Distinguished Rogues Series, book 10
In the battle between love and duty, the heart has the most to lose…
Despite his previous irksomeness, Lord Julian Wade has become a dear confidant to Portia Hayes. He’s proven attentive, honorable, clever, and would make many a lady a fine catch. Not herself, alas. Wade has naught but lint in his pockets, and Portia is expected to make an advantageous match. Her recent betrothal to the Duke of Montrose thrills her parents, but as she learns of his unfavorable reputation—and equally untenable behavior—Portia’s happiness is less assured. As is her chance of being loved.
Julian Wade may have lost the battle for Portia’s hand, but her heart has yet to be won. Certainly his old enemy Montrose is unworthy of her affections, and indeed, it seems the dastardly duke is up to his usual unsavory tricks. But Julian has a few tricks of his own, as well as the support of dear friends. Penniless though he may be, should he win Portia’s love once and for all, Julian may yet prove to be the richest gentleman about Town.
A steamy regency romance novel.
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
Murder and death had only kept the ton’s attention a few days before they forgot the losses and the shock and returned to the gaiety and decadence of the London season. Julian, Lord Wade, was no different. He was glad the ugly business was well and truly behind them. The murderess had been caught and buried a week ago. Given everyone he spoke to had suddenly felt much safer, a flurry of invitations to parties and other amusements had begun to arrive in a steady stream. Julian hurried up the marble staircase of Lord Birch’s home, eager not to miss a moment of the festivities to celebrate Lady Birch’s birthday.
It was the third time Lady Birch claimed to have turned five and twenty, too.
Not that he was counting.
He passed the butler his invitation and sauntered inside. Because Lady Birch was a jolly sort, married and generous with her time—as harmless as one could be—no one dreamed of contradicting her story about her age. Accuracy in a married lady’s stated age was hardly ever to be relied upon anyway. It was only widows and debutants, and never-married old spinsters that were made to feel lesser for reaching another milestone in years.
In fact, where truthfulness was concerned, Julian believed marriage was undoubtedly a gamble not to be entered into lightly. Many men lost their hearts and sanity when they ended up with nothing to show for the sacrifices they’d made in taking a bride. Time and again, he discovered the initial euphoria of attraction and desire of newlyweds tended to give way to frustration and outright rage over their spouses’ oftentimes-bewildering behavior.
Julian had not been so foolish as to wed what his heart desired most when he’d first found her. Betrayal was always one flirtatious smile or one stolen kiss away when trust was given too soon or absolutely. It was not only gentlemen who behaved roguishly. Even seemingly proper ladies delighted in the occasional indiscretion.
Julian had been biding his time, hoping that soon his love would realize he was her best choice for a happy future.
They were to meet tonight at this ball, and he would take another small step toward winning her over. Thankfully her parents had always been rather shoddy, inattentive chaperones, and there had been many occasions when she had slipped away from their sides.
Not with him, though. Never with him. A line of gentlemen had routinely formed around Portia Hayes’ perimeter, almost from the first night she was out in society.
He was consoled by the fact that there would be plenty of opportunities to be alone with her in the future. His love had captured many a heart, but was not yet ready to keep any. She so far showed no sign of serious infatuation with any of her admirers. Because of that, he was content to wait while she enjoyed herself thoroughly.
Julian reached the ballroom and glanced around the large candlelit area, eager to catch a glimpse of the delicious woman.
All of society had come out tonight, masks firmly in place to conceal their identities and to bask under the influence of too much champagne and laughter. Despite the masks, Wade recognized many in attendance. The wealthiest members of the ton were always distinctive.
He easily spotted the Earl and Countess Rothwell dancing scandalously close. The earl and his bride of last year, Arabella, whispered to each other as they came together. Everyone was waiting for Rothwell to stray but so far, he seemed entirely faithful.
Not far from them were the newly married Windermeres. Lord Windermere and wife, Esme, were the couple of the season. All eyes were on the pair as they moved in society, waiting, hoping probably too, for someone to come between them. But there was no mistaking the intent behind the hot glances that pair exchanged. They only had eyes for each other.
Julian was happy for both men, acquaintances of his for years. Their brides were worthy of every effort the pair must have made to win their dearest loves’ hands in marriage. Julian especially enjoyed the outrageous gossip that had circulated when the connections had become known. He’d not been surprised or shocked by either marriage.
For years, Julian had paid attention to the ladies of society, and particularly noticed their suitors were not always the first ones to gain their attention. He had accurately predicted a number of unions—not that he was going to shout about it to anyone. He was responsible for no one’s happiness, even if he had secretly played devil’s advocate a fair few times.
He had not bothered with much of a disguise tonight. He couldn’t afford to. He wore an ordinary black suit, tall, black-polished riding boots, and a soft velvet mask over his eyes so he would blend in. He wasn’t in the market to attract attention, but the one he sought always did.
He found Portia Hayes easily enough, dancing prettily with Lord Grindlewood.
Julian moved toward a pillar and stopped to admire her grace in the arms of another. Portia was delicately dressed and masked in pink silk and pearls, a costume he’d never seen on her before. One that must have cost her father a fortune. Portia’s family, though common born, had deep pockets and grand ambitions. They spent extravagantly on their daughter, ensuring she fitted in.
It wasn’t the first time Julian had been relegated to the sidelines but he was happy as always to watch her dance. He never paid much attention to her partners—not even Grindlewood, who was wealthy again, titled, and possessed of an exceedingly handsome countenance.
Portia always did attract the pretty gentlemen to her circle.
Julian didn’t begrudge Portia a roving eye, though for a long time he’d lamented she’d never look upon him with any favor. He always made sure she noticed him, though.
The set ended and Portia was escorted back to her parents, laughing at something Grindlewood had whispered to her. Portia laughed a lot when her partners whispered. She was an exuberant, passionate woman. An original. Someone he cared about very much.
Her dance partner lingered at her side a few moments more, and when Grindlewood finally took his leave of Portia, Julian headed in her direction.
Portia had piled her thick dark hair high on her head tonight and allowed some of it to spill down in chaotic ringlets around her pale throat. She looked as if she belonged in the forest under the stars. As usual her, green eyes sparked with life and merriment—and for the first time, they stayed that way when her eyes fell on him.
Portia held out her hand to him. “My lord.”
“Enchantress,” he said, as he grasped it and bowed. “You take my breath away,” he whispered.
He turned to Portia’s parents to greet them but the pair, as ever, were soon looking elsewhere in the room for someone more important. He turned back to Portia and put his hands behind his back. “You danced well.”
She arched one delicate brow. “Just well, my lord?”
He leveled her with a pained stare. Portia liked to be complimented, the more flowery the endearments the better, he’d recently discovered. But it was not easy for Julian to speak in such glowing terms of anyone, least of all someone he liked as much as he did her. However it must be done if he had any chance to win her one day. “Better than well, but you’ve always known my admiration knows no bounds. Can I tempt you to visit a dark and private corner so I can prove it?”
“No, you may not.” She grinned impishly, clearly pleased with his suggestion. “But a lady always wants to hear the most ardent of admiration spoken of.”
“Haven’t you heard enough insincere flattery from your flock of mutton chops for one night? They must be losing their touch if you find their compliments lacking enough to demand mine.”
She shrugged. “I thought you would be here earlier?”
He glanced away to hide his discomfort. “My aunt changed her mind about coming at the last moment.”
Portia’s brow furrowed and she inched closer, until her skirts brushed his leg. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she whispered. Portia glanced down at her card, her brow furrowing. “My dance card is full,” she admitted, appearing pained by the fact.
Julian was so used to not dancing with Portia that he shrugged away the news. “Another time, perhaps.”
She worried her lip and drew closer still. “You’re not disappointed I could not save a spot for you again?”
He hid a smile at her worried tone. Things had definitely changed between them in recent days, it seemed. Thanks to the actions of a murderess, Portia now wanted Julian around. This was a very great improvement on their past meetings.
To test just how much things had changed, he moved his fingers slightly, until he encountered the delicate material she wore so well about her body. A further flex of his fingers and he brushed her thigh lightly.
A little gasp escaped her lips, and she looked at him sharply.
He pretended he’d done nothing out of the ordinary. “I will as ever enjoy watching you dance.”
“Yes,” she grumbled with a hint of frustration, but she did not move away. “I used to find that so annoying.”
Used to. Julian hid another smile and brushed a little harder against her leg with his fingertips. The room was thankfully so crowded that it should not be seen, and so he continued behaving improperly.
She turned slightly, and he did not withdraw his hand. If he was not mistaken, he was able to trace the curve toward her inner thigh and back, knowing full well that he was presuming a great deal about their relationship by teasing her like this. He watched her breathing quicken and a flush of color begin to darken her pale cheeks.
Portia was a good girl, but he believed she was not entirely pure of thought or unaware of preliminary intimacies between lovers. Her parents had no clue the number of times she’d nearly ruined her reputation, and he wasn’t about to tell on her. A well-timed cough and a quiet word of warning to the worst of the scoundrels had managed to scare off those without marrying dispositions. Deliberately tempting Portia himself was something of a first for them.
For too long, Portia Hayes had run close to the mark, and Julian had tried to stay away. She had her would-be suitors eating out of the palm of her hand most nights. They rushed to do her bidding, champagne, kisses and more… But not Julian. He would not play games for a short-lived thrill of just one night.
“I was very aware of your dislike of being watched.” He shrugged, and the act of doing so naturally separated his fingers from her limb. “Who do you dance with next?”
“Lord Sullivan,” she said somewhat breathlessly, then wet her plump lips.
Julian reluctantly dragged his eyes from Portia to look around for his old school chum amid the throng of masked guests. Julian would like to think he’d be able to spot his old roommate in any crowd, even if he were masked. “Where was he?”
Portia eased closer. “We were introduced tonight over by the ferns, and he asked me to dance immediately. Do you know him?”
“Indeed I do,” Julian promised, looking in the other direction without any success. “You’ll be in good hands with Sullivan. Excellent partner. The ladies used to love dancing with him. His wife certainly does, too.”
Portia’s expression changed to acute disappointment. “He never mentioned he had a wife.”
“He will. You even remind me a bit of Clare, too. Especially when you laugh. I doubt he will comment on the similarity, though. His wife is all he ever thinks about.”
No sooner where the words out of his mouth when a firm hand clamped hard on his shoulder.
Julian spun about, and then grinned as he looked up at his friend. Andrew Finch, Lord Sullivan, was tall at just over six foot and three inches. The rest of him hadn’t changed much either. Dark overlong hair, bright blue eyes, and a sharp, square chin completed the illusion of aristocratic splendor. “Sullivan!”
“Bye Jove, it’s Wee Wade,” Lord Sullivan exclaimed before taking his hand and shaking it firmly. “You look like an underfed black drake peering around like that. How long has it been, old man?”
“A few years,” Julian told him, thinking how fast the time had flown by since they’d last been in the same room. A lot had changed, not all of it good for Wade, but then he noticed Sullivan had aged in the past years, too. Obviously marriage was harder than it had first appeared to be for some. There were fine lines at the corner of his eyes, and a deep cleft between his brows that Julian did not remember. Sullivan had lost the jolly countenance he’d possessed at school that had gotten him out of many a scrape. When they were older and moving about in society, Sullivan had used that smile to charm his way into the affections of the season’s diamond and had made Clare his wife as soon as possible.
They shook hands vigorously. Julian had never envied Sullivan his handsome face, but he had envied Sullivan for his choice of wife for a brief time. “What are you doing back in London? I thought you were settled in Kent making babies with Clare. Where is she, by the way? I should like to pay my respects.”
Sullivan’s face paled. “She’s gone.”
“Gone?” Julian said in confusion, and then his heart skipped a beat as the only possible meaning became clearer just by looking at Sullivan’s sad expression.
“She died,” Sullivan told him.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” he said quickly. He drew close to his old friend and lowered his voice. “I’d not heard. Clare was a truly remarkable woman.”
Sullivan nodded slowly and his expression grew bleaker still. “It’s been a year now.”
Julian mourned Clare. The sharp stab of pain to his heart almost unbearable. She had been great fun to be around before her marriage. She’d had a wicked wit that had appealed to him greatly. But he’d not lain eyes on her since her marriage to Sullivan. The pair had taken themselves off to Kent to be alone and never returned to partake of society. “How did it happen? How did she die?”
Julian closed his eyes briefly, imagining the horror that had befallen the lovely lady. This was a tragedy. “And the child?”
Sullivan shook his head quickly. “He did not survive to even draw breath.”
The earl had lost the wife he loved and the son he’d always longed for. Julian grabbed his old friend’s hand again and held it more firmly. Sullivan had adored Clare. So had Julian, too. “Again, I am so sorry. I wish I had known.”
“Time has lessened my sorrow somewhat.” Sullivan shook off his grip and then glanced past Julian. He drew in a sharp breath and affected a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Ah, Miss Hayes, I believe they are about to announce our dance.”
“Yes, indeed, Lord Sullivan.” She smiled, quickly stepping forward, her expression full of compassion as she met Julian’s suddenly watery gaze. “Do excuse us, Lord Wade. Perhaps we might continue our discussion later.”
“Of course,” he murmured, as he staggered back.
He forced a smile as Portia brushed past him, heading for Sullivan’s outstretched arm. She settled her hand on Sullivan’s sleeve with a shy smile. “My lord.”
“Miss Hayes,” Sullivan murmured. “I have been looking forward to our dance.”
“I have too. Very much,” she admitted, looking up at Julian’s old friend as if he were a god upon the earth.
Julian grimaced and looked away. Why wouldn’t Portia flirt with Sullivan? She did it with everyone as easily as breathing. She had no reason to hesitate. Sullivan was a widow now. If anything, that made the earl even more desirable as a dance partner. Portia knew nothing of their great loss, the light of Sullivan’s life gone from the world.
Julian listened to their brief conversation as they drifted away toward the dance floor, but experienced a feeling of growing discomfort as he considered their budding acquaintance. Sullivan would be an excellent catch, now he was widowed. He was a handsome earl, wealthy because of his marriage to Clare, and out of mourning now. Julian had nothing to say against Sullivan as a potential spouse for any woman.
Many would assume Sullivan was back in London to replace his late wife with this year’s diamond, too.
As Sullivan positioned Portia on the dance floor, smiling down on her and charming her with small talk, Julian realized that he probably was back in London to take another wife. He would need a son and heir soon.
Poor Clare. So soon to be replaced by another.
Julian turned away suddenly as a bitter lump lodged in his throat. He couldn’t stay near Portia when his heart was so heavy for another woman. He headed for home to mourn Clare in private, where no one could see the depths of his unhappiness.
Portia Hayes scanned her bedchamber in exasperation. “Mary, do you know where my paisley shawl has gone?”
“It was right there on the bed, Miss,” her maid promised. “I put it out earlier.”
Portia tilted her head toward the bed. “It’s not there now.”
Mary Phillip, her maid of a few years now, rushed to the bed and looked all around it and under. She stood up slowly, frowning. “Miss, I am sure I put it right there for you, as you asked.”
Portia drew close to the girl and sighed. “Lavinia probably has it.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Miss. I never saw your sister come in.”
Lavinia was developing a number of bad habits that Portia did not appreciate lately. “Don’t worry about it now. Could you fetch me my lemon one? Time is flying by so quickly this morning. I cannot be late.”
The maid rushed across the room and finally found Portia a shawl to wear downstairs. She slipped it around her shoulders and considered her appearance. She was wearing a new gown, one made of white muslin like everyone else seemed to wear, but she was not at all sure it really suited her complexion. It was a bit pale where Portia preferred to wear brighter jeweled tones. The gown was modest in design too. She wasn’t sure if it was the color or the style that gave her pause, or both. “The lemon doesn’t look at all bad with it.”
“No, Miss,” Mary said as she glanced away to the door, and then rushed to it to listen. “Your mother is calling for you.”
Mary had excellent hearing, a desirable trait to possess in a lady’s maid. Discretion and loyalty were, too. Portia quickly hid the forbidden novel she’d been reading with Mary that morning under her mattress so her mother would not find it, should she come in. Mother firmly believed novels were not suitable for unmarried ladies’ minds. She said they encouraged rebellion and disappointment. It didn’t help that the late Lady Scott had been a great reader, and a murderess too. Anything that reminded mother of that horrible woman had been immediately denounced as unacceptable.
Ready to face any callers that may come, Portia rushed from her bedchamber and into her mother’s dressing room. Mother was at her mirror, admiring her reflection. Her once lustrous dark hair had faded to gray with age but her green eyes were still shrewd. She looked Portia up and down and nodded.
Portia moved to the mirror and twisted this way and that. “You don’t think it is too modest?”
“My dear, a little mystery will only increase your appeal,” her mother murmured as they prepared for the day’s callers together. This had become their new ritual each day of what was left of the season, since those horrible murders had taken away her friends.
Only occasionally did Portia long for the days when she had more freedom. “Even at this time of year?”
“Especially now.” Mother swept a hand over her brow, and then reached for her scissors. She pruned a loose thread on Portia’s sleeve and smiled. “You are the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Portia smiled ruefully. “Second most beautiful, next to you.”
She quickly pecked a kiss on her mother’s soft cheek and went to her jewelry box. Portia selected a favorite necklace her mother owned and wore often—a large drop of bright amber strung on a long gold chain and placed it around her mother’s neck.
“Thank you, my dear.”
Portia turned back to the jewelry box and examined the contents idly. Mother’s jewels were modest but there were plenty to choose from. Portia found the matching amber earbobs and handed them over. “What interesting tidbits did you hear last night?”
Mother moved to the mirror and threaded the golden hooks through her ears then flicked the amber beads so they swung. “Only of Lord Sullivan, and you were certainly envied for gaining an introduction so swiftly. My only regret was that you had already given away the supper dance to Lord Stephens.”
“It was Lord Stephens’ turn to take me in. Lord Sullivan seemed very nice,” Portia said. “He certainly danced well.”
“You made a very elegant pair.” Mother turned back. “I suppose Lord Wade had something to say about him?”
Not enough, really, and she was very curious. She hoped to see Wade again soon, so she might quiz him discreetly about Lord Sullivan, and vice versa. “Nothing at all bad. They went to school together. I believe Wade knew the earl’s late wife.”
And last night, she’d seen signs that Lord Wade would mourn her, too. She was sure there had been tears in his eyes when she’d drawn close.
Tears were the last emotion she’d expect from such a cynic.
Mother nodded. “Ah, perhaps they were rivals for her affections before the marriage.”
Portia considered Lord Wade’s emotional reaction to the news that Lady Sullivan had died and wondered if mother might not be right. It would explain the estrangement, the long interval since they’d seen each other, and the fact that he’d not learned firsthand of the woman’s death. Close friends wrote to each other all the time. “Wade did seem genuinely upset over Lady Sullivan’s death. I had no chance to learn more, as he disappeared. I think he might actually have left the ball very early.”
“That is unfortunate. Perhaps he will call today and be persuaded to tell all about the mysterious earl and how his wife died.”
Portia shuddered. “I already know. She died in childbirth. Lord Sullivan would have had a son.”
“Ah.” Mother shuddered, too, and then hugged her quickly. “I think we are as prepared as we can be for callers.”
Mother liked to be ready early, always. “I’ll go and fetch Lavinia.”
“Thank you, my dear.”
Mother wandered off toward the stairs while Portia went to find her younger sister. At seventeen, Lavinia was turning into such a beauty that she was already attracting attention on the street. She had yet to be presented at court, though, so she often missed out on amusements unless they were conducted at home. Some of Portia’s gentleman callers cast an appreciative eye over her younger sister when she occasionally joined them in the drawing room. Lavinia was not officially out, but she was never banished to the nursery as many younger sisters often were.
At her sister’s doorway, she knocked once and entered, catching Lavinia unawares. Portia’s paisley shawl was wrapped around her slender shoulders but she was still in bed, wriggling under the covers.
“What a lazy little slugabed you are!” Portia held out her hand. “And that is my shawl.”
“I was cold.”
Lavinia had her own on a nearby chair. Portia snatched it up and tossed it onto the bed. “Give. Mine. Back.”
Lavinia grumbled but returned it. In doing so, Portia discovered she’d been reading in bed again, too. “You are going to be in so much trouble.”
“Don’t tell.” She held the book to her flat chest. “I’ll die if I don’t finish this.”
Portia rolled her eyes. “You’ll die if Mother catches you reading a scandalous novel. You now how she feels about that sort of thing now.”
“But it’s your book!” Lavinia cried.
That was true. Portia did have a small collection of novels that Mother didn’t know anything about, very well hidden, usually. She’d lose them all if Lavinia were caught and tattled on her. “Well, I am clever enough to never be caught reading one in my bed so late in the day.” She flung the covers off her sister. “Put the book away under the mattress and get up. Mother expects you downstairs to greet our callers.”
Lavinia grudgingly did. “This is so unfair.”
“It’s only a book.”
“The best book.” Lavinia twirled about and pulled the bell for a maid. “I cannot wait to fall in love.”
Her enthusiasm was catching, so Portia wrapped her arms about the girl and squeezed. “One day you will fall in love,” Portia promised before dropping a kiss on her pale hair. Love was not in Portia’s future, however. The family had expectations for her that went beyond matters of the heart. “I swear you will. Don’t take too long coming down.”
Portia had the unenviable responsibility of marrying well and raising the family’s consequence in society. Although she had wished it could be otherwise many times, she had accepted that she’d not the luxury of marrying for love. She had to marry to please her parents. She was still under one and twenty, and must have their permission and approval.
Father would only agree to an earl or better for Portia. Anything less was considered beneath them. It was not an opinion Portia shared, but she kept her feelings to herself these days out of fear that they’d marry her off to an older man. In their eyes, she’d had almost two unsuccessful seasons. Her parents were starting to worry she’d never be wanted as anyone’s wife.
Portia made her way downstairs and went into the sunny drawing room where mother was waiting. Portia took her usual place, and then Lavinia rushed in a moment later to entertain them with her practice on the pianoforte.
At the sound of the knocker, Lavinia fell silent and swiftly moved to sit at Portia’s side.
Their butler announced the caller, and Portia looked toward the door with excitement. A very distinguished gentleman appeared, and her smile grew.
“Lord Grindlewood. What a pleasure to have you call on us today, my lord,” Mother exclaimed as the earl strode into their drawing room and bowed.
Of all her potential suitors, Portia was quite particularly drawn to the Earl of Grindlewood’s good looks. She had admired him even before he had restored his fortunes. He was tall, broad in the chest and rather dashing. He made many ladies sigh as he passed, especially so since he was wealthy again.
Having money had its drawbacks, though. Portia never took anyone’s overtures of friendship at face value until she had learned all she could about them. Lord Grindlewood was no different from any other suitor. Fortune or not, he had been thoroughly investigated and vetted as soon as they had met.
He wasn’t much for small talk or smiling but she found him good company. He did not brag or make fun of his fellow gentlemen. Lord Grindlewood had been orphaned young, raised by near strangers, and had lurked about town—Lord Wade’s description, not hers—for several years. His newly recovered fortune made him acceptable everywhere. Grindlewood was, in a sense, perfect husband material.
Portia was not in love with him, but she liked him very much.
She held out her hand to him and he bowed over it. “Miss Hayes, how lovely you look.”
“Thank you.” Portia dipped into a perfect curtsy. “It is very good to see you again, my lord.”
From behind his back, Lord Grindlewood produced a bunch of pink hothouse tulips. “For you.”
The tulips were perfect but sadly not Portia’s favorite flower. However, she took her time enthusing over their color and showing her mother. When complimented enough, the flowers were handed to a maid to be placed in water on a nearby side table. “Please do sit down, my lord.”
“Thank you.” He smiled broadly. “Did you enjoy the ball last night?”
“Indeed we did. I do love to dance,” she enthused. “Did I hear you attended Lady Porter’s musicale earlier in the week?”
“I did indeed. Were you there? I did not see you if you were.”
“No, unfortunately not. I’m not acquainted with the lady, but I long to be. I should like to attend one day. Everyone talks about the superior performances the next day. As you might be aware, my sister has a particular interest in music.”
The earl glanced at Lavinia and smiled. “I heard you as I arrived, and you do play very well.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Lavinia’s face slowly turned pink with embarrassment, which the earl must have noticed because he turned away from her and caught Portia’s eye. “I should be happy to introduce you, should the occasion arise.”
“That would be a wish come true,” Portia enthused. Lady Porter’s musicales were legendary—but so too were her political talks afterward. That aspect of the lady intrigued her more than the music, but women were not supposed to concern themselves with such matters, so she hid her interest for now.
There was a tap at the door and when invited to enter, the butler announced Lord Sullivan.
Another handsome earl in her mother’s drawing room. Mother would be beside herself with glee. Portia smiled happily as he bowed to them.
They chatted together for a little while, and then Lord Grindlewood said his goodbyes, leaving Lord Sullivan to keep them company.
At that point, his lips seemed to fuse together. There was an awkward silence as he smiled nervously. The fellow did not flatter them about their appearance, as Lord Grindlewood had done, and Portia liked him more because of it.
Mother sent for tea and Lord Sullivan exhaled slowly.
Sensing he was more nervous than expected, Portia took control of the conversation. “Did I hear that you and Lord Wade attended the same school?”
“Eton. For the last year, we roomed together. How do you know Wade?”
“He was my very first dance partner after I made my debut.” She’d been in awe of Lord Wade that night, but later, when he’d revealed a few too many bold observations, she learned he wasn’t always a gentleman. “What was he like then?”
“Shorter.” Lord Sullivan laughed. “I don’t think he’s changed very much. Absolutely hates to talk about himself. But he’s a good man, dependable.”
Portia smiled at his praise of Lord Wade. Obviously the earl was more at ease talking about other people. “Which of you excelled at school, and in what subjects?”
“Wade excelled at sport, while I considered a future as a poet, of all things.” He laughed to himself.
Wade had not struck her as much of a sporting fellow, but this handsome man might have a passion for words in the right circumstances. “Do you write often? I should dearly love to read one of your works.”
“I gave all that up when I married my Clare. I used to send her little poems each morning, inspired by our meetings the prior night. I thought myself very gifted, but she was the only one brave enough to confess that I had no talent for it.”
“So the poetry did not win you the lady?”
He shrugged. “It was something else altogether that won me her hand. Something I never expected.”
Portia smiled. She quite liked Lord Sullivan, but he was so different from Lord Wade that she had trouble imagining the pair had much in common. Obviously, the late Lady Sullivan had chosen this man for good reason. “I was very sorry to learn of your wife’s passing. Please accept our condolences.”
“Thank you.” He frowned, and then stood abruptly. His expression was apologetic, almost panicked. “I really must be going.”
“Oh, so soon,” Mother cried, appearing as alarmed as Portia.
Lord Sullivan nodded decisively. “I look forward to seeing you again, Mrs. Hayes, Miss Hayes.” He bowed, very elegantly, and then strode for the door without looking back.
“Oh, I should not have mentioned his wife,” Portia cried softly when the front door shut so soundly. “He was just starting to become comfortable.”
Mother turned to her and nodded. “On the contrary, I think it was wise to bring up his loss early in the acquaintance. His father the duke is in Dorset but his Kent estate is said to be quite modest. He has two brothers and three sisters, but they hardly ever come to Town. He will be the Duke of Northport one day don’t forget.” She nodded. “His father is said to be poorly. Lord Sullivan would make an excellent husband for you.”
“Mother!” Portia chided. “He just lost his wife, and now you’re wishing for his father’s death, too. Lord Northport is in fine health. Why, I saw him only last week in Bond Street. Lord Wade pointed him out to us himself. He seemed quite hale and hearty as he strode along to me.”
Mother’s face fell. “Then you’ll be a duchess in waiting, but only if you bring Lord Sullivan up to scratch before someone else catches his eye. Think of what that will mean for your sister.”
The idea of becoming titled—a duchess perhaps, if she were fortunate—was all that mattered to Portia’s mother and father. She was meant to elevate the family into the aristocracy and ensure her younger sister made an exceptional match, too.
Portia, however, was looking for something more in a husband than the obvious. Strength of character and a modest fortune at a minimum were essential. Although she was an heiress herself, her father would not allow her to marry just anyone. Many a fortune hunter had sought out her company, some had even shamelessly pretended to fall in love with her at first sight in a bid to win her affections.
Another knock sounded, and Mother quickly had the attending maid remove the tea tray. When all was perfect again, she bid the butler enter.
Portia gasped at who followed him. The Duke of Montrose was in their drawing room.
They both bounced to their feet quickly and dipped deep curtsies. They had never received a duke at home before, but they had talked about what to do should it ever come to pass.
Portia stepped forward first. “Lord Montrose, what an unexpected pleasure. How gracious of you to call on our home.”
The Duke of Montrose towered over her, seeming to take up all the air in the room. She was grateful when he sat, and she did her best to slow her frantic heart. They had danced together two weeks ago but she’d not seen him since. Portia could not imagine what might have brought him to their door today.
Mother offered him tea, which he declined immediately.
He glanced around the room. “I imagine you are wondering why I have come.”
“Whatever the reason, we are very glad to have you in our home,” Mother said very quickly.
A brief wince appeared on the duke’s face, and then he turned the full force of his attention on Portia. “Might we speak alone? Just a few minutes will do.”
Portia could not have been more shocked. She glanced at her mother for advice. “I…”
“Your mother and sister may wait outside the open door if you’d prefer,” he announced.
Regardless of what she hoped showed on her face, her mind was racing every which way and that. She wet her lips. “Is that all right, Mother?”
“Yes, of course,” Mother agreed slowly, her eyes full of excitement. “I will be right outside should you need me.”
Mother curtsied and fluttered her way to the door, dragging Lavinia with her. She made such a show of leaving the door ajar that Portia wanted to laugh. She did not, of course. She would never seem to make fun of her mother in front of anyone. When Mother could no longer be seen, she turned her attention to the duke.
He smiled quickly. “I’ve come to ask for your hand.”
Portia knew her lips had parted in shock but she was unable to close her mouth. A proposal was the last thing she’d expected the Duke of Montrose to offer her. She wet her lips quickly. “Could you repeat that?”
“I’ve come to marry you.”
“Hmm,” Portia murmured, and then swallowed. Yes she had heard him correctly the first time, but still… “You’re asking for my hand in marriage. Me.”
“There’s no one else at this address of suitable age,” he said with a slight smile.
The duke had a sense of humor. “Surely you jest.”
“I am not known for it. You will find I am quite a direct man. I’ve considered all the ladies in society, and I think you would be a most appropriate choice to be my duchess.”
Portia exhaled slowly, but her mind continued to race. The Duke of Montrose really was asking for her hand in marriage. Just like that. No flowers, no flattery. No courtship at all. “But you don’t know me.”
He nodded. “I know your father and mother, and what I have seen of you with my own eyes confirms their praise.”
Portia looked down at her hands. “Thank you.”
“Your modesty today recommends you even more, but I am afraid I do require an immediate answer,” he murmured. “We can become better acquainted after you agree.”
Portia swallowed. If she accepted Lord Montrose, she would fulfill her mother’s dearest dream and make her family so happy.
However, she experienced a momentary pang of regret that she would never have a more romantic proposal. As a young girl, Portia had dreamed of this moment and imagined it so much more romantic than this. She’d talked about it with her friends and with her mother and sister too. Portia had once expected her suitor would fall to his knees and declared no one else would do for them.
But that was the dream and this was her reality.
This was why her parents had brought her to London and spent a fortune on her seasons. All so an aristocrat, wealthy and powerful, would ask for her hand in marriage. She was expected to say yes. She had promised her mother and father that she would marry as well as she could too. She had always known she must marry to better the family’s standing in society. Doing so would ensure her sister could marry as she liked and hopefully marry for love when Portia could not.
She swiftly pushed the niggling disappointment aside for what might have been and forced a smile. She nodded slowly, regally. “I would be honored to be your duchess, your grace.”
The Duke of Montrose nodded and got to his feet swiftly. “Thank you.”
Portia thought he was about to lean over and perhaps claim a kiss, but he turned for the door instead and looked out, left and right.
Mother apparently had not lingered long in the hall.
When he returned and sat down again, he was frowning. “We will be married next week.”
“What? No! That is not enough time for the banns to be called.”
He smiled slightly. “Banns are not necessary when one has the means to marry almost immediately.”
“But your grace, it is too soon.” Portia wet her lips and sat forward. “We hardly know each other.”
“You did agree to marry me.”
“But I only agreed because you promised I would have the time to get to know you in the coming weeks.”
He frowned, his jaw worked. “Very well. The banns will be called on Sunday.”
“Thank you, your grace.” There would be time to get to know him, time to plan a sumptuous wedding breakfast, and for Lord and Lady Sorenson to return to London. She so wanted her friend Anna to be there to witness her most important day.
Mother and Father suddenly appeared at the open doorway, and Portia beckoned them inside. “His grace has proposed, and I have accepted.”
Mother shrieked and ran to embrace Portia. “I’m so proud of you, my darling,” she whispered though her tears of joy.
Mother turned to the duke, smiling, but she only dipped him a curtsy. “You have made a wise choice, Lord Montrose.”
“It was an easy decision,” he told her before departing with Father to discuss terms.
Portia watched him go, waiting for the moment when she might feel as happy as her mother.
“As you can see, I’ve taken excellent care of the piece,” Julian murmured as he stood back with a smile, but he couldn’t dispel the sadness that had been his constant companion since he’d arisen that morning.
Clare was gone.
Mr. Jones, a fellow sent to him by a mutual acquaintance, squinted and ran his hand over the billiard table’s perfect felt top. Jones was new money, a merchant looking to furnish his new home in Orchard Square. Jones moved around the table slowly, looking for imperfections in the heavily carved oak from all angles. He would find none. Julian had realized long ago that imperfections cost money. “What do you say, Jones?”
The man patted his belly, and then started nodding. “I’ll take it at the price you want. I won’t haggle over fine-quality workmanship like this. It’s a good deal, but I don’t know why you would part with it.”
“I don’t play anymore.” That wasn’t quite true. He played at the club but only occasionally. He also preferred to call upon his friends in their homes if he could. The table was an unnecessary indulgence. It had been purchased by Julian’s father—along with many fine things that were meant to convey affluence and riches they’d never had. Father had liked to show off before his friends and enemies. Unfortunately, the billiard table and many other similarly useless extravagances had placed a considerable drain on the family fortune until the day he died.
Since then, Julian had been attempting to rebuild, but mostly all he’d managed to do was survive, to delay the inevitable fall. Father had not invested wisely, and the losses since his death just kept coming.
“The table has only been gathering dust. I do hope you enjoy it more than I had time for.”
They shook hands, and Julian was pleased beyond measure that Jones handed over the funds immediately.
He tucked the proceeds into his pocket, feeling immense relief. The funds from this sale would go toward paying his servants’ next quarterly wages and settle an outstanding bill of his aunt’s from her dressmaker. The little that remained after would be locked away for any unforeseen expenses in the coming month.
Julian had learned to be frugal, but the worry of keeping up appearances was starting to take a toll on his emotions. Some days were harder than others.
Jones gestured his men forward and they grunted and heaved to get the piece out of the room. “This would go faster with a few more men to help carry the load,” Jones grumbled, casting the elderly butler at his side a hopeful glance.
“My servants are busy elsewhere right now,” Julian said as dismissively as he could before the butler could do something foolish, like offer his assistance or send for the boot boy. The few servants Julian kept were working hard enough, carrying on the duties of twice their number to keep the house Julian couldn’t get rid of in fair order.
He glanced out the front window to the bustling square and presented his back, falling back on familiar habits. He pretended the required indifference to their struggle as befitting a gentleman in possession of a title. He had been born to be a viscount, not a laborer—although he could end up one, he supposed. For now, he’d do everything he could to keep his place in society.
Unfortunately, selling off an item as big as this was sure to draw attention to the townhouse. There was no help for it. Only the front door was wide enough to emit the table, and Julian needed the money from this sale rather desperately.
He had to continue to spout the same story, that he was bored with the game, so few would question his real motive.
Jones had gotten a good bargain in their deal and thankfully said not another word about needing more men or help. Eventually they got the piece out to the street and loaded onto a cart to begin their short trip around Hanover Square, bound for Orchard Square.
Jones returned, rushing into the room. “I almost forgot the other things for the table,” he exclaimed apologetically, rushing to collect the billiard balls and sticks.
Julian nodded but then remembered an oversight. He heaved another sigh and strode to the mantel and carefully pulled down an item from the wall. He returned to Jones, forcing a smile. “To help you keep score against your opponents, and your enemies, too. No charge.”
“Thank you, my lord. Thank you very much. But I cannot take something for nothing. Here.” Mr. Jones shoved a handful of notes into Julian’s hand. “I believe a man should pay a fair price.”
Jones clutched the counter board tight to his chest and juggled the lot on his way out the door. The butler followed to shut the front doors and the house was finally silent.
It was also painfully emptier.
Julian shoved the extra notes in his pocket as the butler returned. He’d gotten more than the counter was worth, but glanced around the nearly empty front room and bare wall with a pang of regret. The emptiness would be noticed immediately by the next person to call on him.
Luckily, Julian had already considered what to do about that.
He strode to the next room and picked up an armchair.
The butler spluttered.
“It’s time to do a little redecorating around the house,” he muttered, looking at the man apologetically. “Mosely, could you fetch the small round table and put it beside this chair?”
Julian could do most of the little changes himself, but he should not do everything.
He’d moved two comfortable armchairs and another oval table to sit before the front window before his aunt swept into the room.
“Where’s my billiard table?” she cried.
“My table,” Julian corrected her. “I sold it.”
Aunt Hesper’s face fell, and the newssheet in her hand crinkled as she crushed it. “But I was seduced on that table after I won my first game.”
The butler choked and quickly fled the room.
Julian shook his head. “I’m glad you waited until after the deal was struck and Mr. Jones was gone before you mentioned that fact out loud. Poor Mosely, though. He may never look at you the same way again.”
“Lenthall was quite proud of me that day.”
Aunt Hesper and her late husband had enjoyed a passionate marriage. Unfortunately, she sometimes liked to share those reminiscences out loud more often than Julian preferred.
His aunt came forward and sighed as she looked about the room. “It’s not fair.”
Acid burned in his stomach. “It is what it is, I’m afraid. We needed the money,” he explained before he leaned down to kiss her wrinkled cheek.
His aunt was silent a while. “My pearls. You could sell them, too.”
“No, absolutely not.” The pearls were a treasured possession of hers, a gift from her husband on her wedding day, but not worth very much. Better that she keep them for as long as possible. “We’re fine for now.”
“For how long?”
“Long enough.” Julian glanced around. “I need to finish this in case someone comes to visit. Why don’t you take a seat by the window while I find a servant to help me move my desk to this room.”
“Very well, dearie,” she agreed as she shuffled to the new seating arrangement. She tossed the crumpled newssheet onto one chair before claiming the other.
Wade found the fellow easily enough below stairs, pulling him away from helping Cook prepare luncheon. Together, they got Julian’s favorite furniture arranged nicely in the larger space, and then he closed up the adjoining empty room. “One less room to heat and clean for the winter,” he murmured, pleased with that.
“Yes, my lord,” the man agreed. “Can I assist you with anything else?”
“No, that will be all,” he promised. “Thank you.”
The few servants he had remaining were kind enough to have held their tongues about the strict economies he’d been making this past year out of some misplaced affection for the family. Unfortunately, he would have to let another man go later today, and he wished he didn’t have to take such a step. He’d no need for a stable hand, since he’d already sold his last horse. He’d been putting the matter off in the hope that things could be turned around. The stables were empty now, and the fellow without chores to earn his keep.
“My poor brother would be turning in his grave to know the troubles he’d brought down upon you,” Auntie whispered as he rejoined her in the newly organized study.
Julian actually liked the change of scenery and having money in his pocket for once. He would have a view of Hanover Square now. He could read by the window, too, and see who came and went without ever bothering to get up.
Julian headed for the liquor cabinet and unlocked it. He poured two small measures of whiskey and handed one to his aunt. He dropped a kiss on her forehead. “Father never gave the future a second thought. He was having too much fun being scandalous.”
“It was fun while the money lasted,” she murmured. “But this is deplorable. We should do something.”
Julian agreed. “I have tried numerous times to sell the lease on the townhouse, but you keep pretending it’s haunted when I bring anyone around.”
“This is my home,” she whispered. “And it is haunted, too.”
“It is not. And home is where your heart is, and where your family resides. Wherever that may be, I will always look after the living. If I cannot sell the lease, I was thinking of subletting the place next season. We could spend spring and summer with friends.”
Julian took a sip, aware that the melancholy of their situation was worse for his aunt. She remembered when things had been good, when they had entertained and traveled widely. She hated that the family fortunes were in decline.
“You will have to marry,” she announced suddenly.
They’d had this discussion before. It was unnecessary. He knew what choices he had left. Just the one—but the timing had to be right. For now, he chose to make light of the situation and his fears. “Or turn to thievery,” he countered.
She chuckled. “You walk too heavily upon the earth to be a good thief. Most likely you would feel guilty, too, and put everything back the next day. What about gambling?”
“You need money to do that, and I will not risk what we have.”
She nodded slowly. “Then a wife it is. A rich one.”
“Yes,” he said morosely. Portia possessed a dowry to solve every problem for the rest of his life, but he was nervous about asking her to marry him. He was not sure her heart had softened toward him enough. He was well aware that he might only have one chance. If she refused, he could never ask again. He would be too humiliated to try.
Auntie clucked her tongue. “Being married isn’t painful, not for the husband, anyway.”
He rolled his eyes at her quip. “Being proven a fortune hunter is, though. Because I certainly am one, even before I begin courting.”
Auntie leaned forward. “She does seem to favor you now.”
Julian knew whom she was speaking of without Portia Hayes’ name being mentioned. They had both been watching Portia since her debut—Auntie encouraging her out of her mother’s shadow, while Julian kept the true scoundrels of society, fortune hunters particularly, from ruining her just to claim her ridiculously large dowry.
Unfortunately, he’d not done so well at recommending himself as a potential spouse until recent events had brought them together. The lack of funds meant he could not afford to bring her daffodils when he called or send love notes by messenger to prove she meant more to him than her dowry.
Seeking distraction, Julian picked up the paper next to him and smoothed the pages. He flipped to the spot he’d been reading at breakfast, hoping for good news.
“Lord Mallory married last week by special license,” Auntie said suddenly. “He chose Elaine Whittaker for his bride.”
“Devil take it!” Julian threw the paper away, disappointed by this turn of events. “I liked her but he’s an ass.”
“They say it is a love match,” Auntie said in a soothing tone. “Best not to interfere with those things.”
“Of course they say that. But he also happens to be rich into the bargain, so of course she fell in love with him.”
Auntie clucked her tongue. “It won’t do you any good feeling sorry for yourself, dearie.”
Julian bowed his head. Frustrated by his life. If his father was alive, he’d wring his bloody neck. “This is hopeless. If not for this accursed house, we’d be far better off.”
“All the best families have lived in this square.”
“I hope that is some consolation for you when winter comes and the house is freezing.”
“You worry too much.”
He leaned toward her. “There’ll be no money for coal, dearie.”
A look of stubborn determination crossed her face. “We’ll come about. We’ve waded through thick and thin together all these years.”
She started chuckling to herself, and Julian groaned. “That sort of thing wasn’t funny when I was a boy, and it certainly is not now.”
That only made her laugh harder.
He raked a hand through his hair. Once rumors of the billiard table sale circulated, his situation would be looked at more closely by those who knew him. Marrying a daughter to an impoverished viscount was hardly the stuff of dreams for any ambitious family, but he had no time to dally. “If I can convince her, then I’ll stop worrying,” he promised.
“Remember, you’re as deserving as the next man.”
“I know that. But the inequality of money will be the true stumbling block. You know how much trouble Sullivan had with Clare’s family getting in his way. I can’t imagine I’ll have better luck.” He burst to his feet. “I’ll begin courting her tonight.”
“If she has any sense, she’ll only care about your heart.”
He moved to the front windows and peered outside, impatience making his toe tap. “She’s invited to the Daventry Ball tonight, too. We should get there early. The best I can hope for is to beat the others to claim the supper dance.”
“What if she has promised it to another?”
He spread his hands wide. “I’ll take anything else left. If not, abduction seems a reasonable alternative to a proper courtship, doesn’t it?”
He was joking of course. He would never disrespect Portia by sullying her reputation. Not when he’d done all he could to keep it pristine.
“That happened a lot in my day.” Auntie sighed. “Only the most ardent of lovers risked the run for the Scottish border with the angry family in hot pursuit.”
“That’s a little more than I planned,” he said, and then glanced at his aunt. “Shouldn’t you be trying to stop me from ruining her?”
“I know your heart is in the right place.” Auntie leaned back and closed her eyes. “Those other fellows see only her dowry and what they can do with it. You don’t.” She started to chuckle. “Although with a dowry that plump, there is a great many things that could be done around here.”
“Not here. I quite like her uncle’s house.”
Auntie pulled a face. “At least that is something in your favor. You both seem to prefer the place, though why, I cannot imagine. Would you really move so far from Mayfair?”
“I would.” Julian glanced around, grimacing. “Try not to scare off the next gentleman who expresses interest in taking on our lease. No matter how large Portia’s dowry may be, we cannot be wasteful and try to live in two places at once.”
“Oh very well, but I do want to have a say one day again,” she grumbled.
“Everything but the decoration of her uncle Oliver’s house.” Julian quickly kissed her cheek.
“If the boy was here, he’d be on my side about all this,” she complained.
The boy was Nigel, Julian’s younger brother. “Nigel has already assured me he is perfectly fine with anything I decide. I bought him the commission he wanted. He’s happy, I think.”
Auntie pouted. “It’s too quiet without him.”
“We will see him again, as soon as he has leave to visit us.”
She squinted at him. “You need children.”
“Don’t get too far ahead of the present.” Julian laughed. The things Auntie said sometimes were beyond the pale. “Excuse me.”
“Where are you going?”
“To tell the groom to make himself useful in the kitchen rather than the stables. I might have enough to keep him in employment if I am accepted in the next two weeks.” He turned back to his aunt. “Oh, don’t forget, you’re coming to the Daventry ball tonight, too. I’ll need you there to keep her mother occupied, should I somehow manage to claim the supper dance. Wear something pretty with your pearls and stay out of the wine cellar. I’ll see you at eight in the front hall.”
“Julian,” Auntie called. “She will say yes to you.”
“We’ll find out tonight,” he replied before hurrying off. “My luck has to change for the better soon.”