“I must have been mad to think that just once you wouldn’t attempt to mar our holiday by bringing one of your bloody mistresses here.”
Adam looked up from his correspondence. “Good morning, Eustace. I could tell from your tone that you were saying something accusatory, but I didn’t quite catch it.”
Eustace Landen, the Marchioness of Wallace, remained in the doorway of his office. Her dark hair was, as always, immaculately fashioned atop her head, and a deep gray morning gown set her light gray eyes off to perfection. Adam had always found it ironic that his older sister looked more like a warm hearted confidante than an ice cold shrew, but he’d certainly known her long enough to see past her pretty skin.
“I had thought that this year, at least, you would manage something respectable – or at least your interpretation of the word. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed. You know how important this holiday is, Adam, and yet you invite a Tantalus girl? I thought you’d at least make an effort, even knowing the...regard you have for your only family. There is at least one person you will need to impress this Christmas.”
“Beg pardon, but are you crediting me with destroying the Aire bridge? Or conjuring the storm? Or perhaps causing the mail coach to run three hours behind schedule? I assure you, while I have my methods, I’m not a god.”
“You invited an unacceptable female.”
“Yes, I did. I also invited Keating Blackwood, who once killed a man. And Keating’s new wife, Camille, who abandoned the same man at the altar twice. And Lord Lassiter, who’s been through four wives. And Haymes, who won his butler in a wager. And–“
”Don’t remind me,” she retorted. “I’ve seen your guest list. But you’ve also invited a dozen high born ladies here, for you to...evaluate, I presume. Or is it merely for a laugh with your disreputable friends? Is it still all a jest to you? Because I can promise that I’ve had several solicitors review the contents of Father’s will. It can’t be contested, or amended. Even by you. And you are very nearly out of time.”
“Enough.” Setting aside the letter he’d been writing to Keating, Adam gave his full attention to his sister. Most people didn’t care to receive his full attention, and even Eustace wandered over to fiddle with the potted ivy on an end table. “I’ve had solicitors engaged, as well, and I know why you were so eager to volunteer your services this year. You’re a vulture, Eustace.”
“I’m concerned over this family’s reputation. And I will be prepared to step in when you fail.”
“The Christmas party will go on,” he stated, “and my parade of would be brides will arrive, even if I have to swim across the river and carry them back. I’m sending instructions for everyone to be put up at Etherton, at my expense, until I have the bridge repaired, also at my expense. So I’m afraid that you and your grasping son will not be assuming any more of my dukedom than I choose to give you. Which is not a penny more than you already receive.”
His sister shook her head, the curls at either temple swaying. “I didn’t make any of these stipulations,” she retorted, “and I’m not the one who’s put off marriage long enough to endanger my own inheritance. For your own sake send your whore to Hanlith at least, so no one has to look at her.”
“She is a guest.” And the one bit of fun he’d been looking forward to having. “You are an unpleasant necessity.”
“I know that...thing is Hennessy’s bastard, Adam. Gotten on a maid, of all things.”
“I’m aware of her parentage. She is a friend.”
“‘A friend,’” Eustace repeated, her lips thinning. “Like that actress Sarah Nichols was a friend, and Rebecca Reynolds was a fr–“
”I had no idea you kept such a close eye on me,” Adam interrupted, his voice low and even. If she wanted an argument, he was certainly in the mood to oblige her with one. A damned holiday party with no guests, a wedding to arrange with no potential brides to speak of. If he had to put his head in the noose, he meant to make it as painless as possible. Therefore, Sophia White wasn’t going anywhere if he had anything to say about it. Which he did.
“Someone has to keep an eye on you. Mother always said you were just like Father, but since you can’t even live up to his diminished expectations of you, I’m beginning to think you’re even worse. And if you don’t marry by the first of February, I will see to it that Father’s will is enforced, and you will lose every unentailed bit of property and wealth to my son.”
“Your twelve year old son.”
“Yes. Which means that you will soon be doing as I say. And that will be the end of your overbearing arrogance.”
They’d had this conversation before, and especially over the past two years, when Eustace had begun to hope that he would fail. He still didn’t like it any more than he had the first time he’d heard it. “It’s a pity you’re my sister,” he returned, “or I could marry a self righteous shrew and be just like Father.”
“If you were married, I could spend the holiday with my family and friends and have nothing further to do with you.”
“That’s the best reason for me to marry that I’ve yet heard.” Standing, he strode up to his sister. “Sophia White is to be treated as any guest, Eustace. Better, because she expects less. Is that clear?”
His sister took a step backward, but only clucked her tongue at him.
Taking Eustace’s chin in his hand, he forced her to meet his gaze. “Tell me if you think I’m jesting.”
She did meet his gaze then, her light gray eyes widening almost imperceptibly. “Very well, Adam. Have your amusement. At least no one is here to witness it, thank God. Just remember that no one is here to save you, either.”
“I haven’t forgotten anything.”
Once Eustace glided back down the hallway to her own rooms, Adam sat again to gaze out his window. Soft white covered the garden below and weighted the branches of the nearest trees. The lake and forest beyond were obscured by the low clouds and the heavy falling snow. In the near silence it almost felt like Greaves Park had been removed from the world to sit on the edge of an endless, empty sky.
Generally Adam didn’t like the illusion. He spent his life acquiring information and using it to influence people and events, and that couldn’t be done in isolation. During the Season he rarely spent as much as a single night in only his own company. Parliament, dinners, soirees, the theater, clubs – those were the time he enjoyed. Everyone knew something, whether they realized it or not. And he’d made an art of uncovering even the most well hidden bits and bobs.
Evidently he enjoyed the pursuit of information so greatly that he’d neglected tending his own garden, as it were – that idiotic clause in his father’s will which stipulated that the disappointing heir he’d produced with his disappointing wife prove himself at least half a man by marrying before his thirtieth year, and by becoming a father by his thirty first. Back when he’d inherited the title – God, had it truly been eleven years now? – the paragraph had seemed ridiculous. By now he’d expected to have overcome his...reluctance to be a husband, for the memories of his own parents and their so called marriage to have faded away. And now with an almost absurd abruptness, he’d run out of time.
It wasn’t that he disliked women. Far from it. In fact, the list of his former mistresses was nearly as long as that of his business and social appointments. Mistresses served two purposes as far as he was concerned. They frequently knew a selection of unexpected gossip, but it was equally important that they simply be...available, and whenever he decided to call. But a wife, someone who never actually went away when he’d tired of her, that was a completely different tangle.
He’d parted company from his last mistress, Lady Helena Brennan, some six weeks ago. While he hadn’t engaged her for her wit, he had expected honesty about any other entanglements. Unfortunately dishonesty had proven to be the quality she had in most abundance. And so he’d arrived in Yorkshire alone. He wondered what Helena would have thought if she’d known how close she’d come to becoming the Duchess of Greaves, simply to save him the effort of looking elsewhere. Now he could only be thankful that she’d disappointed him before he could ask the bloody question rather than after he’d donned his shackles.
The timing of this damned storm and the subsequent collapse of the old stone bridge couldn’t have been worse. A week later and all his guests would have been safely to Greaves Park, warm and well provisioned until Spring thaw, if necessary. Now, however, not even Eustace’s husband Phillip Wallace had arrived, though Adam hardly counted anyone who would willingly marry into the Baswich family as someone with whom he would care to converse, much less call a friend or an ally. As this holiday had become about something other than a gathering of friends, anyway, what he required was marriageable females. What he had at the moment was one potential mistress – which although more pleasant to contemplate, simply wouldn’t suffice.
He’d instructed that ropes and pulleys be strung across the Aire at the bridge, so at least mail could travel back and forth. And now he needed to find an engineer, an architect, and a quantity of stonemasons. In the meantime, he went to work finishing with sending word to any guests who might be traveling to Yorkshire that they were not to turn around and go home. For those who might have already reached Etherton on the far side of the river, he would pay for their accommodations if they would wait for the bridge to be repaired, or they could risk an additional four days of travel through the rugged, snow covered Yorkshire countryside and go around.
“Shall I take that as a signal that I shouldn’t disturb you?”
Adam looked up again from his desk. And choked back a completely inappropriate grin. “Sophia. I see you found something other than onion sacks to wear.”
She brushed a hand down a very yellow, very oversized muslin gown. It appeared to be held up by hair ribbons knotted around the waist and shoulder straps sewn into the existing sleeves. “I’m afraid Mrs. Brooks is a fraction larger than I am.”
“I would agree with that assessment.” Eustace was much nearer to Sophia’s height and weight, but he wouldn’t trust his sister not to poison any gown she was forced to lend his sole house guest. “I have several other females on staff. Surely one of them owns attire that doesn’t make it look as though you’re wearing a Bedouin’s tent.”
Sophia snorted. “Mrs. Brooks has promised to inquire. I won’t take anything that someone needs, however. At church on Christmas they will wish to wear their Sunday best, and I doubt they’ll appreciate me wearing it beforehand.”
He shook himself free of the abrupt thought that her Sunday best would be wearing nothing at all. “Have you had a tour of the house?”
“I have not.”
“Well, I happen to be momentarily available.” Rising, he walked around the desk. “At the risk of repeating myself, I could purchase you a gown or two,” he added, deciding her mother must have been Irish. Hennessy certainly wasn’t, and he couldn’t conjure another reason for her deep red, curling hair. “I believe there’s at least one seamstress in Hanlith.”
“Thank you for the offer, Your Grace, but you know I cannot accept. If you purchased me a single gown, by the time I returned to London everyone would know it. While that might make me the envy of some of the other girls at the Tantalus, the...penalty would be more than I am willing to pay.”
“A penalty? For being seen as my mistress.”
She nodded. “Precisely.”
“And you don’t wish to be my mistress? You did accept my invitation, after all.”
Color touched her fair cheeks. “I thought you invited me here so I could spend Christmas with Cammy. Was I in error?”
Adam stifled a frown. He hadn’t expected a gentlemen’s club employee with standards. Several things he’d taken for granted about Sophia White had evidently been wrong. She certainly wasn’t dull witted or grasping, for one thing. And while he wouldn’t say that she embraced her scandalous birth, she didn’t seem overly troubled by it, either. And then there was the fact that she was employed at quite possibly the most scandalous establishment in Town with the exception of an actual bawdy house. And yet she hadn’t considered becoming some wealthy gentleman’s mistress. “I doubt my failure to provide you with clothing will prevent any rumors.”
“True enough,” she conceded, “but I’m accustomed to rumors. A gown from you would be proof.”
“You are an unusual woman.”
Amusement touched her meadow colored eyes. “Thank you, Your Grace.”
“That wasn’t a compliment.”
Sophia lowered her gaze briefly. “Well, then.” With a breath she visibly shook herself. “Camille told me that you always have a large house party at Christmas. Is it a family tradition?”
He left his office and gestured for her to join him. “It was a tradition of my father’s. After his death, my mother stopped it. When she died eight years ago, I began it again.”
“She didn’t like the gatherings, then?”
“No, she didn’t.” Generally hearing of his mother’s death, no matter how long ago it occurred, the listener expressed his or her unfelt condolences. Not so Sophia White, though her own mother had expired at approximately the same time, he knew. Curious, that. Perhaps they each held the same level of affection for their maternal figurehead.
“So did you invite me here simply to create a stir? I’ve noticed that you seem to...enjoy being surrounded by scandal.”
“Do I? How so?”
“You allowed Keating Blackwood to reside at your house in London,” she returned promptly. “Bloody Blackwood, himself. And then you went to his cousin’s wedding when you knew Keating would never allow the ceremony to take place.”
“You have me deciphered, then.”
“Not even a little.” She grinned briefly, her green eyes dancing. “But I do think you enjoy a ruckus.”
Adam wondered if Sophia had any idea how few people jested with him. As long as she was his only distraction from winter and from solitude and from his sister, he hoped she wouldn’t realize it. “I’m a duke,” he said aloud. “It would be very easy for my life to become unbearably dull and dusty. So yes, I suppose I do have a certain appreciation for people who thumb their noses at Society.”
“That’s good for me, since I was born with my proverbial thumb attached to my proverbial nose.”
“I’m glad it’s proverbial, or you would look rather odd,” he returned, reflecting that he’d been lucky. If Francis Henning had been the only guest to make it across the bridge, for example, Adam would have locked himself – or Henning – in a storage room by now.
His circumstances could definitely have been even worse than that. One of the marriageable chits he’d invited for inspection might just as easily have been tossed into the river, and he would have been forced either to court her or to dance about in avoidance to prevent becoming leg shackled before he managed a look at the rest of the dress wearing herd.
Together they descended a side staircase, and he pushed open the door to the orangerie. Three dozen fruit bearing plants in large pots had been arranged in a quaint indoor garden complete with benches and caged songbirds. He stood back as Sophia swirled in a circle at the center of the room.
“This is lovely,” she exclaimed, her over long skirts billowing out around her ankles.
The sight was unexpectedly...charming, and for a moment he lost the track of the conversation. “It’s the only way to keep the weather from killing the orange and peach trees. I’ve been told this is a pleasant place to sit and read, if you’ve a mind to do so.”
“How many guests were you expecting?”
“I still am expecting,” he amended, “somewhere between thirty and forty.” He pushed back at the urge to straighten the sliding sleeve of her oversized gown. “Do you ride?”
Sophia blinked. “I’ve sat on a pony a few times, at boarding school. I don’t believe that makes me a horsewoman. Why?”
“I ride nearly every day.” He gestured her back through the door and down the rear hallway. “I have several ponies. We’ll go out once the weather clears.”
“You don’t need to keep me entertained, Your Grace,” she said, stopping. “Simply being here is a gift.”
“You need more gifts, then. I saved your life. You owe me an outing.”
”And you may trust that I generally do as I please,” he interrupted. “Now. Through here is the Baswich family portrait gall...” He trailed off as he realized that she hadn’t followed him. “Is something amiss?”
For a long moment she stood in silence, meeting his gaze. That in itself surprised him; most chits gazed demurely at his feet while conversing with him. Then she sighed. “I have noticed that you didn’t answer my question earlier. Are you going to attempt to make me your mistress?”
A laugh pushed its way out of his chest. Attempting to ignore the fact that firstly, more than a few women would have given a great deal to become his mistress and secondly, that he rarely attempted something without succeeding and thirdly, that this holiday had him looking for a wife, whatever he might prefer, he lifted an eyebrow. “Well, if I meant to attempt a subtle seduction you’ve certainly foiled me.”
She frowned. “I believe I mentioned that I’m not as foolish as many people think, Your Grace.”
“I recall. Why?”
“I have several requirements for my life, some of them very recent and...unexpected. My best interests are not served by being any man’s mistress. And however close your friendship with Keating might be, I have to ask myself – and you – why I’m here.”
Adam dropped into one of the gilded chairs set in the hallway just outside the portrait gallery. “I rarely explain myself, Sophia. That said, while I might appreciate the stir your presence would cause, you are not here for anything more nefarious than that. For God’s sake, at the moment it’s either you or my sister with whom I’ll be spending time, and Eustace is remarkably unlikeable.”
Sophia decided that if the Duke of Greaves had meant to offer her the position of mistress, or even force her into it, he wasn’t the sort to dissemble about it. As he’d commented before, he generally got what he wanted. He did have a reputation for enjoying the company of ladies, but the majority of them – at least the ones she knew of – were wealthy, independent, and either high born or so popular that their birth didn’t matter. While she was independent for the moment, she was only high born on her father’s side, and she certainly wasn’t wealthy. Or popular.
She shook out her thoughts. Why she felt the need to tally her qualifications for being a mistress, she had no idea. Until two weeks ago she’d thought that the rules of Society didn’t apply to her at all. Then she’d discovered that she’d been very, very wrong. And now, while a night or two of pleasurable scandal was one thing, becoming even a duke’s pampered mistress would make matters even worse.
“You’re being quiet,” he observed. “Do you require more assurances of your safety?”
Sophia forced a chuckle as she hiked up her sleeve and approached his chair. “I’ve survived ice and turkeys. Do your worst, Your Grace.”
“For God’s sake, call me Adam. Or Greaves, at least. As you said, we’ve faced fair and fowl – both spellings, mind you – together.”
Adam. It was an honest, forthright name for a man with a reputation for subterfuge and subtle skill, but it suited him, nonetheless. But now those gray eyes were gazing at her again, as if he could hear her thoughts. She cleared her throat, hoping he couldn’t hear all of them. “Adam, then. I expected to see Lady Helena Brennan here already,” she ventured, as he led her into the portrait gallery.
She felt his gaze on her. “Did you, then?” They strolled in silence for a moment. “Evidently you aren’t aware that Helena recently wed Lord Crandell and moved to Surrey.”
“Oh.” No, she hadn’t known that. Once the Season ended, most of the good gossip left London along with most regular members of The Tantalus Club. “Am I happy for her?”
If she was being too bold or speaking out of turn, she had little doubt that Greaves would tell her to mind her own damned business. Best to know now, however, precisely where she stood. Or if she needed to make her way to Hanlith before nightfall, after all.
A muscle in his lean cheek jumped. “I am marginally put out, but somewhat admiring of a devious intelligence I hadn’t thought she possessed. Crandell is a lump, but he’ll provide for her.”
She nodded, secretly wondering why anyone would choose to marry a lump if given any chance at all to do otherwise. She certainly wouldn’t – but then, sometimes a person didn’t have the chance to choose. “Then I am happy for her.”
The glance he sent her this time was even sharper. “Yes, thank heavens she’s escaped the clutches of a fine townhouse and pin money some kingdoms would envy.”
So now he’d decided to be offended. Splendid. “I didn’t mean it that way. Lady Helena – Lady Crandell – sought a certain thing and she was able to find it.” Sophia sighed. “I admit to a weakness for happy endings.”
“You don’t like working at The Tantalus Club?”
“Oh, I love being there,” she returned, meaning it with every fiber of her being and pushing back at the tears which threatened when she thought of leaving the club. “Diane – Lady Haybury – saved a great many of us from disaster. That may not have been her aim in opening that club, but she’s inconvenienced herself enough now on occasion that she does realize how vital the Tantalus is to her employees.” Realizing she sounded overly vehement, she paused, looking up at the wall of portraits. Then she stopped close to the center of the long hallway and stared.
The portrait there, though not the largest or the most elaborately framed, was quite simply the most...compelling piece in the room. An unsmiling man in his early twenties stood in what looked like a drawing room. He leaned one elbow along a mantel of dark mahogany with a roaring fire behind him, and at his feet coiled a pair of sleek, dark brown hunting dogs. Eyes of a gray so light they seemed almost colorless gazed straight at her, deep inside them not amusement, but a clever intelligence leaving her feeling mesmerized and uncomfortable all at the same time.
“Michael Arthur Baswich, the ninth Duke of Greaves,” the tenth duke’s low voice whispered into her right ear, from close enough to touch. “My late father.”
“Who painted him?” she asked, noting that her own voice had become hushed.
“Some say otherwise, but I say Gainsborough.”
“There are those who say only the devil could paint something that disconcerting. But they’ve missed the point. The devil is the subject. Not the artist.” He blew out his breath. “Dead for eleven years, and he still manages to plague me.”
That last part didn’t seem to be particularly for her benefit. Sophia blinked, tearing herself free from that gaze. Beside her, the duke wasn’t looking at the portrait, but rather at her. “It’s finely crafted,” she admitted, facing him directly and pushing back against the unhelpful curiosity that wanted to know why he seemed to feel about his father the same way she felt about her own. “Where’s your portrait?” she asked instead.
“As I’m not dead, it’s in the main drawing room.”
“So you won’t forget you’re the duke?” Sophia returned, hoping he would appreciate hearing sarcasm as much as he seemed to enjoy speaking it.
“So no one else does.” He sent a swift glance over her shoulder, toward the wall and the portrait. “My private rooms are at the southeast corner, and Eustace’s are at the southwest corner. Other than avoiding her, feel free to go wherever you wish. There’s no one else here to frown or look askance as you, so there’s no need for you to confine yourself to your bed chamber. Not that I imagine anyone else’s opinion would trouble you overmuch, anyway.”
Opinions didn’t matter, unless they could enforce them with something more substantial. “No, frowning faces don’t trouble me,” she said aloud. “I’m quite accustomed to them. In fact, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t recognize half of Mayfair if they actually smiled in my direction.”
A brief smile touched his own mouth. It drew light to his countenance, made him even more handsome than he had been previously. She wondered whether he’d smiled for his portrait; if he had, his likeness had to be even more compelling than his father’s.
“Do you always say precisely what you’re thinking?” he asked.
“You said you’d already figured me out,” she returned, “so I decided I might as well. Unless you object.” She’d learned how to comport herself properly; years at boarding schools had ensured that, whether she’d ever thought to make use of the lessons or not. She wanted to stay, to enjoy one grand Christmas before...before everything changed. If he required more propriety, she would make an attempt.
“I absolutely do not object.”
She blinked, surprised. He liked when she spoke without thinking? That was the last thing she expected to hear from an aristocrat. “Then do you ever say what you’re thinking?”
A faint scowl furrowed his fine brow. “Occasionally. I will admit that you just caught me flat footed, for instance.”
Sophia grinned, absurdly pleased with herself. “And now you shall see me take advantage of that by asking if my run of the house includes the billiards room.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“I don’t know. Are you a challenge?”
“I suppose we’ll find that out. Give me an hour to finish my correspondence.”
That seemed like the end of the tour, but Greaves didn’t move. It was the first time in their admittedly brief acquaintance that she’d ever seen even a whisper of hesitation. Then he nodded almost imperceptibly, as thought he’d made a decision about something. It seemed vitally important that she find out what, precisely, that something was, but before she could make the attempt he took her hand and brushed his lips against her knuckles.
“We’ll dine at seven tonight, in the small dining room,” he said. “Since you’re seeking out your own wardrobe, I’ll only suggest that you speak with Mrs. Beasel, my cook. Her daughter is married to a solicitor in Hanlith; I imagine Susan Simmons will have something appropriate for you to borrow. The girl does like to dress well.”
With that he inclined his head and turned away to vanish through the door at the far end of the hallway. Sophia stood where she was for a moment. Feeling the gaze of the former duke on her back, though, she shook herself and left through the nearest doorway. How odd, that a painting of a former duke left her more unsettled than the presence of the current duke.
In fact, despite his wealth, power, and reputation, he’d never been anything but polite to her. And he was turning out to be more good humored than she’d expected. She rolled her shoulders. Despite being dumped into the river and despite Cammy’s absence she found herself enjoying Greaves Park. It remained an adventure, with a bounty – so far, anyway – of interesting and amusing twists and turns. And a very handsome duke who’d been paying her more attention than she would ever have expected. Whatever might happen, she wanted to stay. Because this was also her last adventure.
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