Chapter 1

Huntley House, London, 1818

When Thomas Augustus Heathmore, 3rd Duke of Coventry, came to call at Huntley House one Monday morning, the last thing he expected was to find the Duke of Huntley’s sister, Lady Amelia, sprawled on her backside in the wet grass.

And yet that was precisely what happened, thanks to a bit of serendipitous timing. Because he’d actually been heading toward Huntley’s study. Except the French doors at the end of the hallway stood open, allowing him to hear Huntley’s youngest sister, Lady Juliette, shout, “Careful!” at precisely the right moment.

It was the sort of warning that could not, nay, should not, be ignored, so it was only natural for him to walk past the study where Huntley’s butler, Pierson, stopped to knock, and continue on through the French doors to the garden.

“Oh my goodness!” Juliette exclaimed. Her eyes met his from behind a beam of muted sunlight that sifted through between the branches of a nearby elm. His gaze swept sideways, falling directly on Lady Amelia just as she turned to stare up at him. Her eyes widened a fraction, filling with something he could not define, before looking away as she pushed herself up off the ground.

He felt the edge of his mouth twitch with amusement. “I see you’re putting your sister-in-law’s advice to good use.”

Lady Amelia rewarded his comment with a glare, which was unsurprising, considering the Duchess of Huntley had been trying to teach Lady Amelia proper comportment for the past month.

Having spent most of their lives in the slums of St. Giles, Raphe Matthews, the Duke of Huntley, and his sisters, Amelia and Juliette, had found their lives turned upside down when their brother had inherited his title. Since their arrival in Mayfair, they had all been doing their best to adjust themselves to Society’s expectations, which as Thomas understood it, had not been easy.

“Is it not fashionable for young ladies to have grass stains on their skirts?” Lady Amelia inquired in a dry tone. She swiped her hands against her gown, leaving streaks of moisture and dirt upon the white muslin.

“Not as far as I am aware,” Thomas replied. Looking her over, he couldn’t help but sigh at her messy appearance. “I trust you are unharmed?”

She gave a slight nod, prompting a chestnut curl to drop dramatically over her forehead. It bobbed in front of her hazel eyes until she blew it aside with a puff of air. “Quite,” she muttered.

“Well then.” He shifted his gaze to Lady Juliette, who appeared to be admiring the roses with great intensity, before addressing Lady Amelia once more. “That is the most important thing.” He paused, observing how flushed her cheeks had gotten, before he asked, “Will you tell me what happened?”

A moment passed before she pointed toward some branches in a nearby tree. “I was returning a fallen nest and ended up losing my balance.”

He nodded. Of course that was what she’d been doing. She was invariably compelled to help the less fortunate creatures of the world. According to her brother, she’d taken in several stray cats, for which he’d since been forced to find new homes. “You should probably have asked the gardener to assist you,” he said. After all, climbing trees would not improve her reputation. Especially since the garden shared a fence with Green Park, and anyone strolling along the nearest path might witness her unorthodox behavior.

“Of course.” She crossed her arms, and he wondered if he ought to say something more.

After all, what sort of friend would he be if he didn’t offer his honest opinion? He pondered that thought for a moment and finally told her, “I would also suggest you remove those twigs from your hair and put yourself to rights. It will be calling time soon.”

Seeing how flushed her cheeks grew, he chose to retreat before embarrassing her any further. So he dipped his head and turned away with the intention of seeking out Huntley, only to find that the man in question was leaning against the doorway behind him.

“Pierson said you were here.” Huntley smiled. “Now that you’ve finished berating my sister, I’m thinking you might like to have some coffee?”

“Yes, please.” Thomas followed him back inside. “I am sorry if I overstepped in some way, but I believe it was prudent to tell her that falling from trees and getting dirty is not the sort of endeavor she ought to be focusing on.”

Huntley threw him a humorous look as they entered his study. “You needn’t apologize, Coventry. I appreciate your critical evaluation. It actually happens to be one of the reasons why I wish to speak with you. Will you please sit?” He gestured toward Thomas’s favorite armchair.

“Thank you.” Thomas sank down onto the velvet seat, leaned back and crossed his legs while eyeing the other duke. “What is this about? Your note did not specify.”

Huntley studied Thomas for a moment, then pinched his lips together and said, “You know I value our friendship. Correct?”

Wondering what might have brought on such a question, Thomas shifted slightly but nodded. “Yes. Of course.”

“It’s been bloody difficult, you know, what with my past and all, to find people I can trust.” Huntley’s expression turned thoughtful. “But you . . . you had no obligation toward me or my family, and yet you didn’t turn your back on us. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for you, Gabriella might very well have married that rotten bastard her parents favored.”

Thomas flexed his fingers. “Fielding,” he muttered between clenched teeth. “The man did not deserve her.”

“No. He did not.” Huntley tilted his head. “But there was also my murky upbringing to consider, my boxing match and my connection to Carlton Guthrie. Many suspect him of being one of the greatest criminals in the country, and yet none of this seemed to trouble you.”

Thomas shrugged. “I found it intriguing—a puzzle to be solved. And once I got to know you better, I realized you might be one of the most honorable men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, not to mention your title demands respect, regardless of your past. Mostly, however, I like how different you are from the rest.” Tilting his head, he arched his eyebrows. “You are a refreshing peculiarity, Huntley.”

The duke chuckled. “Well, thank you, Coventry. Your support has certainly been of great value to me and my sisters.” His expression sobered as he held Thomas’s gaze. “I hate having to ask you for anything else.” A knock sounded at the door and a maid arrived. She set a tray on the desk between the two men and swiftly departed. Huntley poured two cups of coffee, pushing one in Thomas’s direction. “But the thing is I don’t really know who else I can turn to.”

The seriousness with which he spoke gave Thomas pause. He took a sip of his hot beverage before saying, “Just name it, Huntley, and I will see if I am able to help.”

“How’s your mother, by the way?” Huntley asked as he raised his own cup to his lips.

The question threw Thomas completely off guard. “My, er . . . she’s very well, thank you.” He felt his eyebrows draw together with concern.

Huntley nodded. “Good. Good.” He set his cup aside.

Thomas’s frown deepened. He waited a second and finally exclaimed, “Oh for heaven’s sake, Huntley! Will you please tell me what this is about? I already—”

“Chaperone Amelia and Juliette for three weeks—four tops.”

Thomas almost spat his second mouthful of coffee all over the desk. Fortunately, he managed to keep it down with a slight cough and a wince. “I beg your pardon? What?” The last word came out strangled.

Folding his arms across his chest, Huntley looked back at him as though he hadn’t just made a preposterous request. “Gabriella and I haven’t really had much privacy since the wedding. She feels she has a responsibility toward Amelia and Juliette. In spite of the scandal, invitations have begun trickling in again, and preparing to escort them to these various events is taking up a great deal of Gabriella’s time.” He expelled a deep breath. “I’m ’opin’ to invite ’er on a weddin’ trip. If we can just get away fer a bit . . .” He scratched his head and offered Thomas a loopy smile.

As was oftentimes the case when his emotions ran high, Huntley had fallen back into the unrefined dialect he’d spoken during his life in St. Giles. Thomas arched an eyebrow. “I understand your reasoning completely, old chap, but ordinarily, one would ask a female relation to help with such matters. Certainly not a bachelor.”

Huntley frowned. “Gabriella’s mother and father remained in Gloucester after the wedding in order to have more time with Gabriella’s sister.” Having fallen from grace when she’d married a commoner who’d since abandoned her with child, Lady Victoria had made a new life for herself with Huntley’s friend Benjamin Thompson, the recently appointed caretaker of Huntley’s estate. “But Gabriella’s aunt, Lady Everly, is in residence, so we have naturally spoken to her. In fact, she has agreed to move in during our absence.”

“Excellent.”

“However . . .”

When Huntley paused, Thomas raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Have you ever met Lady Everly?”

“Of course. She has an excellent sense of humor and is far more relaxed than her brother and sister-in-law. If I am not mistaken, I saw her smoking a cheroot once during a ball—didn’t seem the least bit bothered by how shocked people were by it.”

“Forgive me, but are ladies not allowed to smoke?”

“Not in public and certainly not in the middle of a ballroom. It is considered terribly gauche by most.”

“Which leads me to the point I’m about to make.” Huntley looked directly at Thomas without wavering. “As much as I like Lady Everly, I’m not entirely sure she will offer Amelia and Juliette the proper guidance they require. I worry they will get into trouble if she’s the only one supervising them. Which is why I am hoping you will keep an eye on them too—especially since it is my belief that their association with a respectable duke will be of great advantage to them.”

Pressing his lips together, Thomas puffed out a breath through his nose. He was beginning to understand why Huntley had asked about his mother. Clearly, he didn’t trust Lady Everly to make a success of his sisters and was hoping the Dowager Duchess of Coventry might fill any gaps that remained in their education. Taking a moment, Thomas considered the proposition with greater seriousness than he had earlier, and eventually asked, “Do Lady Amelia and Lady Juliette know about this scheme of yours?”

Huntley broke eye contact. “I thought I’d ensure your willingness to help before mentioning it.”

Thomas nodded. “I suppose that makes sense.”

Arching his fingers, Huntley gave him a frank look. “I actually think my absence might help them.”

“How so?”

“I’m still working on salvaging my reputation, but you are well respected. With your support and my absence, the ton might start to view them in a new light. And with Amelia’s age taken into consideration, the time to find her a husband is limited. Another year and she might be firmly on the shelf.”

Thomas stared back at Huntley with increasing uncertainty. “In other words, you are not only asking me to chaperone your sisters, but to try to get them settled, as well?”

“Just Amelia. Juliette still has plenty of time.”

“I don’t know, Huntley. What you are asking of me is not only unusual. It is . . .” How could he continue that sentence without causing offence?

“Something of a challenge?” Huntley prompted. “Believe me, I am aware. The fact is that adjusting to our new way of life has been particularly difficult for Amelia.”

“More than it was for you?”

Huntley nodded. “Yes, I believe so.”

Shocked, Thomas sat back against his seat. It hadn’t occurred to him until that moment that being put on display would be more difficult for her than it had been for her brother. “I always imagined she would enjoy shopping for pretty things and dressing up for balls. Most young ladies do.”

“Most young ladies have also spent their entire lives preparing themselves for their debuts. I think both my sisters found the experience to be more intimidating than enjoyable, but now that they are out, there is no going back.”

Acknowledging the dilemma, Thomas set his jaw and considered Huntley’s proposal. “Three weeks, you say?”

“Four at the most,” Huntley assured him.

“Very well then,” Thomas said. “I will do it. And I will even ask Mama to help.”

A smile slipped into place on Huntley’s face. “You knew I would ask?”

“I knew you inquired about her earlier for a reason.”

Huntley’s eyebrows dipped a little. “Do you think she’ll object?”

“I cannot say.” Thomas tapped his fingers against the armrest. He looked away briefly before meeting Huntley’s gaze once more. “She has been very withdrawn these past few years, but if I can manage to convince her, it might be a welcome distraction.”

Huntley’s expression turned tragic. “How thoughtless of me,” he whispered with deep apologetic undertones. “I forgot about your sister. I—”

“Don’t.” Thomas felt his teeth clash together as he clenched his jaw. “I would rather leave Melanie out of this.”

“Coventry . . .”

“I am not the only one who has lost a sibling. Am I?” When Huntley expelled a tortured breath, Thomas said, “Might I suggest we speak of something else?” He waited for Huntley to nod his agreement before saying, “I will speak to Mama and let you know what she thinks by the end of the day.”

“Thank you, Coventry.” Rising, Huntley walked Thomas out toward the foyer. “I hope you will need a favor in exchange soon so I can repay your generosity.”

Thomas couldn’t help but smile. “We are friends, Huntley. It is my duty to help you as best as I can.” And perhaps in doing so, he would thwart the demons that chased him and find some measure of peace.

 

 

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