Dukes of War Series #3
Captain Xavier Grey’s body is back amongst the beau monde, but his mind cannot break free from the horrors of war. His friends try to help him find peace. He knows he doesn’t deserve it. Just like he doesn’t deserve the attentions of the sultry bluestocking intent on seducing him into bed…
Spinster Jane Downing wants off the shelf and into the arms of a hot-blooded man. Specifically, the dark and dangerous Captain Grey. She may not be destined to be his wife, but nothing will stop her from being his mistress. She could quote classical Greek by the age of four. How hard can it be to learn the language of love?
Regency-set Historical Romance Novel
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What readers are saying . . .Wonderful writing, delightful reading!
— Tome Tender on The Captain's Bluestocking Mistress
Loved this story! Ridley had me laughing out loud and so engrossed in the story that I couldn't put it down.
— Historical Romance Lover on The Captain's Bluestocking Mistress
An exquisite romance between a brooding soldier and a defiant spinster. An absolute must-read.
— Fresh Fiction on The Captain's Bluestocking Mistress
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Start Reading . . .
Under normal circumstances, Miss Jane Downing would have been eager to alight from a chilly carriage and rush indoors for a welcome respite from the brutal winter. The exquisite building in front of the long line of coaches was none other than the Theatre Royal. The Duke of Ravenwood himself had loaned them his magnificent box for the occasion.
Most debutantes—most anyone, for that matter—would have been in raptures at such an opportunity.
Jane was not.
She was old enough to be more properly labeled a spinster than a debutante, if anyone chanced to glance her way long enough to label her anything at all. She sighed. Unlikely. After all, the princely theatre box hadn’t been loaned to her. She was no one.
But because even invisible old maids couldn’t gallivant about unchaperoned, her best friend Grace and her husband the Earl of Carlisle (to whom the box had been gifted) had driven in the opposite direction of the opera house in order to collect Jane and return to Covent Garden in time for the performance. All she could do was keep a smile on her face and do her best to be charming.
The ignominy of her inconvenienced friends wasn’t why Jane wished she were elsewhere, however. Those were everyday trials. And these were her friends.
Grace reached across the small interior to squeeze Jane’s hands as the wheels of the coach inched forward in the queue to the theatre. “Thank you ever so much for joining us. This is my first opera, and I am delighted to be sharing the night with all of my favorite people.”
Jane gave Grace’s hands an answering squeeze. In situations like these, the best thing to do was to lie through one’s teeth. “I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you for inviting me.”
She folded her hands back into her lap and wished for something else to say to break the renewed silence. She was adept at conversation when she was speaking privately with someone she was comfortable with. But she and Grace weren’t alone in the coach. Grace’s mother, Mrs. Clara Halton, sat to Jane’s left, gazing lovingly across the carriage toward her daughter. Lord Carlisle, of course, sat next to his wife, watching her as if the moon and stars paled next to her beauty.
Jane would kill to have a man look at her like that. Just. Once.
Lord Carlisle hadn’t stopped looking at Grace like that. Not since the moment he’d first caught sight of her. Jane should know. She’d seen it happen. From her eternal vantage point among the spinsters and the shadows, she observed everything. Other people laughing, dancing. Falling in love.
Yet spending the entire evening with a newly wed, obviously besotted couple wasn’t what had her biting her lip and cursing her jittery leg. Jane was delighted for her friends. She loved spending time with them.
She hated being out in Society. No—she hated being invisible in Society.
Her friends wouldn’t understand. Before Grace had ensnared an earl and become his countess, back when she’d been penniless, gauche, and persona non grata for being an upstart American, she’d still caught everyone’s eye. After all, Grace was beautiful. With her white skin, black hair, and sparkling emerald eyes, she easily attracted the attention of men and women alike.
Jane couldn’t even attract mosquitoes.
It wasn’t because she was plain. Many plain women managed to be popular and find husbands. Not Jane. In four-and-twenty years, she’d only twice been invited to dance.
Her dreams of finding someone were just that. Dreams. She smoothed out her skirts. It wasn’t the few extra pounds on her frame, or that she was an unrepentant bluestocking. Her lifelong curse was the unfortunate fact of being utterly, absolutely, one hundred percent… forgettable.
Her head began to ache as the carriage wheels inched her ever closer to a long night of being ignored and misremembered.
Even with all this snow and the serpentine trail of coaches, she and her companions would have plenty of time to mingle by the refreshments before taking their seats.
Jane slumped against the squab. Mingling was horrid. Mingling was standing still in a sea of faces that never once turned in her direction.
She turned her gaze toward the street and sat up straighter. A cluster of well-dressed gentlemen flocked toward a row of women strolling toward the theatre in stunning, bright-colored gowns. Courtesans. She stared out the window, fascinated. These men were hunting their next mistresses.
Her nostrils flared as the men danced attendance upon the demimondaines. Some of the Cyprians were gorgeous and some were ghastly, but each of them would receive more male attention in one night than Jane would in her entire life.
How ironic that the same gentlemen who had never thought to ask Jane to dance would gladly spend exorbitant sums of money in exchange for an hour in the company of a woman with less education and a worse reputation than she had.
What must it be like to be one of them? These weren’t desperate, gin-addicted whores in some bawdy house, forced to accept every brute with a penny. These women were elegant and expensive. They could select their lovers as they pleased.
Jane tilted her head. If she could have any man she wished, who would it be?
A dark, hard-as-granite officer with haunted blue eyes sprang instantly to mind. Captain Xavier Grey.
Heat pricked her cheeks. Of course he sprang to mind. He was all the ton spoke about, and one of the earl’s dearest friends. He had always caught Jane’s eye. Years before, when he was merely Mr. Grey, he had still been handsome and confident and the last person on earth who might notice the mooning gaze of a soon-to-be spinster. And then he’d left for war.
Three years later, he’d become a hollow husk of a man, beautiful and broken. He’d remained locked inside his head until Lord Carlisle had rescued the captain from—well, wherever he’d been—and returned him to England, determined to give him back some life.
The last time she’d seen the captain was over a month ago, the night Grace and Lord Carlisle had been compromised into marriage. He had seemed so… defeated. The ton was in full agreement that Captain Grey had miraculously awoken from his fugue that very night, but Jane held a private opinion.
For him to “awaken” implied he’d been in a state of arrested consciousness, and she didn’t believe that was the case at all. Every time she’d glimpsed him, his eyes had been too tempestuous to imagine him unaware of the world about him. He just no longer wished to be part of it.
Jane wrapped her arms about her chest and tried to put him out of her mind.
The time to obsess over a strong, silent soldier with dark, haunted eyes was five hours from now, when she was alone in bed with her thoughts. Right now, she needed to focus on being a good friend.
She gave her companions her sunniest smile. “How go the renovations on Carlisle House?”
Grace’s eyes lit up. “’Tis only been a week since the wedding, so we haven’t purchased much—aside from furnishings for my mother’s chambers, of course.” She sent a fond glance toward her mother, then touched her fingers to Lord Carlisle’s chest. “I don’t care about chandeliers and fancy gowns. What we have is more than enough. I want Oliver to spend every penny on his tenants before restoring the estate.”
“And I don’t want you to lack a single comfort,” Lord Carlisle responded gruffly as he pressed a gentle kiss to the top of his wife’s hair.
Wasn’t that adorable? Jane clenched her teeth behind her smile. She wasn’t jealous in the slightest.
No. This was going to be a splendid evening. She was fortunate to have been invited. This opera was one of her favorites.
She pasted the smile back on her face.
“What are your duties while Lord Carlisle handles his affairs?” she asked her friend. “I imagine managing such a large household must be a challenge.”
Grace shook her head. “I thought so at first, but they don’t require much direction from me. Most of the staff has been working there since Oliver was a child. What I truly wish we had is some entertainment for Mama. The library is empty, and—”
Lord Carlisle swung his head sharply in her direction. “I shall order a dozen titles as soon as the tenants’ roofs have been repaired.”
Her chin jutted forward. “Absolutely not. You have other duties a hundred times more important than travel tomes and gothic novels. I refuse to—”
“I have books,” Jane interjected before the fight could continue. “I can lend...” She coughed into her gloved fist. No. She could do better than that. These people counted their shillings, and she loved them dearly. “…that is, give you as many history tomes and gothic novels as you might like.”
Lord Carlisle’s voice hardened. “We couldn’t possibly.”
Jane made a self-deprecating gesture. “Your wife’s best friend is a bluestocking with more books than sense. You might as well get something out of the association.”
Even if it killed her. She rubbed her suddenly chilled arms. Just the thought of losing any part of her collection left her empty.
Every book, every story, was dear to her heart. For long, lonely weeks at a time, the only conversation she heard was the dialogue printed within those pages—well, that and the gentle prodding of her brother’s servants if she missed a meal. Books kept her company so often that she had a fair quantity memorized. Mansfield Park. Waverley. Guy Mannering. Her throat convulsed. Of course she would relinquish her dearest possessions to Grace and her mother.
That’s what friends did.
Grace reached across the carriage to squeeze Jane’s hand again. “You are the kindest woman who ever lived. I will accept a loan, but not a gift. We shall return your books as quickly as we can read them.”
Some of the tightness left Jane’s shoulders. “As you please.”
The carriage jerked to a stop. Lord Carlisle and Mrs. Halton exchanged pleased smiles. Grace clapped her hands in excitement.
Jane concentrated on making it through the night with her pride intact.
Lord Carlisle helped his wife from the carriage, then his mother-in-law. When it was Jane’s turn to alight, she rallied her courage and forced herself up from the squab. It was just a Society event. She would survive.
Once on Bow Street, they bent their heads against the bitter wind and dashed into the theatre lobby. Warmth enveloped them. To the others, the heat from the fireplace might have been welcome, but to Jane, it was her cue that she had officially entered Hell. Throngs of fashionable faces crowded them at once.
“Lord Carlisle! Lady Carlisle!”
“You look radiant, Lady Carlisle! Lovely to meet you, Mrs. Halton!”
“I fancy you want your grays back, Carlisle. Their price has doubled, I daresay!”
“Please say you’ll come to our dinner party next month, Lady Carlisle.”
“Ravishing bride, Carlisle. I hear the mother’s a widow?”
“Congratulations on your nuptials, Lady Carlisle. Is this stunning woman your mother?”
“She is!” Grace chirped, radiant as a new countess. “Your Grace, I present Mrs. Halton. Mama, this is His Grace, the Duke of Lambley.” A firm grip latched onto Jane’s wrist and yanked her to Grace’s side. “And this is Miss Downing, my best friend. She’s as brilliant as she is beautiful.”
The duke bent over Jane’s fingers. “In that case, I am very pleased to meet you.”
“As am I.” She refrained from mentioning they’d met on at least ten prior occasions. It wasn’t his fault. Rakes couldn’t be expected to recall the names of all the ladies they’d tupped, much less the face of lowly wallflower.
“Grace!” squealed a happy female voice. “That is, Lady Carlisle. Do you adore being a countess?”
“I definitely adore my earl,” Grace answered with a laugh. “Matilda, this is my friend Miss Downing. Jane, I’d like you to meet Miss Kingsley.”
It seemed churlish to say, I met her when we had our come-out on the same evening, then again when her cousin disappeared at a musicale and Miss Kingsley needed someone to turn the pages, then again when the ladies’ club collected embroidered handkerchiefs for charity, so Jane just sighed and said, “How do you do?”
As she always, always did.
Emptiness yawned inside of her. Jane wasn’t just a fixture in Society—she was a fixture. No more memorable than a carpet or a bellpull.
Grace looped her arm through Jane’s and turned her toward one of the young men. “This is my best friend, Miss Downing. Jane, this is Mr. Fairfax.”
Another familiar face.
He touched his lips to the back of Jane’s gloved hand. “Don’t believe everything they write about me in the scandal sheets.”
She smiled brightly. “So you’re not an incurable rogue addicted to gaming hells and pricy brothels?”
Grace groaned into her hands.
Jane blinked back at her innocently.
As expected, Mr. Fairfax wasn’t listening. His gaze had already been caught by a young lady in an emerald dress, and he was even now disappearing into the crowd without remembering to say good-bye.
Grace cast Jane a look, but before she could say a word of chastisement she was once again surrounded by well-wishers. “Oh, of course, Lady Grenville! I would love for you to meet my mother. Mama, this is …”
Jane stepped back into the shadows. She supposed the positive aspect to never being recalled was that she could get away with some truly outlandish behavior. Mr. Fairfax hadn’t been insulted. He’d already forgotten her.
She let the voices fade to a distant buzz. Her ability to ignore the outside world and live inside her head was key to getting through each boring, endless day. When at home, it let her escape into her books. And when at the Theatre Royal… Well, living inside her head was better than being introduced to the same blank faces time and again.
Others might not mind. Her brother, Isaac, preferred being invisible. He was boring on purpose, just to keep his name off the Marriage Mart’s most wanted list. He cherished his solitude.
Jane was the opposite. She often said the most outrageous things she could think of in the hopes of seeing awareness flash for just one second in someone else’s eyes, but it never, ever happened. If there was a boring, harmless way to interpret her boldest insults or double entendres, that’s precisely how her remarks would be taken—and then promptly forgotten. It was as though High Society suffered from total Jane Amnesia. Janenesia.
“Ladies.” Lord Carlisle proffered one arm to his wife and the other arm to her mother. “It’s time to take our seats.”
Jane trailed in their wake.
It wasn’t that her friends had forgotten her. Lord Carlisle possessed two arms and was escorting three women. Besides, Jane was used to walking unnoticed in other people’s shadows.
When she was younger, she’d thought perhaps her stride was the problem. That maybe she’d copied so much of Isaac’s careful boringness that her very walk made her invisible.
Easy enough to correct! She’d tried strutting like a peacock. Shimmying like a demimondaine. Swaggering like a dandy. Once, she’d shuffled ploddingly behind her brother with her mouth hanging open as if she were the walking dead intent on eating him alive. At the annual Sheffield Christmastide ball. In front of hundreds of witnesses. At the very least, she’d expected to gain a horrid-but-catchy nickname, like Lady Automaton or even That-Poor-Miss-Downing-What-Do-You-Suppose-Is-Wrong-With-Her?
Nothing. Not a blink. Complete Janenesia.
Lord Carlisle paused in front of Ravenwood’s opera box and held back the curtain. Mrs. Halton slipped inside first, followed immediately by Grace. Just as Jane moved forward, Lord Carlisle stepped in behind his wife. The curtain didn’t precisely fall on Jane’s head. She pushed the curtain aside and hurried inside as quickly as possible. The box was dim, but sumptuous. She pushed a few more pins into her displaced curls and settled into an empty seat.
Of course Carlisle wished to sit next to his wife. They were newly wed. And Jane was a never-will. Even if she could somehow command a man’s attention, with what would she keep it? Her brain was a mark against her, and as for her alleged beauty… Her own papa had always said she was quite pretty—for a plump girl.
Although the current high-waisted fashions did nothing to hide her plumpness, the billowing tubular midsection gave all women a rounder midsection, so at least she wasn’t the only young lady thus afflicted. Just the only undesirable one.
The audience rumbled excitedly as the thick red curtain began to part onstage.
Grace leaned into her husband, her brow furrowed. “He’s not coming?”
Lord Carlisle slipped her hand in his. “He’ll be here. He would never break his word.”
Jane kept her voice hushed as she turned toward them. “Who won’t break his word?”
“An old friend,” Carlisle murmured at the same moment Grace said, “Captain Grey.”
Heat raced up Jane’s cheeks. Captain Grey? Was joining them here?
Her entire body was blushing, just at the sound of his name. And the reminder of the rather lurid thoughts she had about him every time she closed her eyes.
She couldn’t move a muscle. Heaven help her, she could barely even think. This was a disaster.
The last thing this evening needed was the object of her fantasies to sit right beside her and remain unaware of her existence. She’d rather return home now, before complete and utter humiliation had a chance to rear its ugly head.
“How do you know he’s coming?” she asked breathlessly.
“Because he said so.” Lord Carlisle lifted his wife’s fingers to his lips. “I told him it would please Grace if he would join us at least once before removing to Essex.”
Grace nodded. “Tomorrow. He has a little cottage a couple miles past Chelmsford and he plans to stay there the rest of the Season.”
“Or perhaps forever.” Carlisle’s jaw tightened. “Xavier thinks he may never be ready for Polite Society. He may be right.”
Jane swallowed hard. Of course the dark and dangerous man of her dreams planned to disappear from Society forever after tonight. What did she expect?
The curtain to the private box flung open. There, silhouetted by the chandeliers in the corridor, stood the infamous Captain Grey… and a very imperious usher.
A wry smile quirked the corner of Captain Grey’s lips. “I’m afraid my good man here couldn’t quite credit that I was welcome in the Duke of Ravenwood’s box. Shall I go?”
Lord Carlisle sprang to his feet. “Of course you’re welcome! Come, sit. I believe you know everyone present?” He turned toward the usher. “We’re all very pleased our dear friend was able to join us. That will be all.”
“I’m so sorry, my lord,” the red-faced usher spluttered. “He looked… I thought—”
“It’s forgotten. Go.” Lord Carlisle dismissed the usher, then turned to Jane. His voice lowered. “Do you mind moving down a seat so Xavier can sit next to me?”
Captain Grey frowned. “Unnecessary. I’ve already interrupted enough.”
“No, I don’t mind.” Jane scrambled out of the way and waved a hand toward her vacated seat. “Please. Sit next to your friend.”
He inclined his head and took his seat.
The lighting was too dim to make out the crystalline blue of his eyes or the long black lashes that framed them. But Jane didn’t need lighting to recall every angle of his chiseled features or the careless tumble of wavy black hair against the stark white of his cravat. Every inch of him was seared into her memory.
Well, every properly (but disappointingly) clothed inch, that was. Nothing could hide the strong thighs encased in buckskin breeches or the thickly muscled arms filling out the sleeves of his expertly tailored jacket.
Heaven help her. She was going to be a hairsbreadth away from this gorgeous man for the next three hours. She absolutely, positively, couldn’t swoon. Or throw herself into his arms. His thick, powerful arms.
Her breath caught. This was impossible. He’d been seated next to her for less than five seconds and already her heart thundered as though she were running for her life. Perhaps she should be. Captain Grey wasn’t good for one’s reputation… or one’s heart.
Everyone knew that. He’d returned from war in a fugue state, and even before that, he hadn’t been considered a catch. Not by Society. He wasn’t rich. He wasn’t heir to a coronet. And he’d always had the same air of danger and unpredictability that clung to him even now.
He appeared confident, graceful, and deadly. No wonder the usher had hesitated. Captain Grey moved more like a hunter than a gentleman. Those piercing blue eyes could freeze a duke right in his tracks.
Or a bluestocking spinster.
She lowered her lashes. There was no way she was going to be able to pay any attention to this opera. She was too aware of his intoxicating proximity, of the rise and fall of his chest, of the way his eyes… were looking right at her? Her leg started bouncing with nerves. He’d caught her staring. She slid a little lower in her chair.
Whatever color she’d flushed before was nowhere near the crimson she must be blushing now.
He hunched closer so that his shoulder was touching hers. “Any idea what they’re warbling about on stage?”
Oh, lord. She had no idea how her heart wasn’t exploding right out of her chest. His shoulder. Was touching hers. On purpose.
“Er...” Her mind went blank. Captain Grey was actually talking to her. And expecting a reply. Think. What opera was this? She forced her gaze to the dueling sopranos. “That’s... Ismene and Antigona. They’re vexed that Creon won’t bury Polynices because he started a war.”
His eyes widened. “You speak Italian?”
She shook her head. “Greek. Antigone was a play before it was an opera. I must’ve read it a hundred times.”
She let her words trail off. Stop. Talking. One must not admit to reading ancient Greek plays hundreds of times. Bluestockings do not leave a coquettish impression. One must strive to be enchanting and irresistible.
Her well-read mind failed to summon any actionable ideas.
His lips quirked. “I haven’t read a book in years, so I suppose I ought to pay attention while the plot is being dramatized right in front of me.” He turned his gaze back to the stage.
There. Jane tried not to crawl under her seat and die. This was what happened when she showed her excessive love for reading. Nothing. Nothing at all happened. That was exactly why she was so forgettable.
Yet she could think of nothing compelling to say or alluring to do. She couldn’t believe she’d already lost his attention after having had it for such a brief moment. She was so… Jane.
Would it have been better to say she’d only read Antigone once? Or to claim she had no idea why those people were dancing about the stage with swords and lots of sobbing? Perhaps the wisest course would’ve been to—
His shoulder. She stopped breathing. His shoulder was still touching hers. He had remained hunched down as if, any minute now, they might once again be whispering like bosom friends.
She shivered. If only!
It wasn’t just that he was the most exquisitely attractive man she’d ever laid eyes upon. He was a soldier and a hero. An officer. Military men were loyal, and heroic and strong and delicious.
Do not overthink, she admonished herself. Proximity meant nothing. It was just a play. Just a shoulder. He wasn’t going to whisk her into the shadows for a carnal interlude (not that she would have objected) and he certainly wasn’t in any danger of losing his mind and proposing marriage. He planned on disappearing from Society altogether.
But first, she was going to have to spend an evening shoulder-to-shoulder with the one person she would never be able to get out of her mind.
At half nine the next morning, Jane tilted a wingback chair beneath the locked door to her private library. Such measures were unlikely to keep Isaac out if her brother were truly determined to enter, but the barred door would at least prevent Egui the devil-cat from leaping onto her head whilst she searched for guidance among her books.
Provided the cat wasn’t in here already, lying in wait.
She peered about the library suspiciously but saw no sign of the potbellied gray demon.
Not that one ever did, until it was too late.
With a last look over her shoulder, she began to walk along the rows of books in search of inspiration. Something in one of these tomes was bound to help her get noticed. Perhaps no strategy could win her a suitor, but if she could be desirable, for once in her life…
She ran a finger along the spines and sighed. The novels were no use. They were full of perfect, beautiful maidens whose greatest challenge was deciding which rich, devoted beau she should take for a husband.
Jane was in no such predicament. Just the night before, she’d had her first conversation with an eligible bachelor in weeks and made a pretty botch of it by babbling about her obsession with ancient tragedies.
Her life wasn’t a tragedy, at least. Other people were forced to the altar. She had narrowly escaped that fate and would just have to die an old maid. Was that not a blessing? A bad marriage had no advantage over spinsterhood.
To gain a husband, she would have to relinquish the freedoms she currently took for granted. Isaac often traveled for weeks at a time, which did leave her lonely, but who was to say a husband would not do the same?
Her brother loved her, which made for far more comfortable interactions than the silent, frigid meals shared by bitter couples that only wed for money or titles or because their parents had betrothed them while still in the womb, or other such nonsense.
She wasn’t rich enough to attract fortune hunters on the strength of her dowry alone, but Isaac provided her with any pin money she requested without question. She could solicit the gowns she desired, attend any routs she wished, purchase any manuscripts she—
She’d hidden the little book of erotic sketches inside the hollowed-out pages of a treatise on the evolution of various embroidery stitches across the centuries. She doubted Isaac would take it upon himself to research such a topic—and, besides, he had his own library—but one could never be too cautious. If she were to ruin her disappointingly pristine reputation, she wished to do so by enjoying illicit pleasures, not just by reading about them.
Or staring openmouthed.
Each illustration depicted a man and a woman in positions she could scarcely fathom. She’d perused these pages dozens of times, and still a few of them seemed impossible no matter which way she turned the book.
She sighed. Sketches couldn’t convey the feel and scent and taste of lovemaking. To truly understand, she would have to experience the wonder for herself.
Which, in her position, would be an extremely unlikely occurrence.
From a certain perspective, it was almost too bad that she had been born into gentility. She wouldn’t wish to trade her position in society for life in the rookeries, but there was an elegant middle tier: demimondaines.
Some of those women were wealthier and more sophisticated than the highest echelons of the haut ton and could select their lovers at will. Rumors of carnal liaisons enhanced, rather than ruined, their reputations.
The only individuals enjoying somewhat comparable freedoms in Polite Society were the rakes—and even then, their debauchery could only go so far.
Respectable women, on the other hand, had no such privilege. The only way for a female to take a lover without ruining her name in the process was to marry… or to be so clandestine that no one was ever the wiser.
Realistically, only one of those options was open to Jane—and it wasn’t marriage. The eligible men of her acquaintance had had four-and-twenty years to ask for her hand, and couldn’t be bothered to ask her to dance.
Much less to perform acts of… whatever it was the inked couple was doing in this particular sketch. She turned the illustration around. It still looked like the same position. She wasn’t certain it was erotic, but it was certainly interesting.
And tempting. While she wouldn’t trade the freedoms of spinsterhood for a cold, loveless marriage, she would happily trade her lonely, monotonous days for nights of heated passion.
With the right man.
The image of Captain Grey’s handsome visage rose to mind. As it did two hundred times a day. Would she have a clandestine affair with Captain Grey? Absolutely. The question was, would he?
Not when she lacked the basic ability to attract a man’s interest.
She sighed. The thing about marriage was that one was rather required to have intimate encounters with one’s spouse if one intended to beget heirs. The thing about secret affairs was that lovemaking was about pleasure, not practicality, and one only participated in carnal relations with those they desired.
And Jane was plainly undesirable.
She might have said invisible, were it not for that brief, whispered conversation and the subtle press of his shoulder against hers. She clutched the book to her chest. He had seen her. And spoken to her. And treated her like a friend, if only a temporary one.
None of which meant he’d be eager to lie with her but, oh, would such a liaison not be perfect?
Her shoulders fell. If it weren’t completely out of the question, of course. At this hour, he was doubtlessly en route to his cottage in Chelmsford, and she was stuck here in this town house with her brother for the rest of the Season. For the rest of her life.
Even if she had managed to besot the captain with nothing more than the brush of her shoulder and a love of Greek playwrights, ’twould all be for naught. By the time she saw him again—if that day ever came—he would have long since found someone else. Someone memorable.
“Jane?” A loud knock thundered against the door.
Her brother. With shaking fingers, she fumbled the little book back inside the tome on decorative sewing and shoved it back in place amongst all the other volumes.
The door rattled against the chair propped beneath its handle. “I say, Jane. Are you blocking the entrance to your library?”
She dashed over to the door and lugged the heavy wingback chair back toward the fireplace. Panting, she shoved a damp tendril of hair off her forehead and flung open the library door.
“Don’t be absurd, Isaac. Why on earth would I block the entrance to—yeeaaaghh!”
Egui the Satan-cat leapt from her brother’s arms to the front of her bodice, his razor-sharp claws scraping all the way through her shift as he slid gleefully to the floor and shot off into the shadows.
“I wish you wouldn’t tease him so,” Isaac admonished her. “He never gets out of sorts unless he’s around you.”
She smiled through gritted teeth. “I shall endeavor to pay him less attention. Did you need something?”
“I’m afraid so. I’ve been called away to a meeting with the board of future fish farmers down in Exeter, and I have to leave in the next few minutes if I’m to miss the snowstorm heading this way. Can you ensure Egui is comfortable while I’m away? It should only be a couple of weeks at the most, but one never knows when it comes to men and their herrings.”
“Yes, yes, lovely,” Jane answered automatically, her heart pounding.
This was her opportunity to make her own fate! With her brother away, no one would know whether spinster Jane Downing was home alone with her books or had slipped off for the night. She could be in Chelmsford by luncheon.
If it didn’t occur to Captain Grey to seduce her, well, she would just have to seduce him. And if he was not at home—or, worse, rejected her outright—there were plenty of inns in Essex, and she’d be back in London this time tomorrow morning with nobody the wiser.
But first, she needed Isaac to depart as quickly as possible so that she could hurry on her way. “You go ahead, brother dear. Egui will be a delight. Enjoy your meeting without a further worry.”
“You’re marvelous, Jane, truly. I don’t know what I would do without you.” He kissed both of her cheeks, patted her arm, and then sank to his knees to bid farewell to his demon spawn. “Egui... Egui... C’mere, puss. Come say goodbye to Papa.”
Jane made no attempt to hide the roll of her eyes at the singsong baby voice her manly elder brother affected when he spoke to his cat. Nor did she attempt to hide her fury and disbelief when the potbellied fur-monster strolled out from between the bookcases with his head up and his silver tail high, docile as you please.
Egui leapt into Isaac’s open arms with nary a claw in sight. He stretched his spine, purring loudly. As Isaac cradled his beloved pet to his chest, Egui lifted his languid gaze over his master’s shoulder and made direct eye contact with Jane.
She could swear the little beast smirked.
Isaac rose to his feet and brushed gray hairs from his breeches. “Thanks again, Jane. I owe you enormously. Be good, kitten. I’ll see you both in a fortnight.”
She smiled. Egui slipped beneath the hem of her gown and began to shred her stockings.
Teeth gritted, Jane all but shoved Isaac out the door. “No problem, brother. Anytime. Have a good trip. Don’t bring back any fish larvae. I love you.”
“Love you too, Jane. You’re one in a million.” With a last buss to her cheek, Isaac was down the hall and gone.
As soon as she heard the front door close, Jane bent over and yanked Egui from her bleeding ankle—then immediately dropped him when he let out an ear-piercing caterwaul. The last thing she needed was for Isaac to run back and spend the next two hours lecturing her on his angelic pet’s misunderstood intentions.
Before Egui could test his claws on her other ankle, she hurried out of the library and raced upstairs to her bedchamber. Her lady’s maid stood before the open wardrobe with a pile of freshly laundered linens in her arms.
“Martha! Splendid timing. Help me put together a valise with... a week’s worth of clothing.” That was shamelessly optimistic, but Jane supposed it was better to have clean clothes and not need them than it was to attempt a seduction whilst swathed in week-old garments. “Perhaps a small trunk.”
“At once, Miss Downing.” Martha placed the linens on a shelf and went to fetch a traveling trunk. “Where are we going?”
“To...” Jane swallowed. If the whole purpose of this desperate endeavor was to embark on a brief, clandestine affair, the last person who should bear witness was a servant under Isaac’s employ. She would have to go alone. “You shall have a week’s holiday, effective immediately. I am visiting a sick friend, and it should be better for all of us if you don’t fall ill yourself.”
Martha’s eyes sparkled. Jane had a strong suspicion the girl was sweet on one of the footmen and would not in the least begrudge a few days away from her mistress. Inter-staff liaisons were strongly discouraged, of course, but given that Jane was off to seduce a man who didn’t know her from Princess Charlotte, she could hardly stand in the way of others’ passion.
She began to pile shifts and stockings into the small trunk. “One tiny request, Martha. Can you please mind Egui for me while I’m gone?”
Martha blanched and shook her head wildly. “Oh, ma’am, please don’t make me! I’d druther play nurse to lepers than spend one second alone with that cat. I don’t think he… cares for me much.”
Of course not. Jane’s temples began to pound. Egui hated everyone except Isaac. Perhaps ’twas better to put one of the male servants in charge. “Very well. Go have Dunbar summon a hack. And send up a footman to carry down this trunk. I wish to leave at once.”
Martha bobbed and nodded and dashed out of the bedchamber before her mistress could change her mind.
Jane had already pushed Egui from her thoughts. At least for the moment. The more pressing disaster was what clothes she might don to instill lust in a man’s breast.
She scowled as she combed through her uninspiring wardrobe. How was she meant to seduce a dashing military captain when she’d failed to attract the attention of any other gentlemen of her acquaintance? She stuffed her embroidery kit next to the gowns. Perhaps she could lower a few bodices during the ride to Essex.
Jane was just latching the trunk when Martha returned with a pair of footmen, who immediately hefted it and awaited further instruction.
Martha wrung her hands. “Your hack is waiting, ma’am. Are you sure I oughtn’t accompany you?”
“No, thank you. You’ve earned your holiday. Clive, Malcolm, I’ll need you to mind Egui for me while I’m—”
Both footmen dropped the trunk and stared at her in horror. “You cannot mean it! I— We— That cat—”
Jane raised her eyes heavenward and let out a loud, long-suffering sigh. No intelligent person wished to mind Egui, but she was only the one foolish enough to have promised. He would now be her sole responsibility until Isaac’s return, romantic encounter or not. “Let me be clear. I am going to be inside that hack and on my way within the next five minutes. If Egui is in a sealed basket upon my lap, he goes with me. If he is not—”
Clive and Malcolm fled the room without a backward glance.
Martha stared at the empty doorway, the forgotten trunk, and then her mistress. “Er... shall I summon the butler, perhaps?”
Jane shook her head. “By now, everyone is searching for that odious cat. Come on, then. You take that side, and I’ll take this one.”
With only minor damage to the wainscoting, she and Martha managed to get the trunk down the stairs and over to the front door, where the horrified butler and hack driver rushed forward to relieve them of their unseemly burden and escort Jane to the coach.
No sooner had her derrière touched the worn squab of the hack than Clive and Malcolm raced from the town house with a rocking, screeching wicker basket held aloft between them and only mild scratch marks upon their triumphant faces.
She held out her arms for the basket.
Egui, it seemed, was destined to play chaperone on her quest for a romantic encounter. Marvelous. She might not meet with success, but the adventure could hardly fail to be a memorable one.
Despite the icy wind and blinding snow, perspiration clung to Captain Xavier Grey’s brow as he crashed an axe onto one of the few retrievable tree trunks still visible in the white blanket behind his small cottage.
When he’d sent his handful of servants up to Chelmsford a fortnight ago to prepare his domicile, the climate had been cold, but clear. When he’d sent his staff on holiday for the remainder of that fortnight while he visited friends in London, Xavier had actually looked forward to returning to his cottage a day or two before his servants. The solitude would do him good.
The storm, less so.
Provisions would last a week, two at the most. Perhaps that was plenty. Perhaps it was not. Keeping warm would be critical. He swung the axe one last time and then began hauling the logs indoors.
No one had predicted a snowstorm. He supposed that was the very nature of… well, nature. Unpredictability. What had begun as a lovely snowfall now threatened to entomb them all in their homes. He added the last of the logs to the reserve pile.
A chill rippled across his skin as he barred the front door against the bone-cold wind. ’Twas ironic. He had hoped never to be trapped anywhere again, and now here he was, doing it to himself. The fact that it was voluntary this time—all openings were sealed to keep out the snow, not to keep in the man—ought to have eased his rising panic.
He began to stalk the corridors of his old, familiar cottage. The kitchen was clean and cold. The dining room: dark. The library: silent. The servants’ quarters: vacant. The master bedroom: lonesome. The entire cottage was devoid of company or stimulation. Just a restless ex-captain, alone with his thoughts… and his memories.
Xavier wasn’t fond of either companion.
He might have left the battlefield, but his mind was still at war. He could never erase the horrors he’d seen. Nor the role he’d played.
His skin crawled. He had learned things about himself that he would do anything to forget. He’d set off in search of honor, of heroism. Instead, he’d found evil. All around, and inside himself.
And he’d been rewarded for it.
It was bitter irony that he’d returned home without a scratch on him when more honorable men—better men—had returned in pieces, or not at all. His childhood friend Bartholomew Blackpool was in want of a leg... and the man’s twin brother had died defending their country.
Xavier would never tell Bart how fortunate Edmund was that a bullet had pierced him before the French soldiers found him.
There were far worse fates than death. Xavier would know.
He shrugged out of his coat and shirtsleeves and washed up at a basin filled with water.
It was no use. He would never feel clean. Nor should he.
He sighed. It was just as well that he was stuck out here without any servants. He didn’t deserve company, and he certainly didn’t deserve being waited on. He hoped his staff was wise enough to wait out the inclement weather rather than attempt to reach the cottage during a snowstorm. The roads would quickly become a death trap.
He pulled on a fresh shirt and shoved his arms into his thickest coat. Dressing warmly would allow him to better ration the firewood.
The parlor was the only chamber with a small blaze in its hearth. He stirred the embers with a poker. Night would fall in a few hours, and he didn’t want the fire to die in the meantime.
A knock sounded upon his front door.
Frowning, Xavier replaced the poker and strode to the entryway. Aside from Lord Carlisle and a few local Chelmsford residents, nobody knew Xavier had resumed residence in his little cottage. Who on Earth would be knocking at his door? Better yet, why? He swung open the door.
He nearly choked in surprise. “Miss Downing? What the devil are you doing here? Has something happened?”
Her eyes rounded. “You remember me?”
“I’m not senile. We were introduced years ago, and we sat beside each other last night.” He scanned her for possible injuries. “Are you all right? Was there a carriage accident?”
She shook her head. “Nothing like that. I… was in the neighborhood. Not far at all. So I thought I’d pay a visit.”
“On foot?” He shook his head to clear it of disbelief.
The daft woman stood upon his stoop with a battered trunk and a shrieking picnic basket. From the snaking rectangular trail in her wake, she’d lugged her trunk behind her from somewhere down the road. By herself. In a snowstorm. With a hissing basket.
He snatched the possessed basket from her hand and hauled her inside the house. It was frightful outside. He swung the trunk inside the entryway and slammed the door tight against the cold and wind. Already snowflakes covered the floor. The warmth of the fire was just a memory.
He grabbed her by the shoulders and forced himself not to shake some sense into her. “You cannot possibly have believed this to be appropriate conditions for a stroll down country roads. Are you mad?”
“Just... a bit chilled, I think...” she said through chattering teeth.
He dragged her into the parlor and placed her in the chair closest to the fire. “I’m going to start a pot of tea, and once you’ve drunk every drop of it, I expect a full accounting of what brings you to my doorstep with a trunk and a—”
The basket shrieked and hurled itself against the closest wall.
“—and a cat.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Do. Not. Move.”
Her huge brown eyes blinked up at him. “Why are you starting the tea? Haven’t you a cook or a butler or—”
“I’m afraid uninvited guests don’t always have the luxury of arriving when the staff isn’t away on holiday.”
Her expression brightened, but she made no further move to stop him from fetching tea. Confounding woman. He stalked to the kitchen.
Hellfire. Three years at war had taught him more than he ever wished to know about being self-sufficient. But the last thing he was equipped to handle was a bluestocking spinster with long chestnut curls, sparkling brown eyes, and a rabid cat. A creature that, from the sound of it, had finally managed to escape its basket and streak down the hall toward Xavier’s library.
Bluestocking, he reminded himself. Of course her ball of fur felt more at home in a library. Besides, the cat was not the problem. His problem was the innocent, unmarried, unaccompanied maiden seated in the parlor of an infamous, immoral, cynical ex-soldier.
Wonderful. He had sworn to never again cause harm to another human, yet he’d destroyed Miss Downing’s reputation merely by allowing her through his door.
Then again, perhaps the situation was not so dire. There were no witnesses to her utter lack of judgment. If he could pack her off to—wherever she’d come from—before his servants arrived, they might both be able to pretend this misadventure had never happened.
In fact, that was likely the reason her eyes had lit up when she’d learned there were no servants. The poor thing was finally concerned about the state of her reputation.
A shrill whistle filled the air as the water reached a boil. He turned to pick up the small towel he used for handling hot objects and stilled.
The towel was now ribbons. And flecked with short gray hairs.
He frowned. He could’ve sworn the cat had taken off for the library. He’d heard its claws clicking across the wooden floor. Was he to believe that had been a feint? That the cat had purposefully made excess noise to throw him off the trail, and then returned on silent paws while Xavier’s back was turned in order to shred a perfectly good tea towel? Ridiculous.
Yet the yellow square of cloth was now rubbish.
“I believe the water’s boiling,” Miss Downing called from the parlor. “The whistle means—”
“I know what the whistle means.” He glanced around. Where the devil were the rest of the towels? He yanked off his ascot and used it to lift the shrieking kettle from the stove. He placed it on a tray with milk, honey, and two tea settings, and carried it into the parlor.
She blinked at him in confusion. “Did you lose your cravat in the kitchen?”
He set down the tray on the tea table between the two chairs. “You know who gets to ask questions? I get to ask questions. Drink your tea.”
“Drink.” Fingers trembling, he poured each of them a serving of tea. He didn’t wish to ask questions. But here she was. What was he supposed to do? He lifted his cup to his lips as he considered his next steps.
Her nose wrinkled. “You drink yours without milk or honey?”
He slanted her a dark look.
“Right.” She lowered her lashes and reached for the milk. “You ask the questions.”
Not anymore. Old dread crept over his skin. He wasn’t certain he could question anyone ever again. He was done with interrogations, with extracting answers from unwilling captives.
While Miss Downing had descended upon him of her own free will, the snow and moonless night would keep them both prisoner until dawn. He would not treat her like one.
“So,” he said instead. “You have a cat. Does it have a name?”
“Egui,” she mumbled against her teacup.
Egui? He frowned. Odd name for a cat, but who was he to judge? He wasn’t stable enough for a pet.
“Does Egui always enjoy ripping cloth to shreds?”
She lowered her teacup in horror. “He ate your cravat?”
“No, of course n—” Or had he? Xavier gritted his teeth. He’d placed his wadded-up cravat on the counter next to the shredded towel when he’d brought the tea tray into the parlor. What were the odds it was still where he’d left it? “One moment.”
He rose on stiff legs and marched into the kitchen. His jaw clenched when he caught sight of his cravat. Wonderful.
Egui, two points. Xavier, none. His cravat now resembled a linen octopus. With a discarded hairball instead of eyes.
He returned to the parlor and dropped heavily back into his chair. “Yes. Egui ate my cravat.”
She winced. “He eats... everything. He’s a very peckish cat. His other favorite pastime is hide-and-seek. I recommend locking your bedchamber if you intend to sleep.”
“Delightful,” he murmured. “And to think they claim dogs are a man’s best friend.”
She took a dainty sip of tea. “He’s more like... family. I’m afraid I’m stuck with him.”
And now Xavier was too, because his unplanned houseguest thought of the beast as family. Ravenous, demented family.
This couldn’t continue for long. He needed a plan.
He also had a thousand questions, but no wish to interrogate her. Perhaps he wouldn’t have to. A young lady like Miss Downing was unlikely to have ulterior motives. Although he was hard-pressed to come up with a rational explanation for her presence, and under such unlikely circumstances.
“I couldn’t help but notice you brought luggage,” he said presently. “But no chaperone. Or carriage.”
She flashed a nervous smile over the rim of her teacup. “It’s the funniest thing. You’re right that I have no chaperone, but I did rent a hack. The driver refused to take the horses any further than the Dog & Whistle due to the ice and snow. For the same reason, the innkeeper was completely without rooms to let. My driver accepted a pallet in the mews, which of course wouldn’t do for a young lady. So I walked here. But don’t worry. It was less than a quarter mile.”
Something was funny, all right. Xavier tapped his fingers together. “I’m so glad there’s a reasonable, not-remotely-questionable explanation for dragging a cat and a trunk through a snowstorm to a bachelor’s private cottage. Your brother will love to hear this.”
She jumped. “You know Isaac?”
He stared at her. “Why do you think me incapable of remembering people?”
She cleared her throat. “I would prefer you didn’t mention this visit to him, that’s all.”
“I would prefer not mentioning it to anyone. Come morning, the snow will melt enough to return you to the Dog & Whistle and commission a driver willing to take you right back home to London.”
Her shoulders relaxed. “I can stay the night? Here?”
He held up his palms. “Did you expect me to offer the mews?”
She beamed at him. “I knew you wouldn’t. You’re too steadfast and honorable.”
“I’m too what? I’m nothing of the sort!”
“Of course you are. You’re a soldier and a hero. Anyone would be safe in your company.”
“You’ve no idea what being a good soldier means. I’m a bringer of death and destruction. And the worst person of my acquaintance. You shouldn’t be anywhere near me.”
She shook her head. “That was during the war, whilst defending innocent civilians from Napoleon’s tyranny. The very definition of heroic.”
He raked a hand through his hair. If only he were the kind of man she painted him to be. “The point is, you shouldn’t be here. You’re a well-bred young lady with a fine reputation, and if we are quite lucky, you might be able to keep it that way.”
She held his gaze. “Part of that is true.”
He almost laughed. Miss Downing was the very embodiment of innocence and purity. “I’m afraid I don’t follow. Are you claiming you’re not a chaste young lady in possession of a pristine reputation?”
“Of course I am. But I don’t wish to be.” She set down her teacup and bit her lip. “Might I be your mistress?”