Widow’s Brew Series Book #3

Cheers to the Duke

 

 

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In USA Today bestselling author Sally MacKenzie's intoxicatingly romantic series, the "fallen" ladies of Puddledon Manor's Benevolent Home are restoring their reputations—and their future prospects—by operating their very own brewery and alehouse...

As the founder of the Home, Jo, the widowed Lady Havenridge, is determined to be there for the women who need her. But when those same women conspire to accept an invitation on her behalf, she finds herself suddenly on the way to the Earl of Darrow's home for the christening party of the son of her longtime friend and former partner, Pen, now the Countess of Darrow. Guests will include her other former partner, Caro--and Edward Russell, the new Duke of Grainger and the Home's generous benefactor. While Jo is determined to resist her friends' matchmaking ways, the duke's handsome looks and charming words are enough to make the lovely widow a little reckless . . .

Even after a year, the title of "duke" still sits strangely on Edward Russell's shoulders. But the responsibilities of the title are his duty, no matter his less-than-positive opinion of the nobility. When Edward encounters Jo--capable, fun, and utterly irresistible--he's delighted to find someone he truly connects with. A trick of fate has placed them on two different paths . . . but Edward is beginning to realize that perhaps he's not the kind of man who does the expected thing after all . . .

CHAPTER ONE

End of June, Puddledon Manor

The widowed Lady Havenridge—Jo to her friends—strode up the path from the hopyard, Freddie, her brown and white spaniel, at her heels.

“The plants looked healthy, didn’t they, Freddie?”

Freddie tented his brows over his warm brown eyes and whined low in his throat.

Oh, hell. He was right, of course. He remembered as well as she did what Pen said every year at this time: It doesn’t matter how the plants look. Blight or bugs can destroy the entire crop overnight.

And if that happened . . .

No hops meant no ale. No ale, no income. No income, no Home. No Home, no place for her and all the other women and children to live.

Anxiety churned in the pit of her stomach. She worried about the hops every year, but this year was far, far worse. This year Pen wasn’t here to keep a close eye on things. Pen and Caro, their former brewer.

Now the crop—and the Home’s survival—rested solely on Jo’s shoulders.

Her anxiety boiled over.

“Ten years, Freddie! Over ten years. The three of us built the Home from nothing, and then”—she snapped her fingers—“just like that, they both marry and go off to live on their husbands’ estates, deserting me.”

Pen had wed the Earl of Darrow last summer; Caro, Viscount Oakland just after Christmas.

“I understand Pen. Her daughter must come first, and the earl is Harriet’s father. But Caro? You know how she feels about men.”

Freddie growled. He shared Caro’s low opinion of that breed.

“Oh, I’m happy for them.” And she was—when she wasn’t feeling abandoned and overwhelmed. “And I am thankful they got their husbands to contribute to the Home’s coffers, but . . .” She shook her head. “You know the old saying—out of sight, out of mind. They’ll get busy with their new lives—their new families—and all too soon the donations will stop, and then where will we be? We already rely far too much on the whims of the nobility.”

Freddie raised his brows.

Well, yes. He was right. The noble on whose whims the Home most relied—the Duke of Grainger, the man who owned the Manor and provided the bulk of their funds—had proven to be a dependable sort.

Thank God.

“I imagine it’s because he wasn’t born to the nobility, Freddie. You’ll remember that until a little over a year ago the man was just a London solicitor.”

That had been another stressful time. The influenza had swept through the Duke of Grainger’s principal seat when the old duke, his heir, and the spare had all been in residence. They, as well as a large part of the household, had taken ill and died in a matter of days, muddying the succession so much it wasn’t clear for months who was next in line. She’d combed the London papers daily, looking for any clue, dissecting every rumor. The Home’s future depended on the man. If he was a callous sort, if he decided he wanted Puddledon Manor for his own use . . .

Freddie bumped against Jo’s leg, and she reached down to scratch his ears.

“But he didn’t toss us all out into the hedgerows, did he, Freddie?” Things had turned out well, far better than she’d hoped. “You have to admit the duke’s been very supportive”—she smiled—“once he learned what the Home was, that is.”

Apparently, the estate books had been as muddied as the succession. The new duke had sent his friend, the Earl of Darrow, down to Little Puddledon last August to discover what or who was behind one cryptic entry.

And that was how the earl found Pen once more and learned he had a daughter.

Freddie barked his agreement; though, being a dog, he likely didn’t fully understand how much Jo had come to rely on the duke. The man was an excellent source of common—and not so common—sense. And he was a father himself, so he understood children’s needs.

She’d been corresponding with him since shortly after Pen married. Once Caro left her, too, she’d become even more dependent on his advice. She had no one else to consult.

Well, no one I trust.

A squirrel dashed across their path at that moment. Freddie gave a delighted—and perhaps relieved—bark and bounded after it.

For one mad moment Jo wished she could forget her worries so easily and hie off across a field—a figurative field—chasing any new thing that caught her fancy. That she could escape—

Escape?!

She blinked, staring at Freddie but no longer seeing him.

People escape from traps. I don’t feel trapped, do I?

No, of course she didn’t. The Home—the Benevolent Home for the Maintenance and Support of Spinsters, Widows, and Abandoned Women and their Unfortunate Children—wasn’t a trap. On the contrary, it had freed her. It had given her a purpose when she’d most needed one.

When Freddie—her husband Freddie, the handsome, charming, irresponsible rogue she’d married when she’d been hardly more than a girl—had lost everything on the turn of a card, put a pistol to his head, and made her a widow, she’d been . . .

Not shocked. Freddie had lived recklessly. She’d half expected him to come to such an end. Nor sad, really, beyond the feeling of regret anyone would have for a life ended too soon. No, the emotion she most remembered feeling was dread, a horrible, paralyzing, sinking fear that she’d be sent home, back to her father’s house and her father’s control.

I didn’t stay paralyzed for long.

No. Within minutes, she’d stiffened her spine and vowed she’d not submit to a man—any man—ever again.

She was still a bit in awe of how she’d gathered her courage and asked the old Duke of Grainger, the man who’d won the game Freddie had lost, to let her come here to Little Puddledon. And then, once her mourning period was over, she’d persuaded him to let her turn Puddledon Manor into the Home, a place where women could live their lives free of male interference.

She took a deep breath and then blew it out slowly.

I managed then, when I was young and on my own for the first time. I can manage now.

The squirrel had scampered up a tree and out onto a branch high above Freddie’s head. Now it chattered down at him while the dog jumped and spun below, barking wildly.

“Give up, Freddie. You don’t want that squirrel. What would you do with it if you caught it?”

Freddie stopped, looked at her, and then looked back at the furry rodent. He must have concluded she had the right of it, because he gave one last bark, lifted his leg to water the tree, and trotted back to her.

I do sometimes wish I could just piss on my problems and walk away, though.

Jo frowned. No, of course, I don’t. What is the matter with me?

She shook her head. It was past time to stop this foolish fretting and get back to her office. She needed to go over the books once more, looking for yet another way—or several ways—to economize.

Economizing isn’t going to solve your biggest problem.

She sighed. All right, yes. It wasn’t pounds and pence that kept her awake at night.

“To be honest, Freddie, it’s—”

Something moved in the bushes, and Freddie darted off again to investigate.

Jo heaved another sigh and adjusted her bonnet. Perhaps it was just as well she’d been interrupted. She’d not broached this subject with Freddie before, but it had been getting harder and harder to keep her tongue between her teeth.

When Caro had written to say she was marrying Viscount Oakland, she’d not sent the letter via the post. No, she’d had it delivered by the three London lightskirts she’d met at the viscount’s estate and who, she wrote, now wished to live at the Home.

There was the problem.

Oh, the lightskirt part was fine. Many of the Home’s residents had been in that trade. And while Fanny and Polly didn’t have any experience in what was needed here—agriculture and brewing—they were learning. Livy, however . . .

Lud!

It was Livy—Olivia Williams—who really bedeviled Jo.

Well, threatened might be a better word.

Which was silly. In many ways, Livy understood Jo’s concerns as none of the other women did. She’d been an independent businesswoman herself.

Except her business had been matching Cyprians with randy noblemen.

Which she could not do here. Jo had made that quite, quite clear.

Fortunately, there were no noblemen in the area. Livy wouldn’t make much money from the local farmers. Still, Jo had taken the precaution of putting a lock on the door to the estate’s folly, the gothic cottage that occasionally served as guest accommodations and where, she felt certain, Pen had conceived Harriet’s brother.

The baby whose christening Jo had declined to attend.

Regret brushed her heart. It would have been nice to see Pen and Harriet again—and the baby, of course. And Pen had written that Caro would be there, too, with her new husband. Jo would like to meet him. And Pen had asked Jo to be the baby’s godmother.

If only . . .

I can’t be away from the Home now. I have to keep an eye on the hop plants.

More to the point, she had to keep an eye on Livy.

Freddie trotted back to her, and she stooped down, cupping his face in her hands, looking deep into his understanding eyes. She couldn’t keep her worries to herself a moment longer.

“What is the matter with me, Freddie? I know I need help running the Home. I should be happy Livy is here. But . . .” She shook her head. “I don’t trust her. Yet when I try to puzzle out why—what I think she’d do that would harm the Home—I draw a blank. Her ideas aren’t bad. I just don’t like them.”

Be honest. Freddie will keep your confidence.

She leaned closer. Dropped her voice.

“I think she wants to push me aside and take over. She’s got Fanny’s and Polly’s allegiance already, of course, and I suspect she’s trying to persuade some of the other women to favor her as well.”

Power struggles among the Home’s residents were nothing new, but being sucked into them herself was. She settled disputes. She was the calm one. Rational. Clear-eyed. Able to see both sides of any issue.

She was none of those things now.

“The Home was my idea, Freddie. Mine. Pen and Caro helped, but I was the one who came up with the notion. I was the one who got it started.”

The Home was her life. It had given her a purpose all those years ago, but, more importantly, it gave her a purpose now. If it was taken from her—

Freddie licked her nose, and she laughed, dropping her hold on him and standing up. He always knew how to make her feel better.

“You’re right. I just need to give myself time to adjust. There have been a lot of changes. Once we get through the next few months, once the hops are harvested, I’m sure I’ll feel better.”

Freddie gave her what might have been a doubtful look, but she let it go without comment and started walking again, up the path, past the brewhouse, across the crushed stone yard toward her—

“Jo!”

Jo’s stomach sank. That was Rosamund Lewis.

She looked over to see Rosamund hurrying toward her from the front of the house, Winifred Williams striding along behind.

“Livy sent me to get you.”

Jo’s stomach sank lower. Rosamund had that sparkle in her eyes that suggested she was gleefully awaiting some emotional fireworks.

But there was a sparkle in Winifred’s eyes, too. That was very odd. Winifred was in charge of their stables—their very small stables, Jo’s aging horse, Bumblebee, being the sole occupant. The only time Jo could remember seeing Winifred this excited was last August when the Earl of Darrow had left his Arabian with her for a few hours.

The earl wasn’t here now, of course. He was at his estate with Pen, getting ready to welcome a houseful of guests to celebrate the christening of their son, his heir, Philip Arthur Edward Graham, Viscount Hurley.

This time regret plopped its heavy hindquarters smack down on her heart.

She shoved it away. “Is there a problem?”

Rosamund smiled slyly. “Not yet.”

Jo frowned at her, but then her attention was claimed by Winifred, who was now close enough to grab Jo’s arm.

“You have to see them, Jo.” Winifred squeezed and gave her arm a little shake.

Jo winced. Winifred might be getting on in years, her hair gone quite gray, but she was still very strong.

“Ah.” Jo stepped back, and, thankfully, Winifred let her go. She did hope she wouldn’t find bruises later. “Them?”

“The horses. Four beautiful chestnuts. Not as beautiful as the earl’s Arabian—or, at least, not beautiful in the same way. But still, beautiful.” Winifred sighed with pleasure.

Before Winifred could continue her paean, Jo turned to Rosamund—who was smirking.

This was very bad. “Horses?”

Rosamund’s smirk grew more pronounced. “The earl sent his traveling coach for you. It’s very fine.”

Jo’s jaw dropped. Her eyes might have goggled. “Earl? T-traveling coach?”

“It must have caused quite a stir when it came through the village,” Winifred said. “I’m surprised Tom didn’t follow behind.”

Winifred’s tone was a little gloating. Winifred and Tom, the ostler at the Dancing Duck, had a bit of a friendly rivalry, not that either of them often got to tend to any horse worth gloating over.

“You’ll have a lovely journey to Darrow, Jo,” Winifred said. “I wish I could go along.”

“I am not going to Darrow. I sent my regrets.”

Winifred frowned at her. “But the coach is here.”

Jo looked at Rosamund. “I wonder why.”

Rosamund shrugged. “Maybe the earl wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Jo did not think that was the case, but she also thought that, while Rosamund might have a good guess as to what had occurred, she wasn’t the one who had meddled.

This had Livy’s fingerprints all over it.

“Come on, Jo. You don’t want to keep the horses standing.” As always Winifred kept her priorities straight.

True. The sooner Jo had a word with Livy, the sooner the coach could be on its way—without her.

“Very well.” She headed for the front of the house, Freddie loping along beside her, leaving the other women to keep up as best they could. She turned the corner—

Lud! She’d half hoped Rosamund and Winifred had been telling her a tall tale, but no. There was indeed a carriage in the drive—and a footman in what she supposed was Darrow livery loading a large trunk onto it.

And Livy, directing the man.

“Livy!” Jo strode toward her.

Livy didn’t bat an eyelid. Oh, no. The witch smiled as if nothing was the least bit amiss.

“I’m glad Rosamund and Winifred found you so quickly, Jo. All’s ready here. The coachman says if you set off within the hour, you can reach the Horse and Pelican—which he assures me is a very comfortable inn—in time for supper. You’ll stop there overnight and then arrive at Darrow midmorning.”

White-hot fury exploded through her. No one—no one—made decisions for her anymore, and certainly not someone who was scheming to take control of her charity whilst her back was turned—or, more to the point, whilst her back was miles away.

“I am not going to Darrow,” Jo hissed through clenched teeth.

Livy smiled at the coachman, whose eyes had gone round as saucers. “Give us a moment.”

She grabbed Jo’s arm—fortunately not the one Winifred had mauled.

Jo shook her off. “Livy—”

“Hear me out, Jo.” Livy walked a few yards away, just out of the coachman’s earshot, and looked back.

The coachman cleared his throat. “Pardon me, madam, but the horses . . .”

Winifred and Rosamund had caught up, and Winifred added her appeal to his. “You don’t want to keep the horses standing, Jo.”

Indeed. What she wanted was to send the man and his bloody horses away at once, but it would likely be tidier to deal with Livy first.

“Yes, yes. I’ll just be a minute.”

Jo—with Freddie—stepped over to Livy, opened her mouth to tell the woman precisely what she thought about her shocking meddl—

“I know you weren’t planning to go to the christening, Jo,” Livy said softly before Jo could get a word out. “I saw your note. I freely admit I tore it up and sent a letter of acceptance instead.” Her lips curved into what looked like an apologetic smile.

Livy’s words made Jo’s fingers twitch, eager to wrap around the woman’s neck, but her tone . . .

Was that compassion she heard in Livy’s voice? Understanding?

It couldn’t be, and yet—

“You need a break, Jo. A holiday.”

She remembered how she’d felt watching Freddie chase that squirrel across the field.

“You are driving yourself mad”—Livy shrugged—“and everyone else mad as well.”

“W-what?” Livy was wrong. She must be. Yes, Jo might have been feeling a bit tense lately. Who wouldn’t be tense after losing two longtime partners? But she had herself under control.

Most of the time.

It was just that she felt she had to do everything now. Or at least supervise everything. Fanny and Polly were so new at their jobs. If they failed, the Home would fail and all the women and children living there would be, well, homeless. What would become of them?

What would become of me?

Her chest tightened.

She felt a light touch on her arm, pulling her away from the edge of the dark abyss she was teetering on and bringing her attention back to the present and Livy.

“Fanny is in a constant fidget, Jo. She’s worried that something will happen to the hops and you’ll throw her out on her ear.”

“What?!”

Winifred, Rosamund, and the coachman all looked Jo’s way.

Jo lowered her voice. “Where did Fanny get that daft idea? I’ve never thrown anyone out of the Home.” Even when Rosamund’s daughter had been torturing Harriet last summer, Jo hadn’t threatened Rosamund with eviction.

Livy was shaking her head. “Fanny’s not stupid, Jo. She knows you’re constantly going down to the hopyard to inspect the plants. She sees how you look at her.”

Had the world turned topsy-turvy? Jo felt as if she needed to put out a hand to steady herself.

She put both hands on her hips instead. “How I look at her? What do you mean by that?”

Was that pity on Livy’s face? Perhaps she would wrap her hands around the woman’s neck—

She took a deep, steadying breath. Good Lord! Maybe I have lost a bit of perspective.

“You wrinkle your brows like this,” Livy said, scrunching up her face in a comical—and sadly familiar—way. “And you stare, though it’s clear you aren’t really seeing the person you’re staring at.”

“Oh.”

“It upsets Fanny. She’s come to me in tears on more than one occasion.”

“Ah.” How could I not have known that? Caro always said I was the tenderhearted one.

“You do it to Polly, too, but Polly just gets angry. So far, she’s only complained to me, but I’m afraid if matters don’t improve, she’ll soon start venting her spleen to anyone who will listen.”

That’s not good.

Livy might well have heard Jo’s thought. “I’m not saying anyone will take her side, but just having sides is a bad business. I’ve always found it best to nip such things in the bud the moment I become aware of them.”

Jo nodded. Livy was right. “I’ll have a word with Polly—and with Fanny, too.”

Livy raised a skeptical brow. “Oh? And what will you say?”

Jo opened her mouth—and stopped. What would she say?

Livy was shaking her head. “You’re worried about what might happen, Jo. You’ve got no complaint with either Fanny’s or Polly’s actual work, do you?”

“N-no.”

“Madam.” Urgency and deference battled in the coachman’s voice. “The horses.”

“You’ve had a rough time of it, Jo. Everyone knows that. You depended on Caro—and Pen—and now they’re gone. But you can’t bring them back by frowning and glowering.”

Livy’s voice was warm and soothing. Jo felt comforted—

No! Livy just wants to get rid of me so she can take over.

Was that true? Or had she let stress and anxiety twist her thinking?

Jo looked down at Freddie to see if he could advise her.

He was too busy scratching his ear to offer her any thoughts.

“Madam.” The coachman’s voice had a touch of panic now. “Please.”

“Yes, Jo.” That was Winifred. “Think of the horses.”

“You really do need a break, Jo. A fortnight away will give you a fresh outlook. It will be good for you”—Livy grinned—“and for us.”

“But . . .” But what? Jo felt the tide of everyone else’s opinion—and, yes, perhaps her own desire—pulling her toward the coach and Darrow. She made one last attempt to resist.

“But Freddie—”

Livy snorted. “Freddie will be fine. Does he look at all concerned?”

He did not. If anything, he was the picture of nonchalance, sprawled on the grass, tongue hanging out.

“I should take him with me.”

Livy snorted louder. “Right. And have him growl at all the gentlemen? That would make for such a comfortable gathering.”

Livy had a point.

“And you should talk to people, Jo.”

Jo flushed. Livy might have a point there, too. It was possible she’d been . . . well, you couldn’t call it conversing with Freddie, but she might have been sharing her thoughts with him a little too frequently.

“You won’t be gone that long. Only a fortnight. I can manage things for two weeks.”

True. And if Jo were honest with herself, she’d admit it was unlikely Livy would stage a coup while she was gone. Livy might be ambitious, but she was also smart. She must recognize that while she knew a lot about running a business, she knew very little about running this business.

It would be nice to see Pen again. And Caro.

She could find some time to talk to them about the Home, get their insights, their advice. That would make the trip worthwhile. And yet . . .

“The hop plants—”

Livy waved that concern away. “Fanny will keep a close eye on them”—she gave Jo a very pointed look—“just as she’s been doing all along.”

“Oh.” Jo felt her resistance give way. “Oh, all right. I’ll go.”

She heard the coachman emit a deep sigh of relief.

“Excellent.” Livy grinned with what looked very much like relief, too.

Have I really been so difficult to live with?

Her gut told her that perhaps she had.

Jo turned toward the coach—the coachman had already let down the steps.

“Your trunk is loaded, madam.” He held out a hand to help her in—not that she needed any help. “If you please. We must consider the horses.”

“Yes.” Winifred nodded. “The horses.”

Jo put her foot on the first step—and stopped.

She could almost hear the coachman’s teeth grinding.

“Go on.” Livy came over to shoo her into the vehicle. “I packed everything you’ll need.” She laughed. “You didn’t have many dresses to choose from.”

It was no surprise that a London courtesan would think Jo’s plain, serviceable wardrobe lacking.

“The Home will be here when you get back, won’t it, Freddie?”

Freddie had bestirred himself to walk over with Livy. He looked at Jo and barked his agreement, wagging his tail in an encouraging fashion.

Is he looking forward to getting a break from me, too? Me and my constant yammering?

“Don’t worry.” Livy looked at Rosamund and Winifred. “You can trust us to keep everything running smoothly. Isn’t that right, ladies?”

“Yes, Jo.” Winifred nodded earnestly. Rosamund—

Oh, what the hell did it matter? She probably did need to get away for a while. As Livy said, she’d only be gone a fortnight. What could go wrong in a mere fourteen days?

She climbed into the coach—and the coachman folded up the steps the moment her foot cleared the last tread.

“And who knows,” Livy said as Jo settled herself on the squabs. “Maybe you’ll find love—and a new husband—at Darrow.”

Jo’s mouth dropped open as the door slammed shut.

CHAPTER TWO

The Duke of Grainger—or, as he still thought of himself, Edward Russell—stood in yet another London ballroom and listened to yet another young woman talk.

Or tried to listen. His mind kept wandering.

The Earl of Darrow, whom he’d counted on last year to provide some sensible conversation at these insipid affairs, was now happily married. Today, he’d begun welcoming guests to his country estate for the christening of his heir. He’d invited Edward to serve as the baby’s godfather, and Edward had agreed, but with the stipulation that he’d come down the day before the christening so he could attend a few more balls and soirees here in Town.

He was rethinking that plan.

“Oh!” The young woman—Lady Iris Wood—looked out the window, rather theatrically, he thought. “It’s a lovely night, isn’t it, Your Grace?” She batted her lashes at him.

“Indeed.” He wished to remarry and have more children. He’d thought that almost any well-bred young woman would do.

He’d been mistaken. Lady Iris, for example, would not do. She was too . . .

Annoying? Self-centered?

Desperate?

“I’ve heard Lord Windom’s gardens are quite impressive.” Lady Iris gave him what she must think was a coy look, clearly hoping he’d ask her to stroll among the greenery.

Yes, desperate. The poor girl veritably reeked of desperation.

He should have realized it the moment they’d been introduced—well, even before that. It wasn’t as if he’d not heard her story. She was the eldest of the “flower sisters,” as the ton called them. The next sister, Lady Rose, had just snared a marquess, and the youngest flower, Lady Violet, was making her bows with the next crop of debutantes. If Lady Iris didn’t harvest a peer before the Season ended, she’d find herself planted firmly on the matrimonial shelf.

Desperate women did desperate things, especially in dark gardens. He’d saved Darrow from precisely such an ill-advised excursion into the shrubbery last August.

“I imagine they are,” he said. “However, I’m afraid I’m not much interested in plants.”

He did feel for her. Unmarried daughters of the ton were all rather like flowers, cultivated in hothouses, watered and fed, protected from sun and wind and blight until they bloomed. And then their parents displayed them on the Marriage Mart, hoping they’d catch the eye of a wealthy peer who would marry them and take over their care. They had no power, beyond their powers of seduction, nor any real control over their own lives.

To be honest, most women had no control over their lives, which was one reason he was happy to support that charity in Little Puddledon—the Benevolent Home for the Maintenance and Support of Spinsters, Widows, and Abandoned Women and their Unfortunate Children. He’d been corresponding with the foundress, Lady Havenridge, since August and had been quite impressed by her. She seemed to be a very sensible female, levelheaded and yet, at the same time, intensely passionate about her cause.

And now he would finally get to meet her in person. Darrow had written she was to be the baby’s godmother.

If I go down to Darrow sooner, I’ll have more time to discuss the Home with Lady Havenridge.

“But do you have any interest in what can happen in a leafy corner?” Lady Iris said archly, bringing his attention back to her.

Good God!

“No.”

She frowned at his abrupt answer and appeared—blessedly—at a loss for words.

His conscience prodded him. If his wife were still alive, she’d tell him he shouldn’t be so blunt. It wasn’t Lady Iris’s fault that Society was constructed the way it was.

If Helen were still alive, I wouldn’t be standing here.

True. Still, Helen would expect better of him, so he tried to soften his rejection. “Lady Iris, I know you wish to find a husband, but I am—” Don’t say not interested. “I am too old for you.”

The moment the words were out he wished he could recall them. He was too old for her, but, if rumors were true, he was a good fifteen years younger than any of the other fellows she was pursuing.

He tried again. “My wife was just about your age when we married. We—”

Lady Iris finally regained her powers of speech.

Unfortunately.

“And now you need a new wife. A young wife who can give you more children. You may have your heir, Your Grace, but you still need your spare.”

True. Which was one reason he’d been forcing himself to haunt Society’s ballrooms.

Clearly, he would need to haunt them a while longer. But, equally clearly, he needed a break. He should have known Lady Iris wouldn’t do for him and taken pains not to get caught with her in such a public tête-à-tête.

Well, time to put an end to this as politely as he could.

He pinned a smile to his lips and bowed. “Lady Iris, I’m sorry, but I believe it would be best if I returned you to your chaperone.”

Zeus! You’d think he’d spat on her and called her a blood-sucking, wart-ridden, snaggletoothed witch. Her brows snapped down. Her eyes narrowed. Her nostrils flared.

“Why?” The word came out in a hiss, a rather impressive enunciative trick.

Did she expect an answer? What should he say?

Because I find you repulsive? Because the thought of spending one more second in your presence makes me want to curse, loudly?

No, of course he shouldn’t—couldn’t—say any of that. He—

He wasn’t given the option to try diplomacy. After only a brief pause, she swept on.

Lady Iris might not be a witch, but this Society flower had definitely turned into a stinging nettle.

“What is the matter with you? I’m well-bred. Beautiful.”

And becoming less beautiful with each ugly word.

He noticed how everyone within hearing range had paused their own conversations and cocked their ears in Lady Iris’s direction, likely salivating at the thought of the delicious helping of gossip she was about to dish up.

The woman was too angry to notice. He should try to bring it to her attention.

“Lady Iris, you might want to—”

She did not want to listen to him. She rushed on.

“You should be happy that I’m willing to consider you. In case it has escaped your attention, you are not thought to be much of a marital prize. Yes, you may be a duke now, but you were just a solicitor a short while ago. You had to work for your bread.”

The disdain dripping from her words sent a cold rage howling through him, scattering all his kinder impulses.

And then his years of working as a solicitor—years of keeping his tongue between his teeth when what he’d really wanted to do was share a few home truths—took over. Instead of telling Lady Iris precisely what he thought of her, he pressed his lips together. Tightly.

I’m a duke. She’s a defenseless woman. I cannot—should not—berate her, and especially not here in a society ballroom.

And she is not my problem, thank God.

But he was a duke now. He no longer had to listen to this abuse. He could turn on his heel and leave.

Which is precisely what he did. Without a word of farewell—he couldn’t have managed a polite word—he showed her his back and strode across the ballroom, leaving raised eyebrows and whispers in his wake.

He felt a brief—a very brief—twinge of pity for her, but he brushed it away. Lady Iris would find plenty of sympathetic ears into which she could unburden herself. She’d had the right of it. To the ton’s fastidious nostrils, he did still stink of the shop.

Suddenly, he wanted—desperately wanted—out of this hot, stifling ballroom that reeked of perfume and candlewax and sweat. He wanted to be far, far away from the false smiles and nasty whispers, the scornful looks. He was sick of the haughty ton, and he was especially sick of them treating him like some jumped-up shopkeeper while simultaneously fawning over his title.

The bloody toadeaters. He was done with them.

The footman lounging by the front door straightened the moment he saw Edward approaching and jumped to pull the door open, as if he were afraid Edward might kick it down if he didn’t move fast enough.

Edward might have done so. He was angry enough to try.

He nodded at the man—no need to be rude to the fellow—stepped out into the night, took a deep breath—

And started coughing.

Damn London air. It was thick with smoke and the fetid smell of the streets and the Thames.

And the noise! Even at this late hour, carriages and carts rattled over the cobblestones, street vendors hawked their wares, dogs barked, and inebriated men sang bawdy ditties at the top of their lungs.

He jumped back to avoid one drunken lout, who weaved past him and then grabbed a lamppost and emptied his stomach into the gutter, contributing to the ambient stench.

Edward’s stomach roiled, threatening to add its contents to the mess. Blech!

He turned and headed toward his townhouse. He needed to get back to the country with its clean air, open fields, and quiet. He’d known the Season was wearing on him, but he’d been trying to push through. He’d kept telling himself that the next event or the one after that would be the one where he’d find a woman to marry. That if he skipped this ball or that soiree, he’d miss his chance.

Zeus, when had he turned into such a bloody cabbagehead?

Well, to be fair, it wasn’t as if he’d ever done any wife-hunting before. He’d worked with Helen’s father. He’d got to know Helen—and to fall in love with her—gradually, naturally.

He sure as hell hadn’t had to prance around under the eyes of the annoying nobility, being looked over as if he were a horse up for auction at Tattersalls. It was a wonder no one had yet asked to see his teeth.

Remember, you don’t need to marry again. You have your heir.

Right. He scowled down at some unidentifiable muck on the pavement as he stepped over it. And why did he care about the succession at all? He hadn’t been in line for the title until Fate had intervened. If worse came to worst, they could just shake the family tree again.

It’s not the succession I care about. I want more children. I want a mother for Thomas.

Yes. And he’d met any number of perfectly pleasant women who would do both those things perfectly pleasantly. They just didn’t make his heart beat faster.

Or his less noble organ stir with interest.

He stopped in front of his townhouse. He was thirty-five years old, blast it. He wasn’t a lad any longer, but he sure as hell wasn’t dead. And yet he might as well be.

He hadn’t been with a woman in over a year, since he’d been plucked from his former life and thrust into his new, very public position.

He climbed the steps to his front door and stared morosely at the pineapple-shaped knocker.

He could, if he wished, pay for physical release. He’d paid for it in the past. But now that he was the Duke of Grainger—the solicitor duke . . .

Nothing was secret in London, especially nothing that involved him. People would talk. His servants would talk. Thomas would hear. The boy was old enough to get the general drift of the gossip, and, well, perhaps there was a touch of the puritan in him, but he didn’t want his son listening to accounts of his father’s assignations.

And simple physical release isn’t what you really want, is it?

He could satisfy that in the privacy of his room with just his hand for company.

Hell and damnation! He hadn’t thought to find love again, but he had hoped to find friendship. Companionship. Respect.

And now . . .

Now he was beginning to fear he’d never find a woman who could look past his title to see him, Edward Russell. Who would find his past career a good thing, not something to be despised, whispered about, wished away.

He let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. The last year had been difficult. The christening party might be the perfect time to relax and reassess his goals. Perhaps he would decide to give up looking for a wife, at least for now.

Jakes, his butler, must have been watching for him because he swung the door open just as Edward pulled his key out of his pocket.

“Your Grace,” Jakes said, a faint note of reproach shading his voice, “you know I—or one of the footmen—am always on duty.”

Jakes had come with the title and was very good at his job, which was why Edward hadn’t replaced him. At least one of them should have some notion of how a duke—and a duke’s household—should go on.

To be honest, Edward’s upbringing had probably been more like a butler’s than a duke’s. He, too, had had to find a trade to support himself.

“I’m quite capable of letting myself in, you know, Jakes,” he grumbled as he stepped over the threshold—and felt like an imposter again. A proper duke would probably quell the butler with one haughty sniff or a cocked eyebrow. He must just sound peevish.

All right, he’d admit it. He did sound peevish, even to himself.

“Of course, you are, Your Grace,” Jakes said soothingly, in a tone Edward recognized. It was not unlike the one he used when he wished to mollify Thomas.

He glared at Jakes.

Jakes looked blandly back at him. Zeus, the man was good.

Edward handed the fellow his hat. “I’m off to Darrow in the morning.”

Jakes’s eyes widened.

Ha! He’d finally managed to shake the bloody fellow’s composure.

“So soon, Your Grace? I’d been given to understand that you weren’t leaving until next week.”

“I changed my mind.”

Jakes recovered at once, of course, and bowed slightly. “Very good, Your Grace. I will let the staff know.” He cleared his throat. “I assume you’ve already informed Ambrose?”

Ambrose was Edward’s valet—also inherited with the title—and, no, he hadn’t told the man. He’d just made the decision, as Jakes likely knew all too well.

“No. I’ll tell him when I see him that he has a bit of a holiday coming.”

Jakes’s brows shot up before he quickly schooled his features.

“It will be just Thomas and I going. And John Coachman, of course.” Edward was not going to drive his own carriage. He knew his limitations. He had very little—some would say no—skill with the ribbons, not having grown up the pampered son of a nobleman.

Another strike against him in the eyes of the ton.

Jakes nodded, apparently speechless at the thought of the Duke of Grainger undertaking a journey without his valet.

Edward smiled—ducally, he hoped—and headed for the stairs. He doubted Ambrose would be surprised to be left behind. The valet had grown resigned to being little more than a male laundress.

Oh, Ambrose did try to be a proper valet. He’d been pleading with Edward from the moment Edward had first donned the ducal coronet to let him take over his dressing—and Edward had flatly refused. He’d been putting on his own clothes since he was a lad. He wasn’t about to let anyone treat him like a life-sized doll now.

He’d even refused to let the man shave him. Poor Ambrose had been reduced to moaning and sending him baleful looks, predicting that Edward’s hand would slip and he’d slit his own throat.

Getting free of the dour fellow for a fortnight was another benefit of his decision to leave for Darrow in the morning.

Edward bounded up the stairs, feeling lighter than he had in months. Then he walked down the corridor and quietly pushed open the door to the schoolroom—he’d had the hinges oiled so he could come in and check on Thomas without waking him.

He woke Bear, though. The big dog appeared at the door to Thomas’s bedroom and then came over to have his ears scratched.

“Good boy, Bear,” Edward whispered.

A small voice came through the darkness. “Papa?”

Oh, blast. He had woken Thomas.

He stepped into the bedroom and saw Thomas sitting up in bed.

“You should be asleep.” He took a spill from the mantel and lit a candle. “Not a bad dream, I hope?”

Thomas shook his head. “N-no. I-I just heard you come in.”

God, how I love this boy.

Edward sat on the edge of the bed—and his heart clenched. Even in the uncertain light, he could see Thomas’s young face was twisted with worry, his eyes wide as they looked up at him.

“D-did you find a w-wife tonight, Papa?”

Zeus!

“Oh, Thomas.” He swept his son up in his arms and hugged him tightly. How he wished he could protect the boy from all pain and every disappointment. He would give anything—give his very life—for his son.

And now there were tears leaking from his eyes.

I’ve not really thought about how my search for a wife is affecting Thomas, have I?

If he hadn’t already decided to go to Darrow in the morning, this would have persuaded him. He and Thomas both needed a break. Darrow’s daughter, Harriet—the child the earl had had with Lady Darrow long before they were married—would be there, as would Darrow’s nieces. They were girls, yes, and, he thought, older than Thomas, but they were children. And Darrow’s daughter had lived most of her life with only one parent. She might understand and feel some sympathy for Thomas.

And he would be there. He’d not be spending hours and hours at some deadly dull Society event.

“No, I didn’t find a wife.” He held the boy away from him and smiled. “I say, how would you like to go off to the country tomorrow?”

A stricken look came over Thomas’s face. “Back to G-Grainger?”

He thinks I’m sending him away. Dear God, I have some work to do.

“No. No, of course not. To the christening party at Darrow with me.”

“Really?” Thomas’s sudden grin lit the room like another candle—or at least it lit Edward’s heart. The boy gave a happy little bounce. “Yes! And can we bring Bear?”

Ah. A large, shaggy mongrel hadn’t been part of the invitation, but . . .

It was the country. Darrow must have dogs of his own, and Bear was well-behaved.

Most of the time.

Darrow does owe me a favor.

Hell, Darrow owed him his current happiness. If Edward hadn’t sent him to Little Puddledon last summer to discover what a mysterious entry in the old duke’s books meant, Darrow wouldn’t have found his now-wife and discovered they’d had a daughter together.

And there would be no baby to christen.

“Yes, we can bring Bear.”

Thomas’s grin widened and he flung his arms around Edward’s neck. “Oh, thank you, Papa.”

There are the bloody tears again.

Edward squeezed his eyes shut, willing the dampness away, and hugged Thomas until he found his composure. Then he gently disentangled himself and drew back, resting his hands on his son’s shoulders.

“Now go to sleep.” He was relieved to hear his voice was steady. “We leave early in the morning.”

“Yes, Papa.” Thomas bounced on the bed again—and then stopped, frowning. “Will you be shopping for a wife at the party?”

“No.”

Wait, was that true? He wouldn’t be shopping—that part was right—but if some suitable, unattached female miraculously appeared? What then?

“Or, I don’t think so. I expect this will be mostly a family gathering, Thomas—children and old grannies and happily married couples. But if there are any unattached ladies, I won’t turn my back on them. That would be rude, wouldn’t it?”

Thomas nodded tentatively.

And this could work to his advantage. What better way to take the measure of a woman than to see her with his son? “And you’ll be there, so can give me your advice on the matter.”

He’d said that half in jest, but Thomas nodded seriously.

“I promise I will, Papa. And I can tell you what the servants say, too.”

Oh, hell. If he could stop the servants from gossiping around Thomas, he would.

“Mr. Ambrose told Mr. Jakes yesterday that you’d be married by now if you’d just let him see to your clothes.” The boy’s brows slanted down. “I think you look fine as you are.”

If that was the worst Thomas heard, he must be thankful.

And he was doubly glad they were leaving Ambrose behind.

“Ah. Well, thank you.” He stood. “Now, do lie down. I was serious about getting an early start.”

Thomas nodded and stretched out again on the bed. “I hope you find someone nice, Papa. I’d like a mother, I think.” He frowned. “Though not an evil one like in fairy tales.”

Edward tucked the coverlet around his son. “Definitely not.” He smiled. “And remember, you’ve promised to advise me. I’m sure you’ll keep me from making such a mistake.”

Thomas didn’t smile in return. “But what if we’re both fooled? What if she only seems nice? Or what if she changes once you’re married?”

Thomas was right. There were no guarantees in life—if there were, Helen would not have died. Edward hoped he’d not make a foolish choice—he would certainly try not to. But he’d seen more than one otherwise sensible man allow his cock, or simple loneliness, to lead him to disaster.

“It’s true no one can know the future, Thomas, but I promise to do my best to choose wisely.” Then he bent down so he could look Thomas in the eyes—and so that Thomas could look him in the eyes. “But no matter what happens, Thomas, I will always look out for you. You come first, so you must come to me at once if you ever have a problem with—with anything. I will sort things out. I will take care of you.”

“But if your new wife doesn’t like me . . .” Thomas’s voice trailed off. He looked so small and defenseless.

“Then I will send her off to one of our remote estates.”

Thomas looked reassured, but still uncertain.

Of course, he was uncertain. Life was uncertain, so bloody, bloody uncertain.

When he’d married, he’d assumed he and Helen would have several children—sons and daughters. They hadn’t. It had taken them five years to conceive, and then Helen had died shortly after giving birth to Thomas.

Zeus! There was a hole in his life where Helen had been, where he’d thought a family would be. It ached to be filled.

Enough. He would take this holiday from London—from its ballrooms full of desperate women—and enjoy being with Thomas in the country. And if something else developed . . .

He would neither hope for nor look for anything beyond a pleasant fortnight away from Town.

“Let’s not worry. Let’s just have some fun for the next two weeks, shall we?”

Thomas grinned, and if there was a touch of wistfulness in his eyes—well, that could just be the wavering light.

Edward blew out the candle and made his way by the fire’s glow past Bear, out of the schoolroom, and down the corridor to his bedchamber. Yes, a break from London and his hunt for a wife was likely just what he needed. Distance often made things come into better focus. He liked Darrow and had liked what little he’d seen of Lady Darrow.

And remember, you’ll be able to speak to Lady Havenridge about the Home. That will be good.

Very true. He should have gone down to Little Puddledon a while ago to see the Home himself, but he hadn’t felt any urgency. Darrow had said the place was well run, and Lady Havenridge’s letters had given him confidence in her abilities. Still, it would be good to finally meet her. Letters were fine, but even the best-written ones left themselves open to misinterpretation.

He closed the door to his room and started to loosen his cravat. He’d always found it much better to speak face-to-face with someone so he could see the person’s reactions and ask questions to clarify points.

And there was one thing he’d like to discuss with her. Darrow had said the Home didn’t take in mothers with sons. Perhaps they could find a way to—

“Your Grace!” Ambrose came hurrying into the room from wherever he’d been hiding. “I didn’t expect you to be home so early.”

“I didn’t expect to be home so early, but here I am.” Edward untied his cravat—and swore Ambrose’s fingers twitched. It must take all of the valet’s self-control not to push Edward’s hands away and do it himself.

Ambrose nodded, his eyes still on Edward’s cravat. “I did look in earlier after Jakes told me you’d come back, Your Grace, but I didn’t see you.”

And it would be bloody wonderful not to feel like he had someone watching him all the time. “I stopped to check on my son.” He started to drop his cravat on the floor.

Ambrose dove and caught it midair. “I see, Your Grace. Of course, Your Grace.”

Edward shrugged out of his coat—a coat Ambrose told him at least once a day was too loosely cut to set off his figure.

And Ambrose didn’t disappoint this time, either. “I do wish you’d allow your tailor to fit you properly, Your Grace.”

Edward tried to muffle his laugh, but failed—and then felt guilty when he saw Ambrose’s hurt expression.

Oh, what the hell. He was going to get free of the fellow tomorrow. He might as well be generous now and throw him a sop.

“Do you suppose you could help me off with my boots, Ambrose?”

CHAPTER THREE

Jo strode across the broad lawn, trying to walk off her anger and find some measure of serenity. She’d arrived at the Earl of Darrow’s estate a little earlier, been shown up to her room, opened her trunk—

And discovered Livy hadn’t packed a single suitable garment.

Dear Lord, where had the woman got those things? A few dresses looked familiar—until Jo held one up and saw someone had removed most of its bodice. Other dresses were new—and even more scandalous. And the scrap of cloth Livy had packed for Jo to sleep in was far too diaphanous to wear at all—even with all the candles snuffed and the coverlet pulled up to her chin.

Well, Livy had operated a business matching men with lightskirts. Still, she should have known a house party to celebrate a baby’s christening would require a different wardrobe than, say, a Christmas orgy at a viscount’s country estate.

Livy should have known that Jo would require a different wardrobe.

Jo snorted. Of course the evil woman had known it. The altered dresses must be part of her plan to take over the Home. Hadn’t she all but admitted she had some sort of scheme in mind just before the coach door closed? Love and husbands, indeed! Jo had been surprised by her words, but had chalked them up to wishful thinking.

Ha! Now the matter was crystal clear. It wasn’t wishful thinking—it was a carefully laid plot. The jade must be hoping that, wrapped in a more . . . alluring package, Jo would entice a titled gentleman into offering for her and taking her off to his estate—just as Pen and Caro had gone off.

Giving Livy exactly what she wanted—control of the Home.

It was a rather far-fetched fantasy, though. Why would Livy think that Jo would encounter a single man in search of a wife at a family christening party? And perhaps even more to the point, why in the world would she imagine any fellow would wish to ally himself with a widow who thought it appropriate to attend such a gathering dressed as a lightskirt?

If there was an unattached male here, it was far more likely he’d think Jo was available for a bit of bedroom frolicking. Many widows were accommodating in that regard. But a waltz between the sheets wouldn’t achieve Livy’s goal . . .

Oh! Unless Livy thought such activity would result in a child nine months hence. That might be her plan. However, one would think an experienced madam would conclude that if Jo hadn’t conceived in three years of marriage, she was not going to do so after just a few nights of, er, passion, especially given her advanced age.

And all that completely ignored the fact that Jo was most definitely not in the market for a husband. Livy didn’t honestly think she’d be swept away by a handsome face, did she? She’d made that mistake before—she wasn’t going to make it again, especially when it would take her away from the life she’d worked so hard to build.

Still, it was the only explanation Jo could come up with for those, those . . .

They hardly qualified as dresses, there was so little to them.

I should have unpacked at that inn. Then I would have discovered Livy’s mischief and could have told the coachman to turn back to Little Puddledon.

Livy had likely—and correctly—assumed Jo would be too exhausted when they’d stopped overnight at the Horse and Pelican to do more than take off her dress and fall into bed in her shift—and then put the same dress back on in the morning.

Well, it was too late now. She couldn’t ask to leave—she’d just arrived. How could she explain that to Pen?

She snorted again. She wouldn’t have to explain anything once Pen caught sight of her in one of those dresses. Pen would call up the coach herself to take her back to the Home.

Particularly if I wear that red dress—

Her cheeks burned as the shocking dress of red satin and lace flashed before her mind’s eye.

I need to discuss the matter with Freddie.

But she couldn’t. Freddie wasn’t here. She would have to hope the simple action of putting one foot in front of the other would calm her enough that she could come up with a sensible course of action on her own.

She continued on across the lawn toward a line of trees, careful to keep an eye out for mole holes and cow piles.

I’ll ask Pen if she has a shawl of some sort I can borrow. Or . . . There must be a seamstress on the premises.

Though adding fabric was a bit trickier than taking it away. And there was a lot of fabric that needed to be added. The red dress might be the skimpiest, but none of them—with the exception of the dress she had on right now—were suitable for anything but a brothel.

I’ll just have to hide in the curtains.

Now there was an idea. She could imagine what everyone would say to tha—

“Bear!”

What?! A bear in England?

She spun around. For an instant, she thought the shaggy creature bounding toward her was indeed a bear, escaped from a traveling menagerie perhaps.

And then she realized it was just a large, enthusiastic dog with a young boy in pursuit.

She did not wish to be bowled over by the exuberant animal and thus dirty the one modest dress in her possession, so when the dog came close enough—and hoping that it was an obedient creature—she gave it a firm command: “Sit!”

The dog sat. Fortunately. He looked like the slobbery sort—the friendly, slobbery sort, which would also spell disaster for her dress.

They both waited for the boy to catch up.

“I’m. Sorry. Madam,” the boy said between pants when he reached them.

She’d guess the lad was about seven or eight years old. He was thin, all arms and legs, with a mop of reddish-brown hair and a scattering of freckles across his nose.

“It’s quite all right. Take a moment to catch your breath, and then you can introduce me to this fine fellow.”

The boy’s large, hazel eyes had been shadowed when he’d first reached her, his brows tented, but at her words, he flashed a grin, revealing a large gap where his two front teeth should be.

He took a deep breath and then said seriously, a note of pride in his voice, “This is Bear. He can do tricks. I taught him.”

“Did you? How very clever. What can he do?”

He flashed his gap-toothed grin again and then turned to his dog. “Shake hands with the lady, Bear.”

Bear offered a paw.

Jo took it. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Bear.”

That made the boy giggle. “Good boy, Bear.” He gave the dog a hug.

He was a charming child, bright-eyed and energetic. He must live on the estate, though he seemed too well-spoken and direct to be a tenant’s child. Perhaps his father was the local vicar.

“And you are, sir?”

The boy glanced at her before turning back to his dog as if suddenly shy. “Thomas, madam.”

Perhaps he was a tenant’s child, one that had benefited from charity schooling. She would have to ask Pen about that. In Jo’s opinion, every estate should have a thriving school. Some peers thought education would make their tenants dissatisfied with their lot and lead to unrest, but Jo did not agree with that position.

“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance as well, Thomas.” She extended her hand. “I’m . . .”

Lady Havenridge felt too formal for the situation. She didn’t want to risk cutting the nascent bond she felt forming between them. And she’d never really liked the title. It recalled Freddie and her less than successful marriage.

She would introduce herself by what the children at the Home called her. “I’m Miss Jo.”

The boy took her hand. He had a good strong handshake, especially for a youngster.

“I am sorry Bear ran at you like that,” he said, looking her in the eye. “We spent the morning in the carriage—”

So not a tenant’s child nor the vicar’s son. He must have come with one of the other guests.

“—and, well, when we got out, Bear saw a squirrel.”

Jo knew all about dogs and squirrels.

“I hope he didn’t frighten you, Miss Jo.”

Jo smiled. “No, he didn’t frighten me, though I suppose he might have if I were afraid of dogs. Some people are, you know.”

The boy nodded earnestly, and then looked down at Bear, who’d flopped onto the grass, tongue lolling out, looking about as frightening as a fur coat.

“I know. And Bear’s so big, he scares even people who don’t usually mind dogs. I should have put him on a lead.”

His parents had raised him well. He didn’t try to bluff or bluster or scoff that anyone would be so poor-spirited as to be alarmed by his pet, but accepted responsibility for his mistake.

Not that she would call this a mistake. Even the best-trained animal—and Bear seemed very well trained—had a mind of its own and sometimes used it to the surprise and consternation of its owner. And, given the disparity in size, she would wager that even if Bear had been on a leash, he would have easily pulled free of the boy’s hold.

“Well, no harm done,” she said. “And I do understand. I have a dog myself.”

“You do?” Thomas’s eyes brightened and he looked around eagerly. “Where is he?”

“I didn’t bring him.” She felt a sharp pang of regret. If other guests—

No. Other dogs didn’t react to men the way Freddie did.

The boy was frowning. “Why didn’t you?”

“Freddie doesn’t, ah . . .” No point in beating about the bush. “He doesn’t like men.”

Thomas’s eyes widened. “How do you know?”

“He growls whenever one comes close.”

The boy didn’t leave it there, of course. Children, unlike adults, always asked questions.

“Why?”

“Erm, I think because the man who had Freddie before me wasn’t very nice to him.”

She wouldn’t tell Thomas the details—it was not a happy story. Harvey Miller, who owned a small, dilapidated farm abutting the Home’s property and who was one of Jo’s least favorite people, had been on the verge of drowning poor Freddie for the common puppy sin of chewing his boots when Jo had happened upon him. She’d persuaded him—with the help of a large stick and a lot of shouting—to give Freddie to her.

“Does Freddie like boys?”

Jo blinked. Did Freddie like boys?

“I don’t know. We have only girls at the Home.”

Thomas wrinkled his nose in what looked very much like disgust at the mention of girls.

Well, he was a young boy. He likely—

“Does he growl at your husband?”

How had the conversation taken this turn? “Husband? I don’t have a husband.”

“Oh.” Thomas suddenly looked sad and oddly understanding. “He died. I’m sorry.”

Freddie, her husband, had died, of course, but . . . ah! She thought she saw the problem.

“The girls aren’t my daughters, Thomas. I run a Benevolent Home for women and children—” She stopped. That wasn’t quite accurate, was it? “That is, for women and girls.”

Thomas looked even sadder, his narrow shoulders drooping. “Do you not like boys, then?”

Oh, dear. Perhaps it had sounded that way. “No, it’s not that. The Home is too small to have both boys and girls. We had to choose.”

“And you chose girls.”

She suddenly felt very guilty.

Nonsense! There was no guilt involved. The Home was too small for both genders.

“Circumstances chose, Thomas. It just so happened that the first mothers who came to the Home had daughters.”

Well, and from her observations, women with boys had no trouble finding husbands. They were proven breeders. Men wanted sons who could carry on their names, work their fields.

Not that she was going to say that to a child.

And what if mothers of sons also wanted the opportunity to live their lives free of men?

She hadn’t considered the matter from that perspective.

But it didn’t change things. The Home was too small to accommodate everyone.

Thomas frowned, opened his mouth as if to argue—

And then Bear gave a great woof, sprang to his feet, and took off, loping back toward the house—and a masculine figure.

“That’s Papa,” Thomas said. “He went in to see to our bags and greet the earl. I was supposed to stay close to the house with Bear.”

The man now walking over the lawn toward them, a satchel slung over one shoulder, looked large, even at a distance, with broad shoulders and an athletic stride that spoke of strength.

Jo frowned. Thomas didn’t seem worried, but she couldn’t take anything for granted, especially not with a child involved. Men could be quick to anger when their orders weren’t followed to a T.

“He won’t cut up rusty with you, will he?” she asked, watching carefully for the boy’s reaction.

Thomas shrugged and smiled. Clearly, he wasn’t the least bit concerned.

“Oh, no. Papa only gets angry when he thinks I’ve done something dangerous and could have got hurt.”

Well, that was good. It sounded as if the man was a reasonable fellow.

Who must now be wondering exactly who was talking to his son. At least she wasn’t in one of Livy’s horrid dresses. Any of those would have given him the entirely wrong impression of her character.

Still, a cautious father would not wish his young son striking up a conversation with a stranger. She should follow Bear’s example and go—

“Papa’s looking for a wife.”

Her eyes snapped back to Thomas. She could not have heard him correctly.

Lud! Was that hope she saw in the boy’s eyes?

No. He’s only just met me.

She looked back at his father. The dog was dancing around him, barking with canine joy while the man laughed.

Her idiotic heart did an odd little dance of its own.

Stupid! You are not a young girl to be swayed by a handsome face and figure again.

“You said you don’t have a husband.”

Oh, Lord, it had been hope she’d seen in the boy’s eyes—and now heard in his voice.

“Would you like to marry Papa?”

She looked down at him. She should tell him no, of course, but gently. She didn’t want to hurt him.

“I’d like a mother.” Thomas smiled wistfully. “I never knew mine. She died when I was born.”

Jo’s heart twisted. “Oh. I’m so sor—”

“I think I’d like to have you as a mother.”

And now her heart stopped. She . . .

She mustn’t encourage him, but she needn’t make a great deal of the matter, either. This notion was certain to pass quickly.

And if it didn’t, his father should be the one to explain things. Not her.

“You talk to me,” Thomas was saying. “You look at me. You don’t ignore me the way most grown-ups do.”

Clearly, the boy was wise beyond his years—but he was still young, too young to understand that you couldn’t simply hope what you wanted into existence.

Young children didn’t think the same way as adults or even older children did. They believed wishes could be granted, dreams made real—

No. The boy lost his mother. He must understand all too well that life isn’t a fairy tale.

Thomas wrinkled his nose. “The ladies who want to marry Papa pretend to like me, but I can tell they just wish I would go away.” He looked over at his father and his voice wavered. “For-forever.”

Oh! Her arms ached to wrap themselves around his slight form, but she forced them to stay at her sides. She wanted to tell him everything would be all right, but he must have learned, as she had, that life offered no guarantees.

And, to be blunt, it didn’t matter what Thomas wished for. She was sorry to disappoint him, but she wasn’t interested in acquiring a husband. She did not want to leave the Home, no matter how much Livy might scheme to get her to do so. She couldn’t. It was her life’s work—her child, if you will. She could not abandon it, and especially not now. Livy was too new to the place to know how to keep it afloat.

I shouldn’t have come. I shouldn’t have left Livy in charge even for just a fortnight.

“You smile with your eyes,” Thomas said. “Not just your mouth. The ladies . . . When they smile, their eyes are hard and mean.”

This boy was far too old for his years—and too bright to be comforted by platitudes, even though that was all she had to offer him. “I hope your father is wise and marries a kind woman.”

But men didn’t look for kindness in a wife, did they? They looked for wealth and breeding and beauty, none of which had anything to do with kindness.

This man would surely look for all that. He was close enough now that she could see just how strikingly handsome he was. He was an adult version of the boy, tall, with auburn hair and eyes—

Eyes that were focused on her, assessing her. Warning her.

A small spark of vanity flared to life, offended by the total absence of admir—

Stop! This man should be thinking solely of his son’s welfare. And, Freddie’s courtship aside, when have you ever given a fig for male admiration?

Now, apparently. She was definitely—and irrationally—miffed. She—

Good God! Revelation hit her like a thunderbolt. This must be the man Livy had had in mind when she’d altered all those dresses.

Who is he? How did Livy know he’d be here?

Livy corresponded with Caro, but then so did Jo. Caro hadn’t said anything to Jo about the party, let alone who might be attending.

Jo frowned. Though it had been several weeks since she’d heard from Caro.

Well, more like a month.

Or, maybe two.

She’d put off answering Caro’s last letter because she’d not wanted to treat her to a long list of worries and complaints—or to give her the impression she couldn’t manage on her own.

“Papa, this is Miss Jo.” Thomas’s words tumbled out as soon as his father was within earshot. “I’ve just met her. Well, Bear met her first. He got away from me—he went after a squirrel. I tried to catch him but he was too fast. But Miss Jo didn’t mind. She wasn’t afraid at all. She told Bear to sit and he did.”

“Ah.” The man’s expression relaxed a little.

Jo knew she should say something, but she was suddenly, unaccountably nervous. It felt as if a kaleidoscope of butterflies had taken wing in her stomach.

Fortunately, Thomas kept talking.

“Miss Jo has a dog named Freddie, Papa, but she didn’t bring him to the house party because he doesn’t like men.”

“Oh?”

She heard the humor in Thomas’s father’s voice. He arched an eyebrow at her.

The fluttering grew—

This is ridiculous. You are an independent widow of thirty-four, not a seventeen-year-old ninny. Get control of yourself!

She ordered the butterflies to disperse and forced a smile.

“Freddie is generally very well-behaved, sir. He’s never bitten anyone. But he does growl, and he’s not used to strangers, especially men, so I wasn’t completely certain how he would acquit himself here.”

One corner of the man’s lips quirked up.

For some reason that she preferred not to examine, she did not care to have Thomas’s father laughing at her. Well, perhaps not laughing, at least not outright, but . . . on the verge of laughter. Did he think her a country bumpkin?

I am dressed in an old, travel-stained gown, and this bonnet must be . . .

Lud, could it be almost ten years old? And it had never been fashionable. She wasn’t going to seduce anyone in this outfit—

Seduce?! Where in God’s name had that come from?

From that trunkful of scandalous dresses, of course. From that red scrap of lace and satin. She looked down at Bear to hide her flush.

And perhaps the thought had come from the man himself. There was something very seductive about him. He was tall, handsome, dressed in what were clearly Town-tailored clothes—

Just like Freddie when first you saw him. You don’t need to have another charming rogue pass through your life.

True, but she thought this man was not like Freddie in the ways that mattered. Freddie had never had this presence about him, this feeling of intensity, of intelligence. And Freddie had never been a father.

She couldn’t fault Freddie for that, but she also couldn’t in her wildest dreams imagine he’d be this protective and concerned for a child’s well-being.

Freddie had been, at heart, deeply irresponsible. He’d lived in the moment, with little—with no—thought of past or future. It had given him an aura of fun and danger and had been captivating when she’d been seventeen.

It had been less appealing to live with.

This man, however . . .

She met his eyes—

And felt a definite pull of attraction.

She repressed it—mostly.

Focus!

She should introduce herself since the oaf hadn’t bothered to make himself known to her. She hadn’t used her title with the boy, but it might be wise to use it now. Being even just a minor member of the ton usually elicited a certain measure of deference that she felt very much in need of at the moment.

Well, it did in the country. In London . . .

In London, her connection to Freddie—and to the indelible mark of his suicide—would likely elicit disgust. The ton had a long memory.

And Freddie had been considered a bit of a dirty dish even before he’d killed himself.

This man might well wrinkle his nose at her. So be it. Best to find out now. It wasn’t as if they could avoid each other for the next two weeks.

She raised her chin. “I told Thomas I’m Miss Jo, sir. It is what the children call me at the Home I run—the Benevolent Home for the Maintenance and Support of Spinsters, Widows, and Abandoned Women and their Unfortunate Children.” She recited the full name in a strong voice. With pride.

The man’s eyes widened—well, it was a mouthful. But . . . Did the corners of his mouth twitch, too?

“But I’m more properly known as Lady Havenridge, widow of the former Baron Havenridge.” There. Let’s see what the fellow makes of that!

It appeared her title only amused him more. She could tell he was fighting valiantly to swallow a laugh.

She was not used to this reaction when she revealed her identity. It was rather disconcerting.

“And you are?” she prompted.

“I’m . . .” His voice wavered. He pressed his lips together, but that didn’t prevent a snort from escaping his nose. “I’m—oh, oh, argh.”

He doubled over and howled.

She looked at Thomas.

“Papa is the Duke of Grainger,” he said.

Good Lord!

She gaped in horror at the man whose predecessor had won Puddledon Manor from Freddie in that ill-fated card game; the man who had sent their current host, the Earl of Darrow, to Little Puddledon to investigate the Home; the man she’d been corresponding with for months in the hopes he would continue his financial support. The man whose good sense she’d come to depend on, whose letters she’d looked forward to, with whom she’d felt she was forming a bond, if only of the epistolary sort.

The man who was far younger and handsomer and, well, male than she’d imagined.

The man who was now laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes.

#

“P-Pardon me,” Edward gasped. He shouldn’t be laughing. The woman must think him a Bedlamite—a Bedlamite on whom her charity relied—but the situation did have all the markings of a farce.

He managed to swallow his mirth and bow. “It’s a pleasure to meet you finally, Lady Havenridge. I knew you’d be here—Darrow mentioned you were to be the baby’s godmother—but I hadn’t expected—”

Fortunately, his years as a solicitor took control of his tongue.

“—to meet you in a field with Thomas and Bear.”

What he’d almost said was he hadn’t expected her to be so attractive.

He’d been concerned when he’d seen a woman with Thomas. Not alarmed—not quite that. It was the country, and Bear would not have left Thomas’s side if the female had been at all threatening. But Thomas was a child—mature for his age, yes, perceptive, but still only a young boy. Edward wished to evaluate any adult who interacted with him.

Thoroughly evaluate.

Zounds, where had that thought come from?

He pushed it away.

Or tried to. He was dealing with a bit of mental vertigo at the moment.

Lady Havenridge did not match the picture he’d formed of her from Darrow’s report and his own reading of her letters. She looked younger, for one. Not young—he knew she was close to his own age—but she was most certainly not the matronly, colorless female Darrow had described.

Well, the dress was matronly. The bonnet, too. But the woman . . .

The woman was bright red with mortification.

“The pleasure is mine, Your Grace,” she told his cravat. The bodice of the matronly gown rose and fell rapidly.

She wasn’t cowed by his title, was she? Or, worse, discomfited by her reliance on his charity?

Or overcome with lust and longing?

He almost laughed again. Apparently, today was his day for wildly inappropriate thoughts.

Though I would like it if she did lust after me.

Everything inside him stilled.

Is that true?

Perhaps. He certainly felt far more . . . interest in Lady Havenridge than he had in any woman in London. And not just physical interest—though there was nothing “just” about that these days. Hell, any physical stirring was cause for celebration.

But he was also interested in her thoughts. He wanted to discuss her charity—its daily operations and her plans for the future. And he wanted to learn more about her, what had caused her to found the Home and what kept her so dedicated to the endeavor. It had been in operation for over a decade. She must have been quite young when she’d conceived the idea and put it into practice. That was really quite impressive.

Well, they had a fortnight to become better acquainted.

Much better acquainted.

Careful. There are many, many reasons why anything more than a simple friendship here would be a bad idea.

True. There was no getting around the fact that Lady Havenridge was beholden to him. Besides contributing funds, the dukedom owned the very building she lived in. He had the power to evict her and her entire charity on a whim.

He would never do that, of course, but she had no way of knowing it. And he certainly didn’t want any . . . connection they might develop to be colored by worry on her part that if she put a foot wrong, she’d risk retaliation.

“I should have realized you’d be here, Your Grace,” she was saying. She had a clear, calm voice, though her color was still high. “I suppose I would have, if I’d given it more consideration.”

Well, that was a leveler. Here he’d been looking forward to discussing her charity with her even before he’d met her and discovered he’d like to discuss much more, and she hadn’t wasted a moment’s thought on him.

“I am friends with Darrow.” The words escaped before he could bite them back.

She glanced up at him and then back to his cravat, her color deepening again as she bit her lovely lower lip—

Stop that!

He looked over at Thomas. The boy had got bored with their talk and was romping nearby with Bear.

“Well, yes. Of course,” she said. “I know that. I should, um, confess that I, er, hadn’t actually planned to come. My decision was rather, ah, last minute.”

His solicitor instincts alerted. She was hiding something. What?

He would find out eventually. He’d had years of experience ferreting out matters people preferred to keep to themselves. Often just holding one’s tongue and waiting did the trick. There was something about silence that prompted people—especially people with secrets—to talk.

Her cheeks were still flushed, but now she met his gaze. “I suppose if I had given the matter any thought—”

She really did know how to take a man’s vanity down several notches.

“—I’d have concluded that you would come later.”

Which is exactly what he’d intended to do.

“I knew you were busy looking for—” She stopped, cleared her throat. “I mean I knew you were busy in London. You’re a duke, after all. You have . . . business.”

Hmm. It sounded as if she’d been reading the gossip columns. The bloody things breathlessly recounted every time he even looked at a female.

“But I didn’t expect—well, I’ll admit the thought never occurred to me—that your son and dog”—she smiled over at where Thomas and Bear were playing—“would be attending as well.” She laughed. “Though I suppose Bear isn’t precisely attending.”

The laugh went straight to his heart and firmed his resolve—and something else which hadn’t been firm in far too long—to get to know her better.

Well, he hoped they already had a friendship based on their months of correspondence. This fortnight together would let them build on that. If he remembered what Darrow had said about the expected guests, he and Lady Havenridge were the only two unattached adults. Odds were good they would be thrown together often.

He would see what, if anything developed.

You are looking for a wife.

Right. And Lady Havenridge has her charity to run.

He wasn’t such a coxcomb that he thought she’d drop everything and jump at the opportunity to become his duchess, but he also wasn’t going to assume she would dismiss the notion out of hand if they found they got along. It wasn’t even as if she’d be giving up her charity. She’d merely be moving to another position, albeit at a distance. She—they—could certainly visit to see how things went on—

Don’t get ahead of yourself.

“Yes, well, I’m afraid Bear wasn’t invited, but I assumed Darrow wouldn’t mind.” He was happy he managed to keep his voice even.

Talk of Bear and invitations had got Thomas’s attention. The boy frowned and came over.

“Did you ask Lord Darrow about Bear, Papa? Does he mind?”

Edward smiled and put a steadying hand on his son’s shoulder. “I didn’t see the earl, Thomas. He was out riding. But I doubt he’ll have any objections. This is a large estate. And, if need be, Bear can sleep in the stables.”

Thomas’s frown deepened.

Blast. The boy was used to having Bear nearby. They’d got the dog when they’d first arrived at Grainger, just after their comfortable life had been changed forever by Edward’s succession to the title. Bear had been little more than a puppy then—a fluffy ball with enormous paws—and he and Thomas had quickly become inseparable.

“Bear is a very well-behaved dog,” Lady Havenridge said, smiling at Thomas. “I will be happy to vouch for his good manners if Lord Darrow needs a character reference.”

Edward felt the tension drain out of Thomas’s shoulder. The boy grinned at Lady Havenridge.

He might be grinning at her, too. She’d said exactly the right thing to calm Thomas’s nerves.

Zounds, I’m more than half in love with the woman already. I—

I need to slow down.

He had to think like a solicitor. Focus on facts. He could not let his half-resurrected cock have any say in matters.

Yet.

He was hopeful that the time might come when he could consult that organ.

Bear was now sniffing Edward’s satchel—which got Thomas’s attention.

“What’s in the bag, Papa?”

“I’m not entirely certain. I asked Lord Darrow’s butler if I might have something for a picnic, and this is what came up from the kitchen. I haven’t had a look inside yet.”

“Oh! Let’s look now!”

Edward laughed and held the bag away from Thomas—and Bear. “Patience.”

Then he smiled at Lady Havenridge. “Thomas and I—and Bear—spent the morning cooped up in my traveling carriage, so I thought we’d go exploring and find a nice spot for our picnic. We’d be delighted if you’d care to join us.” He hefted the satchel. “It feels like there’s enough here to feed an army.”

Thomas became his enthusiastic, if unwitting, coconspirator. “Yes, do come, Miss Jo!” He gave a little hop and then stopped, worry creasing his brow. “I mean, Lady Ha-Havenridge.”

The woman laughed again.

Edward could get addicted to that sound.

“I’d be delighted to join you, but please, call me Miss Jo, Thomas. I’m sure that’s what Harriet, Pen’s—I mean Lady Darrow’s—daughter will do. She’s called me Miss Jo since she learned to talk.”

Thomas grinned again, making Edward’s heart cramp. Zeus, how he wished he could keep him safe from all life’s disappointments and sorrows.

An impossible task, of course, especially as Thomas had already suffered the great sorrow of losing his mother. Not that Thomas missed her—missed Helen. He’d never known her.

Which was tragic in and of itself.

“And if you were to call me Lady Havenridge, I would have to call you by your title.”

Thomas pulled a face. “I just want to be Thomas.”

“Very well. Then I must be Miss Jo.”

Thomas grinned. “Yes, Miss Jo!” And then he looked at Edward. “Where are we going to picnic, Papa?”

Edward gestured to the line of trees at the edge of the lawn. “The butler said there’s a path through the woods that will take us to a nice spot by a stream. There’s even a bench there to sit on while we eat. Does that sound good?”

“Yes! May Bear and I go look for the path?”

Edward nodded. “But stop when you find it. I don’t want you going into the woods and getting too far ahead of us.”

“Yes, Papa. We will, Papa. Come on, Bear!”

And then Thomas took off, Bear at his heels—or sometimes ahead.

Ah, to be a boy again, with no worries.

If only that were truly the case. Thomas seemed to have worries aplenty.

He turned to Lady Havenridge and offered her his arm. “Shall we follow, but at a more sedate pace?”

She laughed up at him. “Yes, but not at a sedate pace. We don’t want to keep Thomas waiting—that would be torture.”

Zeus, she understands the boy so well already.

Then she ignored his arm and started off across the lawn.

He watched her for a moment, admiring how straight her back was, how determined and confident her stride. Clearly, she was used to charting her own course.

But traveling life by yourself could be lonely. There was joy in sharing the ups and downs of the journey with someone else.

Would Lady Havenridge agree? More to the point, would she be willing to adjust her path to run alongside his and Thomas’s?

Did he want her to?

He had a fortnight to discover the answers to those questions.

Copyright © 2021 by Sally MacKenzie

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What Ales the EarlThe Merry ViscountCheers to the Duke

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“. . . fast-paced . . . [The] romance is sensuous and enhanced by witty dialogue. Readers will appreciate the strong heroine and affable hero.”

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