A USA Today Bestseller!
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Grace Burrowes continues her True Gentlemen Regency series in this enchanting "accidentally in love" romance
It's a dog's life...
Will Dorning, as an earl's spare, has accepted the thankless duty of managing his rambunctious younger siblings, though Will's only true companions are the dogs he's treasured since boyhood. When aristocratic London is plagued with a series of dognappings, Will's brothers are convinced that he's the only person who can save the stolen canines from an awful fate.
But the lady's choice...
Shy, bookish Lady Susannah Haddonfield has no patience with loud, smelly beasts of any species, but must appear to like dogs so as not to offend her sister's only marital prospect. Susannah turns to Will, an acquaintance from her most awkward adolescent years, to teach her how to impersonate a dog fancier. Will has long admired Susannah, though he lacks the means to offer for her, and yet as they work together to rescue the purloined pets, it's loyal, dashing Will who steals Susannah's heart.
True Gentlemen series:
Tremaine's True Love (Book 1)
Daniels' True Desire (Book 2)
Will's True Wish (Book 3)
Praise for Tremaine's True Love:
[A] fast-paced love story with nuances of humor and poignancy, astute dialogue, passion and sensuality".-RT Book Reviews, 4 1/2 Stars, Top Pick!
"Burrowes's first True Gentlemen Regency is as thoughtful as it is romantic...The protagonists are brilliantly drawn, with plenty of romantic drama and witty repartee." -Publishers Weekly
About the Author
James Langton trained as an actor at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. An AudioFile Earphones Award winner, he has performed many voice-overs and narrated numerous audiobooks. James was born in York, England, and is now based in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
"We were having a perfectly well-behaved outing," Cam said, though Cam Dorning and perfect behavior enjoyed only a distant acquaintance. "Just another pleasant stroll in the pleasant park on a pleasant spring morning, until George pissed on her ladyship's parasol."
The culprit sat in the middle of the room, silent and stoic as mastiffs tended to be, tail thumping gently against the carpet.
"Georgette did not insult Lady Susannah's parasol all on her own initiative," Will Dorning retorted. "Somebody let her off the leash." Somebody whom Will had warned repeatedly against allowing the dog to be loose in public unless Will was also present.
"Lady Susannah wasn't on a leash," Cam shot back. "She was taking the air with her sister and Viscount Effington, and his lordship was carrying the lady's parasol-being gallant, or eccentric. I swear Georgette was sniffing the bushes one moment and aiming for Effington's knee the next. Nearly got him too, which is probably what the man deserves for carrying a parasol in public."
Across the Earl of Casriel's private study, Ash dissolved into whoops that became pantomimes of a dog raising her leg on various articles of furniture. Cam had to retaliate by shoving at his older brother, which of course necessitated reciprocal shoving from Ash, which caused the dog to whine fretfully.
"I should let Georgette use the pair of you as a canine convenience," Will muttered, stroking her silky, brindle head. She was big, even for a mastiff, and prone to lifting her leg in the fashion of a male dog when annoyed or worried.
"I thought I'd let her gambol about a bit," Cam said. "There I was, a devoted brother trying to be considerate of your dog, when the smallest mishap occurs, and you scowl at me as if I farted during grace."
"You do fart during grace," Ash observed. "During breakfast too. You're a farting prodigy, Sycamore Dorning. Wellington could have used you at Waterloo, His Majesty's one-man foul miasma, and the French would still be-"
"Enough," Will muttered. Georgette's tail went still, for the quieter Will became, the harder he was struggling not to kill his younger brothers, and Georgette was a perceptive creature. "Where is the parasol?"
"Left it in the mews," Cam said. "A trifle damp and odiferous, if you know what I mean."
"Stinking, like you," Ash said, sashaying around the study with one hand on his hip and the other pinching his nose. "Perhaps we ought to get you a pretty parasol to distract from your many unfortunate shortcomings."
Casriel would be back from his meeting with the solicitors by supper, and the last thing the earl needed was aggravation from the lower primates masquerading as his younger siblings.
More aggravation, for they'd been blighting the family escutcheon and the family exchequer since birth, the lot of them.
"Sycamore, you have two hours to draft a note of apology to the lady," Will said. "I will review your epistle before you seal it. No blotting, no crossing out, no misspellings."
"An apology!" Cam sputtered, seating himself on the earl's desk. "I'm to apologize on behalf of your dog?! I didn't piss on anybody."
At seventeen years of age, Cam was still growing into his height, still a collection of long limbs and restless movement that hadn't resolved into manly grace. He had the Dorning dark hair and the famous Dorning gentian eyes, though.
Also the Dorning penchant for mischief. Will snatched the leash from Cam's hand and smacked Cam once, gently, for violence upset Georgette and was repellent to Will's instincts as a trainer of dumb beasts.
"Neither of you will take Georgette to the park until further notice," Will said. "If you want to attract the interest of the ladies, I suggest you either polish your limited stores of charm or take in a stray puppy."
"A puppy?" Cam asked, opening a drawer into which he had no business poking his nose. "Puppies are very dear."
Nature had intended that puppies of any species be very dear, for they were an endless bother. Ash, having attained his majority, occasionally impersonated a responsible adult. He ceased his dramatics and perched beside Cam on the desk.
"Shall you apologize to Lady Shakespeare or to Effington's knees?" Ash asked. "At length, or go for the pithy, sincere approach? Headmaster says no blotting, no crossing out, no misspellings. I'm happy to write this apology on your behalf for a sum certain."
Ash had an instinct for business-he had read law-but he lacked the cunning Cam had in abundance.
"Ash makes you a generous offer, Cam," Will said, stowing the leash on the mantel and enduring Georgette's but-I'll-die-if-we-remain-indoors look. "Alas, for your finances, Ash, you'll be too busy procuring an exact replica of the lady's abused accessory, from your own funds."
"My own funds?"
Ash hadn't any funds to speak of. What little money Casriel could spare his younger siblings, they spent on drink and other Town vices.
"An exact replica," Will said. "Not a cheap imitation. I will expect your purchase to be complete by the time Cam has drafted an apology. Away with you both, for I must change into clothing suitable for a call upon an earl's daughter."
Into Town attire, a silly, frilly extravagance that on a man of Will's proportions was a significant waste of fabric. He was a frustrated sheep farmer, not some dandy on the stroll, though he was also, for the present, the Earl of Casriel's heir.
So into his finery he would go.
And upon Lady Susannah Haddonfield, of all ladies, he would call.
"A big, well-dressed fellow is sauntering up our walk," Lady Della Haddonfield announced. "He's carrying a lovely purple parasol. The dog looks familiar."
Though dogs occasionally accompanied their owners on social calls, men did not typically carry parasols, so Lady Susannah Haddonfield joined Della at the window.
"That's the mastiff we met in the park," Susannah said. "The Dorning boys were with her." A trio of overgrown puppies, really, though the Dorning fellows were growing into the good looks for which the family was well-known.
"Effington said that mastiff was the largest dog he'd ever seen," Della replied, nudging the drapery aside. "The viscount does adore his canines. Who can that man be? He's taller than the two we met in the park."
Taller and more conservatively dressed. "The earl, possibly," Susannah said, picking up her volume of Shakespeare's sonnets and resuming her seat. "He and Nicholas are doubtless acquainted. Please don't stand in my light, Della."
Della, being a younger sister, only peered more closely over Susannah's shoulder. "You're poring over the sonnets again. Don't you have them all memorized by now?"
The genteel murmur of the butler admitting a visitor drifted up the stairs, along with a curious clicking sound, and then...
"That was a woof," Susannah said. "From inside this house."
"She seemed a friendly enough dog," Della replied, taking a seat on the sofa. Della was the Haddonfield changeling, small and dark compared to her tall, blond siblings, and she made a pretty picture on the red velvet sofa, her green skirts arranged about her.
"She's an ill-mannered canine," Susannah said, "if my parasol's fate is any indication."
Though the dog was a fair judge of character. Lord Effington fawned over all dogs and occasionally over Della, but Susannah found him tedious. The Dornings' mastiff had lifted her leg upon Lord Effington's knee, and Susannah's parasol had been sacrificed in defense of his lordship's tailoring.
Barrisford tapped on the open door. One never heard Barrisford coming or going, and he seemed to be everywhere in the household at once.
"My ladies, a gentleman has come to call and claims acquaintance with the family."
The butler passed Susannah a card, plain black ink on cream stock, though Della snatched it away before Susannah could read the print.
"Shall I say you ladyships are not at home?" Barrisford asked.
"We're at home," Della said, just as Susannah murmured, "That will suit, Barrisford."
She was coming up on the seventy-third sonnet, her favorite.
"We can receive him together," Della said. "If Nicholas knows the Earl of Casriel, he very likely knows the spares, and Effington fancied that dog most rapturously."
"Effington fancies all dogs." The viscount fancied himself most of all. "You'll give me no peace if I turn our caller away, so show him up, Barrisford, and send along the requisite tray."
"I've never drunk so much tea in all my life as I have this spring," Della said. "No wonder people waltz until all hours and stay up half the night gossiping."
Gossiping, when they might instead be reading. Was any trial on earth more tedious than a London Season?
"Mr. Will Dorning, and Georgette," Barrisford said a moment later. He stepped aside from the parlor door to reveal a large gentleman and an equally outsized dog. Susannah hadn't taken much note of the dog in the park, for she'd been too busy trying not to laugh at Effington. The viscount prided himself on his love of canines, though he was apparently fonder of his riding breeches, for he'd smacked the dog more than once with Susannah's abused parasol.
Barrisford's introduction registered only as the visitor bowed to Susannah.
Will Dorning, not the Earl of Casriel, not one of the younger brothers. Willow Grove Dorning himself. Susannah had both looked for and avoided him for years.
"My Lady Susannah, good day," he said. "A pleasure to see you again. Won't you introduce me to your sister?"
Barrisford melted away, while Della rose from the sofa on a rustle of velvet skirts. "Please do introduce us, Suze."
Della's expression said she'd introduce herself if Susannah failed to oblige. The dog had more decorum than Della, at least for the moment.
"Lady Delilah Haddonfield," Susannah began, "may I make known to you Mr. Will Dorning, late of Dorset?" Susannah was not about to make introductions for the mastiff. "Mr. Dorning, my sister, Lady Delilah, though she prefers Lady Della."
"My lady." Mr. Dorning bowed correctly over Della's hand, while the dog sat panting at his feet. Like most men, he'd probably be smitten with Della before he took a seat beside her on the sofa. Only Effington's interest had survived the rumors of Della's modest settlements, however.
"Your dog wants something, Mr. Dorning," Susannah said, retreating to her seat by the window.
Mr. Dorning peered at his beast, who was gazing at Della and holding up a large paw.
"Oh, she wants to shake," Della said, taking that paw in her hand and shaking gently. "Good doggy, Georgette. Very pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Georgette, behave," Mr. Dorning muttered, before Susannah was faced with the riddle of whether manners required her to shake the dog's paw.
Georgette turned an innocent expression on her owner, crossed the room, and took a seat at Susannah's knee.
Presuming beast, though Georgette at least didn't stink of dog. Effington's endless canine adornments were the smelliest little creatures.
"My ladies, I'm here to apologize," Mr. Dorning said. "Georgette was in want of manners earlier today. We've come to make restitution for her bad behavior and pass along my brother Sycamore's note of apology."
"Do have a seat, Mr. Dorning," Della said, accepting a sealed missive from their guest. "At least you haven't come to blather on about the weather or to compliment our bonnets."
Bless Della and her gift for small talk, because Susannah was having difficulty thinking.
This was not the version of Will Dorning she'd endured dances with in her adolescence. He'd filled out and settled down, like a horse rising seven. Where a handsome colt had been, a warhorse had emerged. Mr. Dorning's boots gleamed, the lace of his cravat fell in soft, tasteful abundance from his throat. His clothing fit him, in the sense of being appropriate to his demeanor, accentuating abundant height, muscle, and self-possession.
Even as he sat on the delicate red velvet sofa with a frilly purple parasol across his knees.
"This is for you, my lady," he said, passing Susannah the parasol. "We didn't get the color exactly right, but I hope this will suffice to replace the article that came to grief in the park."
Susannah's parasol had been blue, a stupid confection that had done little to shield a lady's complexion. That parasol hadn't made a very effective bludgeon when turned on the dog.
"The color is lovely," Susannah said, "and the design very similar to the one I carried earlier."
Susannah made the mistake of looking up at that moment, of gazing fully into eyes of such an unusual color, poetry had been written about them. Mr. Dorning's eyes were the purest form of the Dorning heritage, nearly the color of the parasol Susannah accepted from his gloved hands.
Willow Dorning's eyes were not pretty, though. His eyes were the hue of a sunset that had given up the battle with night, such that angry reds and passionate oranges had faded to indigo memories and violet dreams. Seven years ago, his violet eyes had been merely different, part of the Dorning legacy, and he'd been another tall fellow forced to bear his friend's sisters' company. In those seven years, his voice had acquired night-sky depths, his grace was now bounded with self-possession.
Though he still apparently loved dogs.
"My thanks for the parasol," Susannah said, possibly repeating herself. "You really need not have bothered. Ah, and here's the tea tray. Della, will you pour?"
Della was effortlessly social. Not the reserved paragon their old sister Nita was, and not as politically astute as their sister Kirsten. Both of those ladies yet bided in Kent, either recently married or anticipating that happy state.
Leaving Susannah unmarried and abandoned as the Season gathered momentum.
Exactly as she'd felt seven years ago.
"Georgette likes you, Susannah," Della said, pouring Mr. Dorning's tea. "Or she likes that parasol."
The dog had not moved from Susannah's knee, though she was ignoring the parasol and sniffing at the sonnets on the side table.
"Georgette is shy," Mr. Dorning said, "and she's usually well mannered, save for occasionally snacking on an old book. Her mischief in the park was an aberration, I assure you. Lady Della, are you enjoying your first London Season?"
For the requisite fifteen minutes, Della and Mr. Dorning made idle talk, while Susannah discreetly nudged the sonnets away from the dog, sipped tea, and felt agreeably ancient. Without Nita or Kirsten on hand, Susannah had become the older sister suited to serving as a chaperone at a social call.
And upon reflection, she didn't feel abandoned by her older sisters. She was simply taking her turn as the spinster in training before becoming a spinster in earnest.
"I'll bid you ladies good day," Mr. Dorning said, rising.
"I'll see you out," Susannah replied, because that was her role, as quasi-chaperone, and having Barrisford tend to that task would have been marginally unfriendly. Mr. Dorning, as the son of an earl, was her social equal, after all.
"Georgette, come." Mr. Dorning did not snap his fingers, though Effington, the only other dog lover in Susannah's acquaintance, snapped his fingers constantly-at dogs and at servants. He'd snapped his fingers at Della once, and Susannah had treated Effington to a glower worthy of her late papa in a taking.
Georgette padded over to her master's side, and Susannah quit the parlor with them, leaving Della to attack the biscuits remaining on the tea tray.
"You didn't used to like dogs," Mr. Dorning observed.
"I still don't like dogs," Susannah replied, though she didn't dislike them. Neither did she like cats, birds, silly bonnets, London Seasons, or most people. Horses were at least useful, and sisters could be very dear. Brothers fell somewhere between horses and sisters.
"Georgette begs to differ," Mr. Dorning said as they reached the bottom of the steps. "Or perhaps she was making amends for her trespasses against your parasol by allowing you to pat her for fifteen straight minutes."
Susannah took Mr. Dorning's top hat from the sideboard. "Georgette ignored the new parasol. I think my wardrobe is safe from her lapses in manners, though the day your dog snacks on one of my books will be a sorry day for Georgette, Mr. Dorning."
Despite Susannah's stern words, she and Mr. Dorning were managing, getting through the awkwardness of being more or less alone together.
"You're still fond of Shakespeare?" Mr. Dorning asked as he tapped his hat onto his head.
A glancing reference to the past, also to the present. "Of all good literature. You're still waiting for your brother to produce an heir?"
Another reference to their past, for Mr. Dorning had confided this much to Susannah during one of their interminable turns about Lady March's music parlor. Until the Earl of Casriel had an heir in the nursery, Will Dorning's self-appointed lot in life was to be his brother's second-in-command.
"Casriel is as yet unmarried," Mr. Dorning said, "and now my younger brothers strain at the leash to conquer London."
He exchanged his social gloves for riding gloves, giving Susannah a glimpse of masculine hands. Those hands could be kind, she hadn't forgotten that. They'd also apparently learned how to give the dog silent commands, for at Mr. Dorning's gesture, Georgette seated herself near the front door.
"I'm much absorbed keeping Cam and Ash out of trouble," he went on, "while allowing them the latitude to learn self-restraint. Apparently, I must add my loyal hound to the list of parties in need of supervision."
The dog thumped her tail.
Did Will Dorning allow himself any latitude? Any unrestrained moments? He'd been a serious young man. He was formidable now.
"We'll doubtless cross paths with your brothers, then," Susannah said, "for Della is also determined to storm the social citadels." Once Della was safely wed, Susannah could luxuriate in literary projects, a consummation devoutly to be wished, indeed.
"You have ever had the most intriguing smile," Mr. Dorning observed, apropos of nothing Susannah could divine. "Thank you for accepting my apology, my lady. I look forward to renewing our acquaintance further under happier circumstances."
Having dispensed such effusions as the situation required, he bowed over Susannah's hand and was out the door, his dog trotting at his heels.
An intriguing smile? Susannah regarded herself in the mirror over the sideboard. Her reflection was tall, blond, blue-eyed, as unremarkable as an earl's daughter could be amid London's spring crop of beauties. She was smiling, though...
And her hands smelled faintly of Georgette. Perhaps she had stroked the dog's silky ears a time or two. Or three.
"Though I don't even like dogs."
"Our younger brothers are in awe of you," Grey Dorning, Earl of Casriel, said as Will's mare was led out. "Over their morning ale, they ridicule me, a belted earl with the entire consequence of the house of Dorning upon my broad and handsome shoulders. You, they adore for strolling down Park Lane swinging a purple parasol as if it's the latest fashion edict from Almack's."
Rather than reply immediately, Will took a moment to greet his bay mare. He held a gloved hand beneath her nose, petted her neck, and before Casriel's eyes, the horse fell in love with her owner all over again.
"I took Georgette calling with me," Will said, scratching at the mare's shoulder. "She can be both charming and menacing, which is why Cam and Ash like to take her to the park. She impresses the fellows and attracts the ladies, rather like you're supposed to do."
The stable lad led out Casriel's gelding, a handsome black specimen whose displays of affection were reserved for his oats. The groom gave the horse a pat on the quarters, and the horse wrung its tail.
"Don't scold me, Willow," Casriel said, climbing into the saddle. "The Season is barely under way, and an earl must tend to business. The impressing and attracting can wait a few more days."
"Your only prayer of avoiding matrimony evaporated when Jacaranda married Worth Kettering," Will said, taking a moment to check the fit of the bridle and girth before mounting. "Without a sister to serve as hostess, you are doomed to wedlock, Casriel. Marry for the sake of your household, if not for your lonely heart. Dorning House needs a woman's touch if the staff isn't to continuing revolting twice a quarter."
"You are such a romantic, Willow," Casriel replied as their horses clip-clopped down the alley. "I can barely afford to educate our brothers, and that rebellious household must eat. I will marry prudently or not at all. How did the visit to the Haddonfield ladies go?"
That question ought to deflect Will from sermonizing on the need for every unmarried earl to take a wife posthaste, though like many questions put to Will, it met with a silent reception.
They reached the street, where the surrounding traffic meant Will would remain civil, despite an older brother's well-meant goading, so Casriel tried again.
"Did Lady Susannah receive you? She has an entire litter of siblings, doesn't she?" Casriel did too, but lately he felt like a stranger to even his only full brother.
"Lady Susannah was most gracious," Will replied, "as was Lady Della. Lady Della has the misfortune to be the only petite, dark-haired Haddonfield in living memory."
"A runt, then, in your parlance. If she's a pretty, well-dowered runt, nobody will bother much about her shortcomings." Will was partial to runts.
Perhaps he'd marry the Haddonfield girl.
"Our own runt has taken to gambling," Will said. "Though if Cam keeps growing, he might soon consider a career as a prizefighter."
Sycamore, for shame. "All young men attend cockfights."
"No, Grey, they do not. Duchess of Moreland coming this way."
Casriel tipped his hat.
The duchess waved.
Her Grace-a pretty, older lady with a gracious smile-probably knew Casriel's antecedents back for six generations, but without Will's warning, Casriel would have forgotten that he'd seen the woman at the previous evening's musicale.
Financial anxiety played havoc with any man's concentration. No wonder Papa had retreated to the conservatory and the glasshouse rather than take the earldom in hand.
"How do you keep it all organized, Will?" Casriel asked. "How do you keep track of Cam's mischief, the duchesses, the purple parasols, the stewards?" Will didn't run the earldom, but he made it possible for Casriel to run it and still be head of the family.
"A purple parasol is rather difficult to lose track of," Will replied, possibly teasing. One could never tell for sure when Will was being deep and when he was being ironic as hell.
"Am I to worry about Sycamore's gambling?" Casriel would worry, of course, about the sums lost, and about Sycamore, who well knew the family had no coin to spare.
"Yes, you should worry," Will replied, "though not about the money. I've bought Cam's vowels, and will deduct a sum from his allowance from now until Domesday. You should worry because he was at a bear-baiting, because Ash could not stop him, because last week it was the cockfights. The company to be had in such locations is abysmal."
Cam should be at university, in other words. All young men in the awkward throes of late adolescence should be at university, though finding tuition for such an undertaking was three years of a challenge, when yet more younger brothers were busily inspiring insurrection among the maids back in Dorset.
"What does Ash say?" Casriel asked.
"That he can't control Cam, so he simply keeps an eye on him. This is how young men become spoiled or worse. My Lady Heathgate, her sister-in-law Lady Fairly beside her, with the matched chestnuts."
"Wasn't there some scandal involving Lady Fairly?" Casriel asked, when his hat had been dutifully tipped.
"She was a vicar's daughter taken advantage of by a scoundrel," Will said in the same tones he'd report on a Drury Lane play seen last Tuesday. "She managed Fairly's brothel, though she never entertained clients, and he's since divested himself of that business. The titled ladies in the family treat her as respectable, though she and Fairly live very quietly."
"Willow, no wonder the boys are in awe of you. Thank God our papa forbade me to buy any commissions, or Wellington would have turned you into an intelligence officer and shortened the war considerably."
Will drew back, allowing Casriel to ride first through a gap between a stopped curricle and the walkway.
"I would never have managed in the military," Will said. "Bad enough they kill boys who've barely learned to shave, but they also kill horses by the thousands."
This was the problem with Cam's bad behavior. Not that the youngest Dorning brother was wasting money, for an earl's younger son was bred to waste money, and not that he was making friends in low places.
Earls' sons did that too.
From Casriel's perspective, the problem was that Cam sought entertainments involving harm to animals. Blood sport was supposed to be part of a young gentleman's diversions, true, but Will had no patience for entertainment based on inflicting misery on animals.
Cam had known that from the cradle.
Will did not have friends, though he knew everybody and was well liked. He had his brothers and his dogs. Casriel could not have said which Will would choose to save, if the choice were forced upon him.
"I can send Cam back to Dorset," Casriel said, "but we're better off keeping him where we can supervise him." Where Will could supervise him.
"He might be trying to get sent back to Dorset," Will replied as the green oasis of Hyde Park came into view. "One of the Dorset housemaids had her eye on our youngest brother, and has had her hands on him too."
"Angels deliver me," Casriel muttered. "We don't dare leave him in Dorset without one of us to watch over him, and yet I'm not about to turn off a housemaid simply because Cam can be lured into the butler's pantry."
"Younger siblings grow up more quickly than heirs and spares," Will said. "I'll think of something." He tipped his hat to a flower girl and tossed her a coin.
The girl was plump, plain, and her apron was streaked with damp and dirt, but her smile was radiant as she passed Will a bouquet of violets.
"Thank you, Miss Allen," Will said, bringing his mare to a halt. "Can you spare a posy for his lordship too? He must make himself agreeable to the ladies who are thronging the park."
The flower girl shot Casriel a dubious look, then selected a nosegay of lily of the valley. She handed the flowers to Will, who passed them over.
"Excellent choice," Will said. "Good day to you, Miss Allen."
The mare walked on, while Casriel dealt with holding a batch of delicate blossoms in addition to four reins.
"What am I to do with these, Willow? Carry them between my teeth? Why does that flower girl look familiar?"
"I've hired her to supply flowers for the house. She rarely speaks because of a stammer, but she's quite bright, and has the best prices. An earl's home must be maintained according to certain standards, which of course a countess would see to."
Oh, of course. The fate of the earldom rested on flowers Casriel probably could not afford, but stammering street vendors would have a fine Christmas. Whatever was amiss with Will, it was getting worse.
The closer they drew to the park, the more crowded the streets became, so the horses could move only at the walk. Willow deftly braided his batch of violets into the mare's mane, where they somehow did not look ridiculous. Casriel, by contrast, felt the veriest fool riding through Mayfair, flowers in hand, and horse likely to turn up mischievous at any moment.
"The Duchess of Moreland's two nieces," Will said quietly. "Miss Bethan and Miss Megan Windham. Their cousin, Lady Deane, the duchess's youngest daughter, at the ribbons."
"How in God's name do you keep them all straight?"
"Flowers to the elder," Will murmured. "Miss Bethan, sitting on the outside."
Miss Bethan Windham was a lovely little creature with whom Casriel had not danced. He would have recalled that red hair, and those green eyes, and the smile that blossomed when he passed her the flowers. The ladies flirted and teased and generally made a man forget which direction the park lay in, and then traffic shifted, and Will cleared his throat.
"Ladies, good day," Casriel said, for he was as well trained to Will's cues as any hound. "My regards to your family."
"You can be charming," Will said when the carriage had pulled away. "Don't pretend you can't. Those flowers will end up pressed between the pages of the lady's journal, and the scent of lily of the valley will always make her think of you."
"Is that how it works?" Will seemed very convinced of his theory, and yet to the best of Casriel's knowledge, Will had never fancied a specific lady. "How is it, Willow, you know the names of all the women, right down to the flower girl? You earn the undying loyalty of horses and dogs, both, and impress our brothers daily, but the females never seem to notice you?"
Willow had the knack of becoming invisible, in other words. Of disappearing without going anywhere, just another tree in the hedgerow on a still spring day. He'd had this ability since boyhood, had slipped through university on the strength of it, and still used his invisibility to good advantage in ballrooms and gentlemen's clubs.
"My objective is to ensure the ladies notice you," Will said. "One of them might even notice Ash, who is a good-looking, friendly devil, and knows his way around figures. Once I get you two married off, I can enlist your wives to assist me in finding ladies for our other brothers."
Papa had despaired of Willow, though the late earl and his second son had had much in common.
"As usual, Will, you have an excellent plan, though I detect a serious flaw in your scheme."
They crossed Park Avenue at a brisk trot, and not until they were well within Hyde Park did Will take the bait.
"What is the flaw in my plan?" he asked. "You and Ash are both handsome and sons of an earl. I see to it that you're well dressed when it matters. You're passable dancers and considerate of women. With all the bankers' daughters looking to marry into the nobility, all of the viscounts and baron's daughters or even widows-what?"
Willow had doubtless made lists of these women, another worry added to Casriel's endless supply.
"I know you mean well, Will, but Ash and I can find our own ladies. The flaw in your plan is that you've made no provision for finding a lady of your own. Give me those violets. This park has become overrun with women, and an earl-without-countess must defend himself with whatever weapons he can find."
"The park is always overrun with women at the fashionable hour," Will said, "but as it happens, I have my own use for these flowers."
Will cantered off in the direction of a gig driven by a blond woman with a petite brunette at her side. The Haddonfield ladies?
Casriel trotted after him, for this moment would go down in Dorning history as the first encounter with a proper woman to which Willow Grove Dorning would arrive bearing flowers.