Leah Hunter must choose between two men. Valet Daniel Barlow makes her laugh, fills her heart with delight, and answers her body’s desire for love. But Felton Kensington would give her a better life. Security. Prestige. And choosing him would take away the one thing that plagues her mind with worry and confusion. Felton Kensington scoffs at the valet’s attempt to steal away Leah. With what Felton has to offer, he’s quite confident Leah will be his. In every way.
Daniel Barlow knows what he wants. And that’s Leah Hunter. He’s trying everything in his power to win her over. But competition from Felton Kensington is stiff. How can a valet compete with a wealthy gentleman?
LEAH HUNTER SHOOK her head while at the same time keeping an eye out for anyone who might happen upon them as they talked in the upper hallway. “Leave it to a valet to point out the barely noticeable tear in my dress.”
“I’d be glad to repair it, if you like.” Daniel Barlow reached out a tentative finger toward her bodice.
She swatted his hand, the sound like a whip striking the air. “Thank you, no. I’ll see to it myself.” Although, her recent rise in status from merely a lady’s maid to Cecilia’s companion didn’t require her to do so many of the menial tasks any more. Still, part of her found it difficult to see herself as more than a maid.
A smile played on Daniel’s mouth, his lips full and soft. “But this is what I do. I believe that a valet trumps a lady’s maid in the area of clothing.”
“I think not.” It sounded like Daniel was having a little trouble remembering her change in status too. Did it bother him that she was now a little above him? The man still lived to tease her, though. What had he done with his free moments before she came to live there a few weeks ago?
“Come now, you must admit I’m right.”
“I’ll admit nothing of the sort.”
“Is that a smile I see?”
“No.” She tried her best to remain serious, but a blasted grin tugged on her lips. Traitorous lips.
He nodded and crossed his arms. “It’s as I thought.”
“You can’t resist me. Go on. Admit the truth.”
“Daniel Barlow, I think you wouldn’t know the truth if it dropped from the sky and landed smack on your head.”
“Are you comparing truth to say, a hat?” His brown eyes widened.
“Of course not.”
“What else would I wear on my head?”
She laughed. “Let me see… How about I borrow one of Cook’s roasting pots? Might look quite fetching on you.” Anything would look good on the man.
Daniel scowled, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it, the corners of his mouth quivering. “You’re breaking my heart, fair Miss Hunter. Dooming me to a life of drudgery in an ugly black piece of iron headwear.”
“Ah, poor man,” Leah crooned. “Don’t think the ladies will follow you around if you had that covering your dark locks?” Leah reached up to flick some of his hair above his ear.
Daniel grabbed her hand, his grip tight. “Don’t be thinking you can have your way with me. Making me feel all sordid and cheap.” He let out an exaggerated huff, his warm breath floating across her forehead.
“Have my way with you? What must you think of me? I’m a decent girl. You know it to be true.” Leah tried to tug her hand away, but he held fast.
“Yes. Playing the part of the jester with you is all.”
“You play it well.” A door closed from somewhere nearby. She had no wish to be caught wasting time standing around talking to Daniel. Perhaps she should make her exit. But she didn’t really want to. Although he teased her, she found that she enjoyed his company a little bit. Very well, quite a bit.
Daniel released her hand and bent from the waist in a mock bow. “Thank you very kindly, m’lady.”
“Stop that. Someone might hear you.” Leah glanced around the hall but saw no one. When she peered down, her left hand was rubbing her right as if to warm it. Right after Daniel’s touch had left her, the skin cooled. Odd, that. Almost as if his hand had somehow belonged with hers.
He ran his finger along her jaw, his touch as light as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing. “But what if I think of you as a lady? Doesn’t that count for something?”
Leah had dreamed of being a lady when she was a little girl, but now that she was grown, she realized how fortunate she was to have become Cecilia’s companion. “You are the silliest man I’ve ever met.”
Daniel leaned close. “Come now. I know you’ve spent time with Percy. Please tell me you’re not comparing me to him.”
Leah bit her lip, nostrils flaring as she tried not to giggle. “True enough. Much as I like the man, I believe he would be right at home at Bedlam.”
“That he would.” Daniel held up his hand. “Don’t misjudge me. I too enjoy spending time with him. But the loveable cork-brained wishes he was a bird. One time I passed by a room where he spoke with his nephew, and Percy was actually cawing. Like a crow.”
Leah widened her eyes. “Perhaps it’s worse than I thought.”
“So you see, you have no cause to compare me to Percy, saying I’m the silliest man. Because I beg to differ.”
“There, there.” Leah tapped Daniel on the shoulder, wishing she could place her hands on his broad chest instead. “Don’t go getting teary-eyed on me. How would you explain that to Mr. Radcliff?”
“I’ll not be doing anything like that. Especially not in front of a woman. You are the ones to get sentimental and weep at a moment’s notice. Men, on the other hand, are like warriors. Hard. Tough.” He glanced down and back up. “Rogues in valets’ clothing, if you will.”
Leah shook her head. “You think quite a lot of yourself, don’t you?”
“I only tell the truth, my dear.”
“My dear? What are you about?” She protested, but a thrill coursed through her at the endearment.
He stepped closer. So close she could smell a small trace of boot blacking on his hands. “It’s not a secret, Leah. I’d be yours, if you’d have me.”
“The way you tease…” Leah shook her head. Honestly, the man could have been a jester in another life. Surely he wasn’t serious? No… Daniel was never serious.
His brow furrowed but just as quickly lifted. Had she imagined it? “’Tis what I do. My whole purpose in life is to entertain you. Didn’t you know?” With a wink, Daniel turned, whistling a tune off-key as he left her standing in the hallway.
She watched him go. Someone she’d only known for a few weeks and should be a mere acquaintance. But when Daniel said such things, Leah wasn’t sure what to think. In her heart, she wished it to be true, that he would want her for his own, but Daniel was such a tease, always trying to make her laugh.
When had she ever seen him serious? Not making light of this or that? While she loved spending time with him and wished so much that he could have a tendre for her as she did for him, it didn’t seem likely that someone so carefree would want to settle down to take a wife.
Leah peered down at the area on her bodice with the almost invisible tear and sighed. No matter how often she mended her things, they fell further into disrepair. Guilt crept into her thoughts. Cecilia had had two lovely dresses made for Leah, but wearing them somehow felt wrong. As if she lived a lie that would soon be discovered, forcing her to give up the wonderful new life as Cecilia’s companion.
“Leah?” Cecilia’s voice carried down the hall.
She gasped and headed toward Cecilia’s rooms. What had she been thinking? She didn’t have the luxury of free time to stand around and daydream when her mistress might have need of her.
“Ah, there you are.” Cecilia smiled.
“I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting.”
“What have I told you about that? You’re my companion now, not a servant. No need to apologize.” Cecilia stepped forward and grasped her hands.
Leah nodded. “I love being here. With you. Sometimes the changes are a little confusing, I guess.”
Cecilia tugged her over to sit on the bed. “I know. Believe me.”
Yes, Cecilia knew. She’d been nothing more than the daughter of an injured surgeon-dentist when she met her husband. At her half-brother, the earl’s, insistence, she had taken on the role of his cousin so he could present her to society. Thankfully for Cecilia, it had worked out beautifully, even after Mr. Radcliff had found out her true identity. “I know you understand. Before, when I was at the Loftons, it wasn’t a problem being your friend, because we were…”
“Similar? Yes. You’re right. But I don’t want that to change anything now. While it’s true you are my companion, I still think of you as my friend first. Do you believe me?”
Leah gazed into Cecilia’s blue eyes, so like her own, except Cecilia’s were a lighter shade. The two could have been sisters with their coloring and blond hair. “I believe you.”
“Good. It’s one of the many reasons I pleaded with Amelia to let you come here, you know.”
“Thank you. That warms my heart.”
Surely Cecilia hadn’t called her simply to chat? “Is there something I can assist you with?”
“Actually, yes. Barrington is taking me to Almack’s this evening. I loved the way you dressed my hair last Saturday. Would you mind doing that again?”
“Of course not.” It’s the least I can do in appreciation of all she’s done for me.
Cecilia sat down at her vanity and faced the looking glass. With deft fingers, Leah removed the pins and brushed out her mistress’ long blond locks. What would it be like to have someone wait on her? Dress her hair? Take care of her gowns and rooms? Silly to even give it thought. It would never happen. Yes, it had happened to Cecilia, but what were the chances a wealthy gentleman would ever want Leah?
But it wasn’t even so much for herself. It was about any children she might someday be blessed to have. Leah’s family had been so poor. Fighting for every scrap of food. Handing worn-out clothing from one child to another that by the time the youngest acquired it, the item was little more than a rag.
No, Leah wanted more than that for her own children. Security. Freedom from worry of where their next meal might come from. Spending time with Daniel gave her heart joy, but even if she thought him serious about wanting to marry her, how would that help her fulfill her dream of a better life for her children?
Sadly, it wouldn’t.
“You’re quiet today, Leah.”
She jumped, nearly poking a hair pin in her finger. “Oh, I…”
“If something is weighing on you, you can tell me. Nothing has changed in that regard. We used to share everything, remember?”
“I do. And… I have missed it.”
“Then please, tell me what has you so troubled?”
Leah put the last touches on Cecilia’s hair and set the brush on the vanity. She tilted her head as she studied her friend in the mirror’s reflection. Leah shook her head, not wanting to give voice to her wishes. Saying them out loud would sound like she was ungrateful for everything Cecilia had given her. As if she craved more than what she already had.
Cecilia turned so they were face to face. “You know you can say whatever you wish. Anything, dear heart. Tell me.”
“I… I can’t.”
“Friends don’t judge each other, you know.”
With a nod, Leah let out a breath. “Ever since you met and married Mr. Radcliff, I’ve been feeling…” I can’t say it. I can’t! What would she think of me?”
“Have you been feeling perhaps as if you’d like something as wonderful?”
Leah gasped. “Please don’t think I’m ungrateful. Please. It would break my heart if you believed that. You’ve given me more than I’ve ever had. More than I could have hoped for. I guess… sometimes our hearts long for things that we don’t even give serious thought to. Does that make any sense?”
“Since I had been in the same situation, spending so much time with my brother and his new wife, I understand completely. I watched them fall in love. I never really thought it would happen to me. To find the love of my life.”
“You do understand.”
“It sounds terrible to actually say it out loud. As if I’m not content here with you. But I am. You must know that.”
“I do. But you want to find love for yourself. Isn’t that every woman’s dream?”
“Yes.” Should she tell Cecilia the rest of it? Surely she of all people would understand her need for her own children to not have to suffer as she had. Still… Leah glanced at her friend again. No. She had no wish to tarnish Cecilia’s happiness in any way. And bringing up her own needs would certainly do that, as Cecilia cared so much for her.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?”
Leah waved her hand in dismissal. “No. It’s nothing.”
“Are you certain?”
“Positive.” Leah smiled, hoping to convey her love and gratitude for Cecilia.
“You are my friend. More like a sister. I won’t rest until we’ve come up with a suitor that you find acceptable. Someone with whom you can find happiness and love.”
Warmth encased Leah’s heart. She wiped tears from her cheek and bent down to hug Cecilia. “You have the kindest heart. I truly love you.”
“And I you.”