It was a reckless wager, and one Max couldn't resist: seduce the alluring Olivia or forfeit part of his fortune. Yet the wild, soon-to-be Duke never imagined he'd fall in love with this innocent beauty. Nor could he have guessed that a dangerously unpredictable rival would set out to destroy them both. Now, Max must beat a Madman at his own twisted game-or forever lose the only woman to have ever won his heart.
About the Author
You can find Jennifer in Southern California trying to talk her husband into yet another trip to England, helping her three children with homework while brainstorming a new five-minute dinner menu, or crouched in a corner of the local bookstore writing her next novel.
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Read an Excerpt
Secrets of An Accidental Duchess
By Haymore, Jennifer
ForeverCopyright © 2012 Haymore, Jennifer
All right reserved.
She was an angel.
Maxwell Buchanan, the Marquis of Hasley, had observed many beautiful women in his thirty years. He’d conversed with them, danced with them, bedded them. But no woman had ever frozen him in place before tonight.
He stood entranced, ignoring people who brushed past him, and stared at her, unable to tear his gaze away. With her slender, slight figure, delicate features, and crown of thick blond hair, she was beautiful, but not uncommonly so, at least to the other men populating the ballroom. As far as Max knew, the only head that had turned when she’d entered the room was his own.
The difference, he supposed, the singular element that clearly set her apart from the rest of the women here, was in the reserved way she held herself. There was nothing brazen about her, but nothing diffident or nervous, either. It was as though she held a confidence within herself that she didn’t feel any desire to share with the world. She didn’t need to display her beauty like all the other unattached ladies present. She simply was who she was, and she made no apologies for it.
Her small, white-gloved fingers held her dance partner’s, and Max’s fingers twitched. He wanted to be the man clasping that hand in his own. He wanted to know her. He would learn her name as soon as possible. He would orchestrate an introduction to her and then he would ask her for a dance.
“Lovely, isn’t she?”
Max whipped around to face the intruder. The man standing beside him was Leonard Reece, the Marquis of Fenwicke, and not one of his favorite people.
“Who is lovely?” he asked, feigning ignorance, curling the fingers of his right hand into a fist so as not to reach up to adjust his cravat over his suddenly warm neck.
Fenwicke gave a low chuckle. “The young lady you’ve been staring at for the last ten minutes.”
Damn. He’d been caught. And now he felt foolish. Allowing his gaze to trail after a young woman, even one as compelling as he found this one, was an imprudent enterprise, especially at Lord Hertford’s ball—the last ball of the London Season. If Max wasn’t careful, he’d find himself betrothed by Michaelmas.
The dance ended, and the angel’s dance partner led her off the floor toward another lady. The three stood talking for a moment before the man bowed and took his leave.
“Most people believe her sister is the great beauty of the family,” Fenwicke continued conversationally. “But I would beg to differ with them. As would you, apparently.”
“Indeed. The lady she’s speaking to, the one in the pale yellow, is the youngest of the Donovan sisters.”
Max looked more closely at the woman in yellow. Indeed, she was what most people would consider a great beauty—taller than her sister, and slender but rounded in all the proper places, with golden hair that glinted where the chandelier light caught it.
“The Donovan sisters?” he mused. “I don’t know them.”
“The lady in yellow is Jessica Donovan.” Fenwicke murmured so as not to be heard by anyone in the crowd milling about the enormous punch bowl. “The lady in blue is her older sister, Olivia.”
The angel’s name was Olivia.
Due to his position as the heir of a duke, Max was acquainted with most of the English aristocracy perforce. Yet from the moment he’d caught his first glimpse of the angel tonight, he’d known he’d never been introduced to her, never seen her before. He’d never heard Olivia and Jessica Donovan’s names, either, though their surname did sound vaguely familiar.
“They must be new to Town.”
“They are. They arrived in London last month. This is only the third or fourth event they’ve attended.” Fenwicke gave a significant pause. “However, I am quite certain you are acquainted with the eldest Donovan sister.”
Max frowned. “I don’t think so.”
Fenwicke chuckled. “You are. You just haven’t yet made the connection. The eldest sister is Margaret Dane, Countess of Stratford.”
That name he did know—how could he not? “Ah. Of course.”
A year ago, Lady Stratford had arrived from Antigua engaged to one well-connected gentleman, but she’d ended up marrying the earl instead. Like a great stone thrown into the semi-placid waters of London, the ripples caused by the splash she’d made had only just begun to subside. Even Max, who studiously avoided all forms of gossip, had heard all about it.
“So the countess’s sisters have recently arrived from the West Indies?”
Max’s gaze lingered on Olivia, the angel in blue. Fenwicke had said she was older than the lady standing beside her, but she appeared younger. It was in her bearing, in her expression. While Jessica didn’t quite strut, she moved like a woman attuned to the power she wielded over all who beheld her. Olivia was directly the opposite. She wore her reserved nature like a cloak. She stood a few inches shorter and was slighter than her sister. Her cheeks were paler, and her hair held more of the copper and less of the gold, though certainly no one would complain that it was too red. It was just enough to lend an intriguing simmer rather than a full-blown fire.
Olivia’s powder-blue dress was of an entirely fashionable style and fabric—though Max didn’t concern himself with fashion enough to be able to distinguish either by name. The gown was conservatively cut but fit her perfectly, and her jewelry was simple. She wore only a pair of pearl-drop earrings and an austere strand of pearls around her neck.
Her posture was softer than her sister’s, whose stance was sharp and alert. However, their familial connection was obvious in their faces—both perfect ovals with full but small mouths and large eyes. From this distance, Max couldn’t discern the color of her eyes, but when Olivia had been dancing earlier, she’d glanced in his direction, and he’d thought they must be a light shade.
God. He nearly groaned. She captivated him. She had from the first moment he’d seen her. She was simply lovely.
“… leaving London soon.”
Fenwicke stopped talking, and Max’s attention snapped back to him.
Fenwicke sighed. “Did you hear me, Hasley?”
“Sorry,” Max said, then gestured randomly about. “Noisy in here.”
It was true, after all. The orchestra had begun the opening strands of the next dance, and laughing couples were brushing past them, hurrying to join in at the last possible moment.
Fenwicke gazed at him appraisingly for a long moment, then motioned toward the ballroom’s exit. “Come, man. Let’s go have a drink.”
If it had been an ordinary evening, he would have declined. He and Fenwicke had a long acquaintance, and Max had always found the man oily and unlikable. They’d been rivals since their school days at Eton, but they’d never been friends.
He glanced quickly back to the lady. Olivia. At that moment, she looked up. Her gaze caught his and held.
Blue eyes. Surely they were blue.
Those eyes held him in her thrall, sweet and lovely, and sensual too, despite her obvious innocence. Max felt suspended in midair, like a water droplet caught in a spider’s web.
She glanced at Fenwicke and then quickly to the floor, and Max plopped back to earth with a splat. But satisfaction rushed through him in a warm wave, because just before she’d broken their eye contact, he’d seen the first vestiges of color flooding her cheeks.
“Very well,” he told Fenwicke. Tonight he didn’t politely excuse himself from Fenwicke’s company, because tonight Fenwicke appeared to have information Max suddenly craved—information about Olivia Donovan.
He turned away from her, but not before he saw another gentleman offering her his arm for the dance and a bolt of envy struck him in the gut. Thrusting away that irrational emotion, Max followed Fenwicke down the corridor to the parlor that had been set aside as the gentlemen’s retiring room. A foursome played cards in the corner, and an elderly man sat in a large but elegant brown cloth armchair in the corner, blatantly antisocial, a newspaper raised to obscure half his face. Other men lounged by the sideboard, chatting and drinking from the never-ending supply of spirits.
Fenwicke collected two glasses of brandy and then gestured with his chin at a pair of empty leather chairs separated by a low, glass-topped table but close enough together for them to have a private conversation. Max sat in the nearest chair, taking the glass Fenwicke offered him as he passed. He took a drink of the brandy while Fenwicke lowered himself into the opposite chair.
Holding his glass in both hands, Fenwicke stared at him. “I gather you haven’t had the pleasure of observing the Miss Donovans prior to tonight.”
“No,” Max admitted. “Do they plan to reside in London?”
“No.” Fenwicke’s lip twisted sardonically. “As I was saying in the ballroom, I believe they’re leaving before the end of the month. They’re off to Stratford’s estate in Sussex.”
“Too bad,” Max murmured.
But then a memory jolted him. At White’s last week, Lord Stratford had invited a few men, including Max, to Sussex this autumn to hunt fowl. He’d turned down the offer—he’d never been much interested in hunting—but now…
Fenwicke gazed at him. The man had always reminded Max of a reptilian predator with his cold, assessing silver-gray eyes. “You,” he announced, “have a tendre for Miss Donovan.”
It was impossible to determine whether that was a question or a statement. Either way, it didn’t matter. “Don’t be absurd. I don’t even know Jessica Donovan.”
“I’m speaking of Olivia,” Fenwicke said icily. It sounded like Fenwicke was jealous, but that was ridiculous. As the man had said, the lady had been in Town for less than a month.
“I don’t know either of them,” Max responded, keeping his tone mild.
“Regardless, you want her,” Fenwicke said in an annoyed voice. “I’m well acquainted with that look you were throwing in her direction.”
“You are besotted with her.”
Max leaned back in his chair, studying Fenwicke closely beyond the rim of his glass, wondering what gave Fenwicke the right to have proprietary feelings for Olivia Donovan.
“Are you a relation of hers?” he asked.
“I am not.”
“Well, I was watching her,” Max said slowly. “And, yes, I admit to wondering who she was and whether she was attached. I was considering asking her to dance later this evening.”
The muscles in Fenwicke’s jaw bulged as he ground his teeth. “She has no dances available.”
“How do you know?”
“I asked her myself.”
Max stared at the man opposite him, feeling the muscles across his shoulders tense as the fingers of his loose hand curled into a tight fist. He didn’t like the thought of his angel touching Fenwicke. Of Fenwicke touching her. The thought rather made him want to throw Fenwicke through the glass window overlooking the terrace across from them.
He took a slow breath, willing himself to calmness. He wasn’t even acquainted with the woman. Didn’t even know the sound of her voice, the color of her eyes, her likes and dislikes. Yet he was already willing to protect her from scum like Fenwicke.
He wouldn’t want Fenwicke touching any young innocent, he reasoned. He’d protect any woman from the marquis’s slick, slithering paws.
“How is your wife?” he asked quite deliberately, aware of the challenge in his voice.
Fenwicke’s expression went flat. He took a long drink of brandy before responding. “She’s well,” he said coldly. “She’s back at home. In Sussex. Thank you for asking.” His lips curled in a snarl that Max guessed was supposed to appear to be a smile.
Max remembered that Fenwicke’s country home was in Sussex, just like the Earl of Stratford’s. He wondered if the houses were situated close to each other.
“I’m glad to hear she’s well.”
“You can’t have her,” Fenwicke said quietly.
Max raised a brow. “Your wife?”
Max took a long moment to allow that to sink in. To think about how he should respond.
“She’s not married?” he finally asked. He knew the answer.
Fenwicke’s tone was frosty. “She is not.”
“Then why, pray, can’t I have her?”
“She’d never accept you. You would never meet her standards. You, Hasley, are a well-known rake.”
“So?” That had never stopped any woman from accepting his advances before.
“So, you’re not good enough for her.” Fenwicke’s smile widened, but it was laced with bitterness. “No man in London is.”
“How can you possibly know this?”
“She told me.”
Max nearly choked on his brandy. “What?”
“I propositioned her,” Fenwicke said simply. “In the correct way, of course, which was quite delicate, considering her innocence. I dug deeply—quite deeply indeed—into my cache of charm.”
Max’s stomach churned. He could never understand what women saw in Fenwicke—but obviously they saw something, because the man never needed to be too aggressive in his pursuit before capturing his prey, despite his marital status.
Yet it seemed Miss Olivia Donovan didn’t see whatever it was in Fenwicke that all the other women saw. Intriguing. Without ever having met her, Max’s respect for her grew.
The thought of how many times Fenwicke had abandoned his young wife in the country left Max feeling vaguely nauseous. How many times had he seen the man with a different woman on his arm?
Perhaps what left the sourest taste in Max’s mouth was that everyone knew about Fenwicke’s proclivities but continued to invite him to their social events. No one spurned him. He was a peer, after all, a member of White’s, and an excellent dance partner or opponent at cards.
Long ago, Fenwicke had decided that Max was an adversary and had pushed Max into a constant competition. They’d competed over sports, women, their studies, and politics. It had all started in Max’s third year at Eton, when his cousins had died of influenza and Max became the heir to a dukedom just like Fenwicke was—Fenwicke’s father was the Duke of Southington and Max’s uncle was the Duke of Wakefield.
Fenwicke even had the audacity to claim he’d be more of a duke, since he was an eldest son rather than a nephew. That statement had enraged Max—no one could vex him like Fenwicke could. Something about the man brought out the worst in Max, which was why he’d tried his damndest to stay away from the marquis. Avoidance hadn’t worked, however. Both he and Fenwicke had gone to Cambridge and now they belonged to the same gentleman’s club. Max couldn’t get rid of the man. And once they were both dukes and sitting in Parliament, they’d be required to see more of each other. Max had to come to terms with the fact that Fenwicke was a permanent fixture in his life, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.
Now, thinking of Fenwicke’s lascivious thoughts toward Miss Donovan in spite of his married state, Max’s dislike of the man threatened to grow into something stronger. Something more like hatred. He closed his eyes and images of his father passed behind his lids. His mother… alone. The tears she’d tried to hide from him. Even at a very young age, Max had known exactly what was happening. Exactly how his father had betrayed his mother, how he’d hurt her, ultimately destroyed her.
Max would never do that to a wife—he’d never marry so there would simply never be a concern—and he’d never abide anyone who did.
Fenwicke set his empty brandy glass on the table with a sigh. “I’m afraid Miss Olivia Donovan simply isn’t interested.”
Max narrowed his eyes. “So because you failed to charm the lady, you assume that I’ll fail as well?”
“Of course. She’s frigid, you see. The girl is composed of ice as solid as a glacier.”
Another of the many reasons Max disliked Fenwicke: He never took responsibility. If a woman rejected him, he’d think it was due to some defect in her character as opposed to a natural—and wise—dislike or distrust of the man himself. If a woman professed no attraction to the marquis, naturally she wouldn’t feel any attraction to any man, because all other men were lesser beings.
“I sincerely doubt she’s frigid,” Max responded before he thought better of it.
Fenwicke’s eyes narrowed. “Do you?”
Max met the man’s steely glare head-on. “Perhaps you simply don’t appeal.”
Fenwicke snorted. “Of course I appeal. I’m a marquis, to begin with, and the heir to—”
“Perhaps,” Max interjected, keeping his voice low, “she possesses no interest in engaging in an adulterous liaison, marquis or no.”
At his periphery, Max could see Fenwicke’s fists clenching. He braced himself for the man’s lunge, but it never came. Damn it. If Fenwicke had attacked first, it would have given Max a good reason to throttle him.
Fenwicke gave him a thin, humorless smile. “I would beg to differ.”
Max shrugged. “Perhaps we should agree to disagree, then.”
“If she did not succumb to my charms, Hasley, then rest assured, there’s no way in hell she’ll succumb to yours.” Fenwicke’s voice was mild, but the cords in his neck bulged above his cravat.
Max shook his head, unable to prevent a sneer from forming on his lips. “You’re wrong, Fenwicke.”
Fenwicke’s brows rose, his eyes glinted, and a sly expression came over his face. He leaned forward, greedily licking his lips.
“Would you care to place a wager on that?”
Two Months Later
Sussex in autumn was beautiful. Having spent most of her life on a small island in the West Indies, Olivia Donovan had never experienced the seasons in such dramatic fashion. The bracken surrounding the estate that belonged to her brother-in-law had turned a deep russet color. The brush bordering the forest abounded with the bright red berries of rosehips and haw, and the trees displayed a wealth of browns, reds, and yellows—deep, homey colors that gave Olivia a sense of peace and security. Antigua had never shown varying colors in such brilliant display.
Olivia turned from the drawing room window to smile at her sisters. It was so good to be together again, and it never failed to send happiness surging through her when she saw the three of them huddled together.
Serena—who’d changed her name to Margaret, or Meg—had married, and so had Phoebe, who was, at twenty, a year younger than Olivia. Phoebe had arrived in England with Serena last year. Jessica and Olivia hadn’t arrived until late July this year. They’d gone straight to London and had plunged into the frenzy that was the Season.
Jessica had met droves of potential suitors. Olivia hadn’t met anyone, though if you asked her three sisters, they’d all say it was entirely her fault.
She was too picky, they said.
She was too quiet.
She was too shy.
What she’d tried to tell them, over and over, was that perhaps she was picky, quiet, and shy, but none of that really mattered. What was most important was one simple fact that her sisters seemed either unwilling or unable to comprehend: No gentleman would have her, not once he learned about her ailment. Gentlemen wanted sturdy women, women who were capable of bearing strong, strapping sons. They didn’t want women who could fall ill from a relapse of malaria and die on a moment’s notice. Not pale, thin women prone to fainting and fevers.
She’d been aware from a young age that she was destined to be alone. It didn’t matter. Knowing that they weren’t in the cards for her, she had given up pining for marriage and children long ago. She was truly happy—no, utterly fulfilled—as long as she was surrounded by her sisters.
“Oh, drat,” Phoebe muttered, glancing up at the mantel clock. “I must go. Margie will be hungry soon, and I simply can’t abide it when her nurse feeds her.”
Margie was Phoebe’s eight-month-old daughter, a lovely child with the strongest lungs Olivia had ever heard on an infant. She took after her mother in temperament, though she possessed her father’s strikingly dark hair and eyes.
Olivia smiled. “Give my darling niece a big kiss from her Auntie Olivia, will you?”
“Must you go, Phoebe?” Jessica complained, waving her cards. “We haven’t finished the game.”
They’d been playing cribbage while Serena was embroidering a bonnet for Margie.
Phoebe crossed her arms tightly across her chest. “You can’t understand, Jess. What it’s like to be a mother. I can tell when she needs me. I can feel it.”
“How perfectly ghastly.” Jessica grimaced at Phoebe’s bosom. “I hope I never have children and never, ever feel any such thing.”
“You can’t mean that!” exclaimed Olivia. “What about all your suitors, Jess?”
All three of her sisters swung their heads around to stare at Olivia and she took a step back, feeling the window ledge push into her spine. “What?” she asked. “Why are all of you looking at me like that?”
“Suitors don’t necessarily translate into motherhood.” Serena’s lips twitched. She was obviously fighting a smile.
“Well, they translate into proposals of marriage, eventually. Then engagements and weddings. And those, in turn, translate to motherhood.”
“Pfft,” Jessica hissed. “Not true. Not at all true.”
Serena raised a brow at Jessica. “Care to explain how that works, Jess?”
Jessica shrugged and turned up her nose in a particularly Jess-like expression. “Not really. I just happen to know that there are ways to prevent conception.”
“Ways that are utterly deadly to both mother and child,” Phoebe muttered, frowning.
“Not necessarily,” Jessica said, looking superior.
“If that’s so,” Serena said, “we don’t want to hear about them. In any case, you’re scandalizing poor Saint Olivia.”
Their gazes all turned to her, and Olivia felt the burn of a flush crawling over her cheeks. “You’re not scandalizing me!”
“Oh, yes we are,” Phoebe said in the tone of a wizened old man. “There are certain topics best not discussed in Saint Olivia’s presence.”
Jessica shook her head soberly. “You’re red as a lobster, Liv. Obviously this conversation is distressing you.”
“It is not.” Olivia pressed her hand to her heated cheek. “Not at all.”
Jessica turned to Serena and Phoebe. “I think we’d best let her continue to think that suitors mean eventual motherhood.”
“But will that make her more likely to seek one?” Serena asked.
Jessica turned back to her. “Well, Liv? What do you think? No suitors and no motherhood, or shall we find you a suitor forthwith so you can start popping out litters of babies?”
Phoebe wrinkled her nose. “Jess! Is it possible for you to be any more indelicate?”
Jessica snapped back, “And who are you to speak of indelicacy, Mrs. Run-off-to-Gretna-Green-with-the-first-man-you-meet Harper?”
“Oh, stop it, both of you,” Serena said. “Before this escalates into a silly argument, I have something to tell you. Something important.” As the sisters turned to her, Serena looked down at her embroidery, scarlet spreading across her cheeks. “Well, Jonathan and I haven’t been trying to prevent anything.”
As Olivia frowned at her, trying to understand what on earth she was talking about, Phoebe dropped her cards and jumped out of her chair. “You’re pregnant!”
Pressing her lips together, still staring downward, Serena nodded.
“Oh, Serena,” Olivia breathed. “Really?” Serena had been hoping to conceive ever since Olivia and Jessica had arrived from Antigua.
“Yes,” Serena whispered. “I’m sure of it. But you forgot to call me Meg again.” The smile on Serena’s face told Olivia she didn’t really care this time. Olivia found it so difficult to call her sister by her new name. She’d always be Serena, her oldest, wisest sister, no matter what everyone else thought.
“I’m so happy for you, Meg,” she murmured, grinning.
“Another niece or a nephew for us! How perfectly lovely.” Jessica seemed to have forgotten her annoyance at Margie’s demands upon Phoebe.
Jessica, Phoebe, and Olivia gathered around Serena, embracing her as one, kissing her cheeks and pressing their hands over her still-flat stomach.
“Are you happy?” they asked her.
“Are you excited?”
“Are you afraid?” Jessica asked.
“Yes, I’m excited and happy, and no, of course I’m not afraid.”
Phoebe kissed Serena’s cheek and rose. “I really must go feed Margie,” she said softly. With a special smile at Serena, she took her leave.
Olivia spent most afternoons walking the grounds of Jonathan’s vast estate. Some might say that Jonathan’s lands were overgrown and dilapidated, but the area was so full of delights and treasures, Olivia found her new home to be utterly marvelous.
Jonathan had only recently moved back to Sussex and begun taking care of the property again, and he and Serena had just begun the work of refurbishing the house and grounds. Serena always laughed when she said that after having lived in Sussex for less than a year, she was glad she could walk from the front door to the carriage door without getting pricked by thorns or tripping over a fallen branch.
Some afternoons Olivia walked with Jonathan’s mother, the dowager countess, a lovely, cheerful woman, and others she walked with her sisters. But she was diligent about taking the time to walk daily, and most of the time she ended up on her own.
In Antigua, Mother had rarely allowed her to step foot outside, because Olivia’s doctor had always said that taking outdoor exercise would be detrimental to her weak constitution. But Mother wasn’t here. This wasn’t Antigua, this was England, and the climate, flora, and fauna were very different. If anyone objected to her walks, Olivia would simply say she was certain she was safer here.
Today, wearing her usual plain brown wool walking dress and sunbonnet, she ventured into the woods deep within Jonathan’s properties. The terrain was more uneven out here than it was nearer to the house, but paths wound through the trees, one of them leading to a natural spring wedged between two rock outcroppings.
Olivia breathed in the fresh autumn air and gloried in the crackle of dry leaves and brush beneath her boots. Before she’d left the house, she’d tucked a loaf of stale bread beneath her arm—she came in this direction every few days to feed a gaggle of gray geese that had made its home by the spring.
Humming under her breath, she descended the curve in the path that led to the spring. Glancing up from her feet, where she’d been looking to prevent herself from tripping over the rocks, she jerked to a stop, leaving a broken note hanging in the air.
A man—a man surrounded by eager geese—was crouched by the water.
He looked back over his shoulder at her. Obviously he’d heard her crackling and humming her way toward him. She hadn’t been attempting stealth.
Her pulse throbbed in her chest at a sudden realization. She was alone in the forest with a stranger. A man.
She licked her lips nervously, watching him rise to his feet. Trying not to watch the way his black Wellingtons encased his strong calves and his leather breeches clung to his muscular thighs.
It wasn’t polite to stare at a strange man’s thighs, she reminded herself sternly. Forcibly, she yanked her gaze upward.
He wore black gloves, and he gripped a small round burlap bag, likely food for the geese, one of which was pecking hungrily at it, trying to open it to spill out its contents. The bag hung at the man’s side, and he didn’t seem to notice the goose at all.
Olivia dragged her gaze farther upward. A richly tailored coat—like something made by a fine London clothier rather than the shabby homespun most men wore in Antigua—clung to broad shoulders.
A firm, square jaw, dusted with the growth of afternoon whiskers. Lush but stern lips. A strong nose. Dark hair that swooped across his forehead in a soft curl.
And… oh, those eyes. Penetrating, startling green. Staring at her.
Olivia managed to stifle her gasp. She recognized this man. This gentleman, she corrected. She’d seen him before, at the last ball she’d attended in London before coming to Stratford House. How could she forget?
“I’m sorry.” Her voice emerged in little more than a breathy whisper. “I didn’t realize the spring was… occupied.”
Those stern lips tilted upward. Was he smiling? Was he laughing at her?
Heat rushed over her cheeks, followed by annoyance. She turned to leave.
Goodness, that voice! It was a low baritone, smooth as honey. She stopped midstep. Leaves crackled as he moved closer to her.
“There’s room for two.”
When she didn’t respond, he added, “I can’t possibly satisfy these greedy fiends. Look, they’re already after your bread.”
It was true. One of the geese had seen her bread and was warily walking closer, a hungry glint in her eye. “That’s Henrietta,” Olivia said softly. “She’s always the first to want her dinner.”
“Henrietta,” the man said, “already ate half my bag of grain. She needs to give her brothers and sisters a chance.”
Obviously, the man didn’t know these geese very well. “Here, now.” She broke off a chunk of bread and waved it at Henrietta. “It’s the end. Your favorite part.”
When the goose made a lunge for the piece of bread, she threw it directly into a cluster of haw bushes. Henrietta, who wasn’t the smartest goose, waddled after it and began rooting around in the brush.
Olivia smiled at the stranger. “That’s how you get her to leave the others alone. Otherwise, she’ll bite them and scare them off and take the entire loaf for herself.”
“Or the entire bag of grain, no doubt.”
“No doubt,” Olivia agreed.
His eyes twinkling, he opened his bag, took out a handful of grain, and scattered it over the ground around him. The geese partook happily.
“Poor Henrietta,” Olivia said. The silly goose hadn’t found her chunk of bread yet, and was unaware of her siblings feasting not three yards away from her.
“You’re Miss Olivia Donovan, aren’t you?” the stranger said.
His use of her name made Olivia freeze again. Trying to infuse some moisture into her dry throat, she said, “I’m afraid you have the advantage of me, sir.”
She stared at him dumbly. Max? Just… Max? Surely that wasn’t right!
He must have recognized the confusion in her eyes, because he corrected himself hastily. “Maxwell Buchanan.” He bowed slightly, took her hand, and squeezed. She could feel the strength of his fingers through the layers of the leather of their gloves as her own fingers slipped from his.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Buchanan.” She tilted her head at him. “I’m certain I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?”
“You remember?” His emerald eyes held steady on her face.
“It was in London, at Lord Hertford’s ball.”
He smiled, showing deep dimples, a startling contrast to his rugged features. And so handsome.
Olivia mentally swatted herself. She’d been startled by the sight of him at the ball, and she’d thought of him a few times since, because it was quite possible that she had never in her life seen anyone quite as physically commanding as this man. Men like this were an uncommon sight in her sheltered world, but she couldn’t forget that he was still just a man. A human being, just like her.
Honestly, her reactions were utterly foolish. Next, she’d probably slap the back of her hand to her forehead and swoon.
“I remember,” he said softly, and his voice stroked down her spine, licked across her chest—for heaven’s sake, it felt like his voice caressed her.
She took a deep breath. “It’s… good to see you again,” she said. “But why are you here? Are you a neighbor?”
He chuckled. “Oh, no. I’m a guest of Stratford’s.”
Her brows shot upward. “You are?”
“Indeed. I just arrived this afternoon. Thought I’d go for a walk before dinner.”
“And you just happened to bring some food along for any geese you might encounter?”
“The stable boy gave me the bag. Said there were loads of geese and ducks out here this time of year. Turkeys, too. He said I might lure them and perhaps shoot one.”
Only then did she notice the rifle lying across a flat stone that lay near the water. She looked back at Mr. Buchanan, eyes wide. “You planned to shoot my geese?”
He laughed easily. “Your geese?”
“I’ve been feeding them for a month.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t say I’ve fattened them up just for you.”
He looked like he was fighting another laugh. “Very well. I won’t say it, then.”
The geese had finished the grain and were eyeing both Mr. Buchanan and Olivia, waiting for their next course. Even Henrietta had consumed her bread and was now shifting assessing looks between Olivia and Mr. Buchanan, apparently wondering which of them would be a better target to accost for more food.
Mr. Buchanan solved the dilemma, first by distracting Henrietta with a small handful tossed into the deep patch of grass nearest her, then scattering a larger handful nearby for the other geese.
“You do know,” he said, “that the reason Stratford invited us here was to hunt with him?”
She blew out a breath through her lips. “I know,” she said softly, and looked down at her bread. She tore it into small pieces, slowly and deliberately tossing them to the insatiable geese.
“You don’t approve of hunting?”
“I just…” She shrugged. “I don’t like killing God’s creatures. That’s all.”
Mr. Buchanan’s features softened. “Ah.”
“But I understand that it’s a necessity for human nourishment and survival. I can’t say I approve of it as a sport, however.”
“I’ll tell you a secret.” Mr. Buchanan leaned forward conspiratorially. “I am not an avid hunter. In fact, I’ve never shot at any living thing in my life.”
She frowned at him. “Really?”
“Then why are you here?”
He shrugged. “I thought I’d give it a try. I might learn something. And…” He paused, then gave her a sheepish smile. “I’m in need of a new diversion.”
“Are you lacking in pleasurable diversions?” she asked, throwing the last of the bread toward the geese and brushing the crumbs from her hands.
“I am.” A shadow passed behind his eyes, but when she blinked, it was gone.
“I’ve heard that’s a common problem in England amongst gentlemen of a certain class.”
When Olivia and Jessica had spent the month at their aunt Geraldine’s London house this summer, their aunt had gone on and on about the canker on society that was young men of their class. “Yes. You see, my sisters and I were all raised on the island of Antigua. It’s a very different place from England.”
“I’d heard your family was from the West Indies. I imagine it’s very different there, indeed.” Mr. Buchanan turned over the burlap bag and scattered his remaining grain. Then he brushed off his own hands and collected the rifle, which he slung across his back. He raised his brows at her and held out his arm. “May I accompany you back to your brother-in-law’s house, Miss Donovan?”
She nodded. She’d cut her walk shorter than usual, but she was intrigued by this gentleman. In any case, it was time to leave the spring and the geese, which were finishing up the bread crumbs and within moments would be pestering them for more.
Side by side, they turned and walked down the unkempt path from which Olivia had come. Mr. Buchanan held Olivia’s arm firmly tucked within his own, his flesh solid—hard, even—against hers. It was… disconcerting.
Men had held her arm before in her life, of course. Her brother-in-law, for one, was very sweet with her, and even though no one ever brought up her frail constitution to her face, he always put great effort into ensuring she was taken care of.
But this was different. This wasn’t a family relation, this was a man she’d only just met, and in rather odd circumstances. If this had happened in London and someone who didn’t know her had seen them, it would have been enough to spark gossip—probably even talk of an engagement. Of course, her sisters wouldn’t blink twice when they saw her coming out of the woods on the arm of a stranger—they knew her.
But anyone else in the world probably would blink. Several times over.
“So tell me about them,” Mr. Buchanan said.
She gave him a blank stare.
“The differences between Antigua and England,” he clarified.
“Oh, goodness. There are so many.”
“Well, let’s start with the obvious. The visual. How is Antigua different from England in the autumn?”
“There are no colors,” Olivia said softly.
He raised his brows. “No colors?”
“Well, there are colors,” she amended. “The blues of the sky and of the ocean, for one. The sky is only subtly different from the English sky. A shade crisper, I’d say. But the ocean is very different. It’s such a bright, shimmering blue. Utterly clear and fathomless.”
“Hm.” Mr. Buchanan slid her a glance, opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, and then seemed to think better of it.
She took a breath and continued. “All in all, quite different from the grayish color of the English waters I’ve seen so far.”
“I imagine so,” Mr. Buchanan said. “I’ve heard much about the seas of the West Indies. I’ve heard the waters are clear. Are they warm, too, like they say?”
“Oh yes, much, much warmer than English oceans.”
They rounded a copse of trees and stepped onto the ragged lawn. Olivia tensed. Now was the time they would be seen.
Still, she couldn’t bring herself to pull her arm out from his. The afternoon had turned chilly, but her arm was warm where his flesh pressed on hers, and that warmth seemed to radiate up to her shoulder and through her body.
Nevertheless, when she saw a figure walking toward them from the direction of the house, she did slip her arm from his. She smiled up at him—goodness, he was tall. Probably a foot taller than herself. “Thank you for walking home with me.”
He smiled down at her, warmth filling those sparkling eyes of his. “It was my pleasure, Miss Donovan.”
The grass was tall here, and Olivia lifted her skirts a little so she could walk through the most difficult clumps without soiling her dress. Beside her, Mr. Buchanan clasped his hands behind his back—no, she wouldn’t notice the way that made his coat pull so tightly across his broad chest—and walked along at her side, studying the figure growing closer with every step they took.
“Do you know who it is?” he asked.
“It’s one of my sisters.” But which one? Phoebe and her husband, Sebastian, were living in the caretaker’s cottage, so she probably wouldn’t be coming from the house. That left either Jessica or Serena. Soon, the watery sunshine sparkled gold over the woman’s hair as she carefully picked her way toward them, and Olivia smiled. “It’s Seren—” She sucked in a breath. Very few people knew Serena’s real name, and it was a well-protected secret. The world thought of her as Meg now. “It’s my sister, Meg. Lady Stratford.”
Mr. Buchanan nodded. “I’ve met her, but only twice, and both times it was in a formal setting. I’ve known the earl since we were boys, though.”
“Really?” She was genuinely interested. She had a difficult time envisioning her brother-in-law’s childhood. All she knew was that it had been a generally unhappy one.
“Yes. We went to Eton together. Afterward, we went our separate ways for several years…” He hesitated.
Olivia smiled. “Those were probably his ‘Years of Debauchery.’ That’s what Meg calls them.”
Mr. Buchanan raised a brow at her. “Is that so?”
“It is.” She sighed, and said softly, “He’s changed entirely, thanks to my sister.”
“I’ve heard about her influence on him. In fact, I’ve seen it in him.” Mr. Buchanan sounded thoughtful. “He’s a much happier man now.”
“I’m so thankful he and my sister found each other again.”
Olivia blinked several times. This was the problem with Serena’s new identity—it forced her to be slightly dishonest at times, and that made her terribly uncomfortable. She wasn’t a dishonest person by nature.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a low voice. “I’m afraid… well, that I’ve said too much. You’ll forgive me if I don’t say anything more, I hope.”
Mr. Buchanan slowed in his step. She looked up at him again to see him frowning, but not at her—it seemed as though he was frowning at himself, at something he was thinking. He caught her eye, saw that she was watching him, and his features relaxed.
“Somehow, I think I could forgive you most anything, Miss Donovan,” he murmured.
“Olivia, is that you?” Serena called.
She waved, and Serena hurried closer. When she was near enough, they all stopped, and Serena and Mr. Buchanan exchanged a bow.
“You must be Lord Hasley. Jonathan said you’d gone for a walk. Welcome to Stratford House, my lord.”
He made his thanks as Olivia gawked at him. Lord Hasley? My lord? Obviously, he wasn’t a simple mister, and he hadn’t bothered to correct her when she’d called him Mr. Buchanan. Her cheeks heated. Should she have known his title based on his name alone?
Serena bade him come into the house, where she’d show him to his room and offer him refreshment before dinner. Serena was in her element. She was so satisfied by her new life with Jonathan and as lady of her own domain, and now she was with child. Her sister’s happiness made Olivia feel warm and soft, like a gentle light glowed inside her.
Devilry glinted in Mr. Buchanan’s—Lord Hasley’s—eyes. “I heard you plan to serve goose for dinner tonight.”
Olivia’s mouth dropped open.
“Oh, dear.” Serena frowned. “Yes, I did plan on it. Please tell me you haven’t an aversion to roasted goose.”
Lord Hasley smiled, his dimples flashing more at Olivia than at Serena. “Not at all. I’ll enjoy every bite. It’s your sister I’m concerned about.”
Serena’s confused gaze moved to Olivia.
“No need to be concerned, Lord Hasley,” Olivia said primly. “As long as they’re not personal acquaintances of mine, I’m sure I’ll be quite satisfied with roasted goose for dinner this evening.”
Shaking her head at his low chuckle, Olivia followed them into the entry hall, where Jonathan and another man waited for them with Jessica.
“Olivia, I’d like you to meet our good friend, Captain William Langley, who has come from his home in the north of England,” Jonathan said.
She curtsied to the man. He was tall—as tall as Mr. Buchanan, but not as wide in the shoulders. And she saw instantly that he had a serious nature about him. She understood that; she knew a little of his past with Serena. “Captain Langley,” she murmured. “I’m so pleased to finally meet you.”
“And you, Miss Donovan.” His voice was grave and sober, his eyes lacking the sparkle of Mr. Buchanan’s, and something panged in her chest. He’d been in love, once, with Serena’s twin, and had only found out recently that she had been lost at sea seven years ago.
Serena and Jonathan led the two men off to their rooms, talking animatedly about their plans for the renovation of the house as they began to mount the sweeping staircase. Jessica pulled Olivia down the corridor leading to the drawing room. “Oh, Olivia,” she whispered, “isn’t Lord Hasley the handsomest man you’ve ever seen? Serena told me he’s a marquis and heir to the Duke of Wakefield.”
“Is he?” Olivia looked speculatively in the direction Mr. Buchanan—the marquis—had left with Serena and the other gentlemen.
If what Jessica said was true, Lord Hasley wasn’t just any lord. He was so far above a mister, it was almost laughable. He was a marquis, but that was only a courtesy title until he took his place as a duke, essentially just a step below a prince.
Imagine that. The heir to a duke had been squatting and surrounded by wild geese, and hadn’t seemed at all offended when she’d incorrectly called him Mr. Buchanan. A lofty man with a lofty title… yet he didn’t behave as though he were superior to anyone. Olivia knew from her experiences in London that that was a rare kind of lord indeed.
“Well?” Jessica asked. “Isn’t he just gorgeous?”
“Yes,” Olivia murmured. “Yes he is.”
Jessica stopped cold, her mouth dropping open. “Liv? Are you all right? You’re not ill again, are you?”
“What?” she asked distractedly. Then she turned to her sister. “No, of course I’m not ill.”
Jessica pressed her palm to Olivia’s forehead. “Are you feverish?”
“Not at all, silly! Why do you ask?”
“Because, dear sister, I’ve pointed out handsome men to you about a thousand times. But you’ve never—not once—actually agreed with me.”
The doors to the breakfast room were wide open, and even though the floor needed sanding, the walls and table required refurbishment, and coal smoke had stained the hearth and part of the ceiling with sweeping black marks, the room had quickly become one of Olivia’s favorites. The reason for that was the wall of eastern-facing windows that allowed the bright morning sunlight to stream inside.
Today was no exception. Although it had rained overnight, the sun peeked out from behind gray clouds and sparkled over the rangy wild grasses of the eastern lawn. Jonathan had told them that once upon a time, the lawn had been spotlessly manicured with topiary bushes cut to perfection along a curving path that wended through the eastern acreage and around the back of the house skirting the woods. If Olivia squinted hard enough, she thought she could see the remnants of that path—a winding trail of weeds a shade darker than those that surrounded it.
Serena glanced up from her plate as Olivia and Jessica walked into the breakfast room. “Good morning.”
“You’re up early,” Jessica commented grumpily. Jessica was never pleasant company in the mornings until she’d had her sugared coffee—a habit she’d grown into long ago back in Antigua.
“It’s almost eleven,” Serena said, exchanging a knowing glance with Olivia.
Olivia scanned the dishes on the sideboard. She chose a thick slice of toasted bread and proceeded to smear gooseberry jam over it. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you up before noon since we arrived from London,” she said to Serena.
“I was…” Serena pressed her lips together and glanced down at her brimming plate before continuing, a pink blush staining her cheeks. Serena had never really been one to blush unless under extreme conditions, and Olivia found this new propensity charming. She just wanted to hug her sister to bits. “Well, I was quite hungry,” Serena finished.
That precipitated a grin from Olivia. “Ah,” she murmured. “Eating for two souls rather than one?”
Olivia smiled at Serena’s unintelligible muttered response.
Jessica glanced at the door. Confirming no one was close, she murmured, “Have you told Jonathan yet?”
“Not yet.” Serena bit her bottom lip. “I’m waiting for the perfect time.”
“I can understand that,” Olivia murmured. If she were in her sister’s place, she’d want to wait for the perfect moment to tell her husband the news as well.
Just then, Lord Hasley entered with a cheerful “Good morning, ladies,” and strode to the coffeepot, effectively ending any further discussion of Serena’s pregnancy.
Olivia studied her toast, but from the corner of her eye she saw that the marquis was dressed in riding clothes—clothes that clung to his muscular frame in a most appealing way—and the same tall black leather boots he’d worn yesterday.
“Good morning, my lord,” Serena said. “I trust you slept well.”
He grinned at her. “Excellently, thank you.” He sucked in a deep breath. “Ah, I’ve missed the country air.”
“Has it been long since you were last in the country?” Jessica asked.
Having no excuse to remain at the sideboard, Olivia went to the table and took her seat to the right of Serena’s.
Lord Hasley hesitated, then smiled, although not quite as jovially as he had when he’d first entered the room. “Many years,” he said, his voice containing a subtle softness that made Olivia glance sharply at him.
He set his coffee on the table, and at Serena’s urging, returned to the sideboard to fill a plate with food.
“What do you gentlemen have planned for the day?” Serena asked. “I know Jonathan’s already at the stables.”
“Yes, and Langley’s with him. They’re discussing the earl’s stock.” With his plate piled high, Lord Hasley took the seat beside Olivia. “Since I’m not the horse connoisseur those two are, I told them I’d prefer to spend the morning with the ladies.”
“Oh, wonderful,” Jessica said saucily, “perhaps you might help me with my embroidery.”
Lord Hasley didn’t hesitate. “Alas, I forgot my own sampler, so I’ll be happy to assist you with yours, Miss Jessica.”
Olivia’s chuckle burst out of her, and she slapped her hand over her mouth when her sisters’ gazes snapped to her. “Sorry.” She shrugged. “That was funny.”
Lord Hasley chuckled too, easing her embarrassment, and Serena said, “I’ve an idea. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for the past several weeks, and I was intending to recruit Olivia and Jessica to help me. But your assistance would be welcome as well, my lord.”
“I am all ears,” Lord Hasley said, and attacked his poached egg with gusto.
Serena spoke between bites of black pudding. “Well, as you know, we’ve made Stratford House our home for several months now, and while I’ve met nearly all of Jonathan’s tenants, I’ve yet to meet some of the neighbors. Particularly our closest neighbors, Lord and Lady Fenwicke of Brockton Hall.”
Olivia fumbled with her piece of toast, nearly dropping it onto the floor, but Lord Hasley’s hand on her arm steadied it. She gave him a sidelong look, her heart pulsing wildly in her chest. His reaction—well, it was as if he knew. Yet surely he couldn’t. That was impossible.
But that night she’d seen him at Lord Hertford’s ball. Oh, goodness, he’d been walking with Lord Fenwicke. They’d appeared friendly with each other. Had Lord Fenwicke spoken of her? Had he told Lord Hasley what had happened between them?
Serena continued blithely on. “Lord Fenwicke is still in London, I believe, but Lady Fenwicke is in residence. She’s very young—I’m told she married Lord Fenwicke just over a year ago, and I hear she’s lived there since the wedding, but I haven’t seen her at all. It promises to be a fine day, so I thought we could all walk over to Brockton Hall and call upon the lady.”
“Well, that sounds like an absolutely lovely idea.” Jessica was all eagerness.
A sick feeling curdled in the pit of Olivia’s stomach, but there was no way she’d reveal that to her sisters. They’d worry. They always worried when she didn’t feel well.
She remembered Lord Fenwicke’s ugly smile. When they’d waltzed together, he’d pulled her body so tightly against his, she’d felt him not-so-subtly rubbing his erection against her belly. After the dance, he’d tugged her into a dark alcove, and she’d been so stupid and naïve for not dashing away from him before he’d taken her there.
He’d leaned into her ear and whispered nasty, horrid things to her. About how he’d tear her clothes off and lay her down. About how he’d take her so hard that she’d feel him for a week.
Then he’d pulled her against him again and his wet mouth slathered over her neck and his hand snaked down her bodice. She had pushed him off her, managing to hold back the scream threatening to reveal herself and Lord Fenwicke in a compromising position to half the London ton.
She’d turned to run away, but he’d grabbed her arm and yanked her back. Later, she’d found a ring of bruises around her arm. He’d said, “I’m a marquis, if you recall.” As if it was unthinkable that she would turn down a man of his status.
She’d responded that she didn’t want any man, any marquis, any wretched London rake, and especially not him, and that she intended to die a spinster. Then she’d turned on her heel and marched away. She’d felt disgusted and dirty for a week.
How could she look in the eyes of Lord Fenwicke’s wife? Goodness, even thinking the man’s name made Olivia feel all clammy and cold.
Lord Hasley’s fingers still curled around her arm, but his touch was gentle, nothing like Lord Fenwicke’s painful grip. Neither of her sisters seemed to have noticed her agitation, thank goodness. Now, Lord Hasley squeezed gently and then removed his hand. “Miss Donovan? What do you think?”
She tried to smile at Serena, but she was certain it came out as more of a grimace. “It is a good idea. Neighborly relations are important.”
“Very true,” Lord Hasley said.
“Are you acquainted with Lord and Lady Fenwicke, my lord?” Serena asked.
Olivia turned to him, curious as to how he’d answer. In truth, a description of the extent of his relations with Lord Fenwicke would go far in helping Olivia firm her opinion about Lord Hasley.
“Lord Fenwicke is an acquaintance,” Lord Hasley said, “but not a friend. Stratford and I have known him since our school days.”
“And his wife?”
Lord Hasley nodded. “I met her in London two years ago.” He smiled, but it was a tight smile that didn’t make his dimples appear. “She was a very charming, very lovely young lady.”
“But you haven’t seen her since?” Jessica asked.
“No. It’s been almost two years to the day.”
“But that’s all right, isn’t it?” Jessica asked. “At least we won’t be a group of complete strangers bombarding the poor lady’s privacy.”
Nerves jumped along Olivia’s spine. The woman probably wouldn’t instinctually hate her, and of course, chances were that she knew nothing of what her horrid husband had said and done to Olivia. That had happened in London, far from here.
“It’s settled then.” Serena rose from her seat as a footman whisked away her plate and coffee cup. “We’ll leave in half an hour, and I’ll take some of those lovely tarts Cook made last night for her.” She smiled. “She’s just a little older than you are, Jessica. You never know, she may turn into a wonderful friend.”
“Oh, wouldn’t that be lovely?” Jessica clapped her hands at her chest in anticipation. Out of all the sisters, Jessica was the most outgoing. She made friends wherever she went. “A friend for us all.”
Max loitered in the library, scanning the rows of old books while he waited for the ladies to come downstairs for the walk to Brockton Hall. He liked this room. It was large for a library, and spacious. Rows of books covered three of the walls from floor to ceiling. The fourth held two deep-set tall and narrow windows on either side of a very comfortable-looking chaise longue. Four old chairs, all of different designs and colors but all large and soft, were scattered around the room, welcoming anyone who desired to lose themselves within the pages of a book.
Max ran his fingers along the spines of a row of books at his eye level. There was no orderliness to the shelving of these books: Pamela was beside The Science of Horticulture, which was shelved in turn beside The Truth of the Christian Religion, Book Three.
The door opened behind him, and Max turned to see Lady Stratford smiling at him. She wore a light gray dress that complemented her eyes. “Jessica and Olivia should be down in a minute or two.” He nodded and she tilted her head at the bookshelf. “What book were you looking at?”
“Oh, none in particular.”
She laughed softly. “It’s difficult to find books in here. I intend to organize them someday, but there are so many, it seems a daunting task.”
“It’s a wonderful library,” Max said. He knew he’d be spending more time in here.
“Thank you.” She came up beside him and pretended to look at the shelf Max had been scanning when she’d walked in. After a moment, she said, “I was surprised to see you with Olivia yesterday.”
“It was pure chance that we happened upon each other in the wood.”
That was a lie. He’d been waiting by the spring because the stable boy had told him she would probably go in that direction, and Max had had this inexplicable desire to be alone with her for their first meeting.
“The wood is quite vast,” Lady Stratford said softly. “Sometimes I worry about Olivia going off by herself, because if she were to get lost, it would be like searching for a needle in a haystack. And yet…” She paused significantly. “You two found each other.”
“It’s odd how the world is sometimes far smaller than it appears,” Max said, shrugging.
“Indeed. Well, we all worry about Olivia going off alone, but we allow it.”
Max raised a brow. Allow it? Olivia was a grown woman. Why wouldn’t her family allow her to go for a walk within the confines of her brother-in-law’s estate?
When Lady Stratford met his gaze, alarm bells rang through him. Her expression was a clear warning. It said, Don’t trifle with my sister. We are all looking out for her.
He shouldn’t be offended that the countess thought he’d consider trifling with Olivia. The lady probably knew a little of his past, which, as with many men of his age and class, involved quite a bit of trifling.
He forced a friendly look onto his face. “You must care for your sister very much.”
“All of us do,” Lady Stratford said. “Olivia is special. She might be the most guileless, genuine person you or I will ever meet, Lord Hasley.”
He raised his brows. “That’s high praise indeed.”
“Don’t take it from me.” Lady Stratford’s stern look softened. “I’m sure you’ll discover it for yourself during your stay here.”
At that moment, Jessica and Olivia entered. Jessica was dressed like her personality, in a vibrant red. Olivia wore a more sedate striped ivory walking dress with lace trim. The urge to trace that delicate line at her neck made Max’s fingers tingle. What he wouldn’t give to touch that pale, perfect skin above her breasts… and lower.
Max took a deep breath. The countess was looking at him. Watching him. He’d have to be careful with that one. Even more, he’d have to be careful with himself.
One day at a time. He’d be here in Sussex for a month, at least. There was no need to turn his interest in Olivia Donovan into more than what it really was. He would enjoy the time he had here and then return to London and get on with his life.
The countess led them outside and down the front drive to the main road. Max kept quiet, listening to the ladies—mostly Jessica and the countess—talk. Soon enough, they turned off the road and onto a wide rutted path that Lady Stratford said marked the edge of the earl’s property. They passed a sheep farm, and the countess stopped to exchange a friendly word with her tenants, leaving them with a package of her cook’s famous lemon tarts.
When they returned to the path, Max found himself beside Olivia, following Lady Stratford and Jessica, who were engaged in an animated discussion about the wool business.
He smiled down at Olivia. “Not interested in wool?”
She gazed at him, her blue eyes seeming impossibly clear and bright against the smooth, uniform background of her pale features.
“Oh no, I am,” she said quickly, then looked down, hiding her expression behind the brim of her bonnet.
When he remained silent, she looked up again, smiling ruefully. “I just wanted to walk with you for a while. Do you mind terribly?”
Max’s chest tightened. Good God. She was… Max couldn’t even come up with a word to describe her. “Delightful” seemed an understatement of grand proportions.
Ever since he’d agreed to it, he’d regretted that idiotic bet he’d made with Fenwicke. It didn’t matter what happened between him and Olivia Donovan this autumn. He had signed the wager Fenwicke had written in a moment of furious weakness, and he’d strike the moment out of existence if he could.
He wouldn’t compromise any woman—especially not Olivia—for the sake of a bet, not even to beat Fenwicke. That was something his father would have done, and damn it, Max had spent his whole life attempting to become the antithesis of his father. Fenwicke always seemed to bring that part of him out, though. Curse the man.
It looked like he was going to owe Fenwicke a thousand guineas on the first of the year. No matter what happened between Max and Olivia in the upcoming days, it had already become something that Fenwicke’s involvement would soil. Despite Max’s hot-headed actions and words that night in London, now that he was calmer, now that he knew the lady, he knew he would do everything in his power to completely dissociate Fenwicke from Olivia Donovan.
It would be one of the few wagers between them that Max had lost. For the first time in his life, Max found that he didn’t even care.
He glanced at Olivia to see her looking at him with a furrowed brow.
“I don’t mind you joining me at all,” he said gravely. “I’m glad you decided to walk with me. I was beginning to feel lonely.”
Her face crumpled into an expression of agitation. “I’m so sorry. We didn’t mean to make you—”
He raised his hand, cutting off her words. “I was jesting, Miss Donovan.”
“Oh… oh, dear.” Her lips twisted prettily. “Sometimes I can be far too literal.”
“I’ll remember that,” he said. “Next time, I’ll be sure to warn you in advance when I’m not being entirely literal.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“Please. Call me Max.”
She looked up at him again, frowning. “I would like to do that, but wouldn’t it be considered quite improper?”
“Not if you reserve it for when we’re alone.”
Her gaze flicked to her sisters, who’d stretched the distance between them. “Like now?”
“Like now,” he agreed softly. He wanted to touch her again. But he didn’t want to make her uncomfortable—she was having a difficult enough time using his name, for God’s sake. So he kept his hands at his sides, more rigidly than was natural.
She was too lovely. So soft and gentle. She reminded him of a white rose petal. She made him want to gather her up and hold her close to him, not allowing anyone else to touch her, to mar that delicate beauty.
He glanced down at her and saw a smile tipping the edges of her lips. So beautiful, her lips. Such a deep pink. He wanted to run his thumb over the plumpness of her lower lip, feel its suppleness against his skin.
He inhaled through his teeth. Best not to think too much about touching Olivia Donovan. That was likely to get him into an embarrassing state, particularly since the day was warm so he’d slung his coat over his forearm after they’d left the sheep farm, and his waistcoat didn’t completely cover the front placket of his breeches.
They rounded a bend and Fenwicke’s house came into view. It was smaller than Stratford’s, but unlike Stratford’s, it was in perfect repair, with freshly painted gables and fronted by a perfectly manicured sweeping lawn.
As they approached, a heavy feeling settled through Max, and he looked at Olivia. She’d gone even paler than usual, and her plump lips had pressed into a thin, straight line. He wanted to reassure her, to tell her that Fenwicke’s wife was a very different person from the man himself. That she could befriend her neighbor without worrying about what Fenwicke had tried with her, because Fenwicke was very rarely in Sussex, and when he was, it was usually for short periods of time—certainly not enough time to mingle with the neighbors.
Watching her from the corner of his eye, Max wondered exactly what had passed between Olivia and Fenwicke. The two were like oil and water. It seemed obvious that Fenwicke’s greasy charm wouldn’t have worked on her.
Ahead, Jessica and the countess had slowed to allow Olivia and Max to catch up. When they did, Jessica gestured at the house. “Quiet, isn’t it?”
“I wonder if she’s home,” Olivia murmured.
“I’m sure she is,” Lady Stratford said. “I’ve heard she rarely goes out.”
They approached Brockton Hall, the sisters clustering closer together and casting wary glances toward the house. They reached the graveled drive and stepped up into the entryway. Lady Stratford lifted the immense bronze door knocker, and the four of them listened as the sound resonated within the house.
For a moment, Max thought that no one would come to the door, but then an aged servant answered it. When Lady Stratford explained to the frowning man who they were and the reason for their visit, all he said was “Just a minute, if you please,” before shutting the massive door in their faces.
The sisters looked at one another and then at Max, who shrugged. “Let’s wait and see what happens.”
They waited several minutes. Max was losing patience, and Jessica was pacing back and forth across the front landing when the door opened again.
The old man didn’t meet any of their eyes. “Lady Fenwicke will see you now.” Turning, he made room for them to enter. They walked into a spacious entry hall, and the man closed the door behind them, then shuffled into a dimly lit corridor. “This way, please.”
He led them in to an elegantly decorated drawing room with elaborate, expensive Oriental furnishings and heavy, dark-colored velvet draperies. A young woman stood beside the richly carved and spotless white marble fireplace.
If he hadn’t known this was Lady Fenwicke, Max wouldn’t have recognized her. She’d gained a good two stone, her vivacious dark eyes had gone flat along with her complexion, and even her dark hair seemed to have lost all the richness it had held just two years ago.
She smiled at them, but the smile didn’t bring any light to her eyes.
A heaviness settled over Max. He knew that some would say that this was the result of any marriage, but one only had to look at the Countess of Stratford’s glow to disprove that. No, this was the result of being married to one Leonard Reece, the Marquis of Fenwicke.
Lady Stratford seemed to have taken on the role of their speaker, but Max didn’t mind. He was content to stand behind the ladies and allow them to do the talking.
“Good afternoon, my lady. I’m your neighbor, Lady Stratford. These are my sisters, Miss Olivia Donovan and Miss Jessica Donovan. And this is our guest, Lord Hasley.”
She didn’t seem to remember him. No recognition flickered in her eyes as her gaze passed over him. He’d only met her a few times before, but people usually did remember him, due to his position in society if nothing else.
“Welcome,” she said. “I’m so glad you came. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. I am Beatrice Reece.”
She invited them to sit and called for tea. Lady Stratford gave her the lemon tarts, which she appropriately gushed over. Everything was all politeness and propriety, but there was something about Lady Fenwicke that just seemed… absent. Max glanced at Olivia. Her gaze was forthright and friendly—not that he’d ever seen it any other way—but there was the slightest crease between her brows.
Tea was served, and Max sat back and enjoyed the scorching, bitter taste of his. The sisters all took generous lumps of sugar for their tea, and Lady Fenwicke took sugar and cream in hers, but Max noticed that after she’d prepared it to her liking, she placed it beside her and didn’t touch it.
The ladies discussed their plans for autumn and winter, briefly skimmed the topic of their past in the West Indies, and told Lady Fenwicke about their absent sister, Phoebe, who Max had met last evening. For her part, Lady Fenwicke hardly spoke but asked the sisters questions and offered them more tea and cakes. A proper hostess. Still, something in Max panged for her. She just seemed so damned unhappy.
Jessica dabbed her napkin to her lips. “That almond cake was simply delicious, Lady Fenwicke! I’ll have to tell my sister’s cook to ask for the recipe from yours.”
“Thank you, but I must confess that I made the cakes myself.” Sucking in a breath at her blunder—a lady of her status should never admit to doing something as common as cooking!—she looked down at her lap.
There was a short silence, then Lady Stratford said in a kindly voice, “Oh how lovely. You are a talented cook. I do hope you’ll give my cook the recipe.”
Olivia took her first bite of the cake and added her appreciation, and Max ate his cake in silence. He liked these three sisters. It was heartwarming how they attempted to make their hostess comfortable.
“Do you like to cook, then, my lady?” Jessica asked. “Is it a hobby of yours?”
He also liked how forthright they were.
“I do,” Lady Fenwicke said quietly. “I like it very much. It is… it is a great solace to me.”
“I understand completely,” Olivia said. “Going for long walks is my solace.”
“Reading is mine,” Lady Stratford added.
“And mine is dancing. Oh, how I love to dance,” said Jessica, beaming. “Our sister Phoebe does, too. We used to dance together for hours and hours in our parlor back in Antigua before she came to England last year.” She turned to Max. “What’s your solace, my lord?”
That took him aback. His solace? Solace hadn’t been a concept he’d considered for years. Perhaps ever. “Well. I can’t think of anything.”
“It must be hunting,” Jessica said. “Since you’re here to hunt with my brother-in-law and Captain Langley.”
“No, that can’t be it.” A mischievous grin lit Olivia’s features. “Lord Hasley has confided to me that he’s a poor hunter.”
“Perhaps horses, then,” the countess said. “Many men take solace from their animals. I know Jonathan does, at times.”
“No,” Olivia said, sliding a glance at him. “Not horses, either. Don’t you remember? Lord Hasley told us this morning that he wasn’t the horse connoisseur that Captain Langley and the earl are,” Olivia said.
“Ah, that’s right.” Lady Stratford gave Olivia an appraising look, then set her teacup down. “Thank you so much for the tea and the lovely cakes, my lady. I didn’t mean to march in like this today, but I’ve very much wanted to meet you.”
“Me too,” Jessica said, “and I’m so glad we came.”
“I’m very glad you came, too,” Lady Fenwicke said. “It’s so nice to meet new neighbors.”
“We must go, though,” the countess said. “My husband will be wondering what has happened to us.”
“But he won’t worry.” Jessica shot Max a saucy grin. “He knows Lord Hasley is here to protect us.”
Lady Stratford rolled her eyes heavenward. “In the event of a dragon attack as we walk through the fearsome Sussex countryside, I daresay.”
Max bowed his head. “At your service, ladies.”
They all laughed, even Lady Fenwicke. Her lovely, tinkling laughter seemed to shock everyone else into silence again.
“Really, Sussex is so quiet, I do believe we’d have to conjure a dragon in order to find the need to be protected,” Lady Stratford said.
“There are dangers in Sussex,” Lady Fenwicke said quietly. “Just not where one might expect.”
Everyone stared at Lady Fenwicke until the countess broke the silence. “Oh, I do hope you’re wrong. I’ve found it to be very safe indeed, though I admit to not having lived here for very long.”
Max glanced again at Olivia. The line between her brows had deepened, and he suppressed the urge to smooth it out with his fingertip.
Lady Stratford rose. Max stood instantly, and the two other sisters and Lady Fenwicke rose as well. Jessica invited the lady over for tea in a few days’ time, and she accepted with a smile.
They left, turning from the gravel drive onto the wagon path. Max had a sinking feeling that the unexpected dangers Lady Fenwicke spoke of had to do with her husband. He hoped to hell he was wrong.
It wasn’t until they turned the bend that hid the elegant house from view that any of them spoke. It was Jessica.
“I’m going to be a good friend to her,” the youngest sister said solemnly. “I think she needs one.”
Max nodded. He couldn’t agree more.
It was an unseasonably warm day, and Olivia had sat through the afternoon on the gallery bench, tucked beneath her parasol to protect her complexion from the sun. She was watching the others play—or attempt to play—tennis on the ancient court that had originally been erected on the grounds almost three hundred years ago in honor of Henry VIII’s visit to Stratford House.
The court was long and narrow with high walls but no roof. One wall had partially crumbled and the uneven floor was not conducive to balls bouncing properly, but Jonathan planned to eventually fix both. In the interim he still enjoyed playing, and he had purchased a new net as well as racquets and balls soon after he’d arrived in Sussex this spring.
Phoebe and Jessica were trying their best, but they’d never played tennis—it wasn’t a sport they’d ever seen in Antigua, and their lack of skill combined with the cracked floor and the crumbling wall made the game more about laughing, running, and fetching balls than actually hitting them over the net.
Jonathan and Captain Langley were fairly good, their skills obvious compared to the entirely lacking ones in her sisters, especially Captain Langley’s. And Max… well, he seemed far too large to make any sense of the court and the ball, though he said he’d played on occasion when he was at Cambridge.
Olivia would have liked to try it, but she knew her sisters and Jonathan would object, and if they did grudgingly allow her to play, they’d be overly solicitous and embarrass her. She didn’t want that kind of attention—not in the presence of their guests.
She’d long ago come to terms with the fact that her family would always believe that she would fall ill whenever she exerted herself physically. But that didn’t mean she had to agree with them. Once, when she was fourteen and in a particularly rebellious temperament, she had experimented in the middle of the night when everyone else was asleep. She’d gone outside and run and run around the plantation. She must have run for an hour without stopping. It had felt so good. By the time she finished, sweat had caked her chemise to her body. And, not surprisingly—to her, at least—she’d felt wonderful the following day, and she hadn’t come down with a fever.
She’d experimented in later years, too, though less overtly. She was fully convinced that exertion wasn’t what caused the fevers, yet despite her protestations, her family didn’t believe her. They were all convinced that if Olivia exercised, it might kill her.
Jonathan served. The ball hit the service penthouse and dropped into the gallery. Max tried to return the serve, but he hit the ball straight into the net. He dropped the racquet at his side, shaking his head, a hopeless expression on his face.
“Game and set!” Jonathan said in triumph.
“Yes, yes. Thanks ever so much for the reminder,” Max said dryly. They ambled to the table the servants had erected beside the gallery bench, and each of them took a glass of cool lemonade.
Olivia smiled up at the two men. “That was a wonderful game.”
Max snorted. “Once upon a time, I was semiskilled at this game. Now I look like quite the idiot lumbering around out here.”
“On the contrary,” Olivia said. You looked marvelous. And he had. He was, simply, a pleasure to watch, losing at tennis or at any other time, for that matter. He smiled back at her… and her skin prickled all over.
In the past few days she’d often felt Max’s eyes moving over her like a warm caress, and when she looked at him, he’d smile faintly but he wouldn’t look away. He’d just keep gazing at her with such heat in his expression she could feel it from across a room.
Jonathan gestured toward the house. “Did everyone else go inside?”
“Yes,” Olivia said. “They were bored of watching you pummel Lord Hasley.”
Max groaned, and Jonathan laughed. “I’d best join them. How about you two? Shouldn’t you get out of the sun, Olivia? Max, want to go in?”
“No thanks,” Olivia said. “I’d like to enjoy the sun for a few more minutes, and then perhaps I will take a walk.”
“I’ll stay outside for a while, too,” Max said. “I’ll come in after I cool down.”
Jonathan said good-bye, gave Max a hard look of warning that Olivia found endearing, and trudged off toward the house.
“You needn’t stay out here with me, you know,” she said.
He sat on the narrow bench beside her, stretching out his long legs in front of him. After a few seconds gazing at the way the fabric of his trousers clung to his muscled thighs, Olivia averted her eyes from the disturbingly appealing view.
“I want to stay with you,” he said simply. “Besides, I thought you might like to have an opponent.”
He raised the racquet he still held. “Yes. A tennis opponent.”
She felt a slow smile curve her lips.
He went to retrieve the racquet Jonathan had abandoned and then returned to her. “Come. I’ll teach you.”
She smiled up at him. “How did you know I wanted to play?”
His green eyes twinkled. “I saw the way you watched us—you looked positively envious.”
She rose, folded her parasol and left it on the bench, then walked out onto the court.
“Here. Hold it like this.” He sidled close to her, demonstrating how to grip the racquet. She tried to concentrate, but the warm masculinity of the entire length of his body against her side made her feel rather… wild. Swallowing hard, she focused on gripping the racquet exactly like he showed her.
He led her to the hazard side of the court. “Now… all you’ve got to do is hit the ball after I’ve sent it to your side. You just return it to me, either by sending it over the net or by hitting it off one of the walls.”
It had looked simple enough, despite the fact that Jessica and Phoebe had missed nine out of ten balls sent their way. Especially Jessica, who’d been laughing so hard at herself that by the end, tears were rolling down her cheeks and she’d declared she was hopeless and she’d never play any sport in a less friendly crowd.
The only person who hadn’t been laughing was Captain Langley, but Olivia hadn’t seen him laugh in the four days since the gentlemen had arrived. That wasn’t to say he wasn’t kind—he was a lovely man. He just wasn’t the sort of man disposed to laughter, she supposed.
Max took the entire bucket full of balls and moved to the service end of the court.
Olivia smirked. “I see you don’t have much confidence that I’ll be hitting any of the balls you send my way.”
“None at all,” he said genially. When she laughed, he gently hit the first ball.
Anticipating where the ball would bounce, Olivia positioned herself quickly and pulled her arm back as she’d seen Captain Langley and Jonathan do, and she whacked the racquet through the air.
And missed. She spun around and watched the ball bounce wildly off the wall behind her.
She turned back to Max. “Again, please.”
He repeated his motion, and she missed again. “Swing earlier,” he advised.
She nodded, pursing her lips together in concentration. He hit the ball to her, she swung, and pop! The ball went sailing over the net. And over Max’s head, over the crumbling wall, and somewhere into the bushes beyond the court.
“Excellent!” he cried. She returned his statement with a pained look.
They went through the remaining balls in similar fashion. She managed to return a few of them directly to him so that he was able to hit them back. By the end, they’d actually engaged in at least one short rally of five hits, and she felt flushed and happy.
He gave her an enthusiastic grin as she knelt down to retrieve the ball that had landed closest to her. “You’re very good.”
“You’re too kind.” She laughed. “I’m quite awful.”
He walked around to her side of the court, retrieving balls along the way. “No, really. Considering the fact that you’ve never played, I think you’re quite good. Some practice, and you’ll be a worthy opponent for someone like Langley.”
“Not you?” she asked.
“No, you’ll be far better than me.”
“Perhaps we should practice together then,” she said. “Because heaven knows, my sisters will have a fit if they knew I was running about out here.” She glanced in the direction of the house, glad that Jessica, Serena, or Phoebe hadn’t come to fetch her. Jonathan must have told them she’d gone for a walk.
Excerpted from Secrets of An Accidental Duchess by Haymore, Jennifer Copyright © 2012 by Haymore, Jennifer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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