When Theodora Smith is forced to move in with her brother’s oldest friend and her official guardian, Lord Langley, she is miserable. Not only has she loved Langley for ten years but he plot to run away is ruined.
Jon Langley is finally taking on the responsibility of having a charge, but he didn’t expect to fall in love with her. He swore to his best friend that he would protect his sister no matter what, but he didn’t know he would have to protect her from himself.
Can Theodora convince herself to forget her champion and leave him for good?
Theodora Smith sat in the drawing room of her aunt’s London home, wringing her hands together. Her heart beat erratically; her eyes locked on the grandfather clock in the corner. Anxiety and hope filled her entire being.
Only five more minutes…
“Dora, if you insist on looking like a sad, little puppy dog waiting for your walk, I’ll inform Lord Langley that he needn’t bother escorting you to Madame Babineaux’s.”
Theodora froze, knowing that her aunt’s threat was a very real possibility. Tearing her gaze from the clock she looked across the room at her aunt and cousin. They were ignoring her as they usually did, save the frequent insult.
“I don’t know why he wastes his money on her,” her cousin Constance said to her mother, as if Theodora wasn’t in the room. “It’s not as though she’s a beauty.” Constance laughed, her eyes lifting from her stitches to look at Theodora. “Dora the dog is excited for her walk, is she?”
Theodora kept her face blank, her eyes drifting to the floor. She had grown accustomed to her cousin’s abusive words in the past year. When she didn’t take the bait, Constance’s eyes narrowed. “I wish my older brother would pawn me off on marquises.”
“Hush, dear,” her mother said, her eyes never leaving her needlework. “You wouldn’t wish to be as desperate and hopeless as our plain Jane.”
Jane. Theodora hated being called Jane almost as much as she hated being called Dora, but she had more important things to worry about. The mention of her brother pulled at her heart though. I’ll be with Peter soon enough, she thought to herself as the maid entering the room.
“Lord Langley has arrived,” the maid said as a man followed her into the room.
Theodora’s heart began to shake when Lord Langley walked past her. The broadness of his back was covered by his chocolate brown riding coat, the one she had picked out only two months ago. She stopped a smile from crossing her face. He paused in front of Lady Barrows, Theodora watching the expression on her aunt’s face.
“Lady Barrows.” His rich voice like liquid velvet. “A pleasure to see you again.”
“Langley,” she bit out crisply, though a faint blush stained her pale cheeks. Even her aunt, who Theodora always suspected was made of stone, couldn’t shield herself from Jon’s charms. “I expect her back within the hour.”
“An hour?” he repeated, amused, his back still toward Theodora who silently approved of his blatant ignorance of her. She had told Jon ages ago that he would make her life much easier if he ignored her while in the presence of her aunt. “That’s hardly enough time for glove shopping. Plus, I’ve planned to escort her through Hyde Park.”
“Out of the question,” she said. “She doesn’t need to—”
“Lady Barrows,” he soothed, taking her hand and kissing her knuckles. “I’ll have her back before dark.”
Theodora’s aunt simply melted. Something about Jon did that to women. Again, Theodora stifled a smile since she knew just how much Jon disliked her aunt.
“Very well,” Lady Barrows finally agreed, waving her hand. Her eyes shifted to her daughter. “Does not Constance look well?”
“Miss Constance,” he said, taking her hand as well. “A breath of fresh air, you are.”
Constance batted her eyes.
“I hope to see you tomorrow evening at the Morgans’ ball.” Constance’s voice was at least several octaves higher than it had been when she spoke to Theodora. “You will be attending, won’t you?”
“Of course,” he replied. “I’ve been asked by Peter to escort Theodora.”
Theodora froze, her eyes locked on Jon’s back. Her aunt and cousin looked crestfallen.
“How kind of you to keep your obligations to my nephew.” Her aunt’s tone was clipped. “It must be such a trying ordeal to oblige Peter’s every wish.”
Jon put his hand to his chest and sighed. “My duty,” he said, standing up straight. Theodora was always in awe at how tall he was. “If you’ll excuse us, my dear ladies, we have an appointment.”
Jon’s face was unreadable as he turned to face Theodora, but his deep green eyes were a mixture of resentment and disdain. She tried to smile to sooth his anger, but he wouldn’t be swayed. Taking her arm, they left the room. It wasn’t until they were in his carriage that she felt safe enough to speak.
“You did brilliantly,” she said with sincerity.
“I despise those two,” he said, his voice no longer velvety but hard and cold. “If Peter knew—”
“You mustn’t tell him,” she interrupted. “We have no other family, and he can’t come home, which is precisely what he would do if he knew. The shipping business isn’t nearly where it needs to be yet.”
“It’s infuriating,” Jon bit out. Theodora winced, and he changed his tone, his large hand clasping over hers. “I only wish that you and Peter would let me take care of this. You could live with my great aunt Alice. She’s a bit senile, but not at all like those vipers you call relatives.”
Theodora’s heart melted at his touch and eagerness to help. She had loved Jon all her life, ever since the time Peter had brought him home for Christmas holiday during their first year at school. Life hadn’t been so bad then. Papa was alive, and the shipping business had been thriving. Of course, she had been nine at the time, but her heart leaped from her chest the moment she saw Jon, and it hadn’t returned for ten years.
Remembering that Jon was one of the worst scoundrels in the entire kingdom, Theodora steeled her emotions. She was use to the fluttering of her pulse every time he was near, though it never got any easier. Everyone fell in love with Jon. She was only the first.
“We can’t accept that. You already do too much.”
“Buying you a pair of gloves or slippers ever few months because your aunt refuses to buy them for you is nothing grand. If Peter knew she used his money to furnish her sitting room instead of—”
“That’s enough, Jon,” she said. “I won’t have you telling Peter anything. Besides, I dare say I won’t be with them for much longer.”
Finally allowing herself to gaze upon the man she loved, her breath hitched. The strong, angular lines of his face seemed even more beautiful today than any time before. His green eyes sat like jewels, shining in confusion at her statement. His wheat colored hair was tussled, which was becoming an increasingly trendy way for gentleman to wear their hair. As if they had been riding horseback all day. A shiver went through her. He was far too handsome for her to look at, and her eyes drifted to her hands.
“What do you mean?”
“Well—” She inhaled, preparing to lie. “—the Season has begun and though I’m a little older than I should be for it to be my first season, I dare say I may find some gentleman who will want to marry me.”
Jon stared at the fair-skinned beauty, almost startled. How could Theodora possibly be thinking of marriage? She was still only a child!
“You’re an infant,” he said in a flat tone.
“I’m nearly twenty, and you know it.”
His brow furred as he looked at her. Twenty? Already? But it felt as if only yesterday a little girl in braids had stared at him, frightened to death. He chuckled at the memory. She had come running like a hellion down the hallway to meet them, bounding up in a single leap into her brother’s arms. It was only after Peter had spun her around and let go that she realized there was another boy standing in the foyer. Her dark amber eyes had gone wide at the sight of him.
Looking at her now, those bright, big eyes were filled with an emotion Jon had never known. Something he couldn’t describe. Eyes roaming, he saw that her cinnamon hair was pulled up in an intricate, elegant fashion. The pale periwinkle blue gown she wore was far too snug against her body. No doubt a hand-me-down, he thought. Her cousin was a waif, sharing nothing of the womanly curves Theodora had.
By God, Theodora was a woman.
A tremendous wave of realization slammed into him as he looked at Theodora the woman. Almost instantly, he saw the potential danger of being alone with her. She was far too beautiful for her own good, which made his heart pinch for some reason. If he were alone with any other woman her age, as breathtakingly stunning as she was, he might have taken advantage of the situation.
Jon shook his head. He wouldn’t allow himself to see Theodora as anything but Peter’s younger sister. He owed Peter too much to let himself be distracted by the beauty who sat before him.
He thought back to his youth, before he had met Peter Smith. Jon had been a trouble child, always looking for a fight. He had only known his rage before Peter, a thin, kind boy with new money and no title, involved himself in an issue that would have resulted in Jon being tossed from school. He never understood why Peter had helped him or why he had brought him home that Christmas, but he never complained. Peter was the only true friend he had in the world.
“What are you thinking about?” Theodora asked, a crease of concentration in her forehead.
“Your brother,” he answered. “When he brought me to your home in Devonshire that Christmas.”
The pale pink that rose in her cheeks made his heart beat a little faster. His brow furred, unable to explain why.
“You remember that?”
“Of course I do. You were terrified of me.”
Her blush deepened. “I was not.”
“You were too.” He smiled. “You refused to speak to me the entire holiday. I wonder how you’ve grown from that shy little girl to one that tells me I look terrible in lace cuffs.”
“Lace cuffs look foolish on all men.”
“But you would never tell it to any gentleman’s face but mine.”
“Because you’ve been Peter’s friend for a decade!” She laughed. “It’s as if you were another brother to me.”
Jon smiled, only slightly irritated by her last statement.
“Another brother?” he repeated, his voice indifferent.
“In the way that you care for me.”
“There are many ways to be cared for, Theodora.”
The sudden and faint huskiness of his voice sent shivers down her spine. She looked at him. He shook his head and smiled that devastating smile.
Theodora and Jon discussed the Morgans’ ball for the remainder of the ride. Peter, who apparently kept in better touch with Jon than his own sister, had asked his best friend to escort Theodora to the ball. Though terribly embarrassed, Theodora accepted, unable even to argue that it would be improper. It was widely known by nearly everyone in London that Jon had a charge. In fact, as Theodora was deciding between a pair of satin gloves with buttons along the side and a pair of silk gloves with an intricate triple fold at the edge, Jon told her that her debut was a subject of interest to most of the ton.
“Why?” she asked, turning to look at him.
“Well, my reputation is anything but unmarked.”
“I believe a chimney sweep is cleaner than your reputation.”
“I agree,” he quipped. “Unfortunately, my indiscretions are well known and well discussed. They find it humorous that I should have a charge.”
“Unfortunately, my foot. You love being the talk of the town,” she said as she moved through the store. Suddenly, Jon was in front of her, looking at her with his beautiful suspicious eyes.
“I hope you do not gossip about such things.”