From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Grace Burrowes comes another sparkling Regency romance filled with desire and drama, featuring the Haddonfield ladies and their loves
An Honorable Life
Daniel Banks is a man of the cloth whose vocation is the last comfort he has left-and even his churchman's collar is beginning to feel like a noose. At the urging of family, Daniel attempts to start his life over as vicar in the sleepy Kentish town of Haddondale, family seat to the earls of Bellefonte.
Challenged by Passion
Resigned to spinsterhood, Lady Kirsten Haddonfield welcomes the new vicar to stay at her family's home while his is under renovation. Suddenly the handsome visitor has Kirsten rethinking her ideas about love and marriage, but a dreadful secret from Daniel's past may cast a shadow too long for either of them to overcome.
True Gentlemen series:
Tremaine's True Love (Book 1)
Daniels' True Desire (Book 2)
Will's True Wish (Book 3)
Praise for The Duke's Disaster:
"Charming, funny, filled with suspense and intrigue... an engaging read." -Fresh Fiction
"Burrowes skillfully explores the importance of trust in a relationship, as well as love and passion, bringing a depth of emotion to her romance that resonates with readers." -RT Book Reviews
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"Why must all and sundry entertain themselves by telling me falsehoods?"
Daniel Banks's teeth chattered as he put that conundrum to his horse, who had come to a halt, head down, sides heaving, before the only building in sight.
"‘Ye can't miss it,'" Daniel quoted to himself. "‘The only lane that turns off to the left half a mile west of the village.'"
This lowly dwelling was not Belle Maison, the family seat of the Earl of Bellefonte. Daniel had listened carefully to the directions given to him by the good folk at the Queen's Harebell. They'd sent him, in the middle of a roaring snowstorm, to a mean, weathered cottage, albeit one with a light in its single window.
"I'll be but a moment," Daniel promised his gelding.
Daniel's boots hit the snowy ground and agony shot up limbs too long exposed to the cold. He stood for a moment, waiting for the pain to fade, concocting silent epithets when he ought to have been murmuring the Twenty-Third Psalm.
"Halloo, the house!" he called, thumping up three snowy steps. The porch sheltered a small hoard of split oak firewood. Somebody within burned that oak, for the frigid air held a comforting tang of wood smoke.
The wind abated once Daniel ducked under the porch's overhang, while the cold was unrelenting. He longed for a fire, some victuals, and proper directions, though only the directions mattered.
A man of God was supposed to welcome hardships, and Daniel did, mostly because his store of silent, colorful language was becoming impressive.
He raised a gloved fist to knock on the door. "Halloo, the-!"
The door opened, Daniel's sleeve was snatched into a tight grasp, and he was yanked into the warmth of the cottage so quickly he nearly bumped his head on the lintel.
"I said I'd be home by dark," his captor muttered, "and full dark is yet another hour away. I was hoping this infernal snow would slow down." The young lady turned loose of Daniel's sleeve. "You're not George," she said.
Alas for me. "The Reverend Daniel Banks, at your service, madam. I lost my way and need directions to Belle Maison, the Bellefonte estate. Apologies for intruding upon your afternoon."
Though, might Daniel please intrude at least until his feet and ears thawed? Beelzebub was a substantial horse who grew a prodigious winter coat. He'd tolerate the elements well enough for a short time.
While Daniel was cold, tired, famished, and viewing his upcoming visit to the earl's grand house as a penance at best.
"Your gloves are frozen," the lady noted, tugging one of those gloves from Daniel's hand. "What could you be thinking, sir?" She went after his scarf next, unwinding it from his head, though she had to go up on her toes. She appropriated his second glove and shook the lot, sending pellets of ice in all directions.
What had he been thinking? Lately, Daniel avoided the near occasion of thinking. Better that way all around.
"You needn't go to any trouble," Daniel said, though the warmth of the cottage was heavenly. A kettle steamed on the pot swing, and the scent of cinnamon-a luxury-filled the otherwise humble space. Somebody had made the dwelling comfy, with a rocking chair by the fire, fragrant beeswax candles in the sconces, and braided rugs covering a plank floor.
"I can offer you tea, and bread and butter, but then surely we'll be on our way. I'm Kirsten Haddonfield, Mr. Banks, and we can ride to Belle Maison together."
Haddonfield was the family name that went with the Bellefonte title.
"You're a relative to the earl, then?"
She wore a plain, dark blue wool dress, high necked, such as a farmer's wife would wear this time of year. Not even a cousin to an earl would attire herself thus unless she suffered excesses of pragmatism.
"I am one of the earl's younger sisters, and you're half-frozen. I hope those aren't your good boots, for you've ruined them."
"They're my only boots."
Swooping blond brows drew together over a nose no one would call dainty, and yet Lady Kirsten Haddonfield was a pretty woman. She had good facial bones, a definite chin, a clean jaw, and blue eyes that assured Daniel she did not suffer fools-lest her tone leave any doubt on that score.
Daniel was a fool. Witness the ease with which the yeoman at the inn had bamboozled him. Witness the ease with which his own wife had bamboozled him.
"At least sit for a moment before the fire," the lady said, arranging his scarf and gloves on pegs above the hearth. "Did you lose your way because of the weather?"
Daniel had lost his way months ago. "The weather played a role. Are you here alone, my lady?"
She folded her arms across a bosom even a man of the cloth acknowledged as a fine bit of work on the Creator's part.
"I am on my family's property, Mr. Banks, and they well know where I am. The weather is not only foul, it's dangerous. If you must prance out the door to die for the sake of manners, I'll not stop you. The groom or one of my brothers should be here any minute to fetch me home. We'll note into which ditch your remains have fallen as we pass you by."
The fire was lovely. Her ferocity, though arguably rude, warmed Daniel in an entirely different way. Nowhere did the Bible say a Good Samaritan must be excessively burdened with charm.
"You aren't much given to polite dissembling, are you, my lady?" For an earl's daughter was a lady from the moment of her birth.
She marched over to the sideboard and commenced sawing at a loaf of bread. "I'm not given to any kind of dissembling. You should sit."
"If I sit, I might never rise. I've journeyed from Oxfordshire, and the storm seems to have followed me every mile."
"Why not tarry in London and wait out the weather?"
Because, had Daniel spent another night in London, he'd have been forced to call on a bishop or two and explain why his very own helpmeet hadn't accompanied him to his new post.
"I am here to assume responsibility for the Haddondale pulpit," Daniel said, moving closer to the fire. A copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman lay open facedown on the mantel. "I was given to understand filling the position was a matter of some urgency."
Her ladyship swiped a silver knife through a pat of butter and paused before applying the butter to the bread.
"You're the new vicar?"
Amusement made this brusque, pretty woman an altogether different creature. She had mischief in her, and humor and secrets, also-where on earth did such thoughts come from?-kisses. Fun, generous kisses.
When she smiled, Lady Kirsten looked like the sort of female who'd pat a fellow's bum-in public.
The cold had made Daniel daft. "Do I have horns or cloven feet to disqualify me from a religious calling, my lady?"
She slapped the butter onto the bread, her movements confident.
"You have gorgeous brown eyes, a lovely nose-though it's a bit red at the moment-and a smile that suggests you might get up to tricks, Mr. Banks. You could also use a trim of that brown hair. Ministers aren't supposed to look dashing. I have two younger sisters who will suffer paroxysms of religious conviction if you're to lead the flock."
Olivia had found Daniel's nose "unfortunate." Daniel found his entire marriage worthy of the same appellation.
Feeling was returning to his feet, and hunger writhed to life along with it. Lady Kirsten passed him the bread without benefit of a plate.
"It's not quite fresh, the bread, that is. The butter was made this morning. I'll fix you some tea."
Daniel took a small bite, then realized he'd forgotten to send grateful sentiments heavenward before he'd done so. I'm grateful for this bread-also for the company.
"Your tea, Mr. Banks. Drink up, for I hear sleigh bells."
Daniel downed the hot tea in one glorious go, the sweetness and substance of it fortifying him, much as Lady Kirsten's forthright manner had. She swirled her cloak around her shoulders, then draped his scarf, warm from the fire and redolent of cinnamon, around his neck.
"Let me do the explaining," she said, passing him warmed gloves when he'd bolted his bread and butter. "The sleigh will afford us hot bricks and lap robes, but once we get to Belle Maison, we'll hear nothing but questions. Nicholas is protective, and my sisters are infernally curious."
She crossed the room to bank the fire, then blew out the candles one by one.
Lady Kirsten had been gracious to him, and Daniel wanted to give her something in return for her hospitality. Something real, not mere manners.
An impoverished vicar had little to give besides truth.
"I'm not lost," he said. "I was misdirected by some fellows at the inn. I asked for the way to Belle Maison, and they sent me here. I did not confuse their directions, either, because I made them repeat their words twice."
He'd been taken for a fool, in other words. Again.
"The joke is on them, isn't it?" Lady Kirsten said, blowing out the last candle and enshrouding the cottage in deep gloom. "They might have entertained an angel unaware, and instead they'll have a very uncomfortable moment when it's their turn to shake the new vicar's hand. I will enjoy watching that. My sisters will too."
She wrapped up the bread and butter and stuffed it in a brown brocade bag, then set the teakettle on the mantel.
The sleigh bells went silent, and Daniel sent up a few more words of gratitude. Hot bricks and lap robes would be paradise itself compared to Beelzebub's cold saddle. After he'd tied his horse behind the sleigh, Daniel climbed in beside Lady Kirsten, who wasn't at all shy about sharing the lap robe with him.
And that was a bit of paradise too.
* * *
You're not George.
Had a woman ever uttered a stupider observation? Kirsten put aside her self-disgust long enough to arrange the lap robe over her knees. Mr. Banks was on her right, Alfrydd, the head lad, on her left, at the reins.
A great deal more warmth was to be had on her right.
They reached Belle Maison in what felt like moments, before Kirsten could mentally rehearse the version of events she'd offer to her siblings. Not lies. She never bothered lying to them, though they doubtless often wished she would.
"Come along, Mr. Banks. Alfrydd will spoil your horse rotten, and very likely the countess will do the same with you."
"I'll be but a moment," Mr. Banks said, untying his shaggy black beast from behind the sleigh. Ice beaded the horse's mane and tail, and balls of snow clung to its fetlocks. "Beelzebub has seen me through much this day. I can at least unsaddle him."
A parson who named his horse Beelzebub?
Kirsten's brothers typically handed their horses off with a pat and a treat, then went striding away to the house, there to track mud, make noise, call for their brandies, and otherwise comport themselves like brothers.
Mr. Banks wasn't George, wasn't a brother to Kirsten of any variety but perhaps the theological.
"I'll help," she said, "but you need not fear your reception with the earl. Unless you hurl thunderbolts from the pulpit and insult women in the street, you'll be an improvement over your predecessor."
Mr. Banks led his mount into the dim, relatively cozy stable, the scents of hay and horse bringing their familiar comfort. Kirsten didn't share her sisters' love of all things fine and pretty, though Mr. Banks had an air of careworn male elegance.
"If you'll take the reins, I'll tend to his saddle," Mr. Banks suggested.
Kirsten obliged, stroking her glove over a big, horsey Roman nose. "Why did you name him after an imp?" An imp of Satan.
"He's blessed with high spirits and a fine sense of humor, though little stops him when he settles to a job."
"Your owner treasures you," Kirsten told the horse. The gelding had dark, soft eyes, much like his owner's, and equally fringed in thick lashes. On both man and horse, those eyes had a knowing quality, nothing effeminate or delicate about them.
"I treasure my horse, while Zubbie treasures his fodder," Mr. Banks said, unfastening the girth and removing the saddle but not the pad beneath it.
Mr. Banks's words held such affection, Kirsten envied the horse.
"Have you had him long?" she asked, for there was a bond here, such as Nicholas enjoyed with his mare and George with his gelding. Kirsten's brothers confided in their horses, were comforted by them, and fretted over their horsey ailments as if a child had fallen ill.
Men were sentimental about the oddest things.
"Beelzebub was a gift," Mr. Banks said, taking the reins from Kirsten and looping them over the horse's neck. "A parishioner getting on in years foaled him out and saw that Beelzebub would be too big and too energetic for an older couple. He was given to me when he was a yearling, and we've been famous friends ever since."
Mr. Banks produced a disintegrating lump of sugar from a pocket, and held his hand out to his horse until every evidence of the sugar had been delicately licked away.
He patted the gelding, slid the saddle pad from its back, and led the animal into a loose box boasting a veritable featherbed of straw. The bridle came off, and some sentiments were imparted to the horse as Mr. Banks stroked its muscular neck.
"Alfrydd will see that he's properly groomed," Kirsten said, because under no circumstances would she allow Mr. Banks to announce himself. She and the vicar would storm the sibling citadel together.
Susannah would be especially vulnerable to the kindness in Mr. Banks's eyes, a patient compassion that spoke of woe, sin, and the magnanimity of spirit to accept them both. Della would like the friendliness of those eyes, and Leah, though besotted with Nicholas, was ever one for intelligent conversation.
"He likes the chill taken off his water," Mr. Banks said, giving the horse another pat, "and he's a shy lad around the other fellows."
"Nicholas prides himself on a well-run stable, Mr. Banks. Beelzebub will be fine. He's nigh three-quarter ton of handsome, equine good health, not a sickly boy on his first night at public school."
A shadow crossed Mr. Banks's features, bringing out the weariness a day of winter travel inevitably engendered.
"You heard the lady," he said, tweaking one big, equine ear. "Be a good lad, or I'll deal with you severely." He turned to go, and the horse made a halfhearted attempt to nip at his sleeve, which Mr. Banks ignored.
"Biting is dangerous behavior," Kirsten said as Mr. Banks left the stall and closed the door. "Why didn't you reprimand him?"
She'd wanted to smack the horse. How dare Beelzebub mistreat an owner who plainly loved him?
Mr. Banks pulled his gloves out of his pocket and tugged them on. "He wants me to tarry in his stall, and if I turn 'round and spend another minute shaking my finger in his face, he'll have succeeded, won't he? You must be cold, my lady. May I escort you to the house?"
He winged an arm. Bits of hay and straw stuck to his sleeve, as well as a quantity of dark horse hairs. Kirsten longed to tarry with him in the barn, to put off the moment when she had to share him with her family.
She was not a mischievous horse, however, intent on pursuing selfish schemes that had no hope of bearing fruit. She took Mr. Banks's arm and walked with him out into the gathering darkness.
* * *
"Where the hell could she be?" Nicholas Haddonfield, Earl of Bellefonte, muttered, though his countess knew better than to answer. "I've never seen it snow like this so late in the season. Why must Kirsten dash off, playing Marie Antoinette in the wilds of Kent during such rotten weather?"
Outside the library windows, snow came down in pale torrents from the darkening sky. Leah, Countess of Bellefonte, brought her husband a glass of brandy. Nick accepted the glass, then held it to his wife's lips.
"To take the chill off," he murmured, though Leah's offering was doubtless intended to take the edge off his temper-and his worry. Leah obliged by sipping the drink-she was an obliging sort of woman, until she wasn't-then held the glass for him.
"The nice thing about late storms is they're soon forgotten, Nicholas. This time next week we'll be looking for crocuses and checking on the Holland bulbs. When is the new vicar supposed to arrive?"
"I doubt he'll be in evidence until the snow melts." Nick set the drink aside. "Lovey, cuddle up. I need the fortification of your kisses."
How had he managed before his marriage? How had he managed without the constant, generous affection of his spouse? Her patient humoring of his moods? Her wise counsel regarding both family matters and the problems of the earldom?
"I heard sleigh bells before I joined you here," Leah said, tucking into her husband's embrace. "Such a cheerful sound, and you can't blame Kirsten if she wants a little privacy. Della makes her bow this year, and that has everybody rattled."
"Except Della. She has steadier nerves than the lot of us put together. I don't want to go up to Town, though." Nick loathed doing the pretty in Town, in fact.
In this, Nick could understand Kirsten's desire to hide away, to pretend the greater world had ceased to exist and the pages of a single book or the bounds of a single afternoon were all that remained.
"Lady Warne will delight in shepherding Della about," Leah said, kissing Nick's chin.
Leah would be able to reach his cheek if he reclined with her on the blue velvet sofa near the fire-a cheering thought for a beleaguered earl.
"I'll help with the socializing," Leah went on, "and it's only for a few weeks."
Lady Warne being Nick's maternal grandmother, his conscience for much of his youth, and a true friend.
"Lovey, I hate all that folderol-"
Nick's lament was interrupted by Kirsten barreling into the room. Sisters were constitutionally incapable of knocking, and thus deserved whatever awkwardness they stormed in upon. Nick kissed his wife on the mouth soundly to make that point.
"Bellefonte, Countess, we have a visitor." Kirsten had no need for dramatics in her speech or actions, for tension hummed through her very body. Nick loved her, truly he did, but she was a nocked arrow of emotion and intellect, poised to let fly in unpredictable directions.
"Kirsten, perhaps you'd be good enough to close the door, lest we lose all the heat," Nick suggested, turning loose of his wife.
Kirsten moved aside, and the fellow behind her came more fully into view.
Beside Nick, Leah drew in her breath and shifted closer, as if she needed support to absorb the appearance of their guest. Nick had met Daniel Banks on several occasions, but for the first time, he viewed Mr. Banks from a woman's perspective.
Bloody goddamned good-looking was Vicar Banks. Arrestingly so, with dark eyes that promised understanding of all a lady's woes, affectionate tolerance of her flights and fancies, and tender passion should propriety turn its head for even an instant.
The hell of it was-the confounding, almost humorous hell of it was-Banks had no idea of the impression he made.
"Mr. Banks, greetings," Nick said, extending a hand. "I had thought the storm might delay you."
"My steed is intrepid," Banks said, bowing, then accepting Nick's hand. "I was told the manse in Haddondale was empty."
"You might have delayed while the weather sorted itself out. It's not like we've been having orgies in the absence of a parson." Nick's observation prompted a snicker from Kirsten. "It's not like we'd know how to have orgies, rather. Shall you have a drink, Banks?"
Nick knew all about orgies, simply as part of an Oxford education in this enlightened age. Kirsten extended him a bit of sororal mercy and didn't add that fact to the discussion.
"My feet will not thaw out until Beltane," Banks said. "A drink would be much appreciated."
Without asking, Nick poured Kirsten a small portion of brandy. She wasn't a schoolgirl, she'd been out in the god-awful weather, and small indulgences might bribe her to behave.
Leah would have something to say about serving Kirsten spirits before a guest, but the countess would save her comments for a private moment, thank heavens.
"Lovey, a sip or two for you?"
"No, thank you, Nicholas. I'll let Cook know we have one more for dinner. Welcome, Mr. Banks, and you will not think of biding anywhere except with us for tonight."
Another perfect bow. "You have my thanks, my lady."
Banks had Leah's attention too, something Nick noted with more curiosity than jealousy.
Now would be a fine time for Kirsten to announce that she had to change for dinner or must discuss the latest recipe for syllabub with her sisters, but of course, Kirsten took a seat on the very sofa where Nick might have cuddled with his countess.
"Was the journey down from Oxfordshire trying?" Nick asked, passing Banks a healthy tot and topping up his own.
"The weather didn't help, but traveling always gives a man time to think. Has the former pastor been absent long?"
Not long enough. "Less than a month," Nick said, and because the Earls of Bellefonte had held the Haddondale living for centuries, Nick blathered on.
While Kirsten sat like a cat on the sofa and lapped up every word.
"Our previous vicar was old-fashioned," Nick said. "Full of damnation and judgment and the fires of hell, though we grew used to his style." Hard to cadge a Sunday morning nap when somebody insisted on yelling for much of the service, though.
"He was also old," Kirsten volunteered. "He didn't listen well, and his gout plagued him without mercy."
Banks managed to look elegant, even in stained riding boots, a wrinkled cravat, and a coat that needed taking in at the seams. His cheekbones conveyed derring-do, his long-fingered hands, sensitivity. What a damned silly waste on a country vicar.
"My predecessor suffered hearing problems?" Banks asked.
"He didn't listen well," Kirsten clarified, while Nick felt the tension of a conversational bow being drawn back right to the archer's chin.
When Banks ought to have complimented Nick on the library's appointments, or the brandy, or the fine collection of books the old earl had gone into debt amassing, Banks instead turned those dark eyes on Kirsten.
"Might you give me an example, Lady Kirsten? One doesn't want unfortunate history to repeat itself."
A miracle occurred in the Belle Maison library, while Nick looked on and sipped his brandy. Kirsten Haddonfield, Witch without Broomstick, engaged a guest in civil conversation. No hidden meanings, no veiled barbs, no slightly outrageous testing of the boundaries of propriety.
"Mr. Clackengeld suffers gout the same as Vicar did," Kirsten said, "though Mr. Clackengeld works in the livery, so he's out in all weather. When he asked Vicar how the knee was, he got a lecture about suffering giving us an opportunity for humility."
Banks considered his drink, then turned such a smile on Kirsten as would have felled Byron and all his lovelies at once.
"You didn't allow it to end there, did you, my lady?"
That smile was sweet and invited confidences-not a scintilla of flirtation about it.
"I commented more loudly than I should have that humility is a virtue best learned by example," Kirsten replied.
Some fairy prince had snatched Kirsten Haddonfield away and, in her place, left a pretty, smiling, shy young woman. The shy part, Nick had long suspected. Kirsten lobbed Latin phrases into her speech, marched about with unladylike purpose, and dispatched her opinions like a gunnery sergeant aiming shot into the enemy's cavalry charge.
In short, she repelled boarders with the few effective weapons at a lady's disposal.
Banks had needed nothing more than a smile and a certain relaxed, conspiratorial air to win a morsel of Kirsten's trust.
"Interesting approach, Lady Kirsten. What about you, my lord?" Banks asked. "Have you guidance to render as I approach this post? I've spent my life in Little Weldon, but for my years at Oxford, and my flock and I were familiar from long acquaintance. What of the people here?"
One could not lie to this fellow, not when that smile still beamed forth unchecked.
"We're the usual sort," Nick said. "Mostly hardworking, a few slackers; mostly kind, a few grouches. We aren't given to frivolity, but neither are we a flock of Presbyterians crows, poking our beaks into our neighbor's business. You should get on well with us if you're halfway decent regarding matters of faith and can dance a Sir Roger de Coverly with the occasional spinster."
"Sir Roger and I are well acquainted." Banks wasn't even looking at Kirsten, and Nick knew his sister was already mentally parading about the spring assembly beside a man who had no grasp of flirtation.
Nick went on to describe the various illuminati of the community, such as a rural village had illuminati, and all the while he mentally wrestled with a question.
Why was it the first fellow to cut through the thicket of Kirsten Haddonfield's social thorns was a poor, tired, nearly haggard man of the cloth, and a married man of the cloth at that?
And was this a positive development-Nick had begun to despair of Kirsten's prospects, to dread even sharing meals with her-or was it a harbinger of disaster?