London, December 1815
If pressed to answer the age-old question about women and thoroughbreds, Andrew would have truthfully responded that he liked ladies and horses equally. Unless the topic of the conversation centered on Prince, his magnificent Arabian, and not on any hypothetical stallion. Then there would be no comparison.
Notwithstanding their short acquaintance, Louisa should have known where his loyalties lay.
“It’s just a ride in Hyde Park.” A pout on her fleshy mouth, the curvaceous actress stared at him with undisguised disgruntlement. His mistress for little more than a month, and she had already bored him with her bouts of jealousy—and if that wasn’t enough, she had just asked to ride his precious Prince. Unconceivable.
“Nobody rides Prince but me.” And Alexander, to whom Prince had belonged. His former owner would never ever ride again, though.
“My lord.” Louisa whispered the title in her sultry voice, her eyes cutting to the bed in a blatant invitation.
Her change of tactic didn’t alter his resolve. He had grown tired of the conversation, which had gone on for about ten minutes already. Most importantly, he had grown tired of the woman.
A possessive streak in a mistress wasn’t a trait he liked. Childishness even less. The two attributes proved lethal to a relationship when combined with a flair for the histrionics, which given Louisa’s profession was to be expected. He couldn’t blame her for that characteristic but had discovered he preferred women less prone to drama. Admittedly, he preferred those with nerves of steel—but this was a relatively fresh discovery.
Louisa moped, batting her long eyelashes. “But—”
“We’re done here.”
Silence followed his statement, and in the lingering moment of awkwardness, Andrew’s meaning became clear to his audience.
How had he become entangled in such a disastrous liaison? Louisa’s undeniable beauty notwithstanding, she had convinced him at first that she was a different person, strong and smart. Then she started following him around, and even tried to bribe his butler, seeking information about other women he might be seeing at the same time. Her witty retorts that had enthralled him, she had borrowed from her thespian training. He had become wary of her antics right away but hoped that, given time, she would settle into a more appropriate behavior for a mistress.
“You terminate our association over a horse?” Louisa’s eyes filled with tears. She was a consummate artist in and out of the stage.
“That horse happens to be special to me.” Whereas she was not. “But, in truth, I have come here today to end our affair.”
“Why?” Louisa asked as he walked back to the entrance hall where her butler had already fetched Andrew’s greatcoat, hat, walking stick, and gloves.
Besides the reason that he wouldn’t air out their personal problems in front of the staff, he wasn’t in the mood to witness one of the actress’s notorious tantrums. So, he opted for a reassuring platitude. “You need a lover who can appreciate all your gifts, who can give you the attention you deserve.” He gave her a nod and a smile. “I can’t be that man now.” Or never.
“Selkirk,” Louisa called from the stairs. “You’ll never find another one like me.”
That’s my most fervent desire, he thought, but instead said, “I will never forget our time together.” He wouldn’t want to make the same mistake twice, after all.
“You can’t leave me!” Her wail echoed across the hall. She collapsed to her knees and sobbed next. “I can’t bear to live without you!”
Cold anger filled Andrew. He stilled, frozen in his fury. His chest rose and fell as he took long breaths to dispel the darkness always threatening to swallow him whole.
“Selkirk!” Louisa fainted. A masterful act if he ever had seen one.
As the butler hurried to help his mistress, Andrew stepped toward the door, donning his hat. “The biggest tragedy in life,” he said, “is that we live to see others die—usually the ones who deserve to live the most.”
Andrew would task his lawyer with the customary buying of the congé. An emerald bracelet would be delivered to her to make the breakup as painless as possible for him. He bowed to the already stirring actress and strode out with a renewed sense of lightness.
In the last year, he had changed four mistresses already. Five, if he counted that one-week interlude with the too-consolable young widow, who realized from the start he wouldn’t have offered for her and looked elsewhere for her next husband. For the sake of accuracy, he should also include in the list a sixth woman—the soprano he had met in Bath when he had accompanied Aunt Theresa to take the waters. The dalliance had only amounted to three forgettable nights and one tedious musicale. The woman had no talent, and their affair ended before it could even start.
Andrew hadn’t spent any time considering why none of his recent paramours had outlasted the two-month anniversary—his mind was otherwise occupied with more pressing matters—but it was a topic of conversation among his friends. There was even an open bet at White’s which would make one peer richer as soon as Louisa made it official she was looking for another protector. Where Andrew was concerned, he couldn’t escape the woman’s long-reaching clutches fast enough. Good thing he hadn’t offered her housing in their contract, or his lawyer would need to take care of that as well.
As instructed, his coach was waiting for him in front of Louisa’s house. Also waiting for him was one familiar urchin who was leaning against the wall, whistling what sounded like a bawdy tune. Timmy was one of the orphans who lived at the House for the Children—Andrew’s sister and her friends’ charity project. He had met the boy during the harrowing circumstances surrounding the demise of the Earl of Kensington in the institute’s premises, a few months earlier. Timmy was courageous, smart, eager to work, and had two younger siblings he needed to provide for. So Andrew paid him handsomely to be his personal errand boy and keep him out of trouble.
“My lord.” Timmy pushed himself away from the wall but didn’t step closer to Andrew. He reached inside his threadbare coat and produced a letter. “They said is important.”
They was Lord Stanton, Andrew’s superior at the Home Office. Anticipation made him tingle with excitement. Lord Stanton hadn’t contacted him in several weeks. He gave Timmy a coin and told him to stop by his house where he could eat and warm himself up. Andrew had given his staff instructions to feed the urchin and let him sleep in the kitchen if the boy brought messages late at night, as had happened once or twice already.
Making a mental note to send a second donation that month to the House for the Children for new clothes, he climbed into his coach. Then, after rapping on the ceiling to let the coachman know he was ready to leave, he opened the seal and scanned the content of the letter.
A strong wind from the South of France is blowing the Suffolk countryside.
The cattle need to be corralled.
The orders Andrew had been waiting for had finally arrived. One of the field agents had spotted the French spy Mistral in Suffolk, and Lord Stanton now ordered Andrew to leave at once to investigate. He hadn’t felt such level of enthusiasm in months. It felt almost like joy—a sentiment he had forgotten was in his vocabulary.
After Alexander Hughes had died in Spain, Andrew swore to capture the man responsible for the ambush that had killed his friend and several others under his command. The fact that his sister, the Duchess of Wentworth, currently resided in Lavenham only added to his excitement. It would be the first time Andrew visited Albion Hall, and he looked forward to seeing Elizabeth and her husband, Sebastian.
Two days later, Andrew arrived in Albion Hall in his carriage while his coachman leisurely rode Prince with the plan to reach Lavenham later in the week. He had left his valet home. When he was on a mission, he preferred to travel light and unencumbered by social restrictions. This was a quirk of his, seldom shared by his peers who liked to surround themselves with servants to attend any detail of their lives. Andrew however sought solitude as much as possible. And the ducal abode would have had a valet in training or two if he needed help with his toilette or clothing.
“Andrew!” In the most unladylike manner, the duchess herself burst out of the door of the majestic Prodigy House and ran across the front lawn to welcome Andrew.
“Lizzy.” He hugged his little sister tightly, raising her from the floor. “I missed you, Duchess.”
“And yet, this is the first time you visit.” Elizabeth swatted his arm, and he let her down on her feet. “I would have understood if we lived in Northumberland.”
“I couldn’t leave London earlier.”
Since the death of the Earl of Kensington, the one known connection with the French spy, Andrew had been incessantly gathering intelligence among the peerage, hoping to finally catch Mistral.
“But I’m here now.” He gave her his winning smile, the one he used to ingratiate himself with Almack’s patronesses to gain access to the sacred halls usually denied to rakes.
Elizabeth tilted her head and studied him. “And I do wonder why.”
“Does a brother need a motive to visit his favorite sister?”
“I’m your only sister.”
“Imagine the utter tragedy if you weren’t my favorite.”
Rolling her eyes, she gave him a droll look. “It’s when the visit is happening that intrigues me.”
Andrew wondered about her words. Did she know the nature of his secret endeavors for the Crown? Did Sebastian tell her? That was unacceptable!
“We have a special guest.” A mischievous sparkle danced in her eyes. “And I am so happy you are here, so the numbers are even.”
Positively confused, Andrew patted her hand and motioned for them to enter the house. “I’m glad you’re as happy as I am about my unannounced presence, but what about this guest?”
“You’re my favorite brother, and Sebastian and I don’t stand on formality.”
“The guest?” As he took the marble steps of the staircase, a flurry of soft snowflakes bathed his face.
Elizabeth spun on her heels, hands in the air, laughing. “Esme is coming to visit,” she said when she stopped.
Andrew’s heart did a little flip at the mention of Elizabeth’s good friend. All the reasons that had kept him as far away as possible from Lady Esmeralda evaporated like snow on a hot plate.
If pressed to answer the age-old question about women and thoroughbreds, he would have truthfully responded that he liked ladies and horses equally. Unless the topic of the conversation centered on Lady Esmeralda, third daughter of the Earl of Corbyn, and not on any hypothetical woman. Then there would be no comparison. Even if Prince was part of the question.
Esme hated travelling. She found it a tedious occupation at best, and a downright fastidious endeavor at worst. Still, it was a necessary evil if one wanted to cross large expanses of land to visit friends and family. Or, more precisely, if one wanted to escape one’s own family. Still, the friends in question could have exhibited the good grace to live closer to Sussex, making her act of defiance less of an inconvenience.
The original plan had been to begin her journey a good twenty days later, but a most unpleasant conversation with her father had precipitated the situation, forcing Esme to leave.
In the last year, she had left Corbyn House only twice. When she traveled to London for the Season, in spring, and for her annual pilgrimage to Norfolk to join the Merriweather winter party house. But Elizabeth currently resided in Suffolk, which was on the way, so Esme had embarked on the journey during the gloomiest day of winter to see her friend. She was hard-pressed to believe she would have made the decision even during summer, but the latest verbal spar with her parent had left her unsettled and she needed a change in scenery alongside the support of good friends.
“That’s Albion Hall,” Nicholls said, looking outside the window. In some strange turn of fate, Esme’s lady’s maid enjoyed travelling more than anything else.
The seven-day ordeal Esme had forced on the young woman by stopping every hour for a walk, and by limiting the number of traveling hours to no more than four every day, had been received by Nicholls as the grandest of adventures. The experience of a lifetime in the words of the lady’s maid, who hadn’t stopped commenting about the landscape, the inns they slept in, the food they ate, and even the different trees she saw as they crossed counties.
Unable to contain her curiosity, Esme moved the curtain to the side of her window. “Rather an impressive sight.”
Wentworth’s ducal seat dominated the valley from its perch on top of a ridge. Whitened by a dusting of snow, the tall trees bordering the road seemed to point straight at the five-story Tudor building. The high elevation, the symmetrical architecture, and the multitude of windows marked Albion Hall as one of the few Prodigy Houses disseminated across England.
“Did Elizabeth the First ever visit this house?” Nicholls opened the glass panel to lean out of the coach.
“The duchess never mentioned the detail.” To Esme’s everlasting gratitude, she and Elizabeth corresponded regularly. Those letters and Charlie’s visits had kept her sane in the last few months.
“I’ll ask Taylor.” Nicholls was friends with Elizabeth’s lady’s maid, and Esme knew they missed each other since the duchess had left London.
Several minutes later, the coach stopped in front of the majestic façade, and an army of footmen appeared seemingly out of nowhere to help Esme’s retinue. As the servants began hauling the luggage into the house, Elizabeth came down the staircase to greet her. Laughter and cries followed sisterly hugs and half sentences they took turns to finish.
“You look radiant.” Esme leaned away to take a better look at her friend. “The married life suits you.”
A bitter emotion filled her. It wasn’t envy because she loved her friend and had been the first to rejoice when Elizabeth had married her duke. It was just an ache she carried everywhere with her. Like smelling salts, the emotion brought tears to her eyes by awakening her to a bleak reality.
“Indeed.” Elizabeth slightly blushed as she lowered her hand over her stomach.
Esme raised her hand to her mouth, stifling a gasp. “Are you…”
“Maybe.” The usually bold Elizabeth looked away. “I’m not sure yet.”
Taking her friend’s hand in hers, Esme spun them around. “We need to tell Charlie!”
Their friend would want to know the happy tidings as soon as possible.
“What do you need to tell Lady Charlotte?” a deep voice resonated behind her.
She didn’t have to turn around to know the Duke of Wentworth had just joined them. Even if she hadn’t recognized his voice, the rapt look on her friend’s face would have given away his identity.
“Nothing yet.” Elizabeth walked to her husband’s side.
When Esme pivoted on her dainty shoes to properly address His Grace, she noticed Wentworth wasn’t alone. Lord Selkirk stood a few feet behind, and he was staring at her. Her breath caught in her chest while her heart sprinted into a mad gallop. Elizabeth’s brother had always had that effect on her, but since that terrible night at the House for the Children, something had changed between them. The dashing baron had finally noticed her. It only made her daily struggle worse because the invisible tether pulling them together increased her dissatisfaction with her lot.
Sometimes, like at the present moment, Esme would have liked to succumb to hysterics. Or cry. She did neither, of course.
“Lady Esmeralda.” Wentworth made an elegant leg. “We have been waiting your arrival for the last week with great trepidation.”
Stirring, she blinked, summoning a bland façade. “Your Grace.” She curtseyed. “I prefer leisurely traveling to dashing across the country.”
Elizabeth snorted, making her duke smile. The only one who didn’t react at all was Selkirk, whose inscrutable gaze remained fixed on her.
“I’m so glad you’re finally here.” Elizabeth stressed the word “finally” with a mischievous grin. “Andrew was just complaining about the utter misfortune of having to endure even one more minute in our mellifluous, overly blessed ducal presence.” She shot her brother a wink, waving her hand for him to step closer.
Like a marble statue to which had been gifted life, Selkirk moved with the innate elegance that was his prerequisite. The man was grace personified. His clothes defined his athletic physique, leaving little to the imagination. He was a Corinthian with the deceptive mien of an angel, but Esme knew better. Her heart beat like the drums of war whenever they were in close proximity. She could not help her visceral reaction to his presence any more than she could control the night and day cycle.
“Lady Esmeralda.” Selkirk bowed at his waist but didn’t lower his gaze. She shivered under the searing warmth of his light brown—almost yellow—eyes, a shade unusual among the more English blues.
Lightheaded, Esme remembered to properly reciprocate the gesture. “Lord Selkirk.” His name escaped her mouth like a prayer, and it took all her willpower to not blush when he lowered his eyes to her lips.
The duke cleared his throat.
“It’s cold, isn’t it?” Elizabeth’s words broke the spell. “We had better move inside.”
Shivering, Esme blinked.
A dark shadow passed across Selkirk’s face before he nodded and bent his arm. “Please.”
Under the twin scrutiny of the duke and the duchess, Esme forced her mouth to curve into a smile and placed her gloved hand over Selkirk’s arm. Even through the many layers of fabric, she could feel his muscles flex under her touch. She fought the urge to squeeze or stroke the dark green superfine of his coat lest she make a fool of herself in front of everybody.
They strolled into Albion Hall, chatting about the weather while all Esme wanted was to run back to the coach and drive straight to Charlie where her chances to meet the handsome baron were none. Knowing that there would be no escaping the torturous days ahead, she straightened her back and prayed for a bout of megrims to overcome her as soon as possible. One could only hope.