Ladies’ maid, Juliet Baines has gotten herself into a pickle by agreeing to go to London and taking the place of her mistress and best friend, Annabella Price, stepsister to the Duke of Wyndham. After all, what does a servant know about being a lady? But Juliet soon finds that pretending to be a lady isn’t nearly as hard as guarding her heart against the folly of wanting a man who’s completely out of reach. Graeme "Grey" Roland Dominick Markwythe, Sixth Duke of Wyndham, approaches his duties as a nobleman with great dedication and meticulous care. And he’s a man who is not easily fooled...except when he tries to convince himself he's not utterly and madly in love with the beautiful imposter who has turned his life upside down. Will society and his responsibilities to his noble status keep him from opening his heart to the woman he loves?
“I’M SURE I didn’t understand you, Higgins. Did you say my father’s coach is here?” Grey glanced up from the ledger opened before him with a frown.
His heart clenched, and his throat tightened at the thought of the beautiful town coach his father had personally designed being used by someone else. Let alone by a virtual stranger. Burning irritation flooded Grey’s veins at the thought. He should have had the ducal carriage removed from the country home and brought to London. But it had been a source of distress to think of seeing the coach his late father had loved so much every day. Even now, four years later, it was still too much to bear.
Four years. Had it really been that long since his father had died? Since he’d seen his brother…
Grey raked his hands over his face to dislodge the direction his thoughts were taking and breathed deeply. The arrival could only mean one thing. His stepmother had deemed it necessary to come for a visit. No doubt to ask for more money, if the condition of the country estate’s finances was correct.
“Yes, your grace.” The butler stood straight-backed in the doorway of the study, neatly attired in black and unruffled as usual, his long, gaunt face devoid of any expression. Behind him, daylight flooded the normally dim foyer.
Distaste crowded Grey’s throat. “Inform Mrs. Markwythe that I am indisposed and send her on her way.”
“I beg your pardon. I wasn’t clear, your grace. This appears to be more than a social call. The footman who accompanied the carriage is unpacking it—”
Grey stared in disbelief at his manservant and nearly choked before he found his voice. “Why the deuce would he do that?”
His secretary cleared his throat, drawing Grey’s attention toward the slight man behind the mahogany writing desk across the room. Petry shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The heavy damask draperies behind him had been pulled back, leaving his face in shadow. As if gathering his wits, he hastily pushed to his feet.
“What is it, Petry?”
“If I may, your grace? Mayhap the letter you received from the Duchess of Wyndham a few weeks ago discussed the visit.”
Grey’s hand tightened around his quill. The note. The blasted note from his stepmother. He had forgotten about it. Squeezing his eyes shut, he struggled to recall what Regina had said in the message. Something about Annabella needing a season in London. Whyever for?
Gently, Grey set the pen down, struggling for a modicum of composure. He stole one more look at the figures that weren’t quite adding up and decided they would have to wait in view of more pressing circumstances. Such as uninvited company. With a sigh, he slammed the book shut and tapped the cover with the tips of his fingers. Impatience tugged a breath from his chest and he stood. “Send the Duchess of Wyndham in.”
“I-I beg your pardon, your grace. The duchess isn’t with her daughter.”
“Not with—” Grey broke off and let out a curse.
He lifted his gaze heavenward. What had he done to deserve this?
Looking after his stepsister was the last thing he wanted to do, next to staying in town for another Season of mothers shoving their debutante daughters toward him at every social function. And now, not only would he have to worry about that, but he’d have to care for a debutante of his own. Bile threatened his embarrassment.
Grey ran his hand through his hair and let out a sigh, cursing himself for not dealing with this sooner. He’d made London his home these last four years, and the longing for his country estate had finally subsided as the comfort of his townhouse had begun to fit him like his favorite breeches.
He caressed the top of the walnut and rosewood desk that had once been his father’s. Fulfilling the responsibilities that came with his father’s title hadn’t come easily, but moving the furniture from the country had made him feel like Alexander was still with him somehow, guiding him through his initial uncertainty.
“Your grace?” The butler’s soft query startled Grey from his reverie.
“Where is she, Higgins?” Irritation took root and his eye began to twitch.
“She is still outside, your grace. Shall I show her in?”
Grey wanted to tell the servant no, just send the girl away. But he knew that wasn’t an option. “Yes, show her in. Then send the coach to the livery for fresh horses.”
“Right away, your grace.” The butler gave a stiff bow and backed from the room.
Grey refused to spend the Season caring for the spoiled girl. It was bad enough his father’s second marriage had bound him to the chit and her mother. He provided them with a home — his beloved Wyndham Green no less — a generous allowance, and the protection of his title and status. His generosity was stretched to the limit, and he had no intention of inconveniencing himself any further. He would explain the misunderstanding to the girl, apologize, and send her back to the country.
Before he could put action to his thoughts, the gentle peace of his home was fractured by the clatter and scrape of nails against the wood floor of the foyer, approaching with the grace of a runaway horse. Grey groaned. The last thing he needed was his uncle’s bulldog attacking someone, even if it might get rid of his unwelcome guest.
He hurried to the door and stepped into the hallway but leapt back as the nasty brown and white animal pushed past him, racing straight for the surprised footman who held open the heavy front door.
“Blasted dog! Lucien, if that mongrel bites someone, so help me, I will shoot you!” Grey warned as the older man hurried by.
Lucien had the nerve to give him a disgruntled look. “Why, nephew, Lord Perceval Randolph Neville—”
“Stop calling him that, or I shall have to pick my second with the marquess,” Grey snapped. Bad enough his uncle had named the fiendish dog after a neighbor; now it was running loose around London terrorizing an arriving guest. Unwanted though she may be.
Why did Lucien continually insist on shocking people? The man had once named his horse, a sorrel thoroughbred stud, after the vicar’s wife because, as Lucien had so graciously explained, “The horse was the spitting image of the woman.” Grey’s father had lined the coffers of the church well for almost a year to appease the insulted vicar and his wife.
“Be a dear boy and grab the leash,” Lucien said with a flick of his hand. Straightening his rotund form, he managed a majestic waddle as he followed the bulldog outside.
Grey gritted his teeth and turned to retrieve the leash from its undignified resting place wrapped around the iron umbrella stand. Before he’d gone two steps, a loud, shrill scream punctured the air, followed by the dog’s wheezing bark. Grey wheeled around. His great uncle stood as motionless as one of his stone statues just outside the front door, both hands clutching his chest.
“Lord Perceval, get off that woman this instant!” Lucien’s voice rose an octave and ended in a wheezing squeak as he regained his senses and hurried down the walk.
“I’m going to shoot that blasted dog!” Grey yelled as he stomped out the door. First he’d ensure the rotted beast hadn’t taken a hunk out of someone. After that, he’d send his unwanted guests on their way. Maybe then a return to his normal routine would restore peace to his home.
On the landing, Grey froze. His stomach performed a slow turn like a rabbit on a spit.
Lucien’s monstrosity stood growling on top of his victim, who lay sprawled half in and half out of the coach, her skirts up around her waist. The beast shook his head, sending spittle flying through the air.
“Oh my heavens!” Lucien approached the fallen victim. He raised his voice. “Madam! Madam, can you hear me? Have you been wounded?”
“Her ears were not injured, you old fool,” snapped a slender woman of middle years wearing a black velvet pelisse. She proceeded to whack Lucien repeatedly with her reticule. “Get that wretched creature off my sister this instant.”
Lucien raised one arm against the attack while reaching for the irate lady’s reticule with the other. But she only changed hands and continued to lash out at him. The driver stepped between the prizefighters, receiving a thwack to his shoulders for his effort. The footman abandoned his task of unloading the coach and hastened to the lady’s side, placing a tentative hand on her arm, evidently trying to still her agitation.
A yelp came from beneath the dog as his victim flailed her legs.
Grey glanced about. Lady Rossington and her ridiculously giddy debutante daughter had halted their walk along Newport Street and stared enraptured at the sight. He bit off a curse. The whole of London will be laughing about the scandalous scene by nightfall.
He stepped forward only to be stopped again when a young girl darted from the rear of the carriage. Presumably this was Annabella, though she’d grown some since their last encounter. Her yellow and cream traveling gown swirled about her legs with each step, and she tugged a short dark green jacket into place as she walked. Golden curls peeked from beneath a green bonnet decorated with flowers and cascaded over her shoulders.
With quick movements, she grasped the dog’s collar and gave it a yank, tugging against the massive brute. Grey’s stomach twisted into a tight knot. He’d soon have two injured people on his hands.
He opened his mouth to tell her to get back when the animal let out a high-pitched yelp and the girl stood, dragging the dog up with her.
“You naughty boy, that’s quite enough.” She spoke sharply, her tone brooking no argument.
The dog jerked its head around and snapped at her. She thumped him on the nose, and he let out a shocked yap. “You mind your manners.”
The dog growled and wheezed and showed his teeth, all the while the rest of his body wiggled, and his tail wagged wildly.
I wonder if she could do that with Lucien.
The girl shifted, presenting Grey with a view of her profile, and his breath caught in his throat. She crouched on the ground in front of the beast, removing remnants of an ostrich feather from the corner of his mouth. Instead of the creamy white skin most of the gentry favored, which, in Grey’s opinion, made the girls look like death, she had a slightly darker sheen that enhanced the golden locks framing her face. Her mouth curved upward in a gentle smile. Soft laughter bubbled from her lips and combined with the way she now stroked the dog’s head to send a shiver up Grey’s spine.
He shook his head. Where had such thoughts come from?
The reticule-wielding woman stopped mid-slap. “Oh, Charity! You poor dear. Did that beast hurt you?”
She rushed forward and situated the other lady’s clothing then stepped back as the footman grabbed one arm while the driver hurried forward and took hold of the other. The woman sat up spitting and sputtering like a wet tabby cat, spewing out bits and pieces of white ostrich feathers from between her lips. Her face had gone as red as the cape she wore, which had twisted off her shoulders and around to hang from the front. The matching turban sat askew on her head with most of it falling down the left side of her face. Her one visible eye was wide.
The butler still stood beside him, slack-jawed, the scene on the street apparently as shocking to him as it was to Grey.
“Give the chit a hand with that horrid dog, Higgins,” snapped Grey. “Get him inside and secured somewhere so he cannot do any further harm.”
“Of course, your grace.” Higgins moved to the girl’s side and bent down. The blasted dog strained forward, but the girl kept a firm grip on his collar.
“Stop that, you naughty boy,” she scolded. “Kind sir, I will hold his head if you can manage the rest of him.”
Higgins gave the girl a grateful nod. “Very good, m’lady.” He scooped the dog up, and the two of them carried their burden toward the townhouse.
As they came abreast of Grey, the girl looked at him. It was no more than a fleeting glance as they hurried by, but the effect was powerful. Grey’s chest and stomach tightened as if he’d been punched in the gut and had all the air forced from his lungs. His heart alternated between stuttering, almost stopping then thumping out an erratic beat that left him lightheaded.
He had never seen such amazing, beautiful eyes in all his life. They were unusual in color — a bright golden brown that reminded him of the yellow-brown eyes of a cat. The black of her pupils combined with her long black eyelashes accentuated the unique color. Grey was taken aback at the beauty and tried to remember if her eyes had always been so alluring.
With a flash of what might have been irritation in her eyes, she scoured his face with her gaze and then turned her attention back to her task. In short order, she and Higgins vanished with the useless dog into the house.
Heat stirred from a place deep within Grey and moved outward like a slow growing vine as he wondered if he’d been a bit too hasty in his decision to send the chit away. Then he cursed under his breath. He had no business thinking about his stepsister in such a manner.
“Help! I’m stuck. I cannot get up.” The muffled voice floated through the air and snapped Grey from his mental lecture.
The whole carriage shook. The woman sprawled in the doorway kicked her feet, trying to stand. The footman and driver seemed to be having trouble dislodging her, although the poor servants were pulling with all their might as the scarlet-faced lady blustered for them to hurry.
Lady Rossington caught Grey’s eye and smiled then she moved off, urging her daughter to walk quickly. A movement in the window across the street caught Grey’s eye. He looked heavenward and let out a loud sigh. If he didn’t take charge, the entire ton would soon be presenting themselves for the best seats to view his embarrassment.
He hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps before Lucien wobbled around to stand in front of the woman.
“My lady… oh, my lady. Allow me to offer my assistance.”
Grey stopped and puffed out a sharp breath.
His uncle leaned slightly forward and extended his hands toward the lady’s bosom. How he thought that would help, Grey had no idea. Thankfully, with the cramped space and the footman and driver holding the woman under the arms, Lucien had no room to maneuver close enough to reach, and he backed away.
Grey relaxed. One more disaster averted. Then Lucien wrapped his arms around the lady’s thighs and pulled. The shocked woman let out a high-pitched scream and started kicking with all her might.
“Unhand my sister, you lecherous rake!” The tall miss quickly came to the defense of her offended sibling and took to striking Lucien on the back of the head with her reticule again.
Grey’s breath hung in his throat, and his left eye began to twitch. Had he really thought disaster would be avoided with Lucien about?
Lucien ducked his head, trying to avoid the potentially lethal attack, but he refused to release his hold. “Please, ma’am. I am trying to help.”
“Let go of her and get out of the way, you crazy old codger!” Grey ordered as he stalked to the mass of chaos.
As he grabbed the reticule-wielding woman’s arm and pulled her away, Lucien fell over backward. He still had hold of the female on the floor of the carriage, and his fall combined with the efforts of the footman and driver dislodged the lady, sending her sprawling to the ground.
The footman scrambled forward to assist her, and the driver hurried to settle the horses. Grey cautiously released the woman’s arm, watching for signs of a renewed attack. Convinced she had given up trying to harm Lucien, he turned to the lady, trying to get to her feet.
“Madam, I wish to extend my apologies. Have you any injuries? Would you like for me to send for the doctor?” Grey offered.
She brushed the footman off and made to walk away. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I just need — oh goodness me! My left ankle. I fear I’ve sprained it.” She lurched forward, and Grey and the footman caught her, staggering under her bulk. Grey spread his feet for better footing.
“Oh, Charity, you poor dear. That awful beast. Have no fear. I will have you fixed up in a jiffy.” The tall woman fixed icy blue eyes on Grey. “Might you have some wraps I could bind her ankle with?”
Grey opened his mouth to speak, but Lucien spoke up first, his voice suave and solicitous. “Of course we do. Please, ladies, do come inside and make yourselves comfortable.” He barely spared a glance for Grey. “Nephew, be a good chap and carry our injured guest inside so she doesn’t further, er… injure herself.”
The blood drained from Grey’s head. How did his uncle think he could carry such a… a… well, a woman of her stature?
“I’m perfectly capable of walking, if you two would be so kind as to lend me the support of your arms,” Lady Charity said.
Relief washed over Grey, thankful he hadn't had to add insult to the poor lady’s injury. Although when he got hold of Lucien…
As he and the footman assisted Lady Charity up the walk, from the corner of his eye Grey caught Lucien offering her sister his arm. He slowed to watch.
“Allow me to escort you inside. My home is your home for as long as it takes your sister to recover and as long as you wish to stay after, m’lady,” Lucien said.
“Don’t touch me, you lecher,” she snapped then slapped him across the face and stormed past them. She reached the door and turned. “Well, come along then. Get her inside so I can tend to her.”
“I do believe that’s the handsomest woman I’ve had the pleasure to be slapped by,” Lucien gushed.
Lady Charity gasped. On the other side of her, the footman struggled to control an expression of mirth. Grey rolled his eyes. “You would know that better than I.”
“Nephew, do hasten to get Lady Charity inside. I am most sure I taught you how to properly treat a guest in your home.” Lucien scurried toward the open door where the taller of the two women waited, tapping her foot. “M’lady, might I offer you some of my nephew’s best port?”
After the group entered the townhouse, Higgins appeared in the doorway accompanied by two of Grey’s footmen, who set about gathering the baggage from the coach. The butler seemed to melt back inside.
Grey stared toward the open doorway in disbelief. What had just happened? One minute he was preparing to inform his stepsister of a misunderstanding and how he regretted the inconvenience, but she wouldn’t be able to stay with him. And the next, she and her two companions were being ushered into his home as if he didn’t exist.
Petry stepped onto the landing, reminding Grey of the business he still needed to finish. Cursing inwardly, he helped the injured lady inside, resigned. At least for tonight, he would have houseguests.
Tomorrow I will find out exactly what this visit is really about.