Monday, January 30, 2017

To Catch a Captain

Miss Bridget Kelly
10 Henry Street
Dublin, Ireland

October 20, 1815

Dear Miss Kelly, 

I write this letter with a heavy heart. Before your brother’s untimely passing, I had the pleasure of speaking with him at great length about you. Mr. Kelly always spoke fondly of you. He was quite devoted to you and your happiness. My family will never be able to repay your brother for his selfless act of heroism, but I know he would rest easier if he knew you were under my care. 

Please accept the enclosed funds for your fare from Dublin to London. Please book your passage as soon as it is convenient for you. I very much look forward to making your acquaintance. 

Cordelia, Countess of Clayworth
Clayworth House, London


Clayworth House, Mayfair – December 1815

Amazon  |  B&N  | iBooks
Kobo  |  Google Play
“Deliveries are ‘round the back.” The stoic butler looked down his slightly hooked nose at Miss Bridget Kelly. 
Did it look like she was delivering something? Bridget gulped and griped her portmanteau tighter in her hands. “I’ve come at Lady Clayworth’s invitation. I think she means to offer me employment.” Which Bridget could desperately use. After Sean’s death, money had been scarce and Bridget had become more than a burden to her already struggling uncle and cousins.
The butler’s brow rose in surprise. “Her ladyship means to offer you employment?”
He didn’t need to sound so skeptical about it. Bridget could mend and sew and cook better than any of her cousins. “If you’d just let me see Lady Clayworth.” Bridget reached into her pocket to retrieve the countess’ letter. 
“Lord and Lady Clayworth are in the country, miss.”
The country? Aililiú!
He started to shut the door, and would have done so if Bridget hadn’t dropped her portmanteau over the threshold, blocking the door from closing. “Perhaps they’ll have work for you when they return to Town in the spring.” 
In the spring? Bridget couldn’t possibly wait that long. She shook her head. “But her ladyship sent for me.”
The butler frowned as he kicked at her portmanteau. “Then perhaps she wanted to offer you work in Derbyshire, though that seems just as unlikely.”
But the letter had said London. Of course, Bridget had been detained in leaving Dublin. Cousin Kevin had taken ill, and she hadn’t felt right about leaving Uncle Cormac with the child until he was back on his little feet. But now here she was in London, all alone, without a friend in the world. Finally, Bridget nodded. “Derbyshire, then. Very well.”
“Very well?” he echoed as though she’d lost her mind. “Miss, I’m certain you can find work in London, even if you are Irish. There’s no need to go to Derbyshire.”
“But Lady Clayworth sent for me,” she stressed, ignoring the slight to her nationality. After all, no one she’d met in London had been terribly friendly once she opened her mouth and they realized she wasn’t one of them. There was no point in getting angry about it now. She needed every bit of help she could get from the butler, though he didn’t seem terribly eager to give it. “How should I get to Derbyshire, sir?”
He looked her up and down, most likely taking in her threadbare dress and ragged shawl, then said rather arrogantly, “I’d suggest the mail coach if you insist on going.”
She might be able to afford the mail coach. She did still have a few coins left to her name. If she didn’t spend any of it on food, she could manage a few days. Besides, what other choice did she have? She couldn’t stay in London. She didn’t have a roof to put over her head here. And she didn’t have enough to go back to Dublin. Derbyshire it would have to be. “Which stop?” she asked as she retrieved her portmanteau. “To where her ladyship is in Derbyshire? Which stop?”
“The family seat to the Earl of Clayworth is Bayhurst Court. The town of Bakewell is not far, though I’ve never been there myself. Good luck to you, miss.” And then the man promptly shut the door in Bridget’s face. 
She turned on her heel, pulled her wrap tighter about her arms, and clutched her mother’s old portmanteau to her chest as she descended the steps of Clayworth House. A coachman driving down Hertford Street glanced at her as he drove past, frowning as though she was the lowest form of gutter trash littering the pristine walk with her mere presence. Bridget hastened her pace toward Park Lane, anxious to find her way back to a less ostentatious area of London, some place coachmen and butlers wouldn’t look down on her, some place someone might take pity on her and actually be of help.
She gestured for a hack, and three passed her by before one finally stopped. “I need to go to the closest coachin’ inn.”
“Get in, mum.”
“How much will it cost?” She needed to know upfront as she had so very little left, and she still needed to purchase her fare to Derbyshire once she arrived at the inn. 
“Agh.” The driver sneered. “If ye can’t afford it, ye can’t afford it.” Then he urged his bay forward, leaving Bridget alone once more. 
He was probably right. Though it would have been nice if he’d at least pointed her in the right direction. 
“Ye need to get to a coachin’ inn?” A little urchin sitting on the edge of the road scrambled to his feet. Bridget hadn’t even noticed the lad until he spoke.
“Aye.” She nodded, relieved to receive whatever help she could get, even if it did come in such a small package. “Do you know the way?”
“This way.” The child gestured toward Picadilly. “I’ll show ye.”
Bridget sent up a silent prayer of thanks to Saint Christopher for sending a traveling guide to her when she most needed one. 
* * *
Rufford Hall, Nottinghamshire 
Captain Russell Avery stared into his whisky glass. He’d lost count of the times he’d emptied it this evening, but he was about to do so again. And maybe once more after that.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” His oldest brother Gregory, Baron Avery, asked as he dropped into an over-stuffed leather chair in between Russell and a slowly dying fire in the hearth. 
“I’ve had enough of people asking me that question,” Russell grumbled. Or at least that’s what he meant to say. He was slightly foxed, and some of the words might have rearranged themselves when they escaped his mouth.  He wasn’t entirely sure.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Greg asked.
His oldest brother had certainly picked a fine time to want to talk about it. After all, Russell’s tongue felt a bit too big for his mouth in his present condition. Besides, talking about it would not change a thing. The fact remained that their younger brother had run off with Russell’s fiancée, and no amount of talking about it would make the situation more palatable. 
Greg kicked his long legs out in front of him. “Cordie says you’ll head to Bayhurst Court with her at the end of the week.” 
Yes, so their baby sister could try to make things better for him. She’d fail at that, but Russell hadn’t had the heart to tell her so. Besides, he had to go somewhere and he’d rather not stay at Rufford Hall, surrounded by all the memories of his and his brothers’ formative years together. Before Tristan’s betrayal. And he’d rather not go back to London where he and Tristan had lived side by side since their return from the battlefields. Not right now at any rate.  “Since you already know everything, there’s no reason to talk to you.”
“No reason except you’re my brother and I’m worried about you.” 
“I’ve been through worse.”
Greg heaved a beleaguered sigh. “You’ve been given a second chance, Russ. Next time you should probably love the girl you ask to marry you.”
So that it would hurt even worse when she ran off with another fellow? Russell slowly turned his head, glaring at his older brother with all the fury of their once-great Saxon ancestors. “If you tell me that I’m better off because Tristan stole Phoebe from me, I’ll crack that poker right over your head.”
“You are an irritable drunk,” Greg said calmly, damn him. 
Russell would much rather yell at Greg, spar with him, or even better convince Greg to loathe Tristan as much as Russell did at the moment. Greg’s calm façade was a bloody nuisance. “I told you I didn’t want to talk about it.”
“But not talking about it won’t make it go away. If it’s any consolation, I do believe he’s desperately in love with her.”
It was no consolation, no matter that Russell was not and never had been desperately in love with her. Honestly, he hadn’t even been a little in love with her at any time during their courtship. But that was all irrelevant. “Don’t expect me to forgive his betrayal, Greg. If that’s what you’re getting at, you can save your breath.”
“He’s our brother.”
“Not mine,” Russell growled. “Not any more.”
Greg sighed again, which was quite irritating now that Russell thought about it. “I just wish you could find some peace, Russ.”
But the only peace, the only heaven Russell had ever experienced was between one woman’s legs or another. Actually, that idea had merit, now that he thought about it. A few coins would buy him a bit of peace, which was sorely needed at the moment. He pushed out of his chair and wobbled slightly until he found his balance. 
“Where are you going?”

“Somewhere no one wants talk to me.” And with that, Russell strode from the sitting room, leaving his brother all alone. 


Monday, January 23, 2017

The English Lieutenant's Lady


London – June 1815
Amazon  |  B&N  |  iBooks
Kobo  |  Google Play
After all his years spent on one side of the war-torn continent or the other, with only a slight respite the previous year from all the death and destruction, Lieutenant Tristan Avery was finally home. Home, with all of London’s once familiar sights, sounds and, of course, the smell that could only be the Thames.
He glanced across the hired hack at his brother and shook his head. “I wish Philip was here.”
Captain Russell Avery agreed with a nod. “Me too. But the surgeon promised Philip would be fine. He won’t be too far behind us.” Then he smirked. “So, I suppose we’ll simply have to make do without his preaching for the next while or so.”
Preaching. Russell’s euphemism for their childhood friend’s stoic, moral nature. “If you’d only behave, he’d have no reason to suggest you do otherwise.”
Russell laughed. “And what a boring life that would be. No, no, no. I intend to enjoy my return to civilization one pretty woman at a time.”
As though Russell had gone without female companionship the last few years. The last few nights was more like it. Still Tristan couldn’t help but needle his brother. “So relieved to hear you’ve decided to end things with the Greywood chit. I lamented having to look upon her during all of our future family gatherings.”
Russell’s smile faded and he heaved a sigh. “Don’t start again. Phoebe is perfectly fine.”
“I wouldn’t think perfectly fine would be all one wanted in a wife,” Tristan replied, then he shrugged. “But then I’m not the one getting married.” Or the one who’d had his way with more women than he could count all across the continent the last half dozen years either. Well, Tristan had enjoyed his fair share of women, but he wasn’t betrothed. Though in all honesty, Russell hadn’t been either until last year. 
“Well, I’m not married yet.” Russell leaned forwards on his bench. “Why don’t we stop of at Madam Palmer’s for old time’s sake?”
Whores so early in the day? Tristan gaped at his brother as though he’d lost his mind. “I would like to see our sister.”
Russell dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. “We can see her any time.”
“And our nephew,” Tristan continued. “I would like to see little Julian. Clayworth probably has him reciting lines from the Magna Carta by now.”
Russell rolled his eyes. “We were gone less than four months. I’m sure the little imp isn’t even out of his bassinet, yet.”
Four months, but it felt like four lifetimes. Tristan frowned at his brother, hating that Russell had a point. Still, they had yet to lay eyes on the infant, born during this last campaign. He’d missed so much in his absence. He missed London. He missed his dear sister. He missed… everything. “Do what you like,” he muttered. After all, Russell would do what he wanted anyway, no matter what Tristan thought about it. “But I am heading to Clayworth House, and I’m not going to let Cordie or her little bundle out of my sight all day.”
“Well, that sounds perfectly dreadful.” Russell yawned as though the subject bored him immensely. “But you can take my bag with you, I’ll be otherwise occupied.” He closed his eyes and leaned against the shabby squabs. “I plan to be welcomed home in an altogether different fashion.”
“Madam Palmer’s?” Tristan asked, even though he knew the answer. 
A rakish grin settled on Russell’s lips. “I have missed English girls.”
Yet they’d only been gone less than four months, and he’d had plenty of foreign girls to tide him over in the meantime. Before Tristan could say as much, the hack jerked to a stop. Tristan smiled as the familiar sight of their sister’s home on Hertford Street appeared through the window.  He tossed open the door and bounded out onto the walk. 
“Toss me both bags, will you?” he called to the driver. 
“What about the captain?”
Tristan shook his head. “He’ll get your fare. He’s headed to Covent Garden.”
The driver’s brow lifted in surprise, then he snorted as though the situation was no matter to him. A moment later he tossed both bags to Tristan, tipped his hat in farewell, and urged his pair of bays back towards Park Lane. 
Tristan slung both bags over his left shoulder and climbed the steps to Clayworth House. The door opened before he could knock and Higgins, his sister’s usually stoic butler, beamed at him. 
“Lieutenant, you’re home!” the servant gushed as he held the door wide. “Lady Clayworth will be so relieved to see you!”
Tristan stepped over the threshold and lowered both bags to the marble floor. “I will be happy to see her too, Higgins. Do tell me she’s here.”
“Of course, sir, of course. Right in there.” The butler gestured to the formal green parlor, directly to Tristan’s right. “Shall I announce you?”
“No.” Tristan shook his head. “I think I’ll surprise her.”
“Very good, Lieutenant. I’ll have you put in your usual room.” Higgins glanced at the pair of bags at Tristan’s feet. “Is Captain Avery with you as well?”
“He’ll be along soon, I’m sure,” Tristan replied as he made his way to the parlor entrance. Just as he stepped over the threshold, a stream of giggles reached his ears. Damn it, Cordie wasn’t alone. Even worse, he knew that giggle. 
But before he had time to think on it, Cordie spotted him. She squealed, leapt off the settee, and raced across the parlor, throwing her arms around his neck. “Oh, Tris!” Her hold tightened around him. “I’ve never been so glad to see anyone,” she whispered, just for his ears.
Tristan held her close, so very relieved to be home. He kissed Cordie’s cheek, then set her away from him so he could look her over. “Motherhood agrees with you.” And truly she did look more radiant than ever. 
“Oh!” Cordie beamed at him. “Julian is sleeping, but I can’t wait for you to see him.”
“I could peek in the nursery,” Tristan suggested. 
But his sister shook her head, her dark brown curls swaying with the movement. “You’ll wake him and then he’ll be fussy. And I want you to see him at his most charming.”
Tristan was certain the child could scream his lungs out and he’d still find the tiny baron charming. He glanced over his sister’s shoulder and found Miss Phoebe Greywood, her hands folded in front of her, standing beside a high-back chair. “Miss Greywood,” he said curtly, because he had to say something.
A forced smile settled on her face as she met his gaze. “Lieutenant,” she returned. “So glad you’ve returned home safely.”
The little liar. She’d have been just as happy if Tristan had fallen to his death in Belgium. They’d never cared for each other, but she seemed to be making an effort at least. “Thank you. You are looking lovely.” 
That, at least, was the truth. Phoebe Greywood might annoy him at every turn, but she was lovely. Rich auburn hair piled high on her head with delicate tendrils framing her heart-shaped face. Pretty azure eyes that twinkled when she was happy, not that she was generally happy in Tristan’s presence, but he’d seen her often enough with Russell. And an enchanting smile that lit her countenance, making her seem the cheeriest of girls. 
“Thank you, sir. Is…” Miss Greywood cleared her throat. “Is Captain Avery with you?”
Tristan shook his head. “Not at the present.”
“Where is Russell?” Cordie asked, a slight tone of petulance to her voice.
Presently? About to get his knob polished, if Tristan had to wager a guess, not that he could say as much to his sister or his brother’s intended. His eyes flashed again to Phoebe Greywood. She looked so hopeful, so… innocent. Poor girl. She had no idea what she was truly in for after she married Russell. Her days of wondering where the scoundrel captain was were just beginning. “He had something to attend to. I’m certain he’ll be along as soon as he can.” Then he turned his attention back to his sister. “But Philip…”
The color drained from Cordie’s face. “Oh, no, Tris! Tell me he’s all right.”
Tristan winced a bit. “He’ll live,” he stressed the word. “He took a ball and a bayonet. His leg is bad, I won’t lie to you, but he’s getting stronger everyday.”
“Oh, good heavens.” Cordie touched a hand to her heart. “They didn’t take his leg?”
“No,” Tristan assured her. “The surgeon says he’ll have to use a cane the rest of his days, but he’ll walk again.”
Relief settled across Cordie’s features, but she still looked slightly pained. “The poor man.”
Indeed. Tristan agreed with a nod. “I still don’t think it comes close to the pain in his heart though.”
His sister heaved a sigh. “Let’s not dredge that back up. Livvie never meant to hurt him and what’s done is done.”
Tristan shrugged. “I’m not dredging anything up. I’m just worried about him. If you get the chance to see him when he returns, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the matter.”
Cordie nodded, then her face lit up with a smile once again. “Oh, Tris. I’m so glad to see you whole and hale.”
And though Tristan would like to spend the afternoon reminiscing with his dear sister, he’d really rather not spend anymore time than was necessary in Phoebe Greywood’s presence. He felt slightly dirty lying to her about his brother’s whereabouts, and he’d rather not suffer the feeling the rest of the day. “Is Clayworth in? Or is he at his club?”
Cordie gestured to the corridor. “He’s in his study. Do you want me to find you when Julian awakes?”

Tristan flashed her a grin. “I would be quite sore with you if you didn’t.”


Monday, January 16, 2017

My Favorite Major


Clayworth House, Mayfair – October 1815
Amazon  |  B&N  |  iBooks
Kobo  |  Google Play
The only thing worse than a Peninsular battlefield was a London ballroom, at least to Major Philip Moore’s way of thinking. Though the two locations did have striking similarities with enemy camps and cross purposes. And, of course, Philip had never reveled in being in either place. 
“Must you look so sour?” His oldest friend, Captain Russell Avery clapped a hand to Philip’s back. “We are heroes, but you’re still managing to frighten away all the pretty girls.”
Russell could have every pretty girl in London for all Philip cared. As he couldn’t have his girl, the only girl he’d ever loved, Philip didn’t particularly care about any of the others who flitted past him. “I thought you were betrothed to the Greywood chit.”
“She didn’t write me as often as she promised.” His friend shrugged.
Philip snorted. “At least she didn’t marry some blackguard in your absence.”
“True,” Russell conceded. “But I’m not married to her yet, and as she didn’t correspond as much as I’d expected, I think I shall act the role of a scout this evening and try to determine which young lady is the best kisser in attendance.”
“Then won’t you be busy? Or leg-shackled to some other chit you barely know and ruin Miss Greywood’s prospects in the meantime.”
Russell touched a hand to his heart. “You do wound me, Moore. Do you have so little faith in my scouting abilities?”
Philip had seen Russell seduce Flemish beauties, Spanish señoritas, Scottish lasses, and Portuguese meninas. “No. I just think you’re forgetting that we’re home…in England.”
Russell laughed.  “Oh, I am quite well aware of the fact, mon ami. But the luster of a hero-returned is bound to dull eventually. Best to make the most of our situation now, while we can.” 
Philip wasn’t quite certain when Russell had become so opportunistic. “What am I even doing here with you?”
Again, his friend laughed and gestured across the room to his sister, Cordelia, the Countess of Clayworth. “I believe Cordie browbeat you into attending, did she not?”
Russell was most certainly correct on that score. Cordie Clayworth had begged and pleaded with Philip to attend her ball. He’d only agreed after she promised him that Olivia and her disreputable husband wouldn’t be among the numbers. It was one thing knowing Olivia had married another while he was away, and another to have to see the happy couple paraded before him at every turn. “Cordie need not feel guilty on Olivia’s behalf. I certainly don’t hold her responsible for the situation.”
Russell sighed as though the topic had grown tedious. In all honesty, they had discussed the situation at length more than once. “She just wants you to find the blinding happiness she has found herself. So humor her, will you? Find some chit you can tolerate to stand up with at least once. Otherwise Cordie will plague you, on that you can be certain.”
Philip tapped his injured leg with his cane. “She could be Cleopatra returned, and I wouldn’t dance with her on this leg.”
“You just insist on being maudlin, don’t you?” Russell grumbled. “If not dancing, then find some girl with whom you could enjoy a nice conversation. Or better yet, one who might actually bring a smile to your face, though I’m not sure if Cordie knows any miracle workers.” 
Like a good soldier following orders, but mostly to appease his friend, Philip’s eyes swept across the throng of happy guests. No. Not one girl caught his eye. Perhaps it was still too soon. Or perhaps it would always be too soon. And then he spotted a blonde a few feet away and, if Philip wasn’t mistaken, she was laughing at him.  Her light eyes twinkled with undisguised mirth.
Perhaps there was something humorous behind him. Philip glanced over each of his shoulders, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. He looked back at the blonde, only to find her laughing even harder. She didn’t even try to conceal her amusement behind her fan. 
“Do I have something on my face?” Philip muttered, touching his cheek as he spoke. 
Russell shook his head. “Just your nose.”
Philip scowled at his friend. “Amusing as always.” Then he gestured towards the giggling chit with his head. “I think that girl over there is laughing at me.”
Russell chuckled. “Must not know you. Nothing remotely funny about you.”
“I am starting to wonder why we’re friends.”
“Friends?” Russell feigned a shocked expression. “I think of you more as a brother.” Then he turned his attention to the girl in question. “Ah, Miss Amelia Pritchard. Don’t waste your time with that one, Moore.”
“I wasn’t planning on it,” Philip replied gravely. He wouldn’t have even noticed the girl if she hadn’t been laughing at him, which certainly did not recommend her.
“Brilliant decision. Substandard kisser,” Russell informed him and turned his attention back to the dancers. “Now Miss Dewhurst, on the other hand…”
Philip snorted. “Good God, Russ! How many of these girls have you kissed?”
His friend shrugged. “And you doubted my scouting abilities.” Then Russell straightened. “Don’t look now, but my sister is headed this direction.”
Philip did look to his right to find that Cordie Clayworth was indeed headed in their direction. He smiled at his childhood friend who had become a beauty when he wasn’t paying attention. “My lady,” he said in way of greeting the countess and nodded his head. “You are more lovely every time I see you, Cordie.”
At his side, Russell scoffed. “There’s no need to flatter her.”
Cordie playfully rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Philip. I was plagued with three of the most awful brothers.” She smiled graciously at him. “How refreshing to spend time with a true gentleman.”
“Watch yourself, Cordie,” Russell warned. “Or you’ll have Clayworth making a dawn appointment with Moore.”
Philip glared at his friend for even broaching the subject, which was still a sore one where the two of them were concerned. “Well, if he does, I’ll be certain to get myself a much better second than the one I had the last time.”
Russell snorted. “You’ll thank me for that eventually.”
“Don’t hold your breath.” Philip realized Cordie was frowning at the two of them, and he feigned a smile for her benefit. “Apologies, Lady Clayworth. Not the best ballroom conversation, is it?”
“Just reminds me once again that the two of you are men.” She said the word as though it were a vile curse. 
Russell chuckled. “Don’t know how you need to be reminded of that fact, love.” Then he gestured with his head to the other side of the ballroom. “Why did you invite Amelia Pritchard, by the way?”
Cordie stared at her brother as though he’d sprouted an extra nose. “Because she’s staying with Clayworth and me here in London, as you well know. I couldn’t very well not invite her, not that I would even want to do so. She’s a sweet girl. What is the matter with you, Russell?”
Her brother shrugged. “She’s been laughing at Philip. Can you believe it? Quite ill-mannered, if you ask me, especially as he’s not amusing in the least. Perhaps they don’t have the same manners in Wales. Isn’t that where she’s from?”
Cordie’s green eyes narrowed on her brother. “You know exactly where she’s from. Have you been imbibing, Russell Avery?”
“No. But perhaps Miss Pritchard has been. That might explain her proclivity to laughter. You should go see if you smell spirits on her breath. I’d hate for her antics to embarrass you or Clayworth.”
“If you want me to leave—” Cordie tipped her nose in the air “—you need only ask.” Then she turned on her heel and made her way around the perimeter of the ballroom, finally stopping at the strange Miss Pritchard’s side. 
Hmm. Was Russell correct? Was it possible the chit was foxed? That might explain her absurd behavior.
* * *
Amelia Pritchard squeezed her new cousin’s hand. “Your ball is delightful, Cordie.”
The countess leaned close and kissed Amelia’s cheek in greeting. “Thank you, Amelia. Please tell me you’re enjoying yourself.”
“Oh, indeed. I had no idea so many people would be in Town this time of year.”
“There are always some who never leave.” Cordie glanced across the ballroom where her brother and the very serious Major Moore still stood in conversation. She frowned briefly before returning her attention to Amelia. “Tell me, are you acquainted with my dear friend Major Moore?”
“Only by reputation,” Amelia replied honestly. After all, Captain Avery might as well have given her a written report on the officer, not that she could admit as much to the countess. The captain had been very adamant on that point.
Cordie shook her head as though trying to remove a nonsensical idea from her mind. “I know this will sound ridiculous. But you weren’t, by chance, laughing at him, were you?”
“Laughing at him?” Amelia couldn’t contain her grin. She hadn’t expected Cordie to just come out and ask her that question. Then Amelia blinked, what she hoped was her most innocent blink, at the countess. “I don’t see anything amusing about the man. He looks too serious by half. Is he laughed at often?”
Cordie’s eyes narrowed on Amelia, which made her think that perhaps her innocent blink hadn’t been innocent enough. “Are you up to something, Amelia Pritchard?”
Amelia blinked again. “What could I possibly be up to?” How had Cordie figured her out so swiftly? Captain Avery wouldn’t be happy with this turn of events. 
“Indeed, that is the question at hand. You and Russell were thick as thieves yesterday.”
One would think the countess would have been too busy with her doting husband and adorable son to notice anything else going on at Clayworth House. Apparently, she wasn’t. “Thieves?” Amelia echoed, laying a hand on her chest with mock indignation. “I somehow think I’ve just been insulted.”
“Mmm.” Cordie’s eyes flashed back across the room to land on Captain Avery. “More likely I know my brother better than you. And I imagine I have a part to play in this little game, too. Am I to offer an introduction to the esteemed major?”
The countess was clever. Captain Avery had warned Amelia about that. But as that was the part Cordie was to play, Amelia nodded her head. “Would you mind terribly?”
“Not at all…if you would be so good as to tell me what game it is we are playing.”
Amelia leaned closer to her new cousin and replied, “Captain Avery asked if I would help bring the major out of his shell a bit. He said his friend has been gloomy ever since returning from the continent, and he thought I could help put a smile on his face.”
Cordie sighed. “That certainly isn’t why he’s been gloomy.” Her green eyes seemed to stare right through Amelia. “Philip is a dear man, a wonderful friend, and I won’t see him hurt again, Amelia. I’ll introduce you if you wish, but you must promise to disregard anything my derelict brother has said thus far.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Cordie smiled like a woman quickly spinning a plan. “He hasn’t the mind for such things. I, on the other hand, do. And though I would like to see Philip smile again, there’s a right way to go about this, and then there’s whatever way Russell thought up.”
Amelia couldn’t help but laugh. “It wasn’t all that complicated, Cordie. I was just to charm him and make him laugh a little.”
“Easier said than done.” She shrugged. “But I believe together we can accomplish the job at hand.  Do you think you’re up for the challenge?”
Now Amelia wasn’t certain. When it was the simple scheme Captain Avery had approached her with, she was just supposed to flirt with the major, coax him into being the tiniest bit social. But the way Cordie looked at her made Amelia think the countess had something else entirely up her dainty sleeve. “W-well, I-I…”

But before she could offer a protest, Cordie linked her arm with Amelia’s and began to tow her in the direction of the officers. “First of all, don’t laugh at him again. That will only raise his hackles. One would think Russell would realize that after knowing the man his whole life. What a complete dolt my brother is.”


Monday, January 9, 2017

A Scandalous Past


July 1814 –Avery House, London

Amazon  |  B&N  |  iBooks
Kobo  |  Google Play
Cordelia Avery was certain she hadn’t heard her mother correctly. It wasn’t even possible that her mother had changed her opinion about attending the Staveley ball. “I beg your pardon?”
Lady Avery dropped her napkin to the breakfast table and narrowed her light green eyes on her youngest daughter. “I said the only reason we’re even attending Lady Staveley’s ball is because Sally Jersey expressly asked us to be present.” 
Cordie nearly dropped her fork onto the table, but that would only earn her another lecture on comportment, so she grasped the utensil tighter.  Ever since her dearest friend Olivia, the newlywed Duchess of Kelfield, had hastily married a rather scandalous duke, Lady Avery’s entire demeanor had changed.  Not only was Cordie not allowed to see Livvie, she might as well have been shackled to her mother for all the freedom and spare time she enjoyed. 
Cordie nodded, but didn’t say anything.  Her mother had agreed to the ball.  If she opened her mouth, Lady Avery might very well change her mind, and she couldn’t risk that.  Livvie was certain to be at the Staveleys’, as they were relations, and it would be the first time since her wedding that Cordie would have the opportunity to see her dear friend.  
“I do want you to promise me not to associate with either Olivia or Kelfield.”
“Of course, Mother. You’ve been very clear on the subject,” Cordie lied, her fingers crossed beneath the table.  She didn’t really think the crossed fingers made the sin any less, but it was the best she could do at the moment.  After all, she couldn’t tell her mother that she had every intention of speaking with both Livvie and Kelfield, if the latter happened to be present. 
Since they were children, she and Livvie had been inseparable, growing up in a village that bordered Sherwood Forest.  Until Livvie’s recent marriage, they’d seen each other every day of their lives.  The forced separation twisted Cordie’s heart and left her feeling strangely alone.
“Thankfully no one outside the family knows you jilted the man, but between that unfortunate situation and Olivia’s scandalous actions your reputation is dangling by a thread. And now since you’ve rejected Captain Seaton’s offer, you’ll have to be on your absolute best behavior if you want to catch a proper husband.”
Cordie resisted the urge to roll her eyes.  She hadn’t jilted Gabriel Seaton, not technically.  After all, they weren’t officially betrothed. He’d never gotten the opportunity to speak with her brother, Gregory, on the matter.  It was a narrow escape in Cordie’s mind, and she was grateful that she learned just what sort of a dictatorial prig the captain was before their betrothal could be finalized. Not that she should have been surprised. He was a captain, accustomed to giving orders and being obeyed. But that sort of life wasn’t for Cordie. She was looking for a little more freedom.
She feigned an accommodating smile for her mother and placed her fork on her plate. “Catching a proper husband is, of course, my goal.”  And truly it was, though Cordie had a feeling that her idea of a proper husband and her mother’s were quite different.
Lady Avery frowned, and Cordie wondered if her mother could read her thoughts. “One wouldn’t know it. Your sister was already married with one babe by the time she was your age.”
Cordie suppressed the urge to scowl.  Her mother made it sound as if she were on her deathbed.  At twenty, it was true she was far from the youngest debutant in Town, but neither was she the oldest.  And she’d had plenty of offers the three previous seasons, but until the captain, no one had turned her head—and what a colossal mistake that would have been.
“You’ll be fortunate if any decent man will look past your association with Olivia.”
She wouldn’t tolerate a husband who wouldn’t. Neither would she tolerate a husband who wouldn’t allow her to continue her friendship with Olivia. This breakfast discussion made one thing perfectly clear.  She needed to find a husband—quickly—but one she could live with the rest of her days, her mother be hanged. A husband who would give her the freedom she craved. A husband who would let her make her own decisions. A husband who would love her like Kelfield obviously loved Olivia.
But where was she to find a paragon like that?
* * *
Almost to his Mayfair home, Brendan Reese, the Earl of Clayworth, stifled a yawn. The last bloody place he wanted to be was London, and yet he’d raced here from his Derbyshire estate after receiving a summons from Caroline Staveley.  Apparently Caroline’s young cousin Olivia had gotten herself into a bit of trouble with the Duke of Kelfield and had been forced to marry the notorious scoundrel. The new duchess was being accepted less warmly than a leper in the midst of the ton. So Caroline, a meddlesome but lovely woman to be sure, was determined to change the tide of opinion in her cousin’s favor and was hosting a ball in honor of the duke and his new duchess.
This was the sort of thing Brendan normally could care less about. He had enough of his own problems, and had anyone else summoned him with the words, “Your stodgy presence is required to lend Livvie an air of respectability,” he would have told the author to go jump in the Thames.  But he could rarely refuse Caroline. Not only was she the sister of one of his closest friends, but she was also one of the few people who had been kind to his late sister, Flora.  That generosity could never be repaid.
Still, now was not the best time for him to leave Derbyshire. His youngest sister, Rosamund, was becoming more and more difficult to manage and his nephew, Thomas, was in desperate need of some male guidance.  And he still hadn’t found those damning letters that could get them all sent to Newgate. Perhaps he could search again in London, as if he hadn’t already done that more than a dozen times already.
Of course, he’d already looked every place he could think of, more times than he could count. Brendan had methodically searched his ancestral home, Bayhurst Court in Derbyshire, from top to bottom, gone over every inch of Clayworth Hall in Kent, he’d gone through every nook and cranny of his hunting lodge in Yorkshire, and he’d gone over his Hertford Street home with a fine-toothed comb more than once.  But the letters detailing his mother’s crimes against the crown were nowhere to be found,  and the only clue he had was the memory of his late wife’s cryptic taunt.  “The Lion holds your secrets.”  He didn’t know what the devil that meant.
The coach pulled to a stop in front of his Mayfair home. Brendan exited the carriage then climbed the front steps to be greeted by his butler, Higgins.
“Lord Clayworth, Lord Masten awaits you in the blue parlor.”
How odd. Brendan raised his brow in question at his butler. He hadn’t realized Masten was in Town. Even so, it was unusual for his friend to await him here, especially as he hadn’t yet arrived.
He strode down the hallway until he reached the blue parlor, a tacky room that his late wife had decorated—a room he should scrap and start all over, if for no other reason than he hated to be reminded that Marina had ever entered his life. 
Brendan found Robert Beckford, the Earl of Masten, staring out one of the room’s grand windows.  His friend’s hands were clasped behind his back and he was grumbling to himself.
His friend spun on his heel and offered a curt smile.  “I see she’s roped you into this nonsense as well.”
Robert could only mean his sister, Caroline.  Brendan shrugged. “When Lady Staveley beckons, we all fall in line.”
“Like the pack of fools we are,” Robert agreed.  “What Aunt Jane thought she was doing, leaving Olivia with Staveley and my sister, I have no idea.”
“If it’s any consolation, Rob, when I saw them in Derbyshire, Kelfield seemed like a man besotted. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
“Bloody wonderful. My sweet, young cousin has married one of the most depraved men in all of England.”
To say the very least. Brendan could commiserate.  If it had been one of his sisters or cousins who ended up with Kelfield, he’d be as irate as Robert.  “It could be worse,” he offered, shrugging again.
“Oh?” His friend’s brown eyes flashed with indignation.
“It could have been Haversham.”
* * *
Marcus Gray, the Marquess of Haversham, left Madam Palmer’s establishment sated, but not completely satisfied. Though professional whores were fairly proficient at their trade, they often left something to be desired. What he needed was a mistress, though that was a touchy subject at the moment.  Right before his wedding, Kelfield had cut his pretty actress loose, and Marc had hoped to snatch up the sweet little number in his stead.  Unfortunately, Sarah Kane had already found a new protector, so Marc was still in the market.
As it was too early for most of his usual entertainments, Marc headed over to White’s, which was, admittedly, a little tame for him.  But ever since Kelfield had married, his old friend was playing at being respectable. It was truly a sight to cherish—and place bets on how long it would last. 
After entering the hallowed halls of the club, it didn’t take Marc long to find his old friend Alexander Everett, the Duke of Kelfield, in the library, sitting in an over-stuffed leather chair, perusing The Times.
Marc quietly shook his head.  Though he had witnessed the wedding himself, it was still hard to believe the old devil had actually married the chit.  No land, no fortune was gained—just the girl.  It didn’t make one bit of sense. Not for a man like Kelfield anyway.
“I have seen neither hide nor hair of you since Macbeth,” Marc drawled as he looked down on his friend.
“What does that tell you, Marc?” Kelfield didn’t bother to look up from his paper, which brought a wry grin to the marquess’ face. It must be terribly tedious, pretending to be so respectable.
“Well, you can’t be avoiding me. So I can only assume you’re keeping that pretty little wife of yours tied up at Kelfield House.  Has she asked about me?”  Marc dropped onto a settee across from the duke and smirked.  
Kelfield scowled over the edge of his paper.  “Only to berate me for my poor choice of friends.”
“Browbeaten already, are you?” Marc cheerfully baited him.
The duke folded his paper in half and narrowed his eyes, clearly allowing Marc to see the true Kelfield, hiding just beneath the surface. “I’m certain you know me better than that, Haversham.  Now what do you want?”
“To curse you for leaving Miss Kane so well positioned.”
“Turned you down flat, did she?”    
“Bastard,” Marc answered with a nod. “She’s attached herself to Haywood.  Can you believe that?” It was certainly hard for him to swallow.  The penniless baron wasn’t in the same league as Marc. It shouldn’t have been a contest, and wouldn’t have been if Kelfield hadn’t left the girl a small fortune as a parting gift.
The duke shrugged. “I told you, Sarah is free to make her own choices.” 
“I still can’t account for you just giving her up.  Doesn’t seem like you at all.”
“Well, times change.” 
“Ah, Kelfield, there you are,” came the deep voice of Commander Simon Greywood from behind them.  “Ready for tonight?”
That sounded promising. “What’s tonight?” Marc asked, rising from his seat to shake Greywood’s hand.
“Nothing,” Kelfield answered, though he was drowned out by the commander’s reply.
“Caroline Staveley’s ball, of course.”
Marc fell back on the settee with a laugh, beaming at the duke. “You?  A ball?”
“It’s for Olivia,” Kelfield growled.
Marc’s laughter echoed off the walls of the club.  “God, Kelfield! You’ve turned soft. Married a fortnight, and she’s already wrapped you around her little finger.” Which was something Marc had never allowed to happen to himself.  Not even his late wife ever attempted to dictate his entertainments.
It would be vastly amusing to watch the new duchess lead Kelfield around by his prick. Though Marc hadn’t received an invitation to Caroline Staveley’s ball—most likely an oversight on her part—he wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Scandalous Pursuit


June 1814 – Prestwick Chase, Derbyshire

Lord Staveley’s wire-rimmed glasses
Mr. St. Claire’s sapphire cravat pin
Epaulette from Commander Greywood’s uniform
Lord Carraway’s pipe
Cravat with Beckford insignia
Captain Seaton’s tricorn
Lord Carteret’s signet ring
Gold button with Kelfield crest
Mr. Greywood's pocket watch

Amazon  |  B&N  |  iBooks
Kobo  |  Google Play
Olivia Danbury stared blankly at the list in her hands. Her friends had taken her simple idea of a treasure hunt and turned it into something quite impossible. 
“You can’t honestly be serious,” she said with a shake of her head. There was no conceivable way to get any of these items. One couldn’t just ask Lord Carteret for his signet ring or beg the wicked Duke of Kelfield for one of the buttons from his waistcoat. That was ridiculous.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Felicity asked her as she linked her arm with Livvie’s.
Adventure? Had her friends all lost their minds? 
Cordie’s green eyes twinkled. “Come on, Livvie, this is the most fun any of us have had since we arrived.”
That was true. The house party at Prestwick Chase had been tedious at best. Still this charade was the most ridiculous thing Livvie had ever heard of. How unfortunate that it was her idea—at least in the beginning. She wasn’t keen to take the responsibility for what this had become. “I don’t even know how I’d go about acquiring any of these things.”
Phoebe giggled. “Then I suppose Cordie and I will win.”
“We have ‘til dinner to get all the items. The team with the most will win.”
“Yes, but—” Before Livvie could utter further protests, Phoebe and Cordie sprinted through the door, giggling the entire way. She turned a shocked expression to Felicity, her partner in this insanity.
Felicity looked quite determined, which was a rare look for her. Her blond curls bounced as she leaned in close to whisper, “All right. My cousin, Mr. St. Claire, will give me his cravat pin, no questions asked. I’ll also take Lord Carraway’s pipe. I know where he keeps it. We can get Staveley’s glasses from Caroline. And I’ll ask Jensen to get us one of Luke’s cravats.”
“There’s no point in us wasting our time on Captain Seaton, since he’s been making moon eyes at Cordie all week. Phoebe can get the ring from her Uncle James and the epaulette from her Uncle Simon. And I’m certain Matthew will give his pocket watch to them. Which means we’ll be tied. So, all we’ll need is one of Kelfield’s buttons to win.”
Livvie rolled her eyes. The idea that the arrogant duke would just hand over one of his buttons for a game was ludicrous. The man was completely unapproachable. If Felicity thought that Kelfield would help them win…
“And then I’ll meet you back here,” Felicity finished
Livvie shook her head. She must have missed something while she was woolgathering. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
With an exasperated sigh, Felicity towed her towards the door. “Get some sewing shears, sneak into His Grace’s room, and remove one of his buttons. I’ll get the cravat pin, the pipe, Staveley’s glasses and Luke’s cravat. Then I’ll meet you back here.”
Sneak into His Grace’s room and remove one of his buttons? “Absolutely not!”
“Come now, Livvie, don’t be a spoilsport. I’ve got to sneak into Carraway’s room for his pipe. I’d send you, but it would take too long to explain where he hides the thing. Besides, Luke has ordered me under no uncertain terms to go near His Grace or his room.”
Livvie didn’t know how Felicity talked her into participating in this ridiculous game. She berated herself for being a fool as she crept into Kelfield’s guest room. However, it was the most fun she’d had since arriving at Prestwick Chase. She wasn’t quite sure what that said about her, but the thrill of being somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be had her heart pounding excitedly.
She tiptoed to a large wardrobe on the far side of the room and inhaled the duke’s masculine, sandalwood scent as she pulled open the doors. It was almost as if he was there beside her, his silver eyes raking across her form. Chills crept up Livvie’s spine and she glanced around the room to make sure she was alone—which, of course, she was. So, she shook her silly head and focused on the job at hand.
Inside the wardrobe were several fashionable waistcoats, and Livvie ran her hands across the expensive silk. Kelfield always looked so devilishly handsome. He had excellent taste—not that she made a habit to notice such things about the scoundrel. She quickly selected a midnight blue waistcoat and fingered one of the gold buttons. Before she had time to consider what she was actually doing, she snipped the thread with her sewing shears and pocketed the coveted button. 
She started for the door, but froze when she heard footsteps outside the duke’s threshold. Then came a thump against the oak door and a feminine giggle, followed by a hushed but very masculine growl. Slowly, the doorknob began to turn. 
Panicked, and with her heart pounding viciously, Livvie looked around the room and dashed inside the wardrobe, just as the door flew open. 
That was close. Too close. And what was she to do now?
The giggling continued and two bodies stumbled into the room. Livvie could hear kissing and moaning. Her curiosity warred with her fear of discovery. Curiosity won out. 
Tentatively, she pushed the wardrobe door just a crack, so that she could see what was going on.
The Duke of Kelfield held a flame-haired woman against him. He was pulling down the edge of her serviceable gown, until her ample bosom spilled free from its confines. The duke took one nipple into his mouth and sucked. Good Heavens! Livvie shrank back against the edge of the wardrobe and closed her eyes tightly. How had she gotten herself into this situation? Stupid treasure hunt.
“Get on your knees,” the duke ordered.
Livvie’s eyes flew open. Oh, she shouldn’t be doing this, but she didn’t seem to be able to help herself. What was the man doing now? She edged closer to the opening of the wardrobe and peeked through the hole with one eye.
Kelfield stood with his back towards her, but Livvie could clearly see the red-haired woman, whom she thought she recognized as one of The Chase’s maids, kneeling between the duke’s legs, with her mouth around…Merciful heavens! Kelfield’s head fell backwards and he let out a low, guttural moan. The sound that came from him was primitive. It reverberated through Livvie—her knees even weakened in response.
After a moment, Kelfield hauled his lover to her feet and yanked the gown completely over her head. Livvie gulped. She should not be witnessing this. Not any of it. But she also couldn’t make herself step away. Most importantly, she couldn’t let them discover her.
The duke was slowly kissing the woman and backing her against the four-poster bed at the same time. When her legs hit the bed frame, Kelfield easily lifted her up in his strong arms and dropped the sultry-eyed maid in the middle of the mattress. Then he discarded his own clothing in no time at all.
Livvie swallowed. Hard. Then she blinked. He was magnificent. She had no idea the male body could be that exquisite. His shoulder blades flexed as he tossed his shirt and then his trousers across the room to land on a chair. He had muscular, well-shaped thighs and an amazing bottom. Livvie hadn’t realized that a bottom could be amazing—but his was like a work of art, sculpted from marble.
Heavens! She should not be here. 
Kneeling on the bed before the red-haired maid, the duke held her legs open with his large hands and then he pushed himself inside her. The sensual moan the woman emitted echoed around the room. Livvie couldn’t watch anymore. She carefully edged herself to the back of the wardrobe to avoid detection. Though she doubted anything could distract the pair on the other side of the door.
The maid’s moans turned to giggles, and Livvie tried to cover her ears. 
The duke groaned loudly.
This was torture. 
After what seemed like forever, Livvie’s legs cramped and all she could breathe was sandalwood. Did the duke douse everything he owned in the scent? Her nose tickled and she tried to breathe through her mouth, but she was felt lightheaded. And still the giggles and groans went on and on. How long could the man keep up this sort of activity? People were probably already looking for her, for heaven’s sake.
And then the worst possible thing happened.
 Livvie sneezed. 
The giggling and groaning stopped instantly and Livvie closed her eyes tight. If she prayed hard enough, perhaps she’d awaken in her own bed and this whole thing would be a terrible dream. Though she knew it wasn’t the case. Her imagination had never been wild enough to conjure the images she’d seen today. 
 “Leave,” the duke barked, and for a moment Livvie thought he was talking to her. But from the crack in the wardrobe she saw the man toss the maid her discarded dress. 
Livvie’s world went dark when Kelfield stepped in front of her hiding place and closed the wardrobe door. She felt a thump against the furniture and she imagined him blocking her exit with his body. 
She heard the rustle of clothes and the maid grumble under her breath. A moment later the room fell silent, except for an irritated sigh that seemed so close, right on the other side of the door.  “If that’s you, Greywood,” the duke growled, “I’ll have your head.”
Tears threatened to spill down Livvie’s cheeks. Her life was over. The duke would surely kill her on the spot, and she was powerless to keep him from finding her. There was nowhere else to hide. 
Then the wardrobe door wrenched open and Livvie squeaked in fear. She expected him to be furious when he found her, but when Kelfield’s silvery grey eyes settled on her, he seemed more stunned than angry. His inky black hair was disheveled from his most recent activities, and he looked down his aristocratic nose at her. “Miss Danbury?” he asked in bewilderment. 
Completely mortified, Livvie blushed deeper and redder than she ever had in her entire life. “Ex-excuse me,” she stammered and tried to brush past him. Even after everything she’d just witnessed, she wasn’t accustomed to conversing with naked men, no matter how impressive they were. And she especially didn’t want to talk to this naked man. She didn’t even want to converse with him fully clothed.
Kelfield chuckled and blocked her path from the wardrobe with his body and an outstretched arm. “I don’t think so.” Then his eyes narrowed and he inched closer to her. “Did you enjoy the performance, sweetheart?”
Wishing that the floor would open up and swallow her whole, Livvie pushed against his chest. His strong and very naked chest. She gulped as she met his silver eyes. “Please, let me pass, Your Grace.”
The bedroom door suddenly opened behind them. “Alex, did I leave my spectacles in here?” Lord Staveley’s voice preceded him into the room. Livvie sucked in a breath, certain her heart stopped beating at the sight of her guardian.
Staveley stopped dead in his tracks. He looked from Kelfield to Livvie and back again. Despite missing his glasses, it would have been impossible for him to miss the duke’s unclothed state. 
“Think you could knock next time, Staveley?” Kelfield drawled easily, though he never removed his eyes from Livvie.
She couldn’t breathe.
A muscle twitched near Staveley’s eye. “Olivia, go find Caroline and do not leave her side.”
“But, my lord,” she began, though she wasn’t sure what she could possibly say to explain the situation. 
Lord Staveley kept his gaze steady on the duke and barked sharply. “Now, Olivia!”

Livvie escaped as fast as she could into the hallway. She fingered the Kelfield button in her pocked and gulped. This was the worst possible thing to happen.