed, he took another of those long breaths. When he opened his eyes, a calm had settled in their dark depths. "I apologize again. This morning has unsettled me. I do not need help to find a wife. It should be a simple enough thing."
His height made her feel small and insignificant. Still, she was an Everton Lady and she would keep her chin up and do her job. "Yet I am told you have been thwarted twice. Is that correct?"
"I cannot be the first man to have been told no when he proposed." He strode across the room and moved a black pawn on the chessboard.
Following him, she couldn't help her empathy for his embarrassment. She stared at the board and countered his move. "Not the first nor the last, Your Grace. Though it is odd for a duke to be turned down. Would you mind telling me what the lady's objections were?"
He knocked over the king. "You have me in five. Which one do you want to know about?"
"The latest would be a good start. Who were you playing with?" She sorted the black pieces back to the start.
Preston did the same with the white pieces. "Avery Bastion, but I doubt he would have seen that move you just made. I assume you play, Miss Edgebrook."
Holding the king in her hand, she rubbed her thumb over the smooth alabaster and remembered. "My father taught me a long time ago. It has been some time since I've played."
"Perhaps we might have a match while you are in my mother's employ." He watched her as if looking for a weakness he might pounce on.
Swallowing, she nodded. "Her Grace mentioned a list?"
He placed the last pawn in the appropriate square and stepped back. "Yes, mother made a list of eligible ladies who are out this season. She thought it might be a good place to begin."
"How do you feel about her list?"
"I didn't realize my feelings were taken into account in this endeavor." Sarcasm dripped from his words.
Sympathy for him was not against any Everton rule. "I know it seems that way, Your Grace, but this is really for your benefit. Your mother must care for you very deeply if she came to Everton rather than risk you being hurt yet again."
"Perhaps you are right."
Progress. "May I see the list?"
He pulled a folded piece of parchment from inside his coat and handed it to her.
The names on the list were all daughters of dukes, earls and one or two viscounts. Millie didn't know any of them well. She sat on the divan. "Tell me about Lady Scarlett."
"She is the daughter of the Duke of Craftbrook." He sat across from her, a wary expression pulling his brows close.
"I know that much. Tell me how long you courted her and why you asked her to marry you." It was important to establish where he had gone wrong in the past and not continue on the same path. Despite her assurance that men were often thwarted, it was unusual for a duke. There must be a reason.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Lady's Escape"
Copyright © 2018 A.S. Fenichel.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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