Miss Cecily Hurston battered her ivory-tipped parasol against the hulking footman who none too gently thrust her through the doors of Number 13 Bruton Street.
“You cannot do this!” She elbowed him to emphasize her point, and smiled in satisfaction at his grunt of pain. “My father was a founding member of this club! I demand you let me in at once!”
“He’s the one whot made the rule,” the beefy man said, putting her down and fending off further attacks with one arm as he backed inside and shut the door.
Cecily stood gaping at the closed door. “He … he … what?”
“You heard me!” The shout was just audible through the heavy door.
She tried again. “Surely in this particular situation you would be willing to bend the rules a bit…”
But after a couple of minutes with no response, she heaved an exasperated sigh, and gave the door one last aggravated kick. The heavy boots she’d worn for today’s visit protected her toes, but did little to protect her wounded pride.
She had hoped, considering the circumstances, that the members of the Egyptian Explorer’s Club would waive their ridiculous no-unmarried-females rule. After all, none of them had considered that Lord Hurston would suffer an apoplexy on the return trip from his most recent expedition. She was an unmarried lady, true, but she was also—despite her father’s best efforts to discourage her scholarly pursuits—one of the only people in England capable of translating his idiosyncratic form of hieroglyphics, which he used for all his travel writings in an effort to deter would-be thieves. Without her help, the tale of her father’s final Egyptian tour would be told, for the first time in his illustrious career, in someone else’s words.
And then there were the rumors. She knew his notebooks held the key to disproving the rumors surrounding her father since his return to London.
Now she would be forced to go to the Duke of Winterson. His brother, Mr. William Dalton, had served as Lord Hurston’s personal secretary on the journey and might have kept his own records of the trip. Unfortunately, in another bit of bad luck for the expedition, that gentleman had gone missing during the trip, and had not been seen or heard from since. It would not be the same as her father’s account, but Mr. Dalton’s notes would surely be more reliable than those of any other man who had accompanied them to Alexandria. Still, the thought of using anything other than her father’s words was disheartening.
Defeated, Cecily took a calming breath and straightened her hat, which had been knocked askew in the scuffle. Smoothing her dark hair back from her brow, adjusting her gloves, and yanking her pelisse firmly into place, she turned to face down the front steps to the street below.
Unfortunately her ejection from the club had not gone unnoticed.
His exquisitely fitted attire and gleaming, silver-topped walking stick marked the man gazing up at her as a gentleman. And he was handsome enough to give her pause. Bright blue eyes surveyed her from a face that might well have been stolen from a classical statue, aquiline nose and all. While not normally one to have her head turned by a pretty face—in her experience handsome men, like her cousin, were a selfish breed—even Cecily felt her breath momentarily stop at the sheer elegance of the gentleman below.
But when he raised his beaver hat to reveal a head full of closely cropped dark curls, she had the uncanny sense that he laughed at her.
“Are they not accepting visitors today?” he inquired politely—as if he hadn’t watched Cecily’s forcible removal from the establishment moments earlier.
On her guard, she tried to determine his intent. Was he laughing? Or was he merely obtuse? Probably the latter, she thought to herself. In her experience handsome gentlemen were also lacking in common sense.
As if reading her thoughts, he raised a gloved hand. “I assure you, madam, that my query is sincere. I thought perhaps your…” He cleared his throat, as if trying to determine what to call what had just occurred at the door behind her. “Exit,” he settled upon, “was due to the club’s closure.”
“No,” she responded, making her way down the first few steps leading to the street below. “They are closed only to me.” She paused at the next to last step, and looked the gentleman up and down, in a rude gesture that would have earned her a boxed ear from her old governess, Miss Milton. “I feel quite sure that someone of your…”
“Sophistication?” he suggested, making no move to ascend the stairs, and effectively blocking her descent.
She took one step down, bringing her to eye level with the stranger. He did not look like the sort of man who would have business with the club.
Perhaps reading her expression, his sharpened gaze was replaced with a look of playful challenge. “Breeding? Looks?” he inquired.
Tired of their game, and if truth be told a bit unnerved by his attentions, she pushed past him into the street below.
“Sex,” she said, stalking away.
But, to her dismay, the gentleman followed her.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, shaking his head as if to clear it. “I think I misheard you.”
The man was wits-to-let, however appealing his dimples might be, Cecily decided. Pausing, she looked him squarely in the eye and repeated, “I said that I feel quite sure someone of your sex should have no difficulty gaining entrance to the Egyptian Explorer’s Club. Now, if you will please excuse me, sir.”
She continued on her way and was annoyed, but not surprised, to find him trotting along at her side, though a slight limp in his left leg slowed him down a bit.
“Of course that’s what you meant,” her unwanted companion said. “I had not realized that the club was not open to females.”
“Yes, technically, that is correct,” Cecily said tersely. “If you would excuse me, sir…”
“Indeed, I am quite certain ladies are allowed into the club because my sister-in-law has mentioned several times that she has attended lectures here.”
His conversational tone indicated that he had no intention of leaving her to go on about her business. With a sigh of surrender, she kept walking. By the time she reached her waiting carriage, she decided, he would likely have given up and left her side.
“Then your sister-in-law must be married to a member,” she replied, deciding to keep her tone brisk to discourage further conversation.
“That is true,” he said companionably. “My brother was a member so that probably explains it.”
When they had walked several hundred feet in silence, however, Cecily could stand it no more.
“Sir,” she said, stopping, “I do not know who you are, but as you can see I am in a bit of a hurry, and as we have not been properly introduced it is highly irregular for you to escort me down Bruton Street.”
She did not add that if she were to return to her carriage with a strange gentleman accompanying her, she had little doubt that her maid would carry the tale back to her stepmama. A circumstance she desperately wished to avoid.
“You disappoint me,” the gentleman said, shaking his head. “Surely the Amazon who kicked both the footman and the door of the Egyptian Explorer’s Club is not concerned with a matter as conventional as the proprieties.”
“Yes, well, the Amazon was overcome by pique outside the Egyptian Explorer’s Club,” she said tartly, resuming her brisk pace. She did not add that it was all very well for a man to ignore the proprieties. He did not have to rely on the goodwill of a distant cousin and a stepmama to keep a roof over his head.
“Your irritation was understandable,” her escort responded. “But you are not overcome by annoyance now, and yet if I were not here, you would be walking unescorted down Bruton Street for all the scandalmongers of London to see. So you are hardly a reliable source for what does and does not constitute proper behavior.”
Cecily opened her mouth to object, but he interrupted before she could speak.
“However, if you are so concerned about our lack of proper introduction, then let us by all means dispense with that nonsense.”
He halted, and out of habit Cecily stopped as well. He made her an elegant bow and Cecily dropped into a curtsy. Which felt exceedingly foolish in the middle of Bruton Street, but then this entire day had devolved into a series of foolish vignettes, one more insane than the last.
“Winterson, at your service, madam,” he said curtly, as if he did not like revealing his name to her.
She looked up abruptly.
“Winterson?” she asked. “The Duke of Winterson? Why on earth didn’t you say so before?”
* * *
Lucas should have known better. The first lady he’d encountered since his return to London with more than a passing acquaintance with her own brain, and she turned out to be just like every other woman he’d met since coming into the dukedom.
It shouldn’t have mattered so much, but it did. As Major Lucas Dalton he had certainly never hurt for female company—though he acknowledged that the scarlet uniform did its part—but once his uncle and cousin had died, leaving him to assume the title, he had found himself the object of an unseemly amount of female attention.
Discovering that his fiery Amazon was just another avaricious harpy was a disappointment, but hardly surprising given his recent interactions with the fairer sex. A different sort of man might have embraced his sudden popularity with enthusiasm, but Lucas had never aspired to more than the life of a military officer. Though there were some parallels between serving as an officer and serving as a peer of the realm, the differences at moments like these were as vast as an ocean.
“Indeed, I am Winterson.” He cast one last look at her shapely form, and mink-colored curls, and suiting his actions to his words, turned to walk away. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have just remembered a pressing appointment with—”
A firm hand on his upper arm stayed him. He cast a speaking look, one even his raw recruits would recognize, at the place where her fingers gripped his coat.
Flustered, as he had intended, she let go of him at once. “Please, Your Grace, I beg your pardon. But do not go. I have been looking forward to making your acquaintance for some time.”
I’ll just bet you have, darling.
Aloud, he said, “Yes, well, I am in a bit of a hurry, miss.” And without waiting to hear what she said, he stalked back the way they had come, aware that his limp was more pronounced when he hurried, but not really giving a hang.
“But wait.” She followed after him. “Your Grace, pray do not run away—”
He halted abruptly, and dammit if she did not grip his arm again.
“I am not running away,” he said between clenched teeth. “As I told you a moment ago, I have a previously forgotten appointment. And stop gripping me by the arm!”
“If you are not running away, then why will you not stop a moment and allow me to introduce myself?” she snapped, her cheeks flushing and her bosom heaving in a show of temper that was, if truth were told, quite becoming.
Perhaps her reasons for ignoring the proprieties were less about ignoring convention and more about where she stood on the social ladder. He took a moment to examine her attire, and noting her plain hat and the drab color of her gown, he decided that she might be an impoverished widow. His mood brightened considerably at the thought. An unmarried miss might want him for his title, but a widow might be willing to accept a less permanent arrangement.
Another few minutes to hear the lady out would hurt no one, he thought.
At his continued silence, however, the lady lost patience. Throwing up her hands in disgust, she began to walk away.
“I had thought perhaps you and I were after the same thing, but at this point it doesn’t matter. You may have your arm back, Your Grace. I will importune you no longer.”
Ah. So he was right. She had been importuning him. But not for marriage—that was the important thing.
Now he was the one rushing after her, and even with his injury, his stride was so much longer than hers that he was able to overtake her quite easily.
“I beg your pardon for my boorish behavior, Miss … or Mrs.…?” His voice rose with the question as he mentally crossed his fingers that she would fall into the latter group.
Stopping, she once more dropped into a curtsy, and extended her hand to him. “Miss Cecily Hurston.”
Lucas closed his eyes. When he opened them, she was still there.
“Of course you are,” he said wearily. “The daughter of Viscount Hurston, no doubt?” He had been trying to arrange a meeting with that gentleman for weeks now. The family claimed the viscount had lost the power of speech, but Lucas wouldn’t believe it until he saw the man for himself.
“Indeed,” she returned. “Now you see why I was so eager to stay you, Your Grace. We have much to discuss.”
Even as he considered using her to get to her father, he dismissed the idea. She would have no influence over the man. Look at the reception his friends at the Egyptian Club had given her.
“I am afraid, Miss Hurston,” he said calmly, “you are mistaken. What could I possibly have to discuss with the daughter of the man who will not even grant me the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting about the disappearance of my brother?”
His momentary flight of fancy over, for the first time in his adult life, Lucas Dalton, Duke of Winterson, dismissed common courtesy completely, turned on his heel, and walked away.
To his relief, Miss Cecily Hurston did not follow.
* * *
Cecily felt a dull ache in her temples as she returned to the carriage bearing the insignia of the Viscount Hurston. She’d asked the coachman to wait for her several blocks away from the Egyptian Club, and after the duke’s abrupt dismissal in Bruton Street she’d almost given in to the childish urge to run in order to get there. Letting the driver hand her into the carriage, she settled in and leaned her head back against the heavy cushion.
Though she had spent the majority of their encounter attempting to be rid of him, once she knew that her handsome interloper was the Duke of Winterson, Cecily had hoped the man might wish to discuss the circumstances of his brother’s disappearance from her father’s latest expedition to Egypt. Not only had her father taken ill on the voyage back, the rumormongers of the ton had begun circulating a rumor that he was responsible for William Dalton’s death. That he had become crazed as a result of some nonsensical curse that plagued those who tampered with the ancient dead.
The curse, Cecily knew, was merely a figment of the lurid imaginings of an ignorant populace who failed to understand the customs of any culture but their own. But the allegations that Lord Hurston had killed Will Dalton were unconscionable given that her father was unable to defend himself.
* * *
Though she had hoped the Egyptian Club would help her prove that her father had no hand in Will Dalton’s disappearance, its members had been strangely distant since her father’s return. Not a single member had visited her father since news of his illness had spread through town. Thinking to ask for the club’s help directly, she and her stepmama, Violet, had called on Lord Fortenbury, the president now that her father was unable to perform his duties, but his welcome had been lukewarm. When they beseeched him to speak out against the rumors, Fortenbury had refused, saying he did not wish to involve the club in scandal. Directly addressing the rumors, he said, would merely give credence to them.
Never one to sit by and wait for things to happen, Cecily, who already wanted her father’s journals to transcribe them, suspected they also held clues that would clear her father’s name. But to her consternation, they were nowhere to be found. Not in his rooms and not in the library of Hurston House. Which left two options: the Egyptian Club, and the bags of his secretary, Will Dalton.
She and Violet and their other friends would do what they could to stifle the gossip, but for real proof that her father was innocent of causing harm to his secretary, she needed those journals. And to get the journals she needed to get into the Egyptian Club.
Having the Duke of Winterson attach blame to her for her father’s actions was hurtful, but having him accuse her father of murder was worse. If she had not been so overset by her ejection from the club, she might have been better prepared to deal with his accusations. She was used to being ridiculed for her bluestocking tendencies, which was a badge she wore proudly since it implied she had more on her mind than flounces and ruffles. But the whispers about her father were still a new enough occurrence to sting. Outright accusations were rare, but, as this morning’s encounter had proven, infinitely more cutting. Especially given her sometimes tumultuous relationship with her father.
* * *
From her earliest years, Cecily had pestered her father to teach her to read Latin and Greek as he did. But fearful that she would become obsessed with the subject he blamed for her mother’s death when Cecily was only a small child, Lord Hurston had attempted to dissuade her from her intellectual pursuits.
Though she had little recollection of the event herself, Cecily knew that her mother had been quite a gifted scholar in her own right when she’d been found dead on the moors surrounding the Hurston country house. Speaking about the incident had been discouraged, but from what Cecily gathered from the servants’ gossip, the first Lady Hurston had been struggling with her own translation of Homer’s Odyssey at the time, and it was speculated that she had developed a brain fever from the overstimulation.
The only reason she knew anything at all about Egyptology, or Latin and Greek for that matter, was thanks to her godmother, Lady Entwhistle, who had been a great friend of Cecily’s mother, and who had endowed the motherless girl with a thirst for knowledge equal to her own. Now Cecily was able to speak and read several languages with ease, and in addition had a remarkable facility for unraveling codes and ciphers.
It was odd, she supposed, given the number of times Lord Hurston had discouraged her interest in his travels, that she even considered ensuring that his accounts of his final voyage were included as part of his legacy as a scholar. But for all of their arguments and difficulties, Cecily loved the man. Their relationship, aside from his feelings about her scholarly activities, was a strong one. And, intellectually at least, she understood just why he did not want her to become involved in his work. His fears that her interests would turn into the kind of obsession that had precipitated her mother’s death were unfounded, but came from a place of love. And there was something about seeing him now, a shrunken shadow of his former self, which made her long for one last conversation to set things right between them. Because there was little hope of that, she would settle for ensuring that the account of his final expedition was told, truthfully and in his own words.
Then there was the matter of Will.
If she could get her hands on the journals themselves, she would prove that her father had nothing to do with his disappearance. She was sure of it. But how to get them? That the Egyptian Club did not allow female visitors to examine their library was a hurdle, one she had hoped to avoid this morning by explaining the situation. But clearly, as the guard’s actions had shown, the club was adhering to the rule her own father had imposed. If she could not break the rule, she would be forced to go around it.
As she had told Winterson that morning, there was one particular set of ladies who were allowed into the club: the wives of club members.
She thought about her cousin Rufus and his vile wife, who were even now encamped in Hurston House in hopes that Rufus would soon be the new Lord Hurston. She thought of what her life would be like if her father died, and she was forced to live on the crumbs of their charity. And how much worse it would be should he die without being exonerated of William Dalton’s murder.
It was a sobering notion.
Being whispered about because of one’s intellectual pursuits was an entirely different thing from being blackballed because one’s father was a killer.
Cecily had hoped she would be able to avoid marriage. The one time she had considered it, it had ended badly. Very badly.
But she was older now. And, she hoped, stronger. And perhaps marriage would not be so very difficult. Though her brief engagement had never afforded her more than a few kisses, she had read enough ancient texts to know that the marriage bed could offer pleasure.
Unbidden, the image of the Duke of Winterson locking eyes with her when she stepped out of the club rose in Cecily’s mind. Her stomach gave a little flip as she recalled how exhilarated she’d been for that one glorious moment.
Focus, she told herself. The duke wasn’t even a member of the club. And even though marriage to him might give her access to Mr. Dalton’s papers, the thought of seducing his brother to get them was more mercenary than she would consider. Much better to arrange a marriage of convenience to a club member. She had skills and connections to bring to such a match that would make it—on the surface at least—equitable. She doubted the Duke of Winterson had a pressing need for Greek or Latin translations, and he certainly could do better on the marriage mart than a viscount’s daughter with bluestocking tendencies.
Closing her mind to the tantalizing duke, she gave a brief knock on the ceiling of the carriage, alerting the coachman that she needed to speak with him. Enticing a member of the Egyptian Club to marry her would take serious planning with the fashionable equivalent of Wellington. Her stepmother fit that description, but before she could approach Violet, she needed to sound out her scheme with someone who knew the workings of the ton from the edges of the dance floor, where she spent most of her time.
She needed her cousins Madeline and Juliet.
The Ugly Ducklings.
Copyright © 2012 by Manda Collins