Devoted to the Duke (The St. Clairs Book 1)
Book One in the exciting new St. Clair series has arrived. A lady with a dark secret refuses to marry the man of her dreams in order to protect him... but will he let her?
After returning to London from his Grand Tour, serious-minded Jeremy St. Clair, the Marquess of Sather, attends a ball and meets a luminescent beauty who draws him out of his shell. They share a searing kiss—her first—and though he never planned to wed, Jeremy desires to make this young woman his.
But his life takes an unexpected turn when he leaves her that night.
With his father's death, Jeremy becomes the new Duke of Everton, and learns the former duke has left the St. Clair family almost penniless. Jeremy spends five years restoring the family fortunes but yearning for the auburn-haired beauty who understood him like no other before. One night with her was all he needed to remember her forever.
Lady Catherine Crawford has been inundated with offers of marriage and hasn't cared for any of her suitors. She longs for love, seeing how devoted her parents are to one another. When she meets Lord Sather, she believes they are meant to be together. Yet her world collapses that night in a horrific carriage accident, killing her mother and seriously injuring both Catherine and her father. She retreats to their country estate and, once healed, cares her father and mothers her younger sister, Leah. But she's never forgotten about Lord Sather... and their kiss.
When Jeremy and Catherine meet years later, the sparks are still present—though Catherine has recently learned a dark secret about her past, making it impossible to wed Jeremy without ruining his reputation. Through a misunderstanding, the ton believes them to be engaged and she goes along with the engagement, hoping to find a way to break it.
Will Catherine's secret be revealed—and will Jeremy accept her if it becomes public knowledge?
Heartbreak is in their stars... or salvation.
Find the answer in bestselling author Alexa Aston's first book of The St. Clairs, Devoted to the Duke.
Each book in The St. Clairs Trilogy is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order.
Book #1 Devoted to the Duke
Book #2 Midnight with the Marquess
Book #3 Embracing the Earl
Book #4 Defending the Duke
Book #5 Suddenly a St. Clair
Release date: April 25, 2019
Publisher: Dragonblade Publishing, Inc.
Print pages: 260
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Devoted to the Duke (The St. Clairs Book 1)
Catherine Crawford sat with her back to the mirror as her maid fussed over her hair, hoping Tilly’s efforts would be worth all the time spent sitting still in the chair. Her younger sister, Leah, watched, an enraptured look on her face.
“I can’t wait until I’m old enough to go to balls. I love to dance.” Leah began twirling around the room, her arms spread wide as she swung them through the air.
“Watch yourself, my lady,” Tilly warned. “Wouldn’t want another broken arm to deal with, would we?”
Leah stopped at once, her face turning red to her blond roots. “That won’t happen again, Tilly,” she said quickly, plopping on the bed.
“True. If you stay out of trees, that is,” the maid admonished, tugging on one of Catherine’s curls a bit too hard.
“Easy, Tilly,” Catherine warned.
“On your hair or Lady Leah?” Tilly asked saucily.
She knew she should chastise the maid but Tilly had been in the Crawford household ever since Catherine could remember and sometimes, though the older woman seemed too familiar with the daughters of the house, Catherine knew the servant had a good heart and would fiercely protect both girls if push came to shove.
“Hurry and finish, Tilly,” chided Leah. “Or else Catherine will be late to the ball.”
The maid fussed a moment longer. “There. I’m done. Close your eyes, my lady.”
Catherine did as instructed and Tilly rotated the stool to where it faced the mirror propped on the vanity, eager to see how her auburn locks had been styled tonight.
“You may open your eyes, my lady.”
She did as requested and studied her image in the mirror. A slow smile spread across her face.
“You are incredibly talented, Tilly,” she praised. “I will be the envy of every girl at the Wethersby ball tonight.”
The maid sniffed. “You’re already the envy of many, Lady Catherine. I know. I see all the bouquets that arrive. I’m the one who dresses you to meet all those gentlemen who call in the afternoons for tea. I’m the one who accompanies you on your walks with them in Hyde Park. And I see the envious looks cast your way by those young ladies of the ton looking for a husband. Mark my words, you’ll snap up the best lord when the Marriage Mart is done. Three offers already and the Season’s only a month old.”
Tilly smoothed Catherine’s hair a final time and added, “I’m off to retrieve your mama. She said she wanted to speak to you once I had you ready.” The maid looked at Leah. “And it’s about time you were in bed.”
“Do I have to go, Tilly?” Leah pleaded. “I’m eleven now. I should be allowed to stay up later.”
“It’s almost nine as it is and it’s bad for you. Come on, now. I’ll help you undress once I fetch your mama to Lady Catherine.” The maid bobbed a curtsey and left the room, Leah still protesting as the door closed.
Catherine sighed. She didn’t want to snag a husband.
Not until she fell in love.
She knew it wasn’t the done thing. The purpose of the Season was to move up the social ladder. To find a well-bred, wealthy, pleasant fellow that would offer her the protection of his name and rank. She would then wed him sometime after the Season ended and then go about providing him with an heir and, hopefully, a spare. Once she did so, her life would be her own. She could search for a lover, as long as she was discreet about it. That was when love, if it was to be found, might come her way.
In the meantime, her husband would do the same, although men often sought out a mistress soon after they married. At least that’s what Catherine had picked up from the gossiping females of the ton. Supposedly, a man was free to come and go as he pleased, as long as he did not publicly embarrass his wife. The said wife was to turn a blind eye to all comings and goings and be grateful for having wed a titled gentleman who provided her with financial security, children, and—if she was lucky—affection.
Not at all what Catherine had in mind when she thought of marriage.
Her parents had ruined her expectations. The Earl and Countess of Statham were that rare couple who’d met the first week of her mother’s Season and fallen deeply in love. The match had proven suitable to both of their families and they’d spent the last twenty-eight years devoted to one another and their two daughters. She couldn’t imagine her father desiring to couple with another woman. He treated his wife as if she were the most precious thing on earth. And to think of her mother in the arms of another man? Laughable.
Because of the beautiful example she’d grown up with, Catherine assumed all married couples loved one another and that when her time came, she would recognize her soul mate in her heart. Instead, she’d been exposed to the ways of society as she’d embarked upon her first Season and didn’t like them. At all.
She’d already received three offers of marriage, which was ridiculous. She’d danced with one of the gentlemen once and the other two thrice before they made their offers. Of course, besides dancing with her, they had called on Catherine and she’d poured tea, conversing with them as she tried to get to know them. All three were amiable, handsome men, with beautiful manners and varying amounts of wealth. The problem was, she’d felt nothing for any of them. Though she knew it to be foolish, she wanted her heart to race and a giddiness to overtake her. She thought if she wanted to kiss even one of them, it would be a good sign. So far, none of that had happened. She’d proven popular at events and made it clear that she would entertain no more offers from any gentleman until the Season ended. That would be in less than three months, which caused panic to ripple through her.
What if she didn’t find someone to love?
She would be expected to wed. Every woman did. Preparing for the Season had been terribly expensive. Dozens of ball gowns had been made up, with more gowns for parties, the theatre, and the opera. Mama had told Catherine not to worry about the expense but she couldn’t help doing so. Mama had said Catherine must look her best in order to attract the right man.
Catherine didn’t want to attract a man by wearing a fancy ball gown. She wanted a man who would be attracted to her for her—not because of what she wore. She wanted a man who was interesting and kind and could carry on a decent conversation. Already, she’d discovered too many eligible gentlemen of the ton had very little to say. It was important for her to fall in love with someone who loved to talk about everything—politics, literature, economics—and not merely the weather. How were you supposed to get to know anyone when all they spoke of was the weather?
Not only did she believe she needed to love a man to marry him, she wanted him to love her in return. How could she be sure if he did?
It was all so very complicated.
A part of her knew her decision would be important not only for her, but for her family. Her father was already in his early fifties, not old but not terribly young. Since Mama hadn’t provided the expected heir, much less a spare, the earldom and lands would fall to her uncle. Edward Crawford was nothing but a busybody, always sticking his nose into everyone’s business. At least she knew he was gentleman enough to live up to his obligation to take care of her mother and his nieces if her father passed.
She wasn’t so sure Cousin Martin would.
Martin Crawford was Uncle Edward’s only child, which meant he would eventually inherit Statham Manor and become the Earl of Statham. He was smallminded and had a vicious streak. Martin had pinched her repeatedly as a child when they were young, causing large bruises and making her cry. He’d threatened her not to tell. Being six years older than Catherine, Martin had assured her no one would believe her wild stories about him and so she’d kept quiet. Something told Catherine that if her father and uncle were both gone, Martin would continue the cruelty toward her he’d displayed since childhood.
Because of that, it was imperative that she wed a man who would promise to look after not only her, but her mother and Leah. Just in case the unthinkable became reality.
A knock sounded at the door and her mother entered, closely followed by her father. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d come to her bedchamber. Possibly, never. Catherine rose to greet them, uncertainty filling her. She wondered if he would ask her to begin to consider from the many gentlemen of the ton which one might become her future husband.
“Oh, you look stunning, my dear!” her mother exclaimed, taking Catherine’s hands as her eyes swept up and down her daughter. “Tilly is a genius.”
“You look more lovely with each outing this Season,” her father declared, kissing her cheek and then bringing a flat, square box from behind his back and pressing her to take it. “For you, child. After all, it is your birthday.”
No one had mentioned it all day and Catherine assumed her parents and the rest of the household had forgotten with all the many events they’d been swept up in over the last few weeks.
She pushed the lid up, finding a sapphire necklace inside. Stunned, she raised her eyes and met her father’s twinkling ones.
“Do you like it, dearest?”
“Oh, Papa, I adore it!”
Catherine threw her arms around his neck as he chuckled.
“Your mother wanted to give it to you at the start of the Season but I thought we’d wait for your birthday.” He gazed lovingly at his wife. “She made sure you would wear blue tonight in order to complement it.”
“Give it to me, Catherine,” Mama said. “I’ll place it around your neck.”
She handed the precious necklace over and her mother fastened the clasp. Eager to see what it looked like, Catherine ran to the mirror and fingered the jewels, in awe of receiving such a tremendous present.
Turning to face her parents, she said, “I don’t think I’ll ever receive a more lovely gift.”
“Let’s hope you do,” her father teased good-naturedly. “That husband of yours, whomever he might be, better shower you with jewelry.”
The thought of marrying anyone she’d met so far gave Catherine pause. She looked at her parents, her father’s arm around her mother’s waist now, and saw how close and loving they were toward one another. Tears misted her eyes.
“Don’t cry, dearest,” Papa said. “No matter who you wed, you’ll always be my little girl.”
She hurried to him and hugged him tightly, wishing she never had to grow up and leave his household.
He grasped her elbows and drew her back. “What’s wrong, Catherine? I thought the necklace would please you but you seem most upset.”
Her lips trembled as she said, “I’m afraid I may never find someone to love, Papa. The way you and Mama love one another.”
He kissed her forehead. “Well, if you don’t find anyone good enough for you this Season, we’ll simply do all of this again next year.” He cupped her cheek. “There’s a perfect match waiting for you out there, Catherine. I feel it in my bones.”
“You mean . . . you don’t expect me to wed by summer’s end?” she asked.
“Of course not,” he said. “Your mama and I want you to be as happy as we’ve been all these years. If it takes another Season—no, five Seasons—then you’ll wait until you find the right man to be your husband. You have no need to rush into a match. The same goes for Leah.”
Catherine fell into his arms again, relief pouring through her. She could wait and let love find her, after all, and not be hurried in her decision. Whether he knew or not, her papa had given her a greater gift than the beautiful sapphire necklace.
He’d given her the gift of time.
Jeremy St. Clair watched the streets of London pass by from the carriage, happy to be in familiar surroundings once more after a year abroad. The sound of English being spoken was sweet music to his ears. He turned to his companion, Matthew Proctor.
“Are you happy to be on English soil again?”
“Safely on English soil,” the bespectacled tutor noted. “I hope the English—and Russians—can dispatch Bonaparte soon. If they do, we must go out again and see the cities you should have been exposed to. Especially Paris.”
“The Little Corsican has dragged the fight out for years,” he said. “I was a boy when he was named First Consul. He’s amassed and consolidated his power and gobbled up land during all that time. At least we got to see some of Europe. The few parts not affected by the war.”
Matthew shuddered. “Dodging a few shady situations along the way, Jeremy.” He paused. “Forgive me. We are in London. I should address you as Lord Sather once more.”
Irritation prickled through him. “You will do no such thing, Matthew. After all our adventures together, we are as brothers.” Though once the words were out of his mouth, a dark shadow crossed Jeremy’s mind. Once, he’d had a brother. Timothy. He was the true Marquess of Sather. It should be Timothy who became the next Duke of Everton. Not Jeremy.
“It probably doesn’t matter, Lord Sather,” his friend continued. “We do not run in the same social circles. I doubt we will meet again after today.” The tutor smiled. “Unless one day you wish me to tutor your son, the future Marquess of Sather. I would be happy to do so, knowing he would be as inquisitive and agreeable as his father.”
“To have a son would mean I must marry.” The thought of having any child startled him.
“And you will. Your father will expect it of you. His Grace will want the St. Clair line to carry on.”
“Father has done his best to see that occur,” he said lightly, thinking of the three marriages and the three dead wives. “Luke could always take my place,” he added, referring to his half-brother, who was eight years his junior.
“The mighty Duke of Everton wants his heir apparent to become the next duke. That’s you, my lord. You’ve a steady head on your shoulders. You will do a fine job when the time comes.”
In a way, Jeremy wished Luke could leapfrog over him and take on the responsibility of becoming the next in line. At only fifteen, his half-brother was brash and bold and would carry none of the doubts the more serious-minded Jeremy did. Ever since Timothy had drowned, making the second St. Clair son next in line for the title, Jeremy had questioned why he had survived and why he had to take his brother’s place. Once, he had been happy and carefree, without worries—until that day when he’d dragged into Eversleigh, soaked to the skin and half out of his mind.
The day Timothy died.
The carriage pulled up in front the London townhome of the St. Clairs. Turning to Matthew, he offered his hand.
“I suppose this is goodbye.” As they shook, Jeremy added, “We’ve never talked about it before. What will you do now, Matthew?”
“Return to Cambridge. See if they have any positions open for a well-traveled tutor.” He laughed. “There are always young men in need of someone to guide and instruct them during their university studies. Even one who can get them out of the occasional scrape.”
Jeremy thought a moment. “You will need a reference. I will write a glowing one, of course.”
“That would be much appreciated, my lord,” Matthew said solemnly.
It pained him to hear his companion of the past year withdraw and speak so formally, as if Matthew and his brilliant mind could ever be subservient to anyone. True, they had known one another for several years, throughout Jeremy’s time at Cambridge, but they had spent over a year in one another’s company and become the closest of friends. He understood, though, the class system that ruled England. Jeremy had been born into a family of wealth and position. Matthew was the son of a clergyman.
“It’s too late in the afternoon to catch a post coach to Cambridge. Would you come in and stay the night? That way, I could write your letter of recommendation and send it with you tomorrow.”
Doubt filled Matthew’s eyes. “It’s a most generous offer, Lord Sather, but I would be more comfortable staying at a nearby inn. I will drop by tomorrow morning, however, to collect the reference. If that’s convenient for you, of course.”
He knew he wouldn’t be able to convince his friend to stay and decided to let the matter go.
“Very well. I’ll tell the driver to take you to a local establishment. Would you at least come for breakfast, Matthew?”
“I think not, my lord. Why don’t you leave the letter with your butler? I’ll collect it from him.”
Jeremy touched Matthew’s shoulder. “I will see you in the morning,” he said emphatically and climbed from the carriage.
He instructed the driver as to which trunk was his and the man retrieved it. A footman had already stepped outside and hoisted it to his shoulder as he greeted Jeremy. Paying off the driver, Jeremy instructed him to an inn less than a mile away, where the man could drop his remaining passenger.
The carriage drove off. He waved at Matthew, who nodded at him. Jeremy realized a door closed on this chapter in his life. He faced the house, three stories in height and located in one of the most suitable squares in London. Steeling himself, he followed the footman inside.
Barton, the butler who had been with the St. Clair family for many years, greeted him.
“Good afternoon, Lord Sather. It is very good to have you home.”
“I am happy to be back in England. You’re looking well, Barton. Any news?”
“His Grace is in residence, naturally, with Parliament in session. Her Grace arrived from Eversleigh two days ago, in anticipation of your arrival. Lord Luke is finishing his term at Eton and will be home within the next week. And Lady Rachel is—”
“Here!” cried out a joyous voice from the top of the staircase.
Jeremy watched his half-sister race down the stairs. When she still had half a dozen steps to go, she flung herself at him. He caught her and held on as she hugged him tightly, smothering his face in kisses.
“Did you miss me?” she asked, her face flushed with color, her St. Clair eyes gleaming at him.
He pretended to ponder her question and then said, “Only a smidgeon. More importantly, did you miss me?”
A dramatic sigh came from her as he set her on her feet. “You know I did, Jeremy. Did you get my letters?”
“I did, poppet. I answered them, every one. Thank you for keeping me abreast of the happenings in the family. You always have a colorful way with words,” he praised.
“It was so boring without you at home,” she declared. Then mischief lit her eyes. “Did you bring anything for me?”
He laughed. “Wasn’t it enough that I sent you something from every city I stayed in?”
“Oh, I appreciated every gift, Jeremy. You’re ever so thoughtful.”
She grew quiet and he knew she was thinking of their father. The children of the Duke of Everton received scant attention from their father, no matter their gender or age. He couldn’t think of a single gift his father had ever given him and doubted Luke or Rachel had received anything.
Taking her hand, he said, “I’m sure somewhere in my trunk I can rummage through and find something meant for you. It may take hours to unpack, however. I crammed as much into it as possible as I made for home. I don’t suppose Manfry is still available?”
Rachel sniffed haughtily. “Manfry hated that you left him behind. He complained that, especially going abroad, you needed a valet. His nose has been out of joint ever since.” She smiled. “Don’t worry. Cor kept him busy.”
Jeremy contained the laughter that threatened to erupt. The true power in the St. Clair family was his formidable grandmamma, the dowager duchess. If Manfry was under Cor’s supervision, the valet had been worked to the bone during his master’s absence.
From the corner of his eyes, he saw a figure descending the stairs, a woman who looked vaguely familiar. She reached the foot of the stairs and curtseyed to him.
“Lady Rachel, it’s time for our reading hour.”
“Oh, Miss Bates, Jeremy has only arrived at home. Surely, we can forego reading this one time.”
“On the contrary, it’s important to keep to a schedule,” the governess said. “Besides, Lord Sather will want to wash away the travel stains of the road. Come along, my lady.”
Rachel flung him a look of desperation, which he decided to ignore.
“It’s important to do as your governess says.”
Her bottom lip stuck out in a pretty pout. At eleven, Rachel already had the St. Clair height, as well as the jet black hair and emerald eyes. She would be quite the beauty someday and likely break several hearts before she chose a husband.
“Will you at least take me riding in the morning?” she asked petulantly.
“I’d be delighted to as long as there’s a mount available for me. Shall we meet before breakfast?”
Her smile said she’d forgiven him. “I’ll meet you in the stables. Don’t be late, Jeremy. I don’t tolerate tardiness. It’s something Miss Bates has ground into me.” Under her breath, she added, “Along with countless other things.”
With that, Rachel turned and trotted up the stairs, her governess following after her. Jeremy decided that the poor woman must earn every penny of her salary, caring for the headstrong young tomboy.
Barton cleared his throat. “My lord, His Grace has been informed of your arrival and wishes to speak with you in the library.”
“Very good, Barton. I suppose Manfry came to town with Cor?”
“He did, my lord. You’ll find your chamber prepared. Even now, Manfry will be unpacking your trunk and helping you to settle in.”
“Then I will go see Father. Thank you, Barton.”
The butler nodded deferentially and Jeremy went straight to the library. He would have preferred washing up first but when the Duke of Everton requested your presence, everything else faded into the woodwork.
Reaching the library, he knocked on the door and heard a voice bidding him to enter. He opened the door and closed it behind him.
His father sat in a chair next to the window, an ever-present glass of brandy in his hand. As Jeremy approached, he saw the past year hadn’t been kind to the elder St. Clair. The good looks of his youth had dissipated, thanks to an overindulgence in drink and food, coupled with years of late nights and little exercise. His ruddy complexion seemed more flush than usual and his hair had thinned to the point of baldness. He looked to weigh a good two stones heavier than when Jeremy had last seen him a year ago.
Crossing the room, he bowed. “Hello, Father. How have you been?”
No hand was offered. No gesture of warmth given. Not even a smile escaped the duke’s lips.
“Sit,” he commanded. “Drink?”
“No, thank you, sir.”
Jeremy took a seat across from his father and waited for him to lead the conversation. It was how they’d always communicated. His father barked at him. He answered in as few words as possible.
“Tell me you enjoyed your sojourns.”
“Indeed, I did.”
“Give me details, Boy.”
Jeremy launched into recounting some of the places he’d visited, including the business establishments he’d called upon, as well as estates and farms he’d visited.
“Stop,” his father commanded after several minutes, scrutinizing him. After a moment, he said, “What about the fun you had? The parties you attended. The women you met. The drinking and the hunting. What of that?”
“There was some of that,” he began. “I thought it important, though, since I am to be the next duke, that I learn about great estates, as well as businesses and which types I should invest in.”
“Balderdash! I sent you abroad to open your horizons, Jeremy, not for you to study dull topics as you did at Cambridge for four years. I’m sorely disappointed that you didn’t follow my instructions and relish your trip.”
“I did have a marvelous time, Father. I attended balls and plays and concerts. Went to museums and viewed the architecture of famous churches. I mingled with society and met fascinating people, including artists and playwrights. It would have been a wasted opportunity, though, not to have taken advantage to extend my knowledge in other areas. Which leads me to say that now I’ve returned home, I’m eager to become familiar with how our various estates are run.”
His father’s perplexed look silenced him. Jeremy hesitated a moment and decided to plunge ahead. “I realize you have no interest in the many operations that run on St. Clair lands, but I have a great interest in farming and husbandry. From what I’ve learned and what I saw in Europe, I believe—”
“No changes,” the duke proclaimed firmly. “I have competent managers to deal with those things. What I need is for you to quit being so bloody serious and enjoy being a young man of wealth and position. You’re a marquess, my boy. A St. Clair. We’re known for our enjoyment of life. It’s time you quit being so solemn and appreciate all you have and take advantage of it. Drink! Dance! Find a mistress!”
Jeremy held his tongue. All his life, he’d seen his father engage in irresponsible behavior. He acted as a wastrel, overeating and drinking to excess. Gambling. Fighting. Having countless affairs. The Duke of Everton was an embarrassment to his family. Jeremy had heard the many whispers that disparaged his father behind his back, though never to his face since he was, in fact, the Duke of Everton.
Jeremy planned to be a much different kind of duke. One who would be responsible to his people and careful with his purse. One whose behavior and manners were so impeccable, society would never question them. One who never embarrassed his family. He’d been in plenty of schoolboy fights, defending the St. Clair name and his father’s despicable behavior. Once he claimed the title, he would restore honor to his family and act the way a duke should.
In a dismissive voice, his father said, “You can start amusing yourself tonight by attending the Wethersby ball. The Season is in full swing.”
“Do you expect me to begin a search for a wife?” Jeremy asked pointedly.
His father guffawed. “That’s the last thing I’d expect from you. Sow your wild oats. Find a pretty widow. One of around thirty. Old enough to teach you a few things and young enough to still have her looks and figure. Reconnect with your old friends. Go riding and to your club.
“But whatever you do, you are to stay out of my business affairs,” the duke warned.
“I understand, sir.”
Jeremy rose and excused himself. His gut told him his father was hiding something. Something that might affect the entire wellbeing of the St. Clair family.
He would find Cor. She would know if anything was amiss.
Jeremy found his grandmother in her sitting room, sipping a cup of tea as she composed a letter at her desk. He observed her for a moment before making his presence known. Her abundant silver hair was swept off her face, showing the delicate bone structure. Dark blue eyes, ever inquisitive, dominated her face. Though she would be seventy next year, only a few wrinkles appeared about her eyes and mouth, the rest of her face unlined. If she didn’t laugh so much, she wouldn’t possess any wrinkles at all.
His grandmother had been a mother to him since his own passed away in childbirth. The second and third wives his father took tried to mother him briefly but Jeremy hadn’t taken to either woman. Luke’s mother saw Timothy and Jeremy as a threat to any future sons she would bear the duke and kept her distance after those first few weeks. Rachel’s mother was flighty and quite dense—though beautiful to look at—but not much for children. Since both women had also died in childbirth, Jeremy had an odd fear of women giving birth, which made him reluctant to wed. The point of marriage in the upper classes was to procreate so that he would have sons to pass his title and lands to yet the thought of his wife giving birth made him ill. No law said he had to marry. Once his father was gone and Jeremy inherited the title, he could do as he pleased. If that meant no wife, so be it. Luke—or his son—could become the heir.
He cleared his throat so that Cor would look up. When she didn’t, he entered the room and leaned over her shoulder, pressing a kiss to her cheek.
She turned slowly and gave him The Look, one servants and society alike knew.
“Did you think I didn’t know you’ve been staring at me for the last five minutes, Jeremy?” she accused, though he knew she wasn’t angry.
He wrapped his arms about her. “You are still the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, Cor. No one holds a candle to you.”
Her graying brows rose. “Not any woman you met in your travels?”
“You are still first and foremost in my esteem,” he replied smoothly. “Come and sit with me and let me tell you some of what I did during my travels.”
“Let me ring for another cup of tea first.” She appraised him. “And something to eat. You look famished.”
He helped her rise and she rang the bell before he escorted her to a settee and joined her. A servant appeared and received instructions, soon bearing a new tea tray with a delightful assortment of treats. He stacked his plate high as Cor poured tea for them both.
“Your letters were wonderful, you know,” she confided. “They were always the highlight of any day in which I received them. You have quite a way with words. Your descriptions were so vivid. Of the people. Streets and shops. The music and food. It reminded me of my wedding trip when your grandpapa took me to Paris.”
Jeremy had never known the man but Cor always spoke of her husband fondly. He regaled her for an hour about places he and Matthew had visited, including some of the businesses they stopped at.
“You’ve always had a head for numbers,” she noted, shaking her head. “I’m afraid your brother only has a head for women.”
He frowned. “Has Luke gotten some girl into trouble?”
“Trouble seems to find Luke wherever he goes. He was in a good deal of it during his Christmas holidays.”
He sighed. “What has he done now?”
“I had to dismiss one of the maids at Eversleigh.”
“Was she with child?”
“No, fortunately. She was almost twice his age. I caught them in a compromising position in the conservatory. It seems Luke started paying her three years ago to . . . teach him . . . things.”
Shock filled him. “Paying her? What kind of lessons did she offer?”
Cor sniffed. “Kissing lessons, to begin with, starting when he was twelve. They had progressed from chaste kisses to more . . . friendly ones. Luke pressed her—”
“He didn’t force her?” Jeremy asked quickly.
“No, nothing of the sort. Luke merely encouraged her to help him expand his horizons as time passed. They’d never engaged in relations, thank the heavens. All but that. She admitted to me that Luke was most likely the best kisser in the county and beyond. He confessed to me that he’d learned how to appreciate a woman. How to worship her body. How to please her in small ways. He said it was all quite useful information that would benefit him in the future.”
Jeremy shook his head. “The audacity of that boy. Father should take a firmer hand with him.”
Surprise filled Cor’s face. “You think your father would chastise him? For all I know, my son encouraged this maid to take Luke under her tutelage. It wouldn’t surprise me if he also paid the woman to educate Luke in the ways of the flesh.”
“You’re right,” Jeremy admitted. “I never told you before but Father took me to a bawdy house when I was around fifteen. It was mortifying. He wanted us to share the same tart. He forced me to watch them couple and then wanted me to do the same as he observed and offered advice. I refused and walked out. He never mentioned it after that.”
She shuddered. “Now that you’re home, my darling, it would be good for you to take Luke under your wing. He needs a good example of what it means to be a true gentleman. I can think of no one finer to guide our Luke than you.”
“I will do my duty, of course, Cor. What happened to the maid?”
“Luke begged me not to dismiss her. He claimed everything had originated with him and that she’d gone along in order to keep her position. While I doubted it, I didn’t have the heart to turn her out without a reference. She is quite a good maid and they can be hard to come by. In the end, I sent her to a property I inherited from my family. It’s isolated, with only a small village nearby. She won’t find much to do there but she still has work.”
“You are kindhearted, Cor.”
She shrugged. “I do my best for this family.”
“I’m afraid to ask since the news of Luke has been all bad, but what of Rachel?”
Her face softened. “Rachel is a delight. She reads voraciously. Asks about everything. Her riding skills have improved tremendously.”
“Is she still climbing trees?”
Cor chuckled. “Would you expect anything less? I turn a blind eye to some of her activities but, mind you, I know everything she does. As far as Luke goes, he’s a good boy, just a bit misguided. His grades at Eton have been excellent. He has tremendous potential. They both do.” She paused. “I know they are only half-siblings to you, Jeremy, but you must promise me you’ll look after them when your father and I are gone.”
He took her hands in his and kissed them. “That won’t be for many years, Cor.”
She smiled. “You’d be surprised. I’ve been to my fair share of funerals lately. It seems I have friends dying to the left and right of me. You can do me a favor, however.”
“Name it. I am yours to command.”
“Escort me to the Wethersby ball tonight. A dear friend of mine will be attending. She lost her husband over a year ago and buried herself in the country. She’s only just come to town and I promised I would meet her there. Besides, it would be a good way to let others know you are back in London.”
“I can do that but I have a favor to ask in return.”
She patted his knee. “You only need to ask, my boy. I doubt I would deny you anything.”
“Father seems to be hiding something.” He watched as she stilled. “I aim to find out what. I want to tour all of our properties and become familiar with how they’re run. He’s—”
“I will share with you what I know, Jeremy. Why don’t we meet after breakfast tomorrow to discuss matters? Right now, I’m sure you’re ready for a bath and a good English meal.”
Soaking in a hot bath sounded very appealing but he disliked being put off again. Still, Cor would be true to her word and tell him everything she knew. He supposed he could wait until morning to discover what his father had been up to.
“I’ll take your advice, Cor. It will be a bath for me and fresh clothes.”
“Evening wear, darling. Don’t forget the ball.”
He kissed her cheek and made his way to his bedchamber. Manfry was ecstatic to see him and immediately sent for hot water. While Jeremy waited for it to arrive, he dashed off the letter of recommendation for Matthew Proctor and asked Manfry to entrust it to Barton’s care. He fully intended to speak with his friend tomorrow but leaving it with Barton would be more convenient.
As Jeremy soaked in the hot tub, he wondered what Cor might reveal about the state of their affairs.
Catherine exited the carriage and her father offered her his arm. She took it and he escorted her and her mother inside. They joined the receiving line and were soon greeted by Lord and Lady Wethersby. The viscountess remarked upon Catherine’s birthday gift.
“What a sumptuous necklace. It suits you, of course, bringing out the blue in your eyes. Your dance card will be filled in no time, Lady Catherine.” With a sly smile, she added, “I’m sure you’ll have your pick of the litter by the time the Season ends. Aim for a duke, my girl. With your looks and family name, it’s easily within your grasp.”
Catherine smiled benignly as she moved away. She couldn’t understand the fixation on titles that every woman seemed to possess. Everyone from her own maid to society matrons urged her to do what it took to wed someone above her station, especially a duke. For heaven’s sake, there were only so many dukes to go around and even then, most of them were already wed. Once again, she glanced at her parents and wished she could find love.
Or that love might find her.
“I’m off to the card room,” her father announced, kissing his wife’s cheek and then Catherine’s. “Enjoy yourselves.”
“Be sure to get your programme du bal,” her mother urged. “Last time, I believe yours filled up more quickly than any other girl’s did. Looking as you do tonight, I believe the same will occur.”
She saw her friend, Charlotte, and went to greet her as a footman handed her the dance card. Catherine slipped it into her reticule and joined Charlotte.
“Wherever did you get that brilliant necklace?” her friend asked, her eyes round as Catherine slipped her arm through Charlotte’s.
“Today is my birthday. Papa and Mama gave it to me in honor of the occasion.”
“Then I suppose I should steer my papa in your papa’s direction. Maybe he can learn something from Lord Statham. On my eighteen birthday, I received a new hat.” She sniffed. “Mama is pleased we’re friends, you know.”
“Why so?” Catherine thought Charlotte’s mother a bit pushy though she realized she had her daughter’s best interests at heart.
“You are so popular with the men and your dance card fills so quickly. When a gentleman asks you to dance and I’m standing beside you, they often turn to me and request the same. That pleases Mama greatly. I, on the other hand, simply enjoy your company and believe we’ll always be friends,” Charlotte declared. “You know, if we both wed at the end of the Season, we might have our first child around the same time. Why, by next Season, you and I could be old married ladies—and mothers.”
The thought of her life changing so rapidly frightened Catherine. No man had truly caught her eye, so she asked, “Have you formed any special attachment?”
“Not yet. I have my eye on a few prospects,” her friend said mysteriously. “Oh, look. Here comes the horde.” Charlotte moistened her lips and smiled prettily.
Catherine looked up and saw a group of eligible suitors headed their way. She raised a gloved hand to hide her mouth, stifling the giggle that threatened to erupt. The men looked like a pack of animals as they approached. A few fanned out in other directions, letting the alpha males of the pack have first dibs.
She watched as her programme began to fill with names. A blond man hovered nearby as she finished speaking with a viscount who had bucked teeth and a lisp. As the viscount moved toward Charlotte, Catherine recognized the waiting gentleman since they’d danced together previously but she couldn’t recall his name. That was the problem with the Season. So many social events. Dozens of introductions. Far too many dances with men who then disappeared to dance with another debutante. The evenings, with all the faces and names, became a blur.
“Good evening, Lady Catherine,” the man said. “I’m hoping you would do me the great honor of dancing with me again this evening. I so enjoyed your company when we danced together before.” His smile revealed white, even teeth as his blue eyes sparkled.
At least this one showed some potential. She needed to at least think about getting to know some of these men beyond casual comments regarding the weather. She offered her programme to him.
“You may claim the supper dance if you wish, my lord.”
His eyes lit up, knowing they would not only dance together but spend an extended time in conversation as they dined.
“I’d be most delighted.” He wrote his name and returned the card to her.
Glancing down, she said, “I look forward to our dance, Lord Morefield.”
After that, Catherine turned down several suitors, apologizing for having no more room on her card, heeding her mother’s recent advice before they’d disembarked from the carriage.
As she turned away another disappointed gentleman, Charlotte hissed,” How could you have no vacancies left? Most of the men who’ve asked you to dance have also signed my card. I still have five openings.”
“Mama begged me to leave two slots open tonight,” Catherine explained. “She instructed me to leave the supper dance and the final dance of the evening free. That way, if I found someone to my liking, I might offer a second opportunity and spend additional time with him. I allowed Lord Morefield to have the supper dance since he somewhat intrigues me. Instead, I left the one after supper and the last of the night vacant.”
“Oh, my word! Your mother is a genius, no doubt about it. I shall do the same from now on.”
As a few others approached them to ask for a dance and she shook her head, Catherine’s gaze scanned the room. She recognized many of the faces as everyone waited for the music to begin. None of them excited her, in particular. If she didn’t find anyone else interesting tonight, she would skip the final dance and go find her parents so they could depart before the rush of carriages clogged the road.
Then her eyes fell upon someone she didn’t know and her breath caught in her throat. This man hadn’t attended any event of the Season. She was certain of that for he would stand out in any crowd.
He was taller and broader of shoulders than the companion he conversed with. His hair was as black as midnight, matching his fitted trousers and coat. His shirt was snow white against his tanned face. She wished she could see what color his eyes were. As he gestured, it was with a fluid grace.
Who was this very handsome stranger—and how could she persuade him to dance with her?
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