Lady Ivy Fenwick is desperate. Since her father’s fatal duel, she and her sisters have sold off every valuable possession to make ends meet. With the manor stripped bare, Ivy has one last resort: Apply as governess to the Duke of Ellsworth’s wards.
James should have known better than to hire the desirable lady who had fallen on hard times—and who tempts him at every turn. As her employer, he tries valiantly to remain noble and not let a kiss they shared as strangers years ago entice him. Yet the more he learns of Ivy’s secrets, the more he wants her. And when another suitor proves aggressive, James is confronted with a challenge: Surrender Ivy or fight for the woman he’s come to love against all odds, knowing that it takes a scoundrel to trump a scoundrel.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Praise for Jillian Hunter’s
Boscastle Affairs Series
ALSO BY JILLIAN HUNTER
As always, a huge thank-you to my agent, Mel Berger, for his support and insight.
Also, a special thank-you to my editor, Kerry Donovan, for staying on board with the book until her own production schedule took precedence.
I am grateful to Isabel Farhi and Claire Zion for filling in during my editor’s absence and to the art department for creating yet another wonderful cover.
James had pursued his alluring prey midway to the ladies’ retiring room. A black silk mask concealed half his face, but the more experienced guests at the masquerade ball knew his identity. A duke’s heir rarely went unnoticed at a party, especially when he paid attention to a particular lady. To his amusement, the object of his infatuation seemed to be the exception.
The lady acted unconcerned by his pursuit, perhaps even oblivious to his interest. She hadn’t once glanced over her shoulder or faltered in her steps to show she cared that she’d captured his fickle attention. She swept down the corridor like a princesse royale, oblivious to whoever fell or trailed in her wake.
He admired her demeanor. Was it possible she was blithely unaware of his existence? He had to remedy that situation before he had half the guests at his heels. But he was starting to wonder whether he wasn’t hunting her as much as she was leading him somewhere.
She certainly wasn’t dressed to entice a man. Her skirts belled out over a metal-framed Elizabethan farthingale that bumped a pair of footmen on either side from her hurried path. It was quite the costume. If James hadn’t become so instantly enamored of her angelic face, he might not have gone on the chase with so many tiresome debutantes warning her, between giggles, that a scoundrel had her in his sights.
“Hurry up, my lady!”
“He’s going to catch you.”
“Do you want us to escort you?”
“She isn’t from London,” one of them whispered to another, looking at James through a bejeweled mask. “He’ll take advantage of her innocence.”
The silly geese dispersed as soon as he approached her—his personal attendants had made an art of protecting his privacy. They crowded the hall until he caught her by the hand and led her to a corner beyond the betraying lights of the wall sconces.
He neglected to ask her name, or to speak at all, while memorizing her face. And he ignored her initial resistance as he pulled her into his arms and kissed the lovely mouth that had lit an unbankable fire in his blood. Her body refused to mold to his, but neither did she push him away. The feather in her tall hat poked him in the eye. As soon as he had noticed her in the ballroom, he had wanted to take her home and remove her square-necked Elizabethan lady’s costume. But now he realized she was too young to dishonor, as badly as he desired her, and beyond that, he’d enlisted in the infantry. She would belong to someone else when he returned home.
Stolen kisses on this night would have to suffice.
“Sir, I don’t even know who you are,” she whispered when he gave her a moment to breathe.
“If I told you, would you allow me greater liberties?”
She laughed at his bold question, evidently delighted at the prospect of a season of romance and gentlemen to vanquish ahead of her. “I should warn you—my father has a hot temper.”
“I have a hot temperament.” Which she did nothing to cool. How could he offer her anything except trouble when he was about to leave for war? He brushed his hand down her back, over her stiff skirt and petticoats, then around and up to her bodice, seeking the true shape of her body. She was well built, and he laughed at the delicate hand that arrested his quest.
“That’s quite enough.”
“Not for me.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“Isn’t it better sometimes not to know?”
“I couldn’t say. I’ve never attended a masquerade.”
He stared down into her sweetly indignant face and proceeded to ravish her tempting mouth until the rumble of background voices forced him to release her. He had acted rashly, and it was his responsibility to protect her reputation. After all, she was presumably at the ball to find a husband.
He brought his hand to her warm cheek, murmuring, “My body servants will stand as a barricade for you to slip away. I’m sorry if I offended you, but I simply couldn’t resist. And I’m not sorry that I kissed you. Tell me the truth—are you? Do you regret my actions this evening?”
He knew even before she replied that she wasn’t. He’d felt the shivers she had tried to control when they kissed. Still, he didn’t expect a lady to willingly admit that she had shared his inexplicable surge of desire.
She surprised him with her answer. “I’ll tell you the truth,” she said under her breath. “This was my first kiss. From what I’ve heard, as far as first kisses go, yours was fairly decent. But if you try anything like this ever again, I will call you out. I won’t let you kiss me a second time. My father is looking for a husband for me tonight. I’m his eldest daughter, and that’s all you need to know.”
“You’re everything a lady should avoid.”
“I might be.”
“Well, it’s never too late to repent.”
“At my age? I have absolutely no intention. Save the sermon for the next rake you meet.”
“I’ll tell you something else,” she whispered. “It’s a good thing I can’t see your face, because in the event that someone has seen us together, I can’t identify you to my father.”
He laughed. “Or to your future husband, who, it is becoming apparent, must kiss decently and be on his guard against scoundrels like me. You do have a delicious mouth. Are you certain I can’t entice you to meet me in a more private spot at midnight?”
“This is my debut,” she said, with a catch in her voice. “Would you ruin it for me? Would you ruin me for the rest of my life for your passing pleasure?”
He crushed her to him, closed his eyes for an agonizing moment, and released her with a regret he’d never known he could feel. “I suppose it’s too much to ask you to remain pure another few years?”
She laughed again. “If you had your way, I wouldn’t remain innocent for the rest of the night.”
“Let’s make a bargain.”
She shook her head, the feather in her hat tickling his nose again. “I don’t think so.”
“Hear me out first.”
“Hurry, then. I’ve left my sister alone in the ballroom.”
“If you don’t have five proposals by noon tomorrow, I shall offer for your hand.”
Her eyes widened. “Now I know you’re mad.”
And at that moment he let her slip away, unable to disagree, convincing himself it was for the best. What did he want with a woman who made him lose his head?
* * *
Ivy had felt quite beautiful during the short interlude with the masked stranger, bedazzled by his attentions. In fact, she so wanted to believe the scoundrel had meant what he said that she made one excuse after another not to dance with anyone else for the remainder of the night. If they spotted each other across the room and he broke through the crowd of dancers to reach her, well, she wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next in a romance.
She expected there was a good chance that she’d catch him flirting with another lady, in which case she would simply stand with all the poise she could muster, smiling until her face ached, and count the hours until she could escape.
At least she wasn’t alone in the crowded ballroom. She had an ally at her side; of her three sisters only Rosemary had been old enough to accompany her to the ball. Rosemary had met a young gentleman, too, one who shared her passion for literature but was too shy to ask her to dance, and he had disappeared when his aunt complained that she had felt a need for air.
Ivy hadn’t yet dared to confess to Rosemary what had happened, but of course one day she would. She wanted to savor the secret for the evening and not appear gullible in Rosemary’s eyes. Her sister could be counted on to lecture Ivy for behavior beneath the Earl of Arthur’s eldest daughter, and then, even worse, she would demand that Ivy describe every detail of the rake’s kisses so that she could include it in one of her future novels.
Ivy doubted she could describe the alchemical transformation she had undergone in the stranger’s arms. The magic of it still shimmered through her veins. She intended to keep it private for as long as possible.
What a bounder.
“Ivy?” Rosemary nudged her. “Who are you looking for?”
“Who—oh. Papa, I suppose.”
“He’s upstairs gambling.” Rosemary unsuccessfully attempted to fit her skirts into a Chippendale chair. “Bother. Are you enjoying yourself?”
Ivy nodded. “Yes. I think so. And you?”
“It’s amazing how much one can learn about life from watching what goes on in a ballroom. I’d love to take a stroll down the corridors. Are you game?”
“Not in these skirts. I’d rather remain here and observe the crowd.”
Just before the midnight supper the evening’s festivities turned ugly. Another debutante, one who had attended the same boarding school as Ivy, had been caught in a bedroom with a married baronet. Ivy comforted her in the retiring room while the other girls talked of nothing but her disgusting behavior. Later Ivy persuaded herself she should feel fortunate that she had not been witnessed in an indiscretion herself. After the guests had settled down from the excitement, her father’s footman appeared during the supper and the two sisters were whisked home to the town house.
By the next morning their father, Thomas Fenwick, the Earl of Arthur, had been accused of cheating at cards and killed in a duel. In the rush of sorrow that followed, the scoundrel’s kiss faded into a sweet memory that Ivy buried beneath her grief for so long that at times she even wondered whether it had happened at all.
The Duke of Ellsworth met his match on a Tuesday afternoon while plotting ways to pleasure the woman he had left only hours before in London. He anticipated months of uninterrupted bliss in a bedchamber where rather than producing an heir with a suitable wife he would concentrate on seducing a new mistress. He had gone to war, survived an injury that should have killed him, and returned to a dukedom that any man in England would envy. His tenants needed reassurance that he would carry on tradition. He was supposed to provide them with security through the hard times predicted for his country in the years ahead.
He planned to give a feast and toast his farmers with the potent apple cider that their orchards produced. Duty fulfilled, James then intended to submerge himself in months of uninterrupted sexual impropriety to purge his mind of the war he had fought and would still be fighting if a well-placed bullet hadn’t stopped him.
In less than a week he would be a satisfied man, one whose body was soothed by a woman’s attentions, not battered by every bump in the country road he’d insisted his coachman take. Why had he demanded this detour? he wondered as the carriage approached a small stone bridge.
He turned his head, remembering the reason with a jolt of surprise. To his right stood what centuries ago had been a majestic Tudor house. His father had admired the manor since James was a boy, and James had inherited the late duke’s appreciation of traditional English architecture.
Was it abandoned?
Could he purchase it for his mistress? She wouldn’t care for it, he decided. The house needed extensive repairs and would be too isolated for a lady accustomed to the bustle and excitement of London. Elora loved her parties. She thrived on the gossip of infidelities and jewel thefts and bankruptcies that brewed in the beau monde. She had attended more balls and routs than any woman he had ever known. She sought constant entertainment. He needed sex. Still, the steeply pitched roof and dormer windows intrigued him. Perhaps it would suit one of his aunts.
He noticed a hawk perched on the branch of one of the ancient oaks that ringed the manor. A bird of prey, the hawk kept its sight on an object in the garden below. What it was James couldn’t see. But he saw something else.
Was that a woman standing at the bottom of the garden? He banged hard on the carriage roof and opened the door before a footman could attend the task. He set his boots to the dirt road as the wheels stopped rolling.
The hawk remained motionless. He could not help but wonder again what innocent creature it had in its sights. He walked down a sloping path buried in leaves and passed a once-grand gatehouse.
“Your Grace?” said his coachman, a musket under his arm. “Shall I accompany you? I’ve heard stories about this house.”
“Tell me one.”
The coachman squinted up at the roof. “Dangerous women abide within. Women who bend men to their will.”
James grinned. “What is it they make their victims do?”
“Wicked things, from what I gather.”
“They sound like women I might like. Now I am compelled to continue.”
“And as for me?”
“Let me sacrifice myself first.”
He wandered into what remained of the original Tudor garden, a riotous shambles that threatened to consume the house. James predicted that in another year only the chimneys would rise above the thicket of thistle and rose, weed and bramble. From what he could see, it was only a matter of time before the roof collapsed into heaven only knew what lay beneath.
He’d never seen a caretaker or an occupant in the few times he’d driven by. But then who could find a human being in this overgrown mess? Hard to believe that the grounds had once been designed in geometric knots and patterns as precise as a chessboard.
He felt a sudden whimsy to ask his land agent about purchasing the place. Despite his coachman’s warning, the only rumor James could recall about the manor was that four spinsters lived within. Perhaps they would be amenable to an offer.
He blinked. The beguiling figure in white was half-hidden beneath an unsightly trailing arbor of honeysuckle vines. She stood completely still as if caught in a misdeed. Or was it a statue of a Greek goddess? He would have noticed such an anomaly on the Tudor estate before.
He cleared his throat, pushing an intrusive thorn out of his face. “Good afternoon,” he called out in a gruff but pleasant voice. “Allow me to introduce myself.”
The goddess came to life. Before he managed another word, she bent, scooped up a wriggling ball of fur, and fled up the path. James couldn’t decide whether she was a maidservant or a gentlewoman. She moved too spryly for a spinster. How irritating that she ran at his polite inquiry.
Ladies usually chased after James, especially when they discovered he was an eligible duke with nothing better to do than indulge their whims.
“Please,” he said, quickening his step. “All I wish is a few words with you.” Which might not be entirely true, but he couldn’t be certain of his own motives until he convinced the woman to give him a chance to introduce himself.
There was something about her that reminded him of the past, of sweet days lost and unappreciated. But that was fancy, the influence of the manor’s charm. She didn’t appear to feel this absurd connection.
She muttered something under her breath and gripped her skirt with her free hand. He decided she was desperate, indeed, if she’d display her stockinged ankles to make an escape. He noticed that she had nicely shaped calves. Perhaps she ran away from men all the time. He could have pounced on her in two masterful strides. Or so he was convinced until he walked into an obelisk concealed behind a wall of hollyhocks.
The impact should have knocked him to his senses. The woman clearly knew the garden’s snares as well as how to elude persistent gentlemen.
Her white sleeves and skirt fluttered out, a taunt and a symbol of innocence at the same time. He felt like Hades pursuing Persephone.
He wouldn’t be surprised if everything in the garden began to wither, and he found himself sitting with her in the underworld, trying to justify his position.
“Miss! I’d like to speak to you about the manor house.”
He reached out for her, not certain which part of her person he would grasp. She looked fetching from behind. But then she dodged another obstacle that he hadn’t anticipated. She seemed to fly through the heavily overgrown garden.
He stumbled over a sack of weeds and stones. Perhaps it was the dead body of the last visitor. He regained his balance but lost the advantage.
“Stop!” he said in his ducal voice, to no effect. Either she disrespected the peerage or she was too upset to acknowledge his rank.
Dangerous women abide within.
Women who bend men to their will.
“Wishful thinking,” James muttered.
A heavy beat of wings in the air drew his gaze to the sky. The hawk flew over the house. Its sudden ascent disturbed a family of jackdaws that appeared to reside in one of the manor’s numerous chimneys.
The woman jumped a small urn filled with geraniums and disappeared into the house. A bramble bush snagged his trousers and slowed his pace.
“I have a sword, you half-wit!” a female voice from inside the manor shouted.
Then the door slammed, the sound reverberating in the garden. A swarm of angry bees circled his head.
He stood, breathing hard. He half expected the rosebushes to grow claws and hold him captive. “Another time, then,” he said; he was no longer merely interested but enthralled. “I’ll send a message ahead. Make proper arrangements.”
He heard the crunch of boots from behind the overgrowth. He followed a weed-choked footpath to the side of the house.
“Pardon me,” he said to a tall gate smothered in strands of verdant ivy. “Is anybody home?”
He tunneled his hand through the vines and made a peephole. The ivy concealed a back garden of such well-maintained Tudor symmetry he believed he’d discovered a secret paradise.
The illusion soon perished. A rheumy eye met his. A voice that could belong to either a beast or human being snarled, “Begone! All and sundry creditors and other trespassers will be roasted on a spit!”
He drew himself upright. It took more than a reclusive lady and an ill-tempered gardener to force a duke to retreat. “I wish to speak to your master or mistress about ownership of this property. And I shall have none of your surly impertinence.”
The gnome hurled a handful of dirt over the gate in answer to his demand. James glanced up, realizing he had an audience. The lady in white stared down at him from a lozenge-shaped oriel window of what he guessed to be a hall in the upper story. Her face blurred behind the leaded glass. He noticed other indistinct figures standing around her like guardian angels.
“Your Grace?” his coachman called from the gatehouse, a footman at his side. “Have you been assaulted?”
James gave a laugh and brushed the dirt from the shoulders of his greatcoat. “Hardly. Let’s return to the carriage. And be careful where you step.”
“I did try to warn Your Grace about those women.”
“Yes, you did. Danger comes in various forms, doesn’t it?”
The coachman looked back in curiosity at the house. “Some of those forms are quite attractive, if you’ll forgive me for saying, Your Grace.”
“How can I not forgive you when we share the same thought?”
He ambled back through the garden. The bees had disappeared. Rose-tinted shadows enhanced the enduring beauty of the house. Its outward simplicity deceived the unknowing. The Tudor manor represented the essence of England, of what James had fought for, what his younger brother and so many other valiant soldiers were fighting for now.
In the false twilight it didn’t seem to matter that the windows lacked a few panes, or that time had peeled strips from the ornate wood framework.
He had coveted this house for years. He wanted to learn its secrets. He wanted to know about the woman who lived inside. He thought he should explain that he hadn’t meant to frighten her, that he wasn’t a man who went about accosting young ladies on their property.
His arm throbbed, a welcome diversion from finding reason for his behavior. Soon enough Elora would arrive to make him forget all about Tudor houses and reclusive women. He desperately longed to give himself over to a season of pleasure before he settled down and found a wife.
The soft but protective arms of Ivy Fenwick’s two younger sisters dragged her across the threshold. The door slammed in the stone archway on the face that Ivy had not even seen. His persistence told her all she needed to know about his character. He had shouted to the world what he wanted. Every man who braved the garden had one objective in mind: taking possession of Fenwick Manor.
“Who was that?” her youngest sister, Lilac, whispered. Lilac’s light hair shone in the darkness of the hall. Heavy drapes covered the belowstairs windows. It was too early in the day to waste a candle. The housekeeper kept them on a strict allowance.
The sisters hadn’t always scurried into the house like mice at the approach of male callers. Once the clip-clop of horses paraded across the bridge by hopeful gentlemen had added a measure of excitement to their afternoon tea. With their father the Earl of Arthur’s approval, a young gallant might stroll through the enchanting gardens with one of his lordship’s daughters. All four Fenwick girls had been well dowered and never lacked for company, even though Rosemary tended to sneak off with a book half the time and Lilac had walked with a limp ever since her accident.
But Lilac was fair and intrepid and laughed when her gait slowed her pace. She had fallen in love with a neighborhood boy when she was fifteen. He had never come back from the war; three years ago his parents had died. She insisted that she would be with Terence one day and that she didn’t need a courtship until then.
“Who was that?” Lilac asked now, her voice low with dread. Even Lilac recognized danger when it stood at the door.
“I didn’t stop to ask his name,” Ivy said, disengaging herself from her sisters’ custody. “It’s obvious he came to put a lien on the property.”
“But you said we paid the last of our debts.” Rue Fenwick hadn’t taken her dark blue eyes from the door. She had coal black hair and fair skin, and was bitter to Lilac’s sweet.
“I thought we had,” Ivy said. She bent to put down the puppy squirming against her neck. “Go, you morsel of trouble. You don’t know how close you came to being snatched up by that hawk. Quigley has to fix that hole under the gate.”
Rosemary, the second eldest of the Fenwick sisters, trudged down the stairs. “What is all this commotion?” she asked with a resentful frown.
Ivy assumed Rosemary had been at her desk. Ink stains of various shades smudged her sleeves. Her hair hung in a messy plait over her shoulder. But then the sisters never received callers these days. Why should they dress for company that never appeared?
“I assume it was another land agent hoping we’d sell the house at a pittance to pay off one of Papa’s debts that has just come to notice. I don’t think he was a bailiff.”
Rosemary leaned against the heavily carved balustrade. “He arrived in an expensive carriage for a debt collector.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw it parked on the bridge from the hall upstairs.”
Ivy ran toward the staircase, Lilac at her heels. Rue stayed below to guard the door, although what her delicately boned sister thought she could do to ward off a man of such a determined nature, Ivy didn’t want to speculate.
At the top of the stairs, she and Lilac followed Rosemary through a dark bedchamber into a narrow hall. The watchful stares of ancestors, Welsh and English, followed their progress to a window where the drapes tumbled to the floor in fragile condition. No one dared touch them. The last maid to do so had mummified herself in moldering silk.
Ivy glimpsed a large black carriage disappearing down the road from the bridge.
“That was not a creditor,” Rosemary said. “But he might have been something worse. What did he look like?”
Ivy sighed. “For the last time, I didn’t dare stop to find out. He missed capturing me by mere inches. Details might be important to a writer, but a woman running for her life doesn’t care whether the man chasing her has blue eyes or brown.”
Lilac rubbed a smudge of dust from the windowpane. “He had gray eyes, I believe, and a noble face, although it looked not overly pleased when Rue and I slammed the door on it.”
“The jackdaws took off from the chimney as if the house were on fire.” Rosemary was studying Ivy now in concern. She usually needed a good hour after writing to return to the world. “And I haven’t heard Quigley threaten anyone to stay away from the gate in years. How did you outrun the man, Ivy?”
Ivy guided the others away from the window. “I didn’t. The garden slowed his chase. I knew the pitfalls and thorny places. He came up against every one.”
“You shouldn’t have gone outside in view of the road.” Rosemary pulled a foxglove blossom from Ivy’s hair. “I’m almost finished with the story. Can we hold out for three more months?”
Ivy stared through a chink in one of the windows to the back gardens of Fenwick Manor. The front of the house might deceive the unwanted visitor into believing that chaos ruled. But behind the back walls, the land was immaculately maintained by her sisters and Quigley, the gardener, and displayed geometric beds, fruit orchards, and knot parterres that remained true to their original Tudor design.
As did the manor house, for all it was crumbling into decay. Time held its breath within the walls. Few structural changes had been made since the first Earl of Arthur had built the house over three centuries before.
Rue’s voice startled her from her musings. Her sister had climbed the stairs so quietly that Ivy hadn’t heard her approach. “Didn’t you say that most of our bills have been paid?”
“I thought they had. Even so, the roof can’t hold up through another barrage of storms. And I won’t make our only footman clean the flue again and get stuck in the chimney. We have to do something besides hide.”
“But what?” Rue asked. Her hair was blacker than Ivy’s, her nature more secretive than her eldest sister’s intense sensibility.
“We’ll decide after supper,” Ivy said.
“After Rosemary reads her latest chapter,” Lilac added, bending to pick up the foxglove bloom from the bare floor. “These are poisonous, as you know. I wonder we shan’t have a sick puppy on our hands tonight.”
“Or an unwanted visitor,” Ivy thought aloud. She felt vulnerable after that man’s pursuit, caught outside with only herself and Quigley to blame. “To be truthful I don’t care that society believes living in seclusion has turned us into spinsters, or that it has forgotten we even exist. It rarely crosses my mind what others think of us.”
“It seems hard to believe that we were once popular and had our dance cards filled at a masquerade ball in London,” Rosemary said, not truly wistful, either.
“I’ve never been to a ball,” Lilac offered. “I’ve forgotten how to dance. Besides, I was never good at it.”
“You play the virginal beautifully,” Ivy said, smiling at her. “That’s worth more than being able to dance.”
“Except that we sold the virginal last year,” Rue reminded her. “I do miss listening to Lilac’s music before going to bed. One can play an instrument by oneself. You don’t need a partner to accompany you.”
Lilac frowned. “But you need someone to appreciate what you play.”
“And that’s why you have sisters,” Ivy said, hoping a little cheer would counteract their ominous mood.
For the first time in years a persistent stranger had stolen a glimpse into their secret world. Her sisters might not have admitted it aloud, but Ivy knew they must have been feeling as shaken up by the intrusion as she did. Then and there Ivy took a silent oath to do whatever was necessary to keep possession of Fenwick Manor.
It was no secret to the staff of Ellsworth Park that the duke had returned home to indulge in a liaison. He had written a fortnight earlier to alert his estate manager of his impending arrival. The letter was a mere formality. His servants kept abreast of the master’s affairs as reported in the gossip papers. His housekeeper followed the details of his intimate life with embarrassing pride.
It was almost twilight when his heavy carriage rolled to a stop in the drive. The estate looked as elegant as ever. Yet without his family it stirred in him a sense of loneliness and loss.
Still, he wouldn’t be alone for long. He might not have appreciated the park’s seclusion in the year since he had inherited it and lost his father. But in another week he would spend his days entertaining Elora and allowing her to return the favor at night. He only hoped there were delights in store once she arrived, rather than disappointments.
He had known her for years. But in the last few months she’d begun ambushing him at parties for unplanned trysts that he soon realized were part of a plot to tantalize him. These private affairs left him largely unfulfilled and, as Elora surely intended, prepared to outbid any competitor for the privilege of making her his mistress.
She was beautiful, amoral, and practiced in the carnal arts. He wasn’t sure whether their longtime friendship would benefit them in the bedroom. Yet they had nothing to lose by trying.
He stirred. The scar tissue around his upper right arm ached from the bullet he had taken at Albuera. His fruitless pursuit after that lithe woman today had aggravated his mood. At least he could laugh at himself now, remembering the other lady’s shocked voice at the door. I have a sword, you half-wit.
A sword? What manner of spinsters resembled young deities and resorted to swordplay to ward off unwelcome gentlemen? James might deserve their suspicion for his display of aggression—he really had no excuse. Still, he had to wonder if an apology, a small gift, would be returned by an invitation inside the manor.
“His Grace is home!” the porter at the gates shouted to the servants assembling. James frowned, staring out the window of his carriage.
Where were the servants? Had they misunderstood his letter? Were they hiding from him in fear that he had brought Elora home with him? Had something happened?
The estate looked peaceful. His footman opened the door, his face also puzzled. James stepped down. A lark’s melody drifted from the shadows.
He strode toward the house.
He had not been home since his father had died six months earlier. Their reunion had not been pleasant. He hadn’t even known his father was ill.
At the time James had been drinking too much, infuriated that a single wound had ended his military career. His father had shown him no mercy. But then, James would have refused any suggestion of sympathy. What man wanted to be thought weak?
Their final conversation still stung when he thought back on it. “You are my heir. You will inherit Ellsworth Park and the tenants who depend on you. I know you hoped to rise in the army, but that is for your brother now. Are we agreed?”
“Do you honestly expect me to pretend I have the least desire to lord it over acres of apple orchards?”
“I don’t give a damn about your desires. Keep them to yourself. Hundreds of men and women depend on our orchards. The cider we produce is famous the world over. You had more pride in your birthright when you were a child than you do now. What happened?”
“The apples can wait. Battling in foreign fields can’t.”
James looked around again. Where was everyone? Had he forgotten a festival day? His tenants did work hard and brewed a heady cider that brought a good income to innumerable families. Apples mattered. They had mattered in Tudor times.
He thought of that alluring woman from the garden again, when he should be thinking of Elora and her reputation for bedsport. Soon enough he would accept his responsibilities and respect his father’s wishes.
“I shall make you stop moping, James,” she’d teased, using her body to promise a forgetfulness he realized would be fleeting at best. He could only chase pleasure for a time.
“An Englishman does not mope. He dodges life’s slings and arrows to battle on.”
“Well, you could smile once a week. Your face is always so forbidding. It gives me the shivers.”
But he had smiled this afternoon, and all because he’d pursued a woman who found him even more forbidding than did Elora.
“Your Grace! Your Grace!”
The illusion of peace dissolved. Although only two servants appeared to greet the duke, the greyhounds had been released from their kennels and bounded across the lawn in howling welcome. Mr. Carstairs, his estate steward, detached himself from one of the crouching stone lions that flanked the drive. The urgency of his pace suggested that, unlike the hounds, he would not be satisfied with a romp in the park and a juicy bone.
“Your Grace. Thank goodness you have arrived.” Carstairs bowed between gasps of breath. “I did not attempt to contact you about the trouble while you were traveling. I thought you would prefer to be told in person.”
A shriek drifted from one of the upstairs windows in the wing reserved for visitors. James lifted his head in alarm, aware of the questioning expression that must have shown on his face.
“It might be better if you come inside and have a taste of brandy while I explain, Your Grace.”
“That is not a child, is it, Carstairs? A paramour from my wilder days is not bringing a paternity suit because I have become a duke? I have never been a man-whore. My indiscretions were few and sincere.”
“It is not your child. Children. Well, they are, in one sense, but—”
James stepped around the smaller man. “I’ll take that drink in my study. And I hope your explanation will not be of a nature that interferes with my plans.”
No. That burden apparently fell to Mrs. Halliday, his housekeeper, who startled the wits out of him when she ran up the side of the house wailing, “Thank heavens Your Grace is home.” Her red-rimmed eyes meant she had been weeping. But then the woman sobbed over scorched muffins and the obituaries of people she had never met.
He stilled. “There has been a death in the family?”
“Nothing is as bad as all that,” Carstairs said, giving the woman a look.
But clearly upsetting news loomed on the horizon. James considered jumping back inside his carriage and taking a ride to the village pub.
But no one had died.
The news could not be anything to run from. He would face it like a man.
On most evenings, after a supper made from whatever the hidden gardens of Fenwick Manor had produced, Rosemary beckoned her sisters to her bedchamber to read from her latest work. Ivy had come to adore the tradition, but since this had once been her mother’s secret retreat and Mama had allowed her girls to play with her jewels and perfume, Ivy felt both her absence and her presence keenly whenever she entered this room.
“Anne Boleyn slept in this very bed for two nights when she was young,” Rosemary used to inform everyone who would listen when she was younger. “Imagine how the course of history would have changed had she lived.”
Ivy took pride in their history and their house. But this was the true heart of the house, where secrets were shared, children and stories conceived over the years.
Rosemary had claimed this chamber as her own the year she turned twelve and her mother had moved into a larger room. She found out from the servants the identity of its most notorious guest. On the first night that Rosemary had slept there, her sisters had gathered solemnly in the doorway and predicted that she wouldn’t survive to see the sunrise.
Not only had she survived, she soon lured the other girls to abandon their rooms to stay with her. Night after night they’d fall asleep in her bed, lulled by her early attempts at storytelling. It took their mother an entire summer before she caught her three other daughters sneaking down the hall one September dawn.
“So it is Anne Boleyn I have to thank for those circles under your eyes and nodding heads at supper.”
“No, it’s Rosemary,” Lilac said innocently.
“It’s Henry VIII,” Rue said with a yawn, and her mother, who might have punished them at any other time, seemed to take that under consideration and forgave the girls their conspiracy.
Where had those pleasurable years gone?
“I feel safer in here than anywhere,” Lilac admitted as they huddled together on the bed. Rosemary sat at her desk, writing with her quill, a smile of contentment on her face.
Whether the incident earlier in the day and the realization that they might lose their home provoked Lilac’s confession, her fear seemed reflected by Rue, who added, “So do I.”
“It has history,” murmured Rosemary, who for all practical purposes might as well be on another continent. “Don’t you remember who we are descended from?”
“Yes,” Ivy said, smothering a laugh. “You wouldn’t let us forget if we wanted to.” She cleared her throat. “The first notable personage in the family rose to prominence as a faithful bodyguard to Harri Tudur, who rewarded his English retainer with an earldom in Wales.”
“This gift,” Lilac continued, “included a castle on a seaside cliff that was pounded every winter by violent gales.”
“Then one December morn,” Ivy said, flapping her arms, “the birds took wing. The dovecote disappeared in the rock-strewn waves below.”
It was Rue’s turn. “The earl declared the castle uninhabitable. To mollify his loyal guard, Harri Tudur bestowed on him a charming manor house in Kent.”
“In exchange for which,” Lilac said, “the earl turned a blind eye when Harri took the earl’s wife to bed and a set of twins, one boy, one girl, was born of this clandestine affair.”
Rue finished with a grin. “The first Earl of Arthur might not have liked this bargain, but as it happened, his two natural children died in battle, and he and his wife were richly compensated for their discretion and devotion to the Tudur line. The end.”
Rosemary closed her book, put down her pen, and rose to stretch her arms. Her long braid swung between her shoulder blades like a pendulum.
Ivy sat up straighter on the bed, looking at Rosemary. “You aren’t about to launch into one of your ‘Horresco referens’—‘I shudder in relating stories’—are you?”
“One about my three disrespectful sisters and what became of them?”
“What are we to do, Ivy?” Lilac dropped from the bed to play with the three puppies whining at her on the floor.
Ivy sighed. Unless a gentleman with a heart or purse of gold could overlook Lilac’s awkward gait and dreamy nature, Lilac, for all her fair looks, was liable to end up on the shelf for the rest of her life.
Perhaps it was Rue, with her sultry eyes and ink black hair, who would suffer the most heartbreak. Rue was a young lady of extremes. Hadn’t she threatened to take a sword to that intruder in the garden? Sometimes Ivy couldn’t decide which characteristic was Rue’s fatal flaw—her heritage, her deep passion, or her beauty.
“We can’t hide in this house forever,” Ivy said. “Someone will take it from us as the debts mount. We need a source of income other than Rosemary’s writing.”
Rue rolled across the bed. “Why don’t we sell off the rest of the paintings?”
“Because Foxx rehung them to cover the water damage that the Flemish tapestries we sold were hiding,” Ivy said. “And now the paintings are damaged.”
“I’m starving,” Rue said. It hadn’t escaped Ivy’s notice that she had gone slim and whiter than melting snow lately. But then everyone in the house had been forced to take in their clothes with the exception of Lilac, who thrived on apricot syllabubs in cream given them by a local farmer whose wife remembered their mother’s past kind deeds.
Ivy stood up. “I feel a little faint-headed with hunger and desperation myself. We’ve spent the last of our money settling Father’s debts and legal disputes. We’ve sold off heirloom by precious heirloom. Mother’s pearls are the only valuable possession left to us.”
“No,” Lilac said. “It’s a rule. Nothing goes that carries her warmth. She wore them against her skin.”
“The pearls will only see us to the end of autumn, if then,” Ivy said. “I’ll have to go to London, and after that, there is only one sacrifice left to make. I’ll find a position.”
Rosemary pulled her braid loose and shook her head. “You can’t. It’s too humiliating.”
“It’s not as humiliating as going hungry,” Lilac said. “If we can’t feed ourselves, we won’t be able to support the staff. We’ll be beggars.”
“Are you willing to let out the house to strangers?” Ivy asked, a lawyer negotiating at an empty table.
Rue wrinkled her nose. “No one would want to stay here. I wouldn’t mind acting as a maidservant, but I’d lose my temper at the first guest who complained about the service. I would give it a try to save the manor, though.”
“What sort of position do you have in mind?” Rosemary asked in a pinched voice.
“A governess. In a house nearby, if possible. I don’t want to be far from home.”
“No,” Rosemary said as if Ivy had announced she would become a professional chimney sweep or vampire. “I’d as soon sacrifice my head. Can you imagine working in a house of someone we once knew? What if one of our old friends hires you? They’ll laugh at you behind your back. An earl’s daughter.”
Rue sent Ivy an encouraging smile. “There must be other ways to earn money, Ivy. But I’ll be at your back and your front. No one will ever marry us. Do what you need to do. We will follow your lead.”
Rue had a point, of course. The four of them might once have soared in society, eligible daughters of a nobleman with pristine names and plump dowers. But several witnesses swore that Lord Arthur had been cheating at cards during the masquerade ball. The last thing he told Ivy was that he’d been desperate to win back enough money to pay back the “few” debts he’d kept secret from the girls.
In fact, Ivy had heard the servants whispering that he’d been cheating for months, and not one gentleman stood up for him before or after the duel. His family was tainted by association.
His daughters loved him, of course, despite the damage he’d done to the family name. After his funeral Ivy and Rosemary reviewed his account books and had charted his decline from the time of Mama’s death. They soon learned he’d wagered away their dowries as well as his other estates and mortgages in Sussex.
The only hint the sisters had prior to his death of any financial troubles was the sudden disappearance of the rare book collection from the library. A third of it had been saved due to Rosemary’s penchant for “borrowing” books and hiding them in her room.
The earl died without a will or male heir, leaving his daughters an old manor house and a sea of debts. The four sisters, who had been invited to more social affairs in a month than one could cram into a year, received curt notices of cancellation. After all, no one expected them to attend a party while in mourning.
Unpaid bills replaced cards from admirers. It was something of a blessing, Ivy came to realize, when they could no longer afford newspapers and read the libelous stories published about their family. One reporter claimed that each of the four daughters had been born of a different sire.
In the year following the earl’s death, the family’s infamy grew until it subsided into a fairy tale. The sisters, who struggled to exist on their own, were glad to be forgotten by society. In all the rumors written about them the only truth was that their father’s scandal had ruined their reputations overnight.
But at least they still had one another.
James Merrit, Duke of Ellsworth, bachelor and returned soldier, who had promised himself months of shallow pleasures before succumbing to society’s expectations, found himself in an intolerable situation. His younger brother had gone off to war, which was good. But his brother’s wife had gone off to Sweden with another man, which wasn’t good, and James had a bewildered niece and nephew occupying the bedchamber that Elora had chosen for her suite when she stayed at Ellsworth.
What People are Saying About This
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