Distinguished Rogues Series, book 11
The Duke of Exeter may have failed to marry, but he’s determined to find a bride for the cousin who will unwillingly inherit Sinclair’s title and his overwhelming responsibilities when he dies. With a pinch of artful planning, a hint of competition, and a healthy dose of romance, he’s sure that he’ll get his heir wed in no time at all. What he never expected was that his disagreement with an old friend would herald the return of the lady he lost long ago—and that her return to society could upset his budding matchmaking scheme.
Lady Catherine Forbes, Kitty to dear friends, is astonished that her brother’s disagreement with the powerful duke has gone so far and has had no choice but to return to London to take her stubborn family in hand. Meeting the duke again was no doubt inevitable, but being drawn to him so strongly is something that takes her by complete surprise. They were never meant to be, but old habits are hard to break. Are they too set in their ways to risk their hearts or will the needs of others separate them a second time?
Publish Date: October 29, 2019
Digital ISBN: 978-1-925239-58-4
Genre: Regency Historical Romance
Distinguished Rogues Series
1. Chills – Jack and Constance
2. Broken – Giles and Lillian
3. Charity – Oscar and Agatha
4. An Accidental Affair – Merrick and Arabella
5. Keepsake – Kit and Miranda
6. An Improper Proposal – Martin and Iris
7. Reason to Wed – Richard and Esme
8. The Trouble with Love – Everett and Whitney
9. Married by Moonlight – Gilbert and Anna
10. Lord of Sin – Julian and Portia
11. The Duke’s Heart – Sinclair and Kitty
12. Romancing the Earl – Price and Lenore
13. One Enchanted Christmas – Otis and Margaret
14. Desire by Design – Alexander and Sylvia
Grosvenor Square, London
“Livery again, Teddy?” Sinclair grumbled, glancing sourly at his heir’s current attire with unchecked frustration as the young man entered his study carrying a dusting cloth and a happy smile. “You do know I can afford to furnish you with a proper wardrobe.”
“I do not want anyone to give me a second glance,” Thaddeus Godfrey Berringer, Sinclair’s distant cousin, argued, pulling down a large book from a high shelf. “Dressing like this will keep my identity a secret, and it has. No one looks twice at your servants. They are too blinded by the distinguished Duke of Exeter’s handsome face.”
Teddy grinned impishly as he swiped the cloth over the binding, but Sinclair ground his teeth. They had been having this same argument for the last few months and getting nowhere. He was heartily sick of the deception. He sized up the young man, looking for new ways to argue his point and win. “I would rather they turn their attention to you instead. After all, you will need a wife soon.”
“You need one more. If you could just choose, I would not be needed.”
“Do not start that again, sir,” Sinclair grumbled.
Marriage was not something that Sinclair seemed fated to enter into, and quite frankly he’d given up on love too.
He studied Teddy as he continued to pull book after book from the shelf, dust it and put it back. The future rested in Thaddeus Berringer’s very capable hands. One day, the young man would share Sinclair’s faith in him.
But not until he stopped thinking himself unworthy of the title and all the responsibility that came with the vast inheritance.
The resemblance between them was only very slight and no one suspected Teddy was anything but the handsome servant he appeared to be. Teddy was four and twenty years, quite a bit younger than Sinclair. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, where Sinclair was fair with blue eyes. Muscular when Sinclair was more lanky and sleek. Teddy’s current appearance might suggest to others that he was quite ordinary, but the mind beneath the façade was another matter entirely.
When no one was looking, Teddy did not only dust the books. He read them cover to cover, and sometimes twice through. Teddy soaked up information like a sponge and argued, out loud occasionally, with every single book or document Sinclair had handed to him. He had a fine intellect that would take him far in life if only he believed in himself. Dressing as a servant was an unnecessary disguise, given his prospects were extraordinary, but Sinclair could not seem to talk him out of it yet.
Teddy was the only Berrington left to inherit the title of Duke of Exeter when Sinclair died, but Sinclair was forbidden to speak of it to others. It constantly surprised him no one guessed since Teddy was always at his side lately.
Sinclair had never imagined Teddy so retiring, or so stubborn when he’d fetched him from obscurity to learn at his side. He’d thought the young man would tire quickly of the ruse too. Teddy’s father, Godfrey Berringer, had been loud and quite full of his own importance. Sinclair had never really liked the man. Godfrey, his second cousin, had promised everyone he’d inherit Sinclair’s estate, right up till the day he died.
Teddy, almost an exact opposite, was unwilling to tell anyone he was Sinclair’s heir or would inherit a fortune in land and funds. Everyone assumed the title would become extinct when Sinclair passed away.
The only way Sinclair had got Teddy to London was to promise to keep his identity to himself. The restriction chaffed, but he kept his word at all costs for fear that Teddy would run away and do a better job of hiding next time. That overdue revelation of Teddy’s identity would halt a lot of gossip about the duchy’s seemingly uncertain future.
Not that Sinclair was dying, or about to. He felt fit as a fiddle but very vexed right now.
“Lord Wade has arrived, your grace,” the butler announced after a knock on the door.
“Good, send him in.”
Teddy raced to put the book he had started flipping through back on the shelf. “If there is nothing further, your grace, I’ll come back later.”
Teddy would prefer to be dismissed. Sinclair had other ideas today. “You will stay.”
Although he looked unhappy to be detained, Teddy moved to the side of the room and stood at attention.
Sinclair stood to greet Lord Wade and shook his hand across the desk. “Thank you for coming.”
“I am always happy to be of service, but I do not have good news today,” Wade warned. “My inquiries have yielded no positive recommendations, unfortunately.”
“I trust you were discreet?”
“I was so hoping you would see something in one of them,” Sinclair murmured. “Not so long ago, I thought I might have found someone myself. However, it turned out otherwise. Quite awkwardly for me.”
“I have not heard a word of that, your grace,” Lord Wade replied without meeting his gaze. The viscount likely did know about Sinclair’s attempt to win the heart of a woman half his age last year. Sinclair liked that Wade pretended ignorance on the subject. He also liked that half society’s secrets fell into Wade’s hand and he never admitted to knowing them. Lord Wade had not required taxing explanations to begin this task, either, but he did not know the bride he sought was not intended for Sinclair. Telling him the truth would have meant breaking a promise to someone more important than the viscount.
“I am determined not to face a similar situation again,” Sinclair announced. “That was why I came to you for a second opinion of the ladies we are both acquainted with.”
“I see.” The viscount cast a glance at Teddy, his expression growing puzzled as he took a much-folded paper from his coat pocket.
Sinclair reached for the document and locked it away in his desk drawer promptly. “What I wanted was not for you to find me a bride from that list but to confirm my own conclusions.”
The viscount studied his hands. “And because I dismissed all of the names you gave me as unsuitable for one reason or another…”
“I am back to square one, as it were.” Sinclair shook his head in disappointment. He had suspected he had become too particular in his old age. Not that Sinclair felt old, or even looked his age, apparently. He’d be another year older soon, and the years were beginning to bear down on his spirits. He had never been a father, though he’d helped raise his twin sister’s children after her death. Those children had children of their own now. He was not quite a grandparent, though he sometimes felt he must seem that way to members of the family.
It was all so terribly uncomfortable for him to have failed at the one duty expected of him. Now he must make inquiries on someone else’s behalf.
He smiled quickly. “Thank you very much for your time and effort, Lord Wade. I should not like to keep you from your bride any longer.”
Lord Wade had recently married, and very well for himself, too. He knew a thing or two about matrimony and the trials of courtship. However, the fellow shrugged and appeared in no rush to stand up. “I did not mind the time apart from her.”
Sinclair looked at the man in astonishment. Lord Wade had married an heiress, and on the surface, it seemed they had little in common. If one looked at all marriages in that fashion, though, one would be an idiot. Wade had been devoted to his bride, even when she seemed destined to marry someone else. “Has the allure of marriage already soured for you?”
“Hardly. However, the allure of the house has.” Wade chuckled. “We have grossly underestimated the effort required to clear space to live in. The dust is appalling. I have had to purchase two dozen new handkerchiefs to tie around our faces so we do not sneeze all day.”
“Hire more servants,” Sinclair told him, losing interest in the subject. Sinclair employed more than a thousand staff across his all properties to keep them in good order. He did not need to know the particulars about how the work was done to clear away dust. Wade was a rich man now. He must learn to act like one again.
He shook hands with Lord Wade, ready to show him to the door personally just to get rid of him. Lord Wade had done him a great favor in assessing those women discreetly. None of the women known to him would make an acceptable duchess for Teddy. He’d misjudged none of them. He’d have to seek a bride for his heir elsewhere.
Halfway to the door, he heard the sound of breaking glass behind him and ducked for cover. “Again?” he complained to no one in particular.
Lord Wade, who had taken shelter too behind a chair, had his arms raised to cover his head. “What the devil was that?”
“Stay there,” Sinclair warned. “Or better still, leave now, quickly.”
Teddy rushed across the room, headed for the broken window. He threw the drapes across both windows and turned around. “Is anyone hurt?”
“The window is,” Wade remarked as he regained his feet and looked around the now dark chamber warily. “I am undamaged.”
Broken glass crunched underfoot as Teddy crossed the room toward Sinclair. He thrust out his hand and helped Sinclair to stand again. “Your grace, you really must to do something about him.”
“I know. I know.”
Lord Wade drew near. “What is going on?”
“Nothing to worry about. Ask a servant to show you out the back way today.” He shooed Wade off with his hands as he moved to the unbroken window and parted the drapes a little. He could only see a tiny slip of the street outside, but he could hear enough noise from below and a familiar voice, too, that yelled “ready” at the top of his lungs.
Sinclair recoiled and pressed his back to the wall. “No, we’re not!” he shouted back.
“Hold them steady now,” the voice called out.
Sinclair swore under his breath and covered his face. “This is beyond the pale.”
“You said that last time,” Teddy complained as he sought safety himself. “I assumed you had dealt with him.”
“I would if I could catch him and that blasted contraption,” Sinclair grumbled.
“Have someone follow him today.”
A throat cleared, and Sinclair looked behind him. Lord Wade had not departed as ordered. He was standing directly in the middle of the room, and that was not a safe place for anyone to be. “For God’s sake, man, get out of the line of fire.”
Lord Wade ducked and moved to stand beside Sinclair very quickly. “Will you please tell me what is going on?”
“Just a little skirmish.” He looked sharply at the viscount and scowled. “Nothing to be spoken of to anyone, do you hear. Now, stay very still,” he warned. “Do not lean forward, no matter what happens next.”
“There he is,” Teddy warned as he peeked through his drape-covered window.
“Pull your damn head back, boy,” Sinclair sputtered, because he knew from past experience what was coming.
The next moment, hard objects crashed against the windowpanes, shattering most of the glass, he assumed. The bombardment continued, causing the drapes to flutter into the room from the force.
“My God!” Lord Wade exclaimed.
Sinclair inhaled carefully, discovering no fumes or noxious odors lingering today. Last time, the bombardment had included eggs, and they had not been fresh.
Although it seemed to be over, Sinclair put his hand out to hold the viscount back against the wall the moment he tried to move. “Wait.”
Even as he spoke, another bombardment began, and more eggs arced elegantly through a gap in the drapes, only to bounce across the floor and out to the hall.
Sinclair eased close to the window and carefully peeked out.
Another volley launched from the carriage held stationary outside his home.
He quickly hid again. Raw eggs this time, and they shattered, spreading their runny contents everywhere on his desk. “Damn him! His aim is getting better.”
“More persistent and quicker, too,” Teddy noted. “His carriage is already moving away, your grace,” Teddy promised. “It is over. Shall I have him followed?”
“Yes, very well.” Sinclair looked at the mess around him with distaste as Teddy rushed out of the room, shouting for a servant to attend him. “This is becoming an inconvenience.”
Wade picked his way carefully toward the doorway. “Who was that?”
“A friend.” Sinclair scratched his jaw. “We have not actually talked in two decades but still…”
“I shudder to think what you would allow a real enemy of yours to do.”
“Percy Hunter should be locked up in Bedlam,” Teddy grumbled as he returned, repeating a sentiment he’d shared many times since his arrival in London. He came closer, eyeing Sinclair from head to foot. Sinclair was unharmed and unsullied, but Teddy relaxed only a little. “He could have killed you. I think it unwise to go out tonight.”
“He is not going to attack me at Vauxhall. I will be perfectly safe in the crowd there. If it makes you happy, I will go in disguise. I promised Lady Gladstone I would be there, and you know how I loathe disappointing her.”
“Yes, your grace,” Teddy muttered, conceding with obvious reluctance.
Sinclair turned. Lord Wade was studying Teddy very carefully, and Teddy backed away a few steps. Although one brow had risen high, Wade finally shrugged and turned his attention back toward Sinclair. “Why have you not had this fellow arrested?”
Sinclair shook his head. “One does not arrest an old friend, no matter how shoddily he behaves.”
Lord Wade chuckled softly. “May I ask, what did you do to him to warrant something like that?”
“No you may not.” Sinclair could not answer that question. He didn’t know what he’d done besides being too busy with the business of being a duke to keep in touch with his childhood friend, who wasn’t supposed to even be in London.
He stepped aside as servants swarmed into the room to begin cleaning up. It was done in short order, the windows boarded up and candles lit, even though it was only midday.
He sat behind the desk finally and sighed. “Teddy, please show the viscount to his carriage.”
“Yes, your grace.”
“Oh, and Teddy. When you have Mr. Hunter’s address in hand, you will tell me before you make any move against him. I prefer to deal with him myself.”
His heir made a grumbling sound of dissent but nodded his agreement. Lord Wade departed, clearly reluctant, leaving Sinclair alone to ponder his old friend’s recent behavior.
What had he done to incite such attacks? Nothing. Nothing to account for the recent spate of animosity and damage to his home. Hunter had been taunting him on and off for months now, but hurling eggs at his house was a most recent and unpleasant course of action. Hunter was going to force his hand soon to either have him arrested or committed to Bedlam.
Sinclair would prefer to do neither.
But before he took action toward either outcome, Sinclair would have to pay a visit to Percy Hunter wherever he might be. His childhood friend had to stop this foolishness before someone—hopefully not his only heir—was hurt, or even killed.
Lady Catherine Forbes swept out of the Long’s Hotel and Coffee House on New Bond Street to meet her rented carriage, which she’d ordered to be there at this hour. Kitty had been in the city barely half a day, but she had no time to catch her breath. There was too much to be done if she was to save the family from scandal.
The coachman bowed when he saw her approach with the hotel’s proprietor at her elbow. “Where to, my lady?”
She wet her lips and reminded herself to sound like an Englishwoman before she spoke. She had discovered in her recent travels that her accent, acquired during her marriage, caused too many people to deliberately misunderstand her, even asked her to repeat her words, for the sake of their own amusement. “Lady Wilhelmina Darrow’s home. You will wait at Upper Brook Street for a response, and then follow this list and present my card to each home.”
The sun was setting on the day, but it was essential to inform Lady Darrow, Willa, of Kitty’s arrival in Town before she ventured out into society that night. Kitty would hate Willa to learn the news from someone else. Willa was a woman she trusted, someone she might apply to for help or at least support as Kitty had committed her brother Percy to Bedlam.
Percy Hunter had become reckless, and like most men who went mad, thought nothing of his responsibilities to his only child. Kitty wanted to help young Felicity, his daughter, through the troubled days ahead.
The trip from the hotel to Lady Darrow’s home was a short one, and the hotel groom presented her card to Lady Darrow’s butler promptly and hovered at the blue-painted door to await an answer.
A few minutes passed, and Kitty tapped her foot nervously. She was not looking forward to the next few days trying to resettle her brother far away from prying eyes and tattling tongues. She glanced at the house again, concluding her friend was either out or had no wish to see her.
She sighed and then removed the damming letter she carried in her reticule. She knew the contents by heart, although she hardly dared believe her brother had committed such lies to paper. She would not blame anyone for turning their back on her or her brother now after what had been said here.
Her brother had somehow lost all reason in the last year.
When the groom finally turned from the blue door, Kitty sighed and settled her hands in her lap. She had many calls still to make, and then tomorrow she’d venture to see the family banker to determine what funds she could access immediately. She must also find a physician who might confirm the diagnosis of insanity, and then discuss with the family solicitor how to begin proceedings to make her niece her sole responsibility. If that could not be done, she would have to negotiate with whomever Percy had named as Felicity’s guardian.
She hoped it would not come to that and that they could be reasoned with.
Her carriage door was suddenly wrenched open.
Lady Darrow, cap askew, hair bursting from it at all angles, climbed into the carriage and threw her arms about Kitty. “You finally came!” she cried.
“Willa, you are hurting me,” she complained, even while holding the other woman just as tight. “It is so good to see you. I was not sure you would see me.”
Willa drew back. She seemed about to cry. Did Willa know already about her brother’s dreadful accusations? Despite the threat of tears, Willa was smiling, too. “I cannot believe it’s really you, here at last.”
“Yes, I am finally in London,” she agreed and looked at her friend critically. “Are you ill? You appear to have tumbled directly out of bed.”
“I’m not ill at all,” Willa promised, and then caught Kitty’s hand. “Oh, do come inside with me now.”
Kitty nodded—anything to get Willa back inside and before a mirror before her neighbors started to whisper.
“Quickly,” Willa urged with a huge grin, gathering up her gown on both sides for the dash back to the privacy of the indoors.
Kitty winced at how much leg she revealed. “Off you go first.”
Willa darted out of the carriage and up the stairs—hair and robe flapping behind her. It would have been quite comical if it was not bound to end in gossip of the disapproving sort. They were much too old to behave like silly girls, but then again, they’d been friends a long time. And it had been a very long time since they’d both been in the same city.
Willa lingered just behind the door, peeking out until Kitty joined her at a more dignified pace. Once in the hall, Willa hugged her fiercely again. “I cannot believe you have come.”
Kitty heard a noise above their heads and looked at Willa sharply. Willa had no family to be making noise, and her clothes had been in disarray so… “Are you alone?”
Willa waggled her eyebrows. “I am sure you can guess the answer to that.”
She likely was not. Willa had kept the same long-term lover and protector for twenty years. Her beau practically lived in Willa’s tiny townhouse, even if he was a duke, married and with a great fortune to his name. Kitty knew all about Lord Baxter, and Willa’s situation as the other woman. Willa could never be with her duke until his current duchess died. However, the Duchess of Baxter was said to be in excellent health.
“I can come back later.”
“Nonsense,” she protested. Willa apparently did not stand on ceremony in her own house these days, and they swept upstairs and into the boudoir. As Kitty entered, a door across the room was slowly falling closed behind a gentleman, one not fully dressed, either. He shut the door with a snap and they were alone. Willa pulled her across the room and into a chair. “How long are you staying?”
“As long as needed. I came to see Percy.”
“Oh, that man. What has he done now?” Willa demanded.
Kitty glanced toward the recently closed door. “Perhaps I should not say.”
“Percy Hunter absolutely should not be the reason that you have finally returned to this decadent city.” Willa stood and crossed the room. She slipped into the adjoining chamber, following her lover, and after a few rushed words, she returned smiling. “He will go, but he wanted to say he’d like to meet you another time.”
“I would like to meet him, too,” Kitty promised. But no doubt after she’d dealt with her brother, the Duke of Baxter would change his mind very smartly and, like everyone else should, deny knowing her at all. Willa might, too, even if she needed her friend’s guidance and support quite desperately now.
A series of doors closed loudly through the house, and then silence fell. “There, he is gone. Now what has happened?”
“I have become very worried about him,” she said, and then explained in a whisper what Percy had put in his most recent letter. Willa was her best friend. She knew everything about her life, what she’d done, and with whom…and what Kitty had done to protect the family’s reputation years ago.
Percy was throwing her sacrifice away without even knowing it.
Willa spluttered. “Well, of course, Exeter could not have done harm to his own sister! It would have been like cutting off his right hand. We all knew how close that pair were.” Willa’s smile grew devious. “Have you seen him yet? Exeter?”
“No, of course not.”
“Why ever not? You should. You are a widow, and he hasn’t married.”
Kitty hardened her heart to show disinterest in her former lover. “There are lots of good reasons not to see him. It would be best the Duke of Exeter never learns why I have come back. I can only hope he knows nothing of Percy’s accusations.”
Willa shook her head. “You were meant to be together.”
“We were not,” Kitty assured her, dismissing the topic.
Willa’s eyebrow arched. “Come now. He has never married. Never looked at anyone the way he did you.”
Kitty shivered. “I was fine as a secret mistress, but anything more was always out of the question. I could never belong in his world. Susanna taught me that painful lesson.”
“As I have said many times, you should have demanded he marry you after the first year. You let Susanna’s prejudices put doubts in your head about him and yourself.”
“Willa, please,” Kitty begged. The day Susanna, the Duke of Exeter’s twin, had discovered Kitty’s secret affair with Sinclair was one of the most painful of her life. The affair had been over thirty years ago now and was best forgotten. Willa could not seem to. “Do not spoil my visit by bringing up a past that cannot be changed.”
“It was a cruel thing that Susanna did to make you feel unworthy of him. She made everyone feel unworthy of winning her brother’s affections, too, one way or another.” Willa smiled suddenly. “Where are you staying? I hope not with Percy.”
“Long’s Hotel on New Bond Street.”
“But that is not acceptable,” Willa declared, looking horrified. “You will stay here with me, and we will properly catch up.”
Kitty glanced toward the door behind them. The one Willa’s lover had disappeared through. “What about your friend? Won’t he want to come back?”
“Oh, he’ll understand. I have told him all about my wild friend from the north.”
“Not so wild these days,” Kitty protested. Marriage into a well-respected family had driven what remained of her adventurous streak into submission. “I would love to stay with you, though. You could help me feel better about what I must do regarding Percy.”
Kitty nodded and explained her decision and the likely course of action she must take. Willa’s eyes were wide with shock when she finished.
“Surely it is not so bad that you must take such drastic action and have him committed,” Willa whispered in horror.
“If I do nothing, and he harms Exeter, it could be worse for him and Felicity too. He could hang.”
Willa gulped. “I will help in any way I can. What do you need from me?”
“Just this,” Kitty promised as her eyes stung with the threat of tears.
They embraced, and it was lovely, just what she needed. Kitty had not liked to presume upon her friend, but welcomed the opportunity to spend precious time with Willa. A letter had never been enough, and she now knew how dangerous it could be to commit any suspicion to paper.
Every day of her journey from her distant home, she’d fretted she’d arrive too late to avert the scandal. If Willa had heard nothing yet, there was a good chance she’d arrived in time to prevent any confrontation between her brother and the duke. She dabbed at her eyes quickly when Willa drew back.
“Make yourself at home.” Willa rang the bell and sent her servants off with instructions to fetch Kitty’s possessions and servants from Long’s Hotel.
Kitty sighed and kicked her slippers off her feet. She tucked her feet under her as Willa returned and took on the same pose. “I take it nothing has changed for you here since your last letter?”
“Nothing. I still wait for the day my Lionel and I can be together.”
“That was him I chased from your boudoir, was not it?”
Willa nodded. “The duchess is hosting a party today, and he was leaving early anyway to talk to his son. Apparently, she is anxious for the boy to be there for a change.”
Kitty sighed. “The boy, as you call him, is a man now.”
“And does he not strut about like one,” Willa complained. “I find myself on the unexpected side of the duchess for a change. He is bound for ruin the way he carries on in society. Lionel feels otherwise.”
“A complicated situation for everyone,” Kitty murmured.
Willa called for her maid. “I was just about to get ready for a night out with friends. Lady Gladstone has asked for everyone to meet one last time tonight at Vauxhall Gardens. I think you should join me.”
“I appreciate the thought, but I am not up to facing anyone who might recognize me tonight.”
“It is a masked affair, and I have just the thing for you to wear. No one will recognize you if you do not want them to.”
Kitty nodded slowly. A masked affair was the only sort of amusement she could contemplate attending on this visit. Perhaps there, she might hear any whispers about the Duke of Exeter, too.
“Exeter could be there,” Willa announced. “He has an acquaintance with Lady Gladstone. I am sure he would attend her party.”
Kitty tried not to show how the news affected her. “At least I could discover for myself if he is all right without him knowing about it.”
Willa winked. “I think you might be surprised at how happy he’d be if he knew you were back.”
“I am not back. Only visiting.”
“Can you not have even a little fun before you have Percy committed? If the situation is as grievous as you fear, tonight might be your last chance.”
“True.” The yearning to find out discreetly if the duke was unharmed prodded her to accept. “I suppose there can be no harm if he doesn’t see me.”
“Exactly. If you stop pretending to be an Englishwoman, and speak with your own voice tonight, you could even talk to him yourself. He might never know.” Willa waggled her eyebrows. “Now come and take a bath to wash away the dust of your journey.”
A bath would not wash away the fear though, but she would give it a try and hope some good might still come of this trip.
Sinclair settled his mask in place and surveyed the lamp-lit entrance to Vauxhall Garden. He was not really sure why he had come out tonight to Lady Gladstone’s gathering, but he could not convince himself to turn around and go home. In disguise, no one would recognize him, really. He could say he’d come and not been noticed. However, Lady Gladstone was a friend and would expect him to speak to her. If he did not make himself known at least to her, he’d risk giving offense.
Teddy looked around, his expression sour, still pretending that he was only a servant of Sinclair’s and not a member of the family. They had traveled in silence from Mayfair because they had argued about coming. Teddy did not want to be here any more than Sinclair did, but for very different reasons. Sinclair had begun to hate watching friends pair off at the end of these sorts of evenings, slipping away to kiss and more, while he went home alone afterward.
Sinclair looked around again. Like many gentlemen of means here, he’d brought his own flask to drink from. Sinclair brought it to his lips now and surveyed the entrance to the pleasure gardens. “Shall we?”
“If we must,” Teddy grumbled. “I do not like this.”
“Then go home without me,” he suggested.
They set off to enjoy the sights and sounds of the great city at play, pausing to speak with Lady Gladstone before leaving the party behind. The grounds were quite extensive, and they entered another world one quite different from Sinclair’s usual existence.
Fine ladies and poor urchins mingled carelessly together. They soon became swept along by the press of bodies, but he was not concerned for his safety. Teddy would be always around if there were any trouble. Besides, Sinclair had nothing worth stealing in his pockets—the little money he carried was inside his glove or tied about his waist under his shirt. He knew this place well enough to be wary of casual collisions between revelers, too. His pockets had probably already been searched by a light-fingered urchin.
Sinclair was not interested in urchins. He found himself looking at every woman he passed and realized he wanted the pleasure of company tonight. Someone adventurous but forgettable would do. There seemed plenty to choose from. Young, and not so young, fluttered fans and lashes when he met their gazes. It was easy to tell at a glance who might be here for the chore of earning a coin from a wealthy patron tonight from those only out for the spectacle, like him. When he recognized anyone from the ton, he changed course to avoid them.
While he was here, too, he thought he might be able to decide the type of woman Teddy was drawn to as well.
He mingled, casting furtive glances at Teddy whenever a woman drew close. But saw little sign of interest in any one type of woman. He had not really thought it was going to be that easy anyway to find a wife for Teddy, but he’d hoped to know where to start looking first.
A thin girl with long blonde ringlets bobbing around her face broke away from a gaggle of gaily-dressed women and rushed up to them, trying to press a kiss to Sinclair’s cheek. “Hello, handsome.”
Sinclair caught up her hands quickly and pressed a kiss above her dirty knuckles. The girl was pretty, with wide, innocent green eyes, but she could not be more than fourteen years old. She posed with an assessing light in her eyes, and despite her apparent youth, it was clear she was not new to the games women used to lure men into a dalliance.
Sinclair did not, could not, consider someone that young for Teddy. She would make them both feel ancient just looking at her. “My lady.”
She fluttered her eyelashes. “Ain’t you a flatterer? I am Alice. Do you want me, sir?”
“No, child.” He shook his head firmly. Alice should have been tucked up in her own bed. Alone, with no idea what went on in the pleasure gardens’ dark corners. Anything but offering her body to a complete stranger for the coin.
He handed the girl to Teddy, as he often did when faced with an awkward situation. He was surreptitiously testing his heir’s character, too, curious to see how the young man would handle awkward encounters. “All yours, my friend. See what you can do with her.”
Alice scowled. “Here, what? Ain’t I good enough?”
“Too good for the likes of him,” Teddy answered quickly to soothe her wounded pride. Teddy linked Alice’s arm through his. When he began to whisper in her ear, Sinclair suspected it would be of opportunities for honest work rather than any seduction. Teddy had done that before with good results. However, if Alice did not like the idea of finding a better form of employment or further schooling, Teddy would probably pay her handsomely and send her on her way.
He was a good man. Uncorrupted still.
Bored now, Sinclair resumed his scrutiny of the light-skirts ahead of him, looking for someone older and pretty to tempt Teddy. A flamboyantly dressed courtesan he’d a nodding acquaintance with was surrounded by a dozen fellows vying to entertain her, and beyond that, a pair of poorer-dressed light-skirts were scowling at the well-dressed courtesan—clearly envious she had so many admirers.
Teddy stepped up to his side. “I am afraid to say she refused.”
Sinclair looked at Teddy in surprise. “You have lost your touch.”
“She is clever.” He shrugged. “She knows she’ll make more lifting her skirts for a year than in a lifetime being a governess.”
“True, but,” Sinclair shook his head, “she would have lived a better life.”
Teddy shrugged. “There are no guarantees.”
It was impossible to force anyone to live a respectable life. There was not a thing he could do about Alice. Teddy had done his best. He’d tried.
It was also impossible to force Teddy to behave appropriately, either, no matter how he argued. His heir insisted on anonymity, or he had threatened to disappear again. Sinclair had lost track of the young man once already, and he could not afford to do so again. He would keep him close and—
Sinclair’s attention caught on a woman ahead, and he could not find his breath again.
The woman drew closer, her body enticingly rounded, her throat bejeweled in a stunning creation of jet stones. They glimmered slightly whenever she drew nearer to torchlight, and he could not look away. Her skin was pale, what little of it he could see. He could also not see her hair because of her mask and hood draped close about her shoulders and head. Her body was swathed in a gown of deep red that shimmered in the torchlight and accentuated her womanly proportions.
She was not a light-skirt, or a high-paid courtesan, either, he’d wager.
She was a lady.
One he intuitively recognized but could not place or name.
That was so rare he was moving toward her before he had even decided to meet her.
She was with a gentleman, clearly a servant of some sort by the way he deferred to her and scowled at anyone who got too close. On closer inspection, he discovered she was not young and not very tall. She studied those around her with open curiosity and more than a little amusement. A smile tugged at her lips when a pair of well-dressed fops prowled past her, arm in arm. She caught their eye, and the pair descended on her. It only took a few minutes of conversation for her fan to appear, and with two sharp snaps of it across their outstretched hands, the pair beat a hasty retreat, laughing as if they’d just been scolded by their mother.
Sinclair found that amusing, since he knew the pair in question quite well. Lords Stephens and Stockwick were a pair of larrikins, and they would no doubt tell a far different version of that meeting tomorrow if he cared to listen.
However, the lady intrigued him even more now. It took a courageous woman to beat back two of the most popular gentlemen in the ton with only a delicate fan in her arsenal. She wielded it well—as if she had done so many times before. Did she not fear the repercussions of being identified? What the devil was the world coming to when a lady of such unmistakable quality attended Vauxhall Garden almost alone?
He simply had to find out who she was. Perhaps Teddy would be interested in her, too.
Her servant purchased champagne from a wine merchant and handed it to her. She sipped slowly as she moved along toward the dark walk. All gentlemen gave way to her, and many bowed deeply. Her regal nod was bestowed on one and all without hesitation, and Sinclair was doubly fascinated. She stopped at the fire jugglers to watch them toss flaming batons high in the air before moving on to listen to a woman singing of long-lost love on the steps of the rotunda.
She turned, and her eyes were suddenly upon him.
Sinclair could not move as one delicate brow rose above her mask, but then her gaze moved on.
Sinclair was bereft to lose her attention. He followed after her, determined to make her notice him again. Sinclair lost sight of her, and panic unlike he’d ever felt before struck him. He looked around wildly, turning about in circles to see where she’d gone.
He was afraid he’d lost her, which made no sense.
The crowd thinned suddenly, and he found she was standing before him.
“I’m starting to think you’re following me.”
He smiled at the Irish accent that rolled off her tongue like music. He also noted that Teddy was quickly backing away to give him privacy for conversation. And he wanted that privacy more than ever before. The soft lilt of her voice marked the woman as a foreigner, and the sound sent an astonishing thrill through his whole being. An Irish woman, if he was not mistaken. He still did not recognize her, and there were so few Irish peers that he was intrigued not to. “I was hoping you might spare me a moment of your time.”
The fan rose between them. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Why, indeed.” He raised a brow at the fan but found her preparations to repel him utterly charming. Wholly unnecessary, too. He would say nothing to earn a slap. “I noticed some gentlemen had bothered you earlier, and I wanted to be sure you were not upset by anything the pair might have said to you. We English tend to speak our minds a little too freely in this place.”
She looked around with a delicate shrug of one shoulder. “What would you do now if I was upset?”
Sinclair had never reacted so strongly when he’d heard an Irishwoman speak before. “Were you?”
“No. They were like all the English I have ever known. Bored and only interested in the pursuit of their own pleasure. Same as you, I suspect.”
“They flirted with you,” he decided. “I know the pair, so I can easily imagine how the conversation might have gone.”
“I am sure you do, too,” she said dismissively. “I do not need your protection. Should you not be returning to your friends?”
“I came alone,” he promised, taking a cautious step toward her.
“You came with him.” She pointed with her fan at Teddy. “And with that threatening trio spread out behind you. I am sorry you have needed to take precautions for your safety.”
Sinclair did not look behind him. There were always servants following him about for his protection. However, Teddy was the most zealous and watchful when they went out together. He was quite attached to the notion that Sinclair would live to a ripe old age, probably in the deluded hope he would never have to inherit his vast wealth and responsibilities. But everyone died, and Sinclair was ready for that. Or would be if Teddy would try to be reasonable.
“They’re usually more circumspect,” he promised, wondering how this woman had spotted them so quickly. “I am a prisoner,” he suggested in jest.
She shook her head. “Of a fine, strong gilt cage.”
Sinclair must be losing his touch. She saw through his disguise far too easily. “I am but a poor Englishman merchant looking for some company.”
“If you cannot be serious, I really must go,” she announced with a shake of her head. “I do hope you enjoy your evening.”
“Surely I could not enjoy the evening without you,” he begged, bravely taking up her hand and bringing it to his lips. Risking a slap of her fan would be worth knowing this woman’s name. He bowed over it and looked up slowly before pressing a kiss there. The hand in his trembled. “Stay. I would like to talk to you some more.”
She drew in a slow breath and took possession of her hand again. “It’s not only a bit o’ talk you are after tonight, is it?”
“True, but we could start with a conversation. You have a beautiful voice. I long to hear more of it,” he suggested with a soft laugh, still hopeful of winning her company for the evening, even if it was entirely chaste. Sinclair was quite captivated by her speech and manner. She was no missish lady to be easily swayed by just anyone. He revised his estimate of her age upward a bit. She was closer to his own, he now suspected. He found himself extremely attracted to her, and he thought she was to him, too. She could not stop looking him over. He felt her gaze like rain upon his senses after a long, dry summer.
She would never do for Teddy, but for him…perhaps.
His pulse started to thud as he considered the woman. If he revealed his title, no doubt she might fall into his arms and accept his invitation to stay without too much trouble. He really did not want to mention his title, though. “If you insist on discretion, I have a carriage and a place not far away.”
Her chin lifted. “Are you always like this?”
“So single-minded when it comes to ladies.”
He had not given too much thought to how he seduced anyone before. “I am who I am.”
“An evasive answer, that is.” She crossed her arms, inadvertently lifting her pretty breasts high so he’d notice them more. “Well, who are you tonight?”
“A gentleman, I swear to you,” he promised, as he forced his eyes to remain on hers. “Later, I can be whatever you want me to be. For one night, or perhaps the happy memory of a few.”
The lady unconsciously brandished her fan. “If you ever had honorable intentions, I might consider your suggestion.”
Sinclair was definitely losing his touch. Any other woman would be hanging on his arm by now. “We could wait for an introduction, but then we might miss the opportunity anonymity will afford us. We can be completely honest strangers. I assumed you had been here before.”
“I have not. I assume you are a frequent patron.”
She was not leaving still, and he felt a ray of hope. If he could keep her talking to him, the night might turn out well still. “My first visit was a long time ago. I used to meet someone in a place very similar to this often, but they disappointed me in the end. Imagine that.”
“I do not have to. I was disappointed, too.”
“I am sorry.” Sinclair did not want to talk about former lovers—his or hers. He wanted her to be his next. Tonight. Perhaps he should speak bluntly. “I would give my life to kiss you right now.”
“You are only thirty years late,” she said, and then sighed. “I am sorry. I cannot do this anymore.”
She removed her head covering and her mask and smiled up at him. Silvery blonde hair glinted in the torchlight, and the delicate web of lines around her eyes and mouth creased in amusement. “Hello, Sinclair. It has been a long time. I am glad to see you are in fine form tonight.”
He drew back in shock as he matched the young woman of his memory with this older, mature woman who stood before him. “Kitty?”
She waved her fingers at him. “The one and only,” she said.
She winced. “It is Lady Catherine Forbes now, your grace, not that I ever imagined you might remember anything of me after all this time.”
“I could never forget you,” he whispered. He had not lain eyes on Kitty in over thirty years, but he’d forgotten nothing about her. Her laughing eyes were familiar, and the way she spoke to him was the same, too. But the sound of her voice had changed a lot.
Yet even that alteration changed nothing.
He moved closer, his hand lifting to caress her cheek with his fingertips.
Kitty slapped his hand away with her fan. “Enough of that.”
Chagrined, he shook his head at his own actions. Kitty had been his lover for two exciting years when they’d been younger. Apparently, he still wanted Kitty the way he’d done at seventeen, eighteen, and until the day he’d learned that she’d gone and married another man. He could not make his mouth form words to say how genuinely pleased he was to see her again. He just stared at her, drinking in the surprise and changes the years had brought to her face.
She shrugged. “Well, it’s been lovely, but I really must go. I am relieved to see you are in good spirits and obviously unharmed. You have got a smooth tongue still, when it comes to charming a lady, your grace. Enjoy your amusements, but you must excuse me.”
His sluggish mind finally woke up, and he darted forward. “Wait!”
“I cannot,” she replied.
She hurried off with a burst of speed that belied her age, which was a little shy of his own, he recalled. Most women her age walked only at a sedate pace—waddled, he often thought—but she was nearly running as if he were the devil chasing her. He admired the slight sway of her hips before as she disappeared into the crowd, her man hurrying after until he vanished, too.
“Bloody hell! Come back here, woman,” he shouted, running after her, but she was well and truly gone and likely never heard him. “Kitty!”
He could not believe Kitty was in London again—and that he’d lost her again, too. He dragged his mask from his face, scrubbed a hand across his mouth, and cursed roundly.
Thirty years ago, he had been quietly making preparations to marry Kitty. Not even his twin sister had known about that momentous decision. He’d never imagined meeting her again would feel so unsettling.
A few minutes later, Teddy rejoined him. “Ah, bad luck. I thought you must have found someone for yourself.”
“I had too.” Not just tonight, though. Forever would have been Sinclair’s choice once.