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Lucas Paine, Marquess of Basingstoke, was classically handsome, with his thick dark blond hair, clear blue eyes and leanly muscled body. He dressed impeccably, had excellent manners, cherished his widowed mother and was good to his dogs.
He tipped his hat to all when out on the strut, and he belonged to the best clubs. An accomplished horseman and premier whip, he was also no stranger to the boxing saloons, where he excelled, although he would say that he was better with the rapier than his fists. He did not take snuff, affected no airs, graciously danced with all the wallflowers, flattered the dowagers and never gambled above his considerable means.
If there was even a breath of scandal still attached to the memory of the marquess's late sire, that scandal did not touch the son.
In fact, as his friend Fletcher Sutton, Viscount Yalding, pointed out that mid-March day as the pair sauntered along Bond Street, one eye on the low, threatening sky, if the marquess could only manage to control the weather, he would be elevated to the status of near-god.
Both Lucas and Fletcher knew the reason for this pervasive unpleasant weather, the near constant rain and cold, the lack of sunshine. Although it boggled the mind to believe that a volcanic eruption nearly a year ago and halfway around the world in some benighted spot called Tambora could cause such prolonged misery for most of England and Europe.
"You're quiet," Fletcher said as they paused to unfurl their large black umbrellas, for the mizzle had moved on to a drizzle that was sure to become a steady downpour in a few minutes. "Still chafing at what Lord Harper said yesterday at White's? That wasn't nice of him, Lucas, saying he'd heard cheerier speeches at funerals, and then he and his friends all but turning their backs on you. Although I will admit he had a point."
Viscount Yalding was referring to the incident that had taken place at one of London's premier clubs. Lord Harper, a buffoon even in the best of times, had made a comment about the "ruffians and other low creatures accosting him for coins each time he stepped outside."
Lucas—surprising even himself—had launched into an impassioned defense of the cold and hungry and frightened populace, and had even warned the gentlemen within earshot that if no steps were taken to assist their fellow countrymen the consequences could be serious.
It had been a very good argument, perhaps even bordering on the inspired. Not that anyone had listened.
Lucas looked at his friend, one eloquent eyebrow raised. "The day I am cast in the glooms by that buffoon's opinions I shall have to race home and slit my throat."
Fletcher acknowledged this with a tip of his head. "All right, what is it, then? The weather? No sense repining on that, according to you, as it's not going to change any time soon. Your new boots pinch? But they're Hoby's, correct? So that can't be it. Yet you look like you've just watched your very last friend walk away from you, which you haven't, because I'm still here. In fact, please feel free to make a cake of yourself again any time you wish, and I'll stand up on my chair and cry hear, hear as I lend you my support."
"Is that so? How gratifying, Fletcher, truly. Except I'm now left to wonder if you are pledging your support or hoping to goad me into making a cake of myself again, as you so tactfully put it."
Viscount Yalding, a handsome young man of five and twenty, a man with a sparkle in his light brown eyes and a pair of impish dimples in his cheeks, threw back his head and laughed aloud. "And that's the real beauty of the thing, because you'll never know which, now will you?"
"You know what it is, don't you, Fletcher? We don't learn. It wasn't that long ago that our dear Prince Regent was hatching escape plans, sure his loyal subjects were going to rise up the way the French did against their king. Now, thanks to that damnable volcano, we face high prices and farmers losing their positions, our brave soldiers suffering, our children falling sick because there are no fresh vegetables for them to eat. We're not preparing for that eventuality, or its inevitable result. Civil unrest."
"Yes, yes, I remember what you said, but please stop now. Not the cheeriest thing I've ever heard, to quote Lord Harper. And you're not completely correct, Lucas. Our government is taking steps, although probably not in a direction you'd approve— Watch out!"
Lucas looked down the flagway to see a young woman running toward him, looking back over her shoulder at another young woman who had stopped beneath a canvas awning to wait for a female servant to raise an umbrella.
"Oh, don't be so missish, Lydia. The coach is just down here—you won't melt. It's only a little— Oof!"
Lucas caught the female by the upper arms and held her in front of him, saying, "Steady there, young lady. And far be it from me to stand in the role of teacher, but it is usually deemed equally important to see where you are going as where you have been."
The female, who stood only as high as his chest, lifted her head so that her face was visible beneath the wide brim of her bonnet, and looked him square in the eyes.
When had he seen eyes like these? Had there ever been eyes like these, so darkly blue as to be closer to sun-washed violet, so alive, so fearless and amused, daring him to—to what? The heart-shaped face in its frame of wonderfully dark hair, the perfectly centered nose, the slightly bee-stung lower lip, the single dimple that came and went in her right cheek. The skin that spoke of fresh peaches doused in cream, and sprinkled with a dusting of freckles that invited him to touch, to trace them with his fingertips, the tip of his tongue…
"Yes," she said, biting that bottom lip between her fine, small white teeth for a moment as she ran her gaze over his features, "I believe I can see the wisdom in that statement. Although, as I already know where I've been, I'm always much more interested in what lies ahead. You may let me go now."
Lucas, a man who could not remember the last time he'd been flustered, and knowing the answer was never if the other person involved was a female, was finding it difficult to think of anything to say.
"Lucas?" Fletcher gave his friend a gentle jab with his elbow. "She says you can let her go now."
He brought himself under control, but not without conscious effort. "Yes, of course. Forgive me, young lady. I merely wanted to be certain you hadn't been injured by our… collision."
"I believe I shall survive, sir, thank you. Ah, and here is my sister, frowning, and with a good scolding eager to escape her lips as she points out, for at least the tenth time, that we are not at Ashurst Hall anymore, and I cannot just behave as if London is our familiar village. Although I don't see why not, do you? It's not as if a person is likely to encounter anyone too dastardly right here on Bond Street."
"I wouldn't say that, miss. We could be quite dastardly, I'm sure, if we just put our minds to the thing," Fletcher said, winking at Lucas, who believed his friend was enjoying himself entirely too much.
"Ashurst Hall, you said?" Lucas pursued, turning back to the young beauty, whose luscious skin was now lustrous with the misting rain. She was fresh as a strawberry just plucked from the fields, yet the intelligence evident in her eyes told him she might be young, but she was neither shallow nor silly. "Then I may assume that the Duke of Ashurst is known to you?"
"You might assume that, yes. Rafael is our brother. And now that you have the advantage of me…?"
"A thousand pardons," Lucas said as the beautiful young blond woman who'd been addressed as Lydia joined them beneath their now trio of umbrellas. Sisters? Yes, he could see the resemblance, but at first blush this one seemed to lack the dangerous fire of her sibling. "Lady Lydia, if I heard the name correctly? Please allow me to introduce myself and my friend here."
"My lords," Lydia said moments later, dropping into a graceful curtsy while motioning for her sister to do the same. "And in return may I present my sister, Lady Nicole Daughtry."
Nicole. From the Greek, Lucas was fairly certain, and meaning "victorious people." Yes, it suited her. He could see her riding at the front of her own army, rather like Eleanor of Aquitaine. The queen, to inspire her troops, was rumored to have ridden bare-breasted.
Lucas shook off that disquieting thought and bowed to the young woman.
"A distinct pleasure, Lady Nicole."
"Yes…" she said, smiling at him as if she totally agreed that the pleasure was his, the minx. It was difficult to believe that the duke let this one out without a leash. She looked down the length of his body and back up again. "Did you happen to notice, my lord, that you're standing in a puddle?"
Fletcher gave a bark of laughter as Lucas looked down to see that a drainpipe aimed toward the gutter had been emptying rainwater the entire time they'd been standing here, and a dip in the flagway had served to collect quite a bit of that rainwater around his new boots.
"Why, yes, Lady Nicole, I did know that. I've made it a point to always stand in puddles. They're rarely crowded, you understand."
The dimple appeared, and that small, quick bite at her lower lip came and went almost before Lucas could see it. Almost.
"But I'm standing in it, too, my lord."
All right. If she wanted to play, he would not disappoint her. "Which now makes it our puddle, doesn't it, Lady Nicole?"
"I'm not sure. As my twin here could tell you, I have never been all that comfortable with sharing. You might wish to step back, my lord."
She was giving him a warning? Him? He was the Marquess of Basingstoke, and she was a young miss fresh from the country. He should be warning her, although of what, he couldn't be sure.
Fletcher nervously cleared his throat. "Yes… ah, um, yes indeed. Well, stap me if I haven't just remembered something. We have that appointment, Lucas, as I recall. Going to be late, and you know how his lordship frowns when we're late. And the ladies will take a chill, there's that, as well. We shouldn't keep them."
"Indeed, no, we shouldn't," Lucas said, agreeing with his friend's fib, as he already had a plan in mind to see Lady Nicole again. He turned to Lady Lydia, who might not have much influence over her sister, but who probably could be relied upon not to scramble his brains and tie his tongue into knots. "It would be our distinct pleasure to wait on you ladies tomorrow, if your brother will give his permission for the four of us to drive out to Richmond. Would you be amenable to such an arrangement, Lady Lydia?"
"If she knows what's good for her, she will," Lucas heard Lady Nicole whisper under her breath as she covered her mouth with one gloved hand, and once again Fletcher cleared his throat, this time to cover a laugh, no doubt.
"I should imagine you will have to apply directly to our brother, my lord," Lady Lydia said, earning herself a weary shake of the head from her sister. "We dine at home in Grosvenor Square this evening, and if you and Lord Yalding are free, we would be honored if you'd join us. You can ask him then."
Lucas glanced toward Lady Nicole, who was now looking at her sister in some astonishment. He quickly agreed, thanked Lady Lydia and then escorted the ladies to their waiting coach, the one with the ducal crest on it.
"What a mischievous piece of work that one is," Fletcher said as they watched the coach pull off into the light afternoon traffic. "And what was all that ridiculousness about puddles? Not that it wasn't all innocent, I suppose, but I was beginning to feel like a voyeur, listening to the pair of you. She's nearly a child, Lucas. Not your usual sort at all."
"A child, Fletch?" Lucas turned to head to his own coach, for he needed to go back to Park Lane, spend some time alone to consider all that had just happened to him. "That one has never been a child."
"No, I suppose some females are like that. But they aren't usually sister to a duke, if you take my meaning and no offense intended. And I'm supposed to be keeping the other one occupied so that the two of you can keep on speaking whatever private language you were spouting back there?"
They both handed their umbrellas to the waiting groom, who would return them to the nearest umbrella shop to be dried and refolded and be supplied with replacements. Umbrella shops were probably the most prosperous enterprises in the city this year.
"If you wouldn't consider it a hardship, yes."
"Absolutely not," Fletcher said. "Lady Lydia is a beautiful young woman. Such a contrast to her sister, though, don't you think? It would take a special eye to see her quiet beauty when matched up against the fire and flash of Lady Nicole."
"And you have a special eye?"
"Hardly," Fletcher said as they settled into the coach. "As you well know, I can't afford one. Although I have observed that your mood has improved by more than half since our encounter with Lady Nicole. I thought you said you weren't chafing about that business at White's."
"I'm sorry. Although I will admit that I am rather disappointed in my fellow man at the moment. Nobody wants to hear anything but good news. We'd rather close our ears and eyes and go on repeating the same mistakes over and over again."
"Well, I agree with you there, I suppose, at least with that business about making the same mistakes. For instance, m'father might have thought to learn that a Faro bank in a gaming hell is a harlot's tease. We all could have benefited if he'd taken that particular lesson to heart. But that's not what you mean, is it? You're angry with the way we're treating the populace."
"More than I thought I could be, yes. An iron fist is never a good ruler, Fletcher, when a helping hand benefits us all in the end. Why can't our fellows in the House of Lords see that?"