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London, July 1818
Alexander Savage, the Duke of Blackshire, was known throughout the ton for three things: the horrific burn scars on his neck, his distinctly ornery disposition, and his undisputed skill at … that is, his innate ability to … er, a certain knack for pleasing—
Blast it all, the duke was good in bed.
None of which was any concern of Elizabeth Lacey’s. In fact, just two months ago, Beth would have bet her best bonnet that she’d go to her grave without ever setting foot inside the duke’s town house.
And now she lived there.
It was a temporary arrangement—a favor to her dear uncle. His friend the Dowager Duchess of Blackshire had mentioned, repeatedly, that she longed for a companion—someone to escort her to various functions and ease her loneliness now that her niece had married and moved to Somerset.
While the thought of a full social calendar made Beth break out in a rash, the truth was she needed … well, she needed to be needed.
Her sisters lovingly teased her for her habit of embracing every cause—whether it was tending to a bird’s broken wing, standing up for a bullied child, or collecting books for the foundling home. Beth couldn’t help it—she liked to fix things, right wrongs, and restore harmony.
She supposed that’s what came from enduring a childhood where little seemed fair or orderly. After the sudden death of her parents, she and her sisters had been like frail leaves caught up in a whirlwind, their lives spinning out of control. She’d learned at a tender age that the world wasn’t always a fair or decent place … and she’d resolved to make it so.
When she’d considered that acting as companion to the duchess would place her in proximity with the brooding, if reportedly talented, duke, she had hesitated briefly. But Beth doubted her path and the duke’s would cross often, if at all.
Indeed, the dowager had assured Beth that the duke preferred to spend his time at his estate house outside of London. She’d blinked rapidly and her thin voice had cracked as she’d admitted she suspected her grandson preferred the company of younger people and naturally did not wish to have his bachelor activities curtailed by the presence of a feeble old woman.
Incensed by the duke’s callousness, Beth had agreed to play the part of companion on the spot.
And now, there she was. The duke’s sumptuous drawing room was a far cry from the cozy parlor with the threadbare settee in the house where she’d lived with Uncle Alistair and her sisters. Humming to herself, she laid a whisper-soft quilt across the duchess’s lap and fluffed the silk damask pillow behind her back.
The white-haired woman sighed contentedly and sipped her tea.
“Shall I inquire about this evening’s menu?” Beth asked.
A look of alarm flitted across the duchess’s heavily powdered face but vanished so quickly Beth wondered if she’d imagined it. “No, no.” The tightly spiraled curls at the duchess’s temple bounced as she shook her head. “I’m sure Cook has dinner well in hand.” Her shrewd blue eyes roved over Beth’s simple morning gown. “But would you be a dear and fetch my paisley shawl from upstairs?”
“Of course.” Beth started toward the door.
“While you’re looking in my armoire,” the duchess added breezily, “perhaps you’d like to pick out a shawl for yourself.”
“You’re very kind,” Beth said. “But I’m not at all chilled.” Sunlight streamed through the drawing room’s tall windows, and a cozy fire crackled on the hearth. Furthermore, it was July.
The duchess raised her thin brows. “I forget that young people are impervious to the cold. Still, I find there’s nothing like surrounding oneself with cheerful colors to brighten the mood.” She sighed forlornly. “A bit of rose silk would complement your fair complexion.”
Beth absently raised a palm to her cheek, fairly certain she’d just been given fashion advice by a woman well into her seventies. But it couldn’t hurt to indulge the duchess. Too many of Beth’s peers dismissed the opinions of their elders, scoffing at their hard-won wisdom. She’d witnessed the same prejudice directed at her uncle scores of times.
“Very well,” Beth said brightly. “You’ve convinced me. I shall take you up on your generous offer and borrow something colorful.”
“Excellent.” The duchess leaned back in her chair, pleased to have her small wish granted. It wasn’t difficult to make older people happy. They simply wanted the same as anyone—to be heard and respected.
Beth made her way to the duchess’s elegant bedchamber and located the paisley shawl, as well as a lightweight pink silk for herself. She paused in front of the vanity to drape the scarf around her shoulders and admire the effect.
Goodness. She had to admit, it was a marked improvement. Perhaps if she consulted the duchess about her gown before her next ball she’d finally shed her reputation as being the middle—and therefore the least notable—of the Wilting Wallflowers.
Either that, or she’d become notorious for wearing a rich purple turban and prematurely securing her spot among the gray-haired set.
She shrugged. There were worse fates, after all.
Whisking herself out of the bedchamber and down the stairs, she rounded a corner just as the front door burst open. A pair of footmen laden with trunks, boxes, and bags dashed up the porch steps and shouldered past her. The butler, Mr. Sharp, strode into the foyer, then chased the footmen up the staircase, issuing orders as to where each parcel should be placed.
Beth contemplated the odd scene. The duchess hadn’t mentioned she was expecting guests. And whoever had arrived was causing rather a fuss. Moreover, the front door gaped open, inviting a warm but strong breeze that would no doubt drift down the hall toward the drawing room. The duchess would feel it as surely as the princess had felt the pea nestled beneath her hundred mattresses.
Clucking her tongue, Beth rushed across the foyer and swung the door shut.
Only to have it bounce open again, revealing the tall, muscular, and vexingly breathtaking form of the Duke of Blackshire.
He glared down his slightly crooked nose, not bothering to hide his displeasure. “Good God,” he intoned, crossing the threshold. “Have you taken leave of your senses?”
Beth’s jaw dropped and heat crawled up her neck. How dare he? She longed to issue a blistering response—a witty yet cutting retort to put him firmly in his place, a clever remark to make him realize how wrong he was, a metaphorical slap across his chiseled cheek.
But her throat squeezed shut, and the words wouldn’t come, blast it all. Even worse, her eyes burned.
“Never mind.” The duke rolled his eyes as he slammed the door behind him. “I believe I have my answer.”
He tugged off his gloves, tossed them onto the small table in the foyer, and strode past her as though she were a potted plant. Or rather a person with the intellect of one.
Her blood boiled. She couldn’t allow him to dismiss her so, wouldn’t let him treat her with such indignity.
Summoning courage, she cleared her throat. “My name is Miss Elizabeth Lacey.” Though she’d tried to match his haughty tone, her traitorous voice cracked.
The duke’s boots froze on the marble floor. “Miss Lacey,” he repeated in a tone that suggested he felt a headache coming on. “Why are you roaming the halls of my house?”
“I was hardly roam—” She closed her eyes briefly to collect herself, then raised her chin before she continued. “I am your grandmother’s new companion.”
He snorted. “She said nothing about you.”
Beth shrugged. “As it happens, the duchess has said very little about you.” A small fib. The duchess loved nothing more than droning on about her grandson, fairly beaming with pride each time his name crossed her lips.
The duke planted his hands on narrow hips, as though exasperated by Beth’s insolence. Well. If she was rude, it was no more than he deserved.
“Where is she?”
“Your grandmother is in the drawing room.”
He stalked up the stairs and down the corridor, and Beth followed on the heels of his polished boots. If he meant to confront the duchess about taking on Beth as a companion, she intended to be there.
Ignoring her, he walked through the drawing room, directly to his grandmother’s side.
“Alexander! What a pleasant surprise!” the older woman cooed.
He placed a perfunctory kiss on her cheek and sat on a stool opposite her settee so she needn’t crane her neck to look at him. Beth stood beside the duchess, who perked up, as though the mere presence of her grandson was more potent than a drink from the Fountain of Youth.
“You grow more handsome each time I see you,” the duchess proclaimed.
“Your eyesight is failing, Grandmother,” he teased, causing her to giggle like a debutante.
“Nonsense.” But she adjusted her spectacles just the same. “I assume you met Elizabeth?”
“Yes, she was in the foyer when I arrived. Does she always guard the front door?”
The duchess’s smile faded a fraction. “Why, heavens no. She was fetching my shawl.”
Realizing she still held the shawl, Beth clumsily laid it over the duchess’s sloped shoulders.
The duke leaned forward and reached for the duchess’s frail hands, enveloping them in his. “Grandmother, your lady’s maid could have handled the task.”
“Oh.” Her brow creased. “I suppose you’re right. But Elizabeth didn’t seem to mind.”
“Of course I don’t mind,” Beth interjected, incredulous.
“My point is,” the duke continued to address the duchess without sparing so much as a glance for Beth, “that you are not in need of a companion. But if, for some reason, you felt that you did require one, you should have consulted with me.”
Beth gripped the back of the settee and pressed her lips together. Honestly, the man’s arrogance knew no bounds. Though it wasn’t her place to respond, she couldn’t idly stand by while he scolded the duchess.
“Your grandmother is quite capable of making all sorts of decisions on her own, your grace. Furthermore, even if she had been inclined to consult with you, circumstances made that quite impossible, as you were not here. In fact, I gather you are rarely here. Which is why my presence is necessary.”
The duke dropped his grandmother’s hands and stood, launching the full force of his glare at Beth. She hadn’t liked being ignored, but perhaps it was preferable to this—his unapologetic scrutiny. Her skin tingled with the knowledge that a fight was imminent, and she swallowed the knot in her throat. She might as well have been facing Goliath with a slingshot.
“Necessary?” He folded his arms across the considerable width of his chest, and his expression turned bemused. “I have made sure that the duchess has everything she could possibly need. You are approximately as necessary as the ostrich feather in that vase.” He inclined his head at the pretty, if superfluous, plume displayed on the fireplace mantel.
The duke’s words cut her to the quick—probably more than he knew. She’d thought the duchess needed her, but maybe Beth had only been desperate to believe she did. That someone did.
“Alexander!” The duchess pressed a hand to her chest. “You mustn’t insult Elizabeth. She is here as a favor to me.”
A moment of awkward silence ensued before the duke finally spoke. “Forgive me, Grandmother.”
However reluctant his apology might have been, the duchess relaxed, instantly mollified. But then, she hadn’t been deemed as useless as a discarded feather—of a flightless bird, no less.
“It’s quite all right. I’m certain you’re weary from your travels and eager to freshen up,” the duchess said.
Travels? For heaven’s sake. His country house was less than an hour away by carriage, and even a journey from Northumberland in knee-deep snow couldn’t have excused his bad behavior. Besides, he didn’t appear weary to Beth in the least. He was all lean muscle and coiled strength. He fairly exuded power.
“I do have some pressing business to attend to.” He glanced at the gold clock that was also on the mantel—ornate but infinitely more utilitarian than the ostrich plume beside it.
Beth bit her tongue. He’d been gone a fortnight, and yet he couldn’t afford to spend a quarter of an hour conversing with his dear, adoring grandmother?
But the duchess smiled, unperturbed. “I trust you’ll be dining with us tonight?”
“If I’m able,” he said noncommittally.
“Wonderful.” The duchess clasped her hands. “I think Elizabeth and I should rest so that we’ll be at our very best.”
Beth sniffed. The duke was hardly deserving of her best. Given his churlishness, he’d be fortunate if she managed to refrain from hurling her peas at him for the duration of the first course.
“A fine plan,” the duke said smoothly. “Why don’t you retire for a nap, Grandmother? In the meantime, I require a word with Miss Lacey.”
A chill ran the length of Beth’s spine.
“Oh?” The duchess looked from the duke to Beth and back again. “Whatever for?”
The duke smiled, revealing white, even teeth. “We seem to be off to a rocky start. I wish to make amends.”
“Then I shall leave you.” The duchess stood with an alacrity Beth hadn’t known she possessed and made her way to the door. “You are two of my favorite young people,” she said over her shoulder, “and nothing would make me happier than to see harmony restored to this house. I shall see you at dinner,” she added cheerfully.
And with a wave of her hand, she left Beth alone—with the notorious Duke of Blackshire.
He stared at her for the space of several heartbeats, with the same cold detachment one usually reserved for examining a hem in need of mending. Not that the duke would concern himself with a torn gown hem. No, if rumors were to be believed, his interest in gowns was strictly limited to their ease of removal. Still, she refused to be intimidated by either his scandalous reputation or his intense masculinity.
“Elizabeth Lacey.” He gazed at the ceiling as though searching his memory. Beth wanted to tell him not to waste his time. While they’d attended a few of the same balls, he was unlikely to remember a thin girl in an unfashionable gown propping up the wall near the refreshment table.
“Aren’t you one of Lord Wiltmore’s—?”
“Wallflowers?” she provided. “How kind of you to mention it,” she added dryly.
He raised a dark brow. “I was going to say ‘nieces.’”
She shrugged. “Perhaps. But you were thinking ‘wallflowers.’”
“I am fascinated by your uncanny ability to know what I’m thinking. If you can predict what I’m going to say before I say it, this whole conversation is rather pointless.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” she said, smiling too sweetly. “Are we through?”
“Not quite.” The feral grin that lit his face did not reach his eyes. “I’ve no doubt you know what I am about to say, and yet I feel the need to state it explicitly: your services are not needed here. Go home, Miss Lacey.”
Copyright © 2017 by Anna Bennett