A Gentleman’s Vow

Saints and Sinners, book two

Return to the regency countryside for a summer fling that will melt your heart in the brand-new novel in Heather Boyd’s Saints and Sinners series.

Jaded by the experience of dodging fortune hunters during her first season, Lady Jessica Westfall returns home to the estate she loves expecting peace… until the biggest fortune hunter of all follows her from London. To keep Lord James at bay, Jessica enlists the aid of her neighbor, Gideon. As her lifelong friend, Giddy can be trusted to help thwart James’ pursuit, while also satisfying Jessica’s budding interest in things of an intimate nature…things like the kisses she’d missed out on during her season.

Gideon Whitfield’s quiet bachelorhood is interrupted by the arrival of a marriage-minded widow to the nearby village, with her sights set on him as her savior. But the greater threat to his peace proves to be his dear friend’s daughter, Lady Jessica Westfall. Gideon has always adored Jessica, and had expected the headstrong beauty to marry well in her first season. When she comes to him for help avoiding the unwanted advances of a fortune hunter, and also lessons in love—he may prove utterly incapable of helping her while guarding his own heart in the process.

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Related Books: Saints and Sinners series

Book 1: The Duke and I – Nicolas and Gillian

Book 2: A Gentleman’s Vow – Gideon and Jessica

Book 3: An Earl of Her Own – Adam and Rebecca

Book 4: The Lady Tamed

April 1st, 1819

A reputation for having an easy disposition and no other responsibilities was a curse to be borne at a country gathering. Gideon navigated the stifling alehouse, sweat trickling down his spine as he carried two drinks through the chattering crowd of mourners. Determined not to spill one single drop, which would mean starting over, he concentrated on his errand and ignored the assessing glances thrown his way.

The late Mr. Grieves had been well liked and it seemed everyone in the district had come to mourn together in the village tavern. Everyone, unfortunately, included a few too many widows, or wives with daughters of marriageable age in want of a husband.

Being the sole bachelor in a crowd was an uncomfortable experience at Gideon’s age.

“There you are, madam,” he murmured to Mrs. Hawthorne as he passed over the punch, and then glanced around for young Miss Natalia Hawthorne. He didn’t immediately see her, so he held on to her glass.

Mrs. Hawthorne craned her neck to look beyond him. “What became of my husband, Mr. Whitfield?”

Gideon glanced over his shoulder in surprise. Mr. Hawthorne, carrying two tankards of ale, had vanished. Gideon suppressed a groan. Hawthorne must have slipped outside instead of returning to his wife. “I’m sure he’ll be along any moment.”

Gideon had no choice but to remain in the oppressive heat with Mrs. Hawthorne, at least until Miss Hawthorne returned to take her cup of punch. He studied the crowd again, wondering where the girl had gone to this time. Natalia Hawthorne tended to disappear from her mother’s side with alarming frequency.

Mrs. Hawthorne’s lips pinched tightly together and he averted his eyes. She would, of course, be displeased that her husband had quit the very crowded tavern without seeing to his family’s comfort. Wives were said to be highly combative, not that he’d know from personal experience. He’d never married. But he’d overheard the odd argument, whispered complaints and such, from male acquaintances. They were never allowed a moment’s peace. Still, today, Mr. Hawthorne was very much in the wrong.

He glanced around for the daughter discreetly once more. He should never have made that foolish promise to watch over Natalia Hawthorne.

He leaned closer to Mrs. Hawthorne. “Where has she gone?”

Mrs. Hawthorne patted his arm. “She’s sitting with Mrs. Grieves, right behind you.”

“Ah, good.” He glanced over his shoulder and, sure enough, the girl—or woman, he should say now, because she’d been out for two years—was speaking earnestly to the newly made widow who appeared to be crying yet again.

“You are so kind to worry,” Mrs. Hawthorne said. “It means so much to our family that you concern yourself when you have no obligation to us.”

Gideon was not related to the Hawthornes, but they were friends of his absent friends, and therefore important. He had made an attempt to ensure the Hawthorne ladies would not expire from thirst in this dreadful heat. What more could a bachelor be expected to do?

Nothing. He glanced at the glass of punch in his hand with a wry smile, wishing it were the ale Mr. Hawthorne had taken with him.

“You must long to rejoin the gentlemen outside,” Mrs. Hawthorne murmured, lips lifting in a half smile. The act of smiling, forgetting her husband’s neglect, transformed her face, making her appear a jolly sort of woman. He recalled that she’d once been that way all the time. At least, at the start of her marriage she had been.

“Not at all,” he murmured.

Her smile grew. “My dear Mr. Whitfield, what a terrible liar you are.”

“No. No. I speak nothing but the truth,” he promised. “There is nowhere I’d rather be.”

Mrs. Hawthorne laughed softly. “You, sir, are the very best companion when a woman’s spirits are low. Thank you for keeping me company.”

“Happy to be of service,” he promised.

“Oh, are you still here?” Natalia Hawthorne appeared at his side, hand extending to take the cup of punch intended for her, displeasure turning down her lips. “Thank you.”

He handed over the glass without a word.

Miss Hawthorne stared at him over the rim of her cup, eyes narrowing. “You don’t have to linger today.”

“You might be right.” He grinned. “I am happy to observe that all the scoundrels seem to have avoided the wake.”

“That is nothing to be happy about,” Miss Hawthorne grumbled quietly. “I can’t very well reform a rake if none of them show up to start with.”

He nodded solicitously. Reforming a rake was all Miss Hawthorne ever talked about. “Finding a husband is never easy, I hear.”

“Indeed you are correct,” Mrs. Hawthorne murmured. “The best spouses are often the most difficult to catch.”

“So everyone tells me.” Gideon wasn’t quite sure what sort of character deserved to catch Miss Hawthorne, but thought he’d better have patience to spare. The woman spoke her mind and admired younger gentlemen quite openly.

Why had Lady Jessica Westfall, the daughter of his best friend, the Duke of Stapleton, begged him to help Natalia secure a husband while she was away in London enjoying her first season? Had it been purely to torture him from afar?

Most likely—although she probably didn’t see it that way.

Mrs. Hawthorne craned her neck to look about the room again. “I have not seen Mrs. Napier’s sister yet. I was sure Mrs. Beck would make an appearance.”

Gideon frowned. “Who?”

Mrs. Hawthorne clucked her tongue. “Mrs. Napier’s widowed sister has come to live with her at last. I told you all about it last week when you called. Such a tragedy to lose a husband at such a young age, and she has two sons in need of a father’s steadying influence, too.”

“Oh, yes.” Napier had his hands full, and Gideon did remember some of the discussion, now he thought about the matter, but he hardly knew those involved to feel the same level of concern as Mrs. Hawthorne apparently did. He held out his hand for her empty glass. “So very sad. If you would excuse me?”

“Yes, yes. You go off, but of course we must stay for poor Mrs. Grieves’ sake.”

He accepted Miss Hawthorne’s empty glass too, eagerly making a move toward the refreshment table, and the doorway that led to freedom. Unfortunately, he ran headlong into Mrs. Napier before he achieved his goal.

“Mr. Whitfield!” she exclaimed excitedly.

“Madam.” He nodded politely to the matron, but wasn’t truly interested in beginning a conversation. He glanced toward the door with longing—and his heart skipped a beat at the glimpse of a well-formed figure blocking his path. For a moment, hope bloomed in his chest. Yet the small woman, so pale she almost appeared translucent with the sunlight shining behind her, was indeed a stranger to him.

The village was not so large that new faces were not instantly the center of attention. This woman was ten times more handsome than past newcomers, and her confident smile hinted she knew she was attractive. 

“Mr. Whitfield, may I introduce my sister, Mrs. Alice Beck, formerly of Bath,” Mrs. Napier murmured at his side.

For a moment, he was frustrated his escape was yet again delayed, but then he recovered his manners and offered a short bow. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“And you, sir,” Mrs. Beck said softly. “I have heard so much about you since my arrival.”

He laughed, but he felt nerves jumping inside him. “All good things, I trust.”

“The very best.” She smiled and a charming pair of dimples graced her cheeks. “My brother-in-law was telling me over breakfast that your interest in botany is known all the way to London.”

“I doubt that far, but I am a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. Do you have an interest in the subject?”

Mrs. Beck eased closer. “In many things, sir. I should dearly love to see the specimens you grow. I hear too that you have an astonishing array of greenhouses.”

“Indeed I do, but far less than the Duke of Stapleton’s estate boasts.”

She beamed at him, flashing those dimples yet again. “I should dearly love to bring my sons, if you can bear the noise of two boys under the age of ten asking a thousand questions of you.”

Mrs. Napier edged closer, and Gideon felt himself hemmed in completely. “Mr. Whitfield has the patience of a saint when it comes to children.”

Mrs. Beck smiled. “Do you have family?”

“No, none.”

Mrs. Napier’s smile widened. “None of his own, but he is closely acquainted with the Duke of Stapleton and his children, which I’ve written to you about before, I am sure.”

“Yes, I remember something to that effect.”

Gideon did not like it when people remarked on his friendship with the duke. He rarely spoke of the family to others. “The duke’s children are fully grown,” he told Mrs. Beck, to be sure there were no misunderstandings about the Westfall children’s ages.

Mrs. Beck nodded. “Do they live close?”

“The Westfalls? Goodness, no.” Gideon shuffled his feet a little and fought the urge to loosen his neck cloth. “Each has moved away years ago.”

“Have you any news about the success of Lady Jessica’s London season?” Mrs. Napier asked. 

He shook his head. “I’ve not received news of a wedding yet.”

But he’d been expecting a letter from someone in the family any day now. Lady Jessica Westfall was sure to win hearts wherever she went.

Mrs. Beck pressed her hand to her brow suddenly. “It is so very warm inside, isn’t it?”

“Indeed, it is. I was just on my way out for that reason. There were a few ladies outside earlier, where it is cooler. I saw chairs if you’d like to sit in the shade.” Escorting Mrs. Beck and Mrs. Napier to them would help him escape faster, too.

Mrs. Beck beamed but Mrs. Napier declined to accompany him, although she promised to follow.

Left with only Mrs. Beck, Gideon stood uncertainly. He’d maneuvered himself into yet another situation where he had to play escort. Would he ever learn to bite his tongue?

“I would be very grateful for your company, sir,” Mrs. Beck murmured.

Without any other choice, he nodded. “Very well.”

He escorted Mrs. Beck to sit in a chair in the shade, but remained on his feet. “Better?”

“Indeed.” Mrs. Beck beamed her dimples at him again and opened a delicate fan. She fluttered it before her face, but her eyes were trained on his. “I do appreciate your assistance today. Coming to live in a new place is not easy. My sister wants me to feel at home here but such occasions bring back so many unpleasant memories.”

“Ah, yes,” he murmured. Widowed. He would measure his words carefully unless he wanted to be responsible for a bout of tears. “How long ago did your husband pass away?”

“Well over a year now.” She glanced around, lips turning down. “We lived with his brother and his wife for a time, and then my sister sent for me. It is better to live in a place that holds no memories of him.”

He smiled quickly. “I do understand.”

She turned back to him quickly. “You’ve lost someone you love, too?”

“No. I never married.” He shook his head. “However, a good friend of mine was widowed years ago and it took a long time for him to recover from the loss. He only recently remarried and is very happy now.”

“Then there is hope for me,” she said, and then sighed.

“I’m sure there is,” he promised. A woman like Mrs. Beck, so pretty, so obviously in need of support for her children, would not be overlooked. She would be swooped up soon by anyone who could afford her upkeep.

Mrs. Beck leaned forward slightly. “Would that I had your confidence, but a woman’s security is a fickle thing. So much that happens is beyond our control.”

Gideon looked up when he heard someone calling his name urgently.

Natalia Hawthorne burst outside, eyes wide as she looked around. Mrs. Napier hovered behind her.

“Mr. Whitfield, there you are,” Miss Hawthorne chided as she shook off Mrs. Napier’s grip and rushed over. “I wondered if you might be ready to escort Mama and I home now?”

He blinked and wondered if Miss Hawthorne had sampled the ale today. He was not their escort. He’d come alone and intended to leave alone, too. “Where is your father?”

Miss Hawthorne bent close to whisper in his ear. “I need your help. Please don’t argue.”

He sighed. Most likely helping Miss Hawthorne involved describing some poor handsome fellow the girl must know everything about immediately. That was better done when no one could overhear her bold questions. 

He considered the request. He’d spoken to Mrs. Grieves, offered his sympathy and support—not that she was alone in the world. There was little more he could do here today. “Very well.”

He turned to Mrs. Beck, who had risen and was now looking at him through narrowed eyes. There were many who looked at him in that manner lately, often when Natalia Hawthorne was around, too.

He bowed to Mrs. Beck. “I am afraid you must excuse me. It seems I am needed elsewhere.”

“I’m sure you are,” Mrs. Beck murmured, a tight smile gracing her lips. “I look forward to seeing you again, sir.”

“I am sure we will meet again soon,” he agreed. He nodded to Mrs. Napier. “Good day, madam.”

Miss Hawthorne wrapped her arm around his. “Goodbye, Mrs. Beck. Mrs. Napier.”

“Miss Hawthorne,” Mrs. Beck said with a tight nod.

Gideon allowed himself to be directed to the road before he spoke again. “That was hardly courteous. What’s all this rush about?”

“You know exactly what I am about. I made a promise to myself to protect Lady Jessica’s interests.”

Jessica had been gone for months, and his life was a great deal quieter for her absence. “What promise?”

“The one that keeps you a bachelor.”

He stopped the girl immediately. “The only promises exchanged were to help you find a worthy husband.”

“Well, I made an amendment to the original agreement without telling either of you. It’s for the best, indeed. I mean to protect you from any lady who would try to take advantage of your kind nature.” She frowned as her mother joined them. Mrs. Hawthorne was puffing, and Natalia Hawthorne released him at last to go to her side. “Are you all right, Mama?”

“Yes, indeed,” she said, but she cast a sour expression toward the gathering of men drinking themselves into oblivion in the distance. Gideon noted Mr. Hawthorne quickly ducked out of sight.

“Mr. Whitfield has offered to escort us home, Mama. Isn’t that wonderful news?”

Gideon tried not to roll his eyes at that lie. “I was on my way home already.”

Mrs. Hawthorne, face more red than could be healthy, did not think to query her daughter’s bold statement. “Oh, that is good news, because my dears, I am dead on my feet from this heat.”

It wasn’t that hot outside, and he exchanged a worried glance with Miss Hawthorne. Thankfully, the walk to the Hawthorne residence was a short one, and Mrs. Hawthorne disappeared inside almost as soon as he urged her to go.

Miss Hawthorne, however, lingered by the gate, eyes full of worry.

“Is your mother unwell?”

“Oh, Mama is fine. These spells come and go. Nothing to worry about, and I must thank you again for escorting us home today.”

“And yet you are still frowning.”

“I’m a little troubled.” She looked at him a long moment, her expression assessing, before she spoke. “I realized today that you are a gentleman of such retiring habits that you may have become muddied about your appeal to the fairer sex.”

Usually, Miss Hawthorne’s sole concern when speaking to him was the appeal of other men, and how she might win them over. He stepped back from her quickly. “I do hope you have not now set your sights on me for a husband.”

“I would never dare!” But then she sighed. “But I must warn you that poor Mrs. Beck is no grieving widow. She’s said to be a Merry Widow. You know what that means, don’t you? I overheard Mama and her friend Mrs. Clay talking about her yesterday. I think Mrs. Beck came to the wake with the express purpose of meeting you—our most eligible bachelor. Did you not think it odd that she was introduced to you first, sir, and did not approach Mrs. Grieves?”

He shook his head, astonished by such ridiculous speculation. “Mrs. Beck felt the heat today, too, and perhaps became distracted by my suggestion that she get some air. I’m certain she did not mean to give offense to Mrs. Grieves.”

“She means to have you, I think.” Miss Hawthorne raised one haughty brow. “I trust I do not need to spell that out for you, too.”

“No, you do not,” he said quite indignantly. “Where do you get these ridiculous notions?”

“Oh, do settle your feathers, Mr. Whitfield, and don’t look at me as if I’m making this up. I know what I know and see. Mrs. Beck is a woman bent on seducing you.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose, finding little to amuse him in the conversation. Natalia Hawthorne was turning into a managing sort of female. Just like her mother. “My private life is really none of your concern,” he said firmly, hoping to end the discussion.

Miss Hawthorne straightened, eyes wide. “You are my friend’s very good friend. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“Of what? I have done nothing.” There was no reason Gideon had to live a chaste life, but he had chosen the path of bachelorhood years ago without regret. Natalia Hawthorne had no right to question his intentions if he did not. “And if I ever did something as you suggest I’m considering, it will be my own business entirely.”

Miss Hawthorne frowned severely. “Lady Jessica will not like this situation when she learns of it. It’s her birthday.”

Lady Jessica Westfall would be married to a peer by now, or very soon would be, and he would be content to know she’d be celebrating in fine company. “What happens in my personal life could hardly be of interest to the duke’s daughter.”

April 16th, 1819
Stapleton Manor

“I can assure you, Lord James and I will never make a match,” Jessica insisted as she finished unpacking her possession onto her dressing table at Stapleton Manor and then glanced around. “He’s set to marry Lady Hannah Alexander within a fortnight, I’m sure.”

Jessica’s companion, Natalia Hawthorne, collapsed on the settee. “But I was so certain he’d offer for you. He was so attentive when he visited the estate at Christmas.”

“Lord James found someone else to pay his addresses to very quickly it seems. Lady Hannah Alexander is very popular within the ton, especially with bachelors known to want a beautiful wife. She never lacked for a dance partner and is often surrounded by half a dozen gentlemen whenever not. Her season was bound to end in a marriage. I hardly saw him.” Jessica shrugged. “Men are truly puzzling creatures. Saying one thing but then behaving another.”

“They often do that,” Natalia agreed.

“I thought we might at least have become friends once.” However, once within the arms of the ton, Lord James had all but ignored her existence. “I shouldn’t grumble that Lord James singled her out when I never really wanted him around. I’m actually impressed he chose with his heart rather than his purse, because he’s in rather desperate need of funds to repair the tattered estate he’s to inherit soon and her dowry was quite small.”

“But I was sure he’d choose you.”

“So was my family, but it seemed we were all wrong in the end. He liked her more.” Jessica was glad for Lord James. The last thing she wanted to do was marry a fortune hunter. The last three month’s in Town had wiped away her amusement with the polite world. She had seen and heard much in London that troubled her but she was, she supposed, at last seeing the world as it really was and not the fantasy everyone had told her to expect.

Natalia picked up a silk pillow and plumped it on her lap. “So you are back home for now, but how soon before you leave again?”

Jessica looked at her friend in surprise. “I’ve no intention of returning to London.”

Natalia gaped. “But Jessica, your season has barely begun. You have to go back.”

She sat close to Natalia on the settee. “I have done what my father wanted. I had the pleasure of seeing him and mother married in London, made my presentation, and danced and sampled the amusements of the great city. But as much as I wanted to please them, I was miserable the whole time I was away.”

“Well, if I had my way, I’d never say no to a season in London, or a second or a third,” Natalia promised with a rueful laugh.

“I know you wouldn’t.” She squeezed Natalia’s hand. “And I’ve been thinking about this. If they force me to go back, I’ll insist you and your mother join us in London. We’ll find you a husband there.”

Natalia hugged her. “Would you? Mother would be so excited. She’s always talking about her one trip to London. I want to see the city, too, even if I never find a husband. I’d be forever in your debt for those memories.”

“Now it’s your turn. I want all the latest news of the district. Letters are much too brief to share all that must have happened since the week after Christmas.”

Jessica, her father, and her future mother, Gillian Thorpe, had left in something of a hurry in the first week of January, with tight lips about the real reason they were going to London so suddenly. Father’s marriage had come as something of a surprise to many, but Jessica was proud to call Gillian mother. Her own had died when Jessica was very little, and she’d always felt the lack.

Natalia sat sideways on the settee to face Jessica. “Well, let me see. I told you about old Mr. Grieves passing. His wake lasted until well into the next day. There were…” Natalia leaned close to whisper some details that made Jessica’s eyes widen in shock. “I couldn’t put any of that in a letter. Father was so disguised after the wake that mother didn’t speak to him for a whole week.”

Jessica winced. “I’m sorry to hear your parents found another reason to quarrel.”

“I’m growing used to it.” Natalia shrugged. “Mr. Whitfield saw us home that day.”

Jessica sat forward, eager for news of her neighbor. She hadn’t spoken to Gideon Whitfield since January. That was unusual and not at all pleasant. “That was good of him.”

“Mother was terribly fatigued.”

“I trust Mrs. Hawthorne is in good health now,” Jessica asked quickly. Natalia’s mother was a sweet, motherly kind of woman, but had spent a considerable amount of time on her fainting couch before Christmas.

“Oh, yes. Mother promised it was just the heat of the day affecting her.” Natalia scowled suddenly. “Mr. Whitfield has been very attentive while you were gone. He certainly kept his promise to you.”

Jessica grinned. She’d asked Mr. Whitfield to keep an eye on Natalia while she’d been gone, make sure she stayed out of trouble and discreetly warn away any unsavory types. Natalia was much too fond of flirting with handsome scoundrels. “I’m glad.”

“I wasn’t,” Natalia grumbled. “He proved too good at the task you set him, but we have not seen very much of him of lately though.”

“He’s not unwell, is he?” Jessica frowned. “Oh dear, and he has only Mrs. Mills and Mrs. Harrow to tend him. Mr. Lewis is next to useless as a valet. I’ll ask Mother to call at Quigley Hill to see if there is anything we can do for him.”

Natalia grabbed her hand and held her in place when she would have stood up and rushed off to find her new mother. “He’s not ill.”

Jessica subsided onto the settee with relief. “Well, why didn’t you say so straight away? You know we worry about him. Mr. Whitfield is simply dreadful at taking care of himself, living alone the way he does, hardly enough servants to run the house efficiently.”

A gentle smile played over Natalia’s lips. “I am sorry I worried you. I thought perhaps you would have heard already, and that is why you returned early.”

“Heard what? We only just arrived at home.”

Natalia eased closer. “I thought you and Mr. Whitfield might have corresponded.”

“No, of course we’ve not exchanged letters. That wouldn’t be proper,” Jessica protested. But she would have written him if she’d been allowed. “Father would have shared any news with me if it were important.”

“Perhaps not about this matter.” Natalia caught her hand and squeezed tightly. “Mr. Whitfield is expected to marry soon, my dear.”

Jessica could only stare, blinded by shock and utter disbelief. “Nonsense. He’s said he’d never marry a dozen times. Who is spreading such terrible gossip about him?”

“Well, everyone.” Natalia sat back. “And it’s not false speculation, either. Mrs. Napier’s widowed sister has come to live with them, and I’ve seen her with Mr. Whitfield nearly every day since.”

Whitfield married? Never in a million years would Jessica ever have imagined that. He was much too particular about…well, everything, especially his independence and privacy. Jessica narrowed her eyes. “Who is she?”

“Mrs. Alice Beck. She’s a widow and has two sons to raise, so her sister brought her here to live with them. The boys are often running along the road to visit Quigley Hill.”

Jessica shook her head again, dismissing the gossip as idle speculation. “Mr. Whitfield is very tolerant of children.”

“He has dined with Mrs. Beck.”

Jessica stilled. “He hosted a dinner at Quigley Hill?”

“No, nothing so obvious as that.” Natalia peered at her. “Not yet, anyway.”

“Good. The last time Mr. Whitfield tried to host a dinner, Mr. Lewis lit too many candles in the dining room. That carelessness spoiled a beautiful table cloth and could have burned down the house.” Jessica jumped to her feet and rooted around in her small trunk until she found the present she’d purchased for Natalia. She turned, smiling, and held out the package. “Now before I forget again, Happy Birthday, for last month.”

Natalia shrieked. “You remembered!”

“Of course I remembered.” Jessica hugged Natalia quickly. “You’re one of my best friends.”

“My turn.” Natalia lifted her shawl from the settee, revealing a small parcel lying beneath. “Happy Birthday for this month.”

Jessica laughed and untied her present in a rush. Natalia had gifted her a piece of embroidery. Her needlework was as always very fine, much better than Jessica’s varied attempts. “This is perfect.”

Natalia rushed to untie her package then. Inside, she would discover a pair of elegant evening gloves and a matching silk shawl. Each item was purchased, but Jessica hoped she would love them just the same.

Natalia held each up to the light from the window to view them better. “Oh, my!”

“Do you like them? I know they’re a little plain, but I’m sure you can embroider something on each if you like.”

“I wouldn’t change a thing about them.” Natalia wiped at her eyes quickly. “This is too much.”

“Nonsense.” But Jessica’s eyes misted with tears, too. “Every lady should have a perfect pair of evening gloves and a pretty shawl to wrap around her shoulders. Especially one trying to attract a husband.”

Natalia laughed dismissively. “My prospects are still quite slim, but I’m sure the addition of these gloves and a silk shawl will increase my appeal tremendously. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome.” They hugged again, and everything was almost right with Jessica’s world. She was home but she had one more birthday gift to deliver—to Mr. Whitfield—before the end of the day.

Unfortunately, Giddy simply hated anyone to make a fuss about his birthday. He tended to become embarrassed when the subject of his growing older was mentioned, too. More so if an event was made of his birthday with any sort of celebration.

Mr. Whitfield had arrived in the world on the twenty-ninth day of February, a date that occurred once every four years. He was only seven years old, if one only counted those occasions. Once he’d said he’d gone eight whole years between birthday celebrations. That sounded ghastly to Jessica, who found any excuse to celebrate important events.

Regardless of the lack of February twenty-nine this year, Jessica felt the month of his birth should be marked with a present, now that she was old enough to have pin money of her own to spend.

Natalia tugged on her gown to reclaim her attention. “You seem no different after your season. I thought you might have changed.”

“I may have traveled, but I am still the same woman I was before,” Jessica promised. But she was a young woman armed with a great deal more knowledge of men than when she’d left her home. The few days she’d spent with her older sister Fanny while Mother and Father celebrated their marriage alone had opened her eyes to another world of secrets and seductions. Fanny, an independent widow, and her friends had talked openly about gentlemen they liked, spoke of making love in a way that suggested all of them enjoyed their lovers immensely. Fanny, too, enjoyed a more liberal existence than Jessica had ever known was possible for a woman.

“Good. I had hoped we’d still be as close as we were becoming at Christmas. It’s been so dull around here without you.” Natalia leaned forward. “Now, I have been waiting with great patience, but please, tell me everything about London. What was it like?”

“Dirty and noisy,” she answered without hesitation.

“I meant the gentlemen vying for your hand, silly,” Natalia chided.

Jessica wrinkled her nose. “I knew what you meant, and my answer is still the same.”

Natalia chortled with laughter. “So the gentlemen in London are no different to their country cousins.”

Jessica winced. “There was very little difference and few who deserve the term gentleman.”

Natalia arched her brow. “Was there no one like Mr. Whitfield to charm you with talk of fungus at dinner?”

Gideon Whitfield it seemed was unique among men. Clever. Witty. Dependable. “None at all. Many titled lords speak only of horses, wagers and politics. They smother themselves in perfumes and reek of cigar by night’s end.”

Natalia’s expression grew serious once more. “You never said if you’d found a man to marry there.”

“I did not,” she admitted.

“Out of all of London’s most eligible bachelors?”

She rubbed her brow. “Please do not be cross with me, too.”

“Oh, I’m not. Never that. But I am disappointed that none could see the jewel you are. Are your parents very upset with you? Or is it your sister stirring the pot again?”

She shrugged, feeling foolish and awkward. “Mother and Father have never said they were disappointed in me, but the way their smiles diminished each morning when we talked of any potential suitors is hint enough that they were concerned by my lack of success.”

“Then why have you come home so early? I wasn’t expecting you to return for another month at least. Were you involved in a scandal? Did you kiss someone you should not have?”

“No.” Jessica laughed softly and answered only Natalia’s first question. “My father brought us home to surprise Gillian with the arrival of her brother and family tomorrow, but he is so terrible at keeping secrets that I knew well before we left London what we were coming home for.”

Natalia’s smile diminished. “So you’ll be too busy with guests to see much of anyone.”

“Not too busy to see you,” she promised. “Mr. and Mrs. Garland have two sons, both younger than eight years old. I will not be required to amuse them. I expect Gillian will want to spend every spare moment getting to know her family again. She has not seen them for a very long time.”

Natalia smiled broadly. “The duke is so sweet to arrange that. Mama has been positively gloating—knowing about the marriage before everyone else read the announcement posted in the village. I never thought his grace would wed again, least of all your beloved companion.”

“I’m delighted he did, because my father in love is very amusing.”

“I am glad. For years everyone had talked about how Stapleton needed a duchess again. Well,” Natalia began as she regained her feet. “If you have visitors coming, I’d better make myself scarce. Send me a note when I can come to visit you again, and then when the fuss has died down and you’re free, we can talk properly about all the handsome young men you kissed while you were away.”

Jessica’s cheeks grew warm.

Natalia hugged her again and fortunately never saw Jessica’s discomfort. “I have missed you, Jess. I want to hear every delicious detail about your suitors when I see you next. Thank you again for the gifts.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Jessica promised. “Thank you for mine. I know just what to use the embroidery for.”

Natalia rushed out, and Jessica sank onto the settee beneath her window again, her thoughts on her uncertain future.

There had been no one she had wanted to encourage in London. There was not one single gentleman who had tried to steal a kiss from her, either. She was starting to worry there was something wrong with her. Half the young women she’d met in London were either married or engaged or being seriously courted. The others, women with pitifully small dowries, had better experiences to share with their friends about their season than Jessica would ever have. Her season had been a resounding failure all round.

Gideon ran up the long flight of steps to Stapleton Manor on Saturday afternoon and knocked on the heavy oak door. He’d only just learned the duke’s family had returned the day before. It wasn’t normal for him to be so late calling on his friend. But he’d indulged in a great deal too much port at dinner last night with the Napiers and, as a consequence of it, he’d slept until midday.

The butler admitted him, all smiles. “Good afternoon, Mr. Whitfield. His grace expected to see you yesterday.”

“Mr. Brown.” He rushed to remove his hat and gloves then handed them over. “I’m sure he did.”

“The family is in the drawing room with their guests.”

Gideon hesitated in the act of smoothing his wavy hair. “Guests?”

Mr. Brown nodded. “The duke arranged for the surprise visit of her grace’s brother, wife, and children.”

He smiled but took a step back. “Perhaps I should return another time.”

A soft step sounded behind him. “Why would you believe you were not wanted today, Mr. Whitfield?”

Gideon pivoted slowly at the sound of Lady Jessica’s voice, his heart skipping a beat as he spotted her slender form moving toward him.

“I’ll see Mr. Whitfield to my father, Mr. Brown,” she murmured.

Jessica glided soundlessly across the parquetry, lips lifting at the corners—as if she had a secret she wanted to tell him. He’d seen that look so many times that his anticipation grew the nearer she came. 

“Jess.” He said her name softly, because he should not use the diminutive form where a servant might hear. She did not seem very changed at first glance. Her uncovered dark hair was intricately coiled upon her head, her body elegantly swathed in yards of muslin.

A huge smile burst over her face as she stopped before him. Her hazel eyes glowed with happiness, and he bowed as Jess dipped into a perfect curtsy. He drank in her smiles and his heart lightened. Jessica had always been a happy child, and he was glad to see her months away had not changed that. She exuded confidence and good health, as ever.

His eyes dropped to a paper-wrapped package that crackled as she shifted it to her left hip. Jessica was always busy, always involved in some activity for the estate rather than idle mischief. No doubt he would find out about the contents of that package eventually.

“Father expected you to call yesterday, Giddy. So did I. Where have you been, sir!”

Her tone was slightly accusing, and he rushed to explain his absence. “I was late rising today and only just learned of your return. Forgive me, my lady.”

He reached for her hand. There was the slightest hesitation before her bare fingers slipped delicately over his calloused ones. Gideon squeezed her hand and then let her go. “I don’t wish to intrude on the reunion. I can come back another day.”

“And miss all the fun? Never.” Jess laughed. “Mama most definitely wants you to meet her brother while he is here. You will enjoy the stories Mr. Garland has shared about their childhood already this morning. I’ve been laughing so hard my sides hurt.”

He smiled at the mention of the new Duchess of Stapleton, a woman who had been Lady Jessica’s companion the last time they’d all been together. “Mama, is it?”

Jessica nodded decisively. “She’s the only mother I’ll ever know.”

He smiled despite the loss Jess had suffered as a child. She had never known her own mother, but had been raised by her grieving father, quarreling sisters and a string of efficient nurses. “Then we did a good thing last winter.”

Her eyes lit up with pleasure at the reminder of their combined matchmaking efforts for her father and beloved companion. It was an inspired idea, to help the duke admit his feelings had grown for Mrs. Gillian Thorpe beyond those of a mere employer, but it had required Jessica’s assistance and not a little private planning to pull it off. “We did indeed. Father has been made very happy by his marriage.”

Jessica’s smile dimmed slightly, and she set her package aside on a side table. She rested her hand on it a moment but then shook her head. “Come, Mr. Whitfield. His grace is eager to see you.”

Clearly whatever was contained in the parcel was unimportant. Gideon was almost disappointed, but when Jessica hooked her arm through his, Gideon couldn’t remain so as he looked down on her.

Jessica was not particularly tall, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulder. Gideon had watched over this girl—woman, he corrected himself—since she’d been a child, escorting her about when her father and siblings had been occupied elsewhere. She was out in society now. Eighteen at last and obviously quite assured.

He dragged his attention away from her as they stepped into the drawing room together.

The Duke of Stapleton sprang to his feet immediately, a smile as welcoming as Jessica’s beaming across the room. “About time, sir.”

“Your grace, welcome home,” he said, releasing Jessica so he could bow.

“None of that nonsense,” Stapleton exclaimed, rushing up to shake his hand vigorously. “Make yourself at home as you usually do.”

“As you wish,” he said as he hid his relief. He’d never assume he’d always be welcome, but he liked Stapleton very much, even if Gideon was a good deal younger than the duke, though with none of the status of a title to add to his distinction. Gideon studied his neighbor closely, noting his ease and appearance of good health. Stapleton must be pleased by the changes in his life by the look of it, too. He pounded Gideon’s shoulder suddenly with the excitement of a much younger man, and that made him laugh. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Likewise,” the duke replied then gestured beside him.

Gideon turned to the new Duchess of Stapleton, formerly known as Mrs. Gillian Thorpe. “Your grace,” he said as he bowed deeply to the woman the duke had fallen head over heels in love with.

“Dear Whitfield,” she exclaimed, as she moved forward to take his hands. The duchess kissed both his cheeks in welcome. “Our truest friend.”

He grinned, though a little embarrassed by her warm welcome. The woman was positively glowing at him, but she looked paler than she’d formerly been. “I must say, marriage suits you.”

Her eyes sparkled briefly. “So says the man who made my happiness possible.”

He inclined his head. “It was not all my doing.”

He looked toward Jessica, but she’d already moved away. She sat primly on a single chair, watching him from a distance with a happy smile. He returned it, and then turned back to the duchess. “I had a willing accomplice.”

“Oh, I know only too well the collusion you pair must have managed behind my back. And, no matter who dares to claim credit, I am very grateful,” her grace promised. She gestured to the couple standing behind her. “May I introduce my younger brother, Lincoln Garland, and his wife, Mrs. Hazel Garland? Their children are currently taking refreshments in the nursery.”

“They will empty the duchess’ vast kitchen if we are not careful, and run her poor servants ragged I fear,” Garland added, and then laughed good-naturedly as they shook hands. The fellow was tall, lanky even, and Gideon could see a strong resemblance to the duchess when Garland smiled.

“Welcome, Mr. Garland. Mrs. Garland. How long are you staying with their graces?”

“A few days at best,” Mrs. Garland murmured in a soft tone that revealed a woman of intelligence and polite manners. “My husband must return to his employment soon, but we could not miss this chance to meet my husband’s sister and discover how well she has done for herself. You have our gratitude, too, for bringing her back into our lives through her marriage to such a kind and gracious man.”

“Ah, I see Stapleton has you well fooled already,” Gideon teased, then grinned cheekily at Stapleton when he spluttered. “Wait till Christmas comes around, and you will see his grace’s true colors.”

“They see me as I really am, while you notice only fabrications of your vivid imagination,” the duke exclaimed. “And besides, I have changed my mind about the necessity of winter festivities. Great good can come from hanging mistletoe about the place.”

Stapleton caught his wife’s hand and kissed the back of it passionately.

Jessica laughed. “He says that now, but in December, he was raging the halls and complaining about the stuff!”

The duchess clucked her tongue. “Can you blame him? You two are nothing but trouble when you are together,” she chided.

Gideon pasted an innocent smile on his face because it was all too true that he and Jessica had been the ones hanging it up behind the duke’s back. They’d had great fun doing it, too. And then Jessica managed to slip some into her father’s pocket one evening, and a romance with Gillian had bloomed without help from then on.

Mr. Garland chuckled. “Mr. Whitfield, I am in your debt then, too. We have much to talk about, I think.”

Her grace laughed. “Please do not give my brother any ideas for when he visits us at Christmas. He used to play the most horrid tricks on me when we were young.”

Gideon liked the Garlands very much. They seemed like good people. “How convenient to have met a solicitor who might feel indebted to me.”

Garland raised one brow. “My gratitude only goes so far, sir.”

Gideon laughed and moved to sit on the empty chair nearest Jessica. “Definitely a relation of yours, your grace. Just as mistrustful as you have always been of me.”

Garland laughed and slapped his thigh. “I easily see now why you are so loved at Stapleton Manor, Mr. Whitfield. You amuse with hardly any effort.”

“The ladies must love his company,” Mrs. Garland teased, throwing a shy smile in his direction. “But is it true no one yet has claimed your heart?”

He straightened his waistcoat to hide his discomfort that the conversation had turned to his bachelor status already. “Obviously.”

Mrs. Garland shook her head. “Such a shame.”

“I’m much too old and set in my ways for marriage now.” He hoped the subject would end there.

The duke barked out a laugh. “At least until his head is finally turned. Then like every other unwed fellow, he will plunge into a pursuit with blinkers on and not think of the consequences for his life until it is too late,” the duke warned. “If only he’d fallen for one of my daughters, he would have been my favorite son-in-law,” the duke complained. “As it is, I must wait until he yearns for company and visits.”

Gideon tried not to wince. There had once been an unspoken expectation that Gideon might make a match with one of the duke’s older daughters. Thankfully, they had married men better suited to their temperaments. “I came as soon as I learned you were home.”

The duke looked on him fondly. “I suppose I must believe you, but no doubt you’ve never lacked company in our absence.”

As he was about to refute that claim, Jessica suddenly sprang to her feet.

“If you will excuse me,” she murmured. “I have something I must attend to.”

He was disappointment she would go so soon, but it was not unexpected. Jessica was an energetic sort, always running off somewhere.

They settled in to chat, and he listened to the duchess and her brother attempt to catch up on years of news in the space of an hour. The duke and duchess shared tidbits about their adventures in London, too, but he couldn’t help but notice there was no mention of a wedding for Jessica, or even a courtship underway. They said nothing of Jessica’s future, but perhaps they would not speak of it openly yet.

The duchess caught his eye. “Will you join us for dinner, Mr. Whitfield?”

Gideon glanced at the duke when the question registered fully. He had to decline. “If I’d known you were coming home so early, I would not have arranged for my own dinner party to be held tonight. It is much too late to alter the invitations or postpone the gathering.”

“We would not want you to alter anything on our account,” the duchess assured him, “but I am sure Lady Jessica will be disappointed not to have your company at dinner.”

“I’m sure she will not miss me very much,” he promised as he checked the time. “And I am afraid I really must take my leave now.”

Though they begged him to stay a little longer, Gideon had no choice but to say goodbye. He was determined that all was in readiness for his first dinner party in years and that nothing was left to chance.

He exited the manor via the front door but, having come on foot, he took the most direct path home—a path that ran alongside Jessica’s little greenhouse. He would say a private farewell if she were there. If not, he would hear about her season tomorrow.

He found her, talking to her plants once again. She dearly loved the greenhouse her father had gifted her with and, if left to her own agenda, would spend the bulk of the day coaxing them to grow with soft words of encouragement. “I hoped I would find you here.”

“Yes,” she said with a sad smile. “I am nothing if not predictable.”

He moved to stand near her, worried by her changed demeanor from her earlier happiness. He’d never known her to be sad at seeing him before. “Something is wrong. What is it?”

“Nothing.” She let out a shaky breath, turned away and, when she turned back, she had that parcel in her hands again. “Happy birthday.”

He shook his head. “It is not my birthday this year.”

She thrust the parcel at him anyway. “I don’t care what the calendar says. Everyone deserves a birthday present each year.”

He smiled at her stubborn insistence that he celebrate his growing older. Her confusion over his birthdate was one of his fondest memories. Being born on the twenty-ninth day of February, a day that only arrived every four years, perplexed a great many of his acquaintances at first.

“I don’t have a present for you,” he confessed quietly.

He’d considered it, but dismissed the notion almost immediately. Now he felt he should have gotten her something, even if it were only a new plant for her collection.

“Just seeing you again is present enough,” Jess promised, shaking him by the arm. “I wanted to spend my pin money on someone dear to me.”

He slowly turned the parcel over in his hands, noticing it contained something soft inside. Since presents were rare in his life, he liked to try to guess and draw out the moment for as long as possible. Today, he was baffled.

“Well, open it,” she insisted.

He set the parcel down on a worktable and pulled on the little string bow. Working slowly, he pulled the paper aside. He blinked…and then shook out a large dark blue garment. “Jessica! Is this a gentleman’s banyan?”

“It is. Do you like the material?”

It was a very personal item to receive from anyone, and costly, too. He rubbed the dark blue brocade between his finger and thumb, then held the garment away from him to judge if it would fit him. It seemed large enough. “You should never have spent your pin money on me.”

“Try it on for me.”

He glanced around, but they were of course alone inside the greenhouse.

He swallowed, realizing that coming here was unwise. He should not be alone with her anymore. Anyone who found them alone together might get the wrong idea. Jess was no longer a little girl. “I cannot.”

She laughed softly. “Well, I can’t very well follow you home to see it on you there.”

“No, you most definitely should not do that,” Gideon exclaimed. “I have guests expected for dinner tonight.”

Jess stared at him with a concerned expression rather than the excitement he’d expected. “You will keep Mr. Lewis away from the candles this time, won’t you?”

He grinned and tweaked her nose. “Don’t worry, I’ll be lighting them myself.”

He glanced behind him, and then decided there would be no real harm if he tried on the garment so Jessica could see him in it just this once, if he were quick. He stripped off his brown coat and slipped his arms into the full sleeves of the blue banyan. Jessica assisted, standing behind him and smoothing the fabric over his shoulders.

Once the garment was in place, he turned to face her to get her opinion. “Well? How do I look?”

She sighed a little wistfully. “Exactly as I imagined. Blue has always suited you.”

Feeling a little warm from the compliment, he dropped his gaze and tried to see himself. He smoothed his hands down the beautiful material. The sleeves ended in deep, wide cuffs, and there were two pockets—one to carry his new eyeglasses in and the other a spare. He did not do up the buttons but they began at his neck and stopped midway down his thighs. The overall length was perfect, ending halfway along his calves. The inside was lined with patterned silk, and it was obviously quite expensive.

It was an astonishing gift, and he couldn’t hold back his happiness at receiving something so unique. “Thank you, Jess. This is the most beautiful gift I’ve ever received.”

“It is my pleasure,” she said, brushing her fingers against the sleeve of the garment. Her fingers moved up and covered his forearm. She squeezed him tightly. “This one will be perfect to wear for the coming winter, too.”

He covered her hand where it sat on his sleeve. “And people always say old bachelors must fend for themselves. I am astonished you remembered my birthday with all the excitement your season must have been. Did your father help you purchase this?”

“No. My brother was in London for a week, and he accompanied me shopping.”

“Which brother?”

“Samuel, of course.” She drew back. “We pretended it was a gift for him so the shopkeeper could not outright refuse to serve me. You’re about the same size.”

“I’ll have to thank him next time I see him, but I have to say, I always worry when you and your brother get together.”

She laughed softly. “Samuel was on his best behavior, I swear, so you have no cause to worry.” She sighed—an exhalation he loved to hear. “It was no trouble to buy you a birthday present for once.”

“Once, but never again,” he warned. It wasn’t at all proper that she had singled him out. He bent close, intending to place a brotherly kiss on her forehead, as he’d done when Christmas gifts had been exchanged in past years. “Thank you, Jess.”

As he dropped his head, and Jessica’s chin lifted high until she was looking directly into his eyes. He froze, inches away from kissing her on the lips by mistake—something he’d never done and never should. His heart started to pound very hard against his ribs as time stood still.

Jessica might be out but she was destined for another. No doubt she’d had dozens of suitors all vying for her hand in marriage—and kisses.

Her eyes widened slowly. There was no way to pretend he hadn’t been about to kiss her, so he cupped her face and tilted her head down to place a chaste one on her forehead as originally intended.

“I should take my leave,” he murmured.

“Enjoy your dinner.” Jessica nodded, but a frown now added a deep groove between her brows.

He resisted the urge to brush the mark away with thumb. “I hope it goes well. Good evening.”

“Until tomorrow, Giddy.”

Gideon hurried out of the greenhouse.

He was nearly home when he realized his mistake. He stopped, looked down at his clothing and cursed. He had rushed from the Stapleton estate wearing the banyan Jessica had given him for his birthday.

He spun about and slapped a hand to his forehead. He’d left his coat behind, too, along with his hat and gloves and new glasses. He didn’t have time to run back to Jessica’s greenhouse now. He’d have to return for them after the dinner or make do without them until tomorrow morning. What an absentminded old fool he must seem!