Trust that fate has a plan. It may not be a very good one, but it has a plan.
-The School of Gallantry
London, England – March 14th 1823
The Banfield House at Grosvenor Square, early afternoon
If only his mother knew the difference between a cough and pneumonia, his life would have been so much easier. Not that he was complaining about the fact that he was missing his oral exam on the Principles of Sound Doctrine. It had saved him from memorizing eighteen pages of some lonely chaste man’s pathetic idea of salvation. He was his own salvation. And being lonely and chaste wasn’t at all what he aspired to be.
He was too good-looking for that.
Sitting on the hard wood of a gilded straight-backed chair, which the tails of his coat did little to cushion, Derek tugged at the high collar pinned tightly around his throat. It was a mandatory garment for all Eton students, even the eldest Upper boys, such as himself. While the rigid collar was confining and irksome, it was not as irksome and confining as the corridor where he and his younger brother Andrew had been forced to wait for the past hour and a half.
After standing, leaning, and pacing, he'd opted to sit. As did Andrew. Three doctors had already come and two had already left, both of them looking bewildered. Which was no surprise. The doctors always left bewildered after being called in by their mother who imagined various deadly diseases that didn’t exist.
Feeling like his collar was choking the sanity out of him, Derek sat up in his chair and announced to his fourteen-year-old brother, “I’m about to do something I shouldn’t.”
Andrew perked. “Fabulous. What are we doing?”
Derek reached out and mussed that head of dark hair before playfully shoving it. “Why do you always think everything involves you? My collar needs to come off, is all. I’ve had it on since seven this morning.” He yanked on the end of his cravat, unraveling it, and draped it over his shoulder. Removing the rigid collar buried beneath his linen shirt by unfastening the pins, he stripped it and whipped it to the floor. “May the devil and the Head Master go with it.” He unbuttoned his tawny waistcoat to ensure more comfort and stretched back, letting a booted heel hit the floor.
“And I thought I was a rebel.” Andrew raked back his mussed hair. “Mother won’t be none too pleased seeing you unkempt.”
Derek dug into his pocket and pulled out a tin of hard ginger candy. “No one is here to notice. I’m fine.” He opened the tin, flicked a piece of the spiced amber candy into his mouth and held it out to Andrew. “I bought these off Stanwick during Long Chamber hours. His uncle owns a confectionary shop out in Surrey. They are the very definition of incredible.” The strong pine-pitch taste already stung his tongue. He loved how it amplified his senses. “Take one.”
“Only one? Off with you. I’ll settle for three, if you don’t mind.” His brother grabbed up three with the scoop of fingers, leaving only five behind and popped all three into his mouth. He clacked them in his mouth, paused and choked, his eyes watering. “Dirk me…I…you could have…warned me.”
Derek smirked and clicked the tin shut. “Greed is punishing you. I told you to keep it to one.”
Andrew coughed, hitting his own chest twice and swiped at the tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. “You and your…damn need for... spice.”
“Spice makes a soul breathe in deep. Live a little.”
“More like die a little.”
Steps echoed in the distance, making Derek slip the tin back into his coat pocket. They both glanced toward the sound. Three figures cut through the sunlight gleaming through the long row of windows at the far end of the adjoining corridor.
Derek groaned. “Damn it, I just—” Scrambling off the seat to swipe up his collar, he skidded back and fell into his seat, trying not to choke the candy floating in his mouth. He gagged and swallowed it whole without meaning to.
Andrew let out an impish laugh, still clacking all three candies against his teeth. “Serves you right. As our cousins say, never take off a collar unless you’re in bed entertaining a woman.”
Derek laughed and kicked out a foot toward him. “Quiet, half-man,” he chided out of the side of his mouth. “What do you know about entertaining women? You can’t even handle a piece of candy.” Unable to get the stiff collar back around his neck, he rolled his eyes and shoved it behind himself on the seat. Buttoning his waistcoat, he focused on wrapping and tying his cravat around the natural short collar of his linen shirt. “Who are they? Can you see? Do you know?”
His brother leaned sideways in his chair and squinted. “I can’t decipher quite yet. But they don’t appear to be carrying medicine chests. So they can’t be doctors.”
“I told you it couldn’t be anything serious. If she kept it to only three doctors, I foresee us being back in school by tomorrow.” Still trying to finish tying his cravat beneath his chin, Derek tossed out, “Is it family?” They had a lot of cousins – eighteen – half of whose names he couldn’t remember. He didn’t try. Most of them only came around when they needed money anyway.
Andrew pointed with his chin. “No. They don’t look like any of the magpies related to us. Too well dressed.”
Derek paused as the figures emerged from the blurring brightness of the vast corridor.
A tall gentleman dressed in a fine wool morning coat, grey trousers and gleaming knee-high boots made his way toward them. The pulsing silence was amplified by the sound of his boot heels against the marble. While his chiseled face looked young enough to pass for an Oxford student, his wavy black hair was silvering at the temples, hinting that he was in his early forties.
Walking in exquisite refinement alongside the gentleman was a young female of about sixteen. Her regal face was a pale oval in the stripes of sunlight and shade that glimmered across her profile as she passed the last row of windows leading toward them.
Derek’s hands fell away from knotting the last of his cravat. If she had been walking alone, he would have stood up and whistled.
A pleated green bonnet was assembled over an intricately knitted black braid that looped upward into her bonnet and back down, fashionably draping one slim shoulder. A daffodil gown frothed and flowed with her graceful movements as snowy white satin slippers peered out with each measured step. Chin perfectly set – not too high and not too low – she carried herself with a sweeping, swaying elegance that reflected years of lecture dedicated to feminine poise.
In his opinion, she could have easily passed for a debutante of eighteen if there had been more…well…bosom…in her corset. She was almost as flat as paper. Which was sad, really. A sizable pair of high-perched breasts would have made her a triumph.
Was it ungentlemanly for him to notice her breasts or lack thereof? Yes. Yes, it was. But he’d been confined to an all-boys school since he was thirteen. And being almost eighteen, whenever he had a chance to cast an eye at a pair of bosoms, no matter their size, he did.
Andrew tilted closer. "Who are they?” he whispered.
"I have no idea." He didn’t know very much about their father’s personal life. But he did know one thing. Their father only associated with the best. “Get up," Derek instructed. “If they got past the butler, they have an appointment and we should acknowledge them.”
Andrew and Derek both stood, clicking their boot heels in unison.
The footman who had been leading their visitors, directed the gentleman and young lady to the closed doorway leading to their father’s rooms before stoically proceeding back down the vast corridor.
The young lady glanced toward Derek and upon seeing him, quickly pivoted her head toward him, showcasing a shimmering glint of emerald earrings that swayed against the inside of her bonnet. Full raspberry-colored lips parted as stunning, soulful blue eyes captured his.
Derek could do nothing but half-breathe and stare. If perfection had a name, it would be hers. Whatever that name might be. Her pale skin was flawless and the brightness of those pretty blue eyes against the ebony of her braided hair made her look ethereal. Something out of a dream. His dream. One that whispered of long summer afternoons spent lying on sun-warmed grass with his head resting on her lap and her hand brushing away strands of his hair as she leaned down to kiss him on the lips with just a little bit of tongue. Followed with a lot of tongue and their clothes laying everywhere.
An expensive wool coat and broad shoulders abruptly blocked Derek’s view of her.
It was her father.
Derek cleared his throat. “Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to the Banfield home. The household is rather harried today, for which we apologize. How might I be of assistance?”
The towering man removed his black leather gloves in smooth sweeps, searching his face with piercing blue eyes. “The name is Mr. Rupert Grey.” An American accent tinged that deep voice as the faint scent of cognac teased the air. “Are you the Honorable Derek Charles Holbrook?”
Derek felt a frisson of unease skate down his spine. How and why did this man know his full name? “Yes, sir. I am.”
The man skimmed Derek’s appearance and tucked away his leather gloves into his coat pocket. His features softened. “Look at you. All grown. I haven’t seen you since you were a tot.” He held his gaze. “You look like your mother.”
Derek blinked. He always thought he looked liked his father.The man turned and inclined his head enthusiastically toward Andrew. “You must be Andrew. A pleasure to meet you, sir. I have heard so much from your father about your writing adventures. You had yet to be born when I last traveled through London.” Patting Derek’s shoulder, he returned his gaze to him. The teasing scent of cognac returned. “I can’t believe you’re actually shaving.” He tapped a finger against his cravat. “Tend to that cravat, will you? It’s lopsided and there is a young lady present.”
Derek winced and scrambled to straighten it.
Mr. Grey smiled and drew back his hand. “Your father asked that I call on him the moment I got into London. I was surprised to hear he is bed ridden. Is he not well?”
Who was this man? “I have yet to know anything, sir. I haven’t seen him. But I’m not overly worried. He has always been a man of good health.”
“Quite right. Your mother and her penchant for doctors has certainly seen to that.”
It was obvious this man knew his family.
Reaching back, Mr. Grey guided his daughter forward. “This is my daughter, Miss Clementine Grey. I would rather not impose on your father by having us both call on him as I originally intended. Might I leave her in your care for a small while, Mr. Holbrook?”
Miss Grey perused Derek’s bright blue school coat and its gilt buttons.
Derek adjusted the coat in an effort to better display his broad chest, which he knew to be twice the breadth of boys his age. “Yes, of course, sir. It would be an honor.”
“Excellent. Thank you.” Mr. Grey angled a quick kiss to his daughter’s cheek beneath the wide rim of her bonnet. “I will be just beyond that door visiting with George. Mind yourself.”
She said nothing.
Striding toward the closed door, Mr. Grey opened it and edged inside, closing the door promptly behind him.
Knowing he and Miss Grey were finally alone (as his brother didn’t count), Derek peered over at her. The faint scent of marzipan drifted toward him as if he had just walked into the kitchen at Christmas. It suited her and made him want to nestle her against his chest before a fireplace late at night.
Compared to his still-growing size of five feet and ten inches, she couldn’t have been more than five feet and two inches herself. The yellow ribbon at the end of her glossy black braid had been pressed, looped and tied to perfection.
She turned her head toward him and looked up, the white satin ribbon on her oval bonnet shifting. Well-lashed blue eyes that were the shade of a bright summer sky just before nightfall stared up at him.
He stared down at her, his head, his heart and his body pulsing. He’d never felt anything like it, but those alluring eyes made him want to grab her and bite down hard. He inclined his head. “Good afternoon, Miss Grey. How are you?”
She blinked as if weighing what she was supposed to say.
It was darling that she appeared to struggle for words. He had never been one to struggle with anything. Although it had been a while since he’d associated with any prepossessing ladies worthy of his time. Eton, as well his parents, had kept him from associating with any females to prevent what they called his ‘untamed and unnecessary, sinful lusting’ after he had groped and exchanged one too many tongue-involved kisses with a certain debutante about half a year ago. He understood their concerns. But unlike fresh-faced Lady Beatrice, who had only made him sigh in mere reverence, this sultry Miss Delectable Grey made him want to bite his own knuckles in a form of indecent lust that no amount of praying could render.
It was a good thing they weren’t alone or he’d be putting their bodies to use.
Stepping aside, he gestured toward the chair he had vacated. He paused, realizing his collar was still sitting on it. He grabbed it and shoved it into his coat pocket with a gruff, apologetic laugh. “The Head Master makes me wear it. It’s annoying.” Clearing his throat, he gestured toward the chair again. “It isn’t by any means the most comfortable of chairs, but there is no need for you to stand. Take my seat, Miss Grey. I insist.”
She lowered her chin. “Thank you, but please don’t insist,” she replied in a refined American accent, her lips rounding as if every word mattered. “I was confined to a carriage for much too long. I would rather stand, thank you.”
Damn. He’d heard Americans speak before, but not with such dazzling sophistication and purpose. It was enchanting. She was enchanting. His mouth quirked. “I completely understand.” He shifted toward her. God was she beautiful. He wanted to grab that face and tongue her until neither of them had the ability to breathe for weeks. “Traveling can be quite tedious. Wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, it can be,” she offered.
He smoothed his cravat. “I actually know a thing or two about traveling.”
She held his gaze. “Do you?”
He grinned. “I most certainly do. I was the only heir in the history of our family to have ever been born abroad and on a ship. I’ve been to countless places. Almost too many to name.” He decided to name them anyway. “Spain. Italy. France. Germany. We even went as far as Africa, although I wasn’t old enough to remember. My parents love to travel and take us everywhere. Sadly, my brother and I haven’t traveled in some time. He and I study over at Eton throughout the year, which doesn’t allow for it. But I’ll be graduating in a few months. In fact, I’ll be eighteen by the end of this year. Which means in three years, I’ll be legally available for marriage. How about you?”
She stared disapprovingly. “Please don’t talk to me anymore, Mr. Holbrook. I have no interest in entertaining your incredibly poor sense of humor.” She then gave him the shoulder and stood squarely facing the closed door.
His grin faded. Him mentioning his availability for marriage was probably pushing a bit too hard given they just met. “Right. I’ll uh…take the seat then. Given you won’t be…using it.” Pushing back his coat tails with the back of his hand, Derek sat and refrained from hitting his head against the wall behind him. He was usually popular with the females and could easily charm the stockings off their toes by tossing out a smile.
Eton had apparently bankrupted him of all appeal.
Black leather ankle boots and gangly legs dressed in black breeches nudged in closer from beside him, scooting over the chair. Andrew’s dark eyes darted over to Miss Grey as his ink-stained finger came up and tugged on the oversized collar fastened around his own throat. He angled in. “You overdid it,” he whispered so she wouldn’t hear. “It was like watching Father try to dance with his cravat tied over his eyes. Entertaining but not in the least bit practical.”
Being practical had never made anyone smile. Derek glanced toward Miss Grey before quickly leaning toward his brother and whispering, “Go for a walk or something. So she and I can be alone.”
Andrew’s eyes widened. “Don’t you dare get us into trouble. Knowing what you and Lady Beatrice did in that alcove at mother’s own party, the poor girl needs a chaperone.” Theatrically clearing his throat, his brother tilted toward Miss Grey in his seat, with an elbow on his knee and offered in a manly tone, “Forgive my brother. He imagines himself to be quite the bon homme.”
Damn his brother for not helping.
Miss Grey smoothed her skirts and said to her toes, “If only he imagined himself to be a gentleman.”
Andrew laughed and pointed. “If only! He knows nothing about control. Absolutely nothing. Ask Lady Beatrice.” He elbowed Derek hard.
Derek shifted his jaw and elbowed his brother back, reminding him they were related.
Andrew stood and rakishly adjusted his school coat. Rounding their chairs, he snapped out an ink-stained hand toward her in greeting. “Allow me to introduce the real gentleman in this family. I am Mr. Andrew Mark Holbrook, youngest son to the Honorable Viscount Banfield, who is also known amongst his peers as ‘The Laughing Viscount’ due to his inability to control his jolly nature in public. It’s a Banfield trait. We all have our own control issues, or so I’ve been told more than once.” He grinned at her. “I wish to genuinely welcome you into London and into our grand home.”
“Uh…thank you. That was certainly quite the introduction.” She paused and glanced at his ink-stained hand but didn’t take it.
Andrew still held it out.
She still didn’t take it.
Andrew edged it closer to her. “It’s a hand.”
She quirked a brow. “I know what it is.”
“No. You clearly don’t.” Andrew held it out. “You’re supposed to take it when it’s offered. It’s a form of greeting here in England. What? Do they not shake hands in America?”
She gave him a hard pointed stare and countered, “It’s a dirty hand. What? Do they not have soap in England?”
Derek snorted. Now that was good.
“It’s ink,” Andrew drawled in agitation, wagging his hand closer toward hers. “I write novels. As the Lower Master always says, ink stains are the sign of an intellectual and no amount of soap can erase true brilliance.”
She tsked. “You’re being incredibly rude by insisting I touch a hand that clearly hasn’t been washed in days.”
Andrew flopped his hand back to his side and trudged back to the chair and sat, rolling his eyes at Derek. “You can have her.” He shoved his dark hair out of his eyes, huffed out a breath and glanced toward the closed paneled door. “When are we going to see Father?”
“When the doctor or Mother says we can.”
“And when will that be? It’s been over an hour. How is it this Mr. Grey was able to prance right in and we’re left out in the corridor with his daughter?”
Derek sighed. “I don’t know. But if it were serious, we would have been told by now. You know how Mother is. She invents diseases.”
At a sound from within, they both straightened, casting hopeful glances at the closed suite leading to their father’s rooms. Derek could hear the faint bass of Doctor Shire’s voice, two other voices, his father’s gruff laugh and the chink of china. The voices were indistinct and the heavy mahogany door remained shut.
Derek bit back a smile, knowing his father was most likely telling the doctor to prescribe him a bottle of champagne and three slices of almond cake. As always.
Miss Grey stared disapprovingly. “Your father is ill and you’re smiling?”
Derek broadened his smile into a full grin knowing she had been watching him all along. That only meant one thing. She liked him. “My mother does this to us every year. The man gets a cough or a fever and the whole world has to know about it. She once kept him in bed for two weeks after he nicked his left arm with the edge of his fencing sword because she was incredibly worried an infection would end up leading to the amputation of his entire left arm. She called in eight different doctors for an opinion I could have very well given her myself. She is very much like that. The complete opposite of my father. He worries about nothing and she worries about everything.”
“How curious.” Her brows drew together. “So whose opinion do you share, Mr. Holbrook? Are you more like your mother in that you worry about everything? Or are you more like your father that you worry about nothing?”
It would seem this blue-eyed treasure was trying to get to know him. Beautiful. “Actually, Miss Grey, I fall in between. The only thing I ever take too seriously is the impression that I make on a lady.” Oh, yes. It was time to let her know just how interested he really was. For although he might have been earlier blindsided by her glorious presence, he’d never been one to remain blindsided when he genuinely wanted something. And he most certainly wanted something: her and him against the wall around the corner.He stood, dug out his tin of amber mints and flicked it open. He held it out to her. “Keep it to one. They’re very strong but well worth the unexpected bite.” It was the ultimate test. If she could handle the heat of his candy, she could handle him and the wall.
She peered down at the small tin that hosted the remaining two amber hard candies that Andrew hadn’t finished. “What are they?”
“If ginger and licorice ever fell madly in love and married, their children would look exactly like this. It’s an acquired taste.” And yes, he was also referring to himself.
She leaned in and lifted her gloved finger above the tin as if to take one, but edged her fingers back and quickly lowered hand. “I really don’t care for spiced candies. They usually overwhelm me. I prefer simple candies. Plain sweets. Do you have any honey sticks?”
Honey sticks? This one desperately needed some excitement in her life. And he was more than willing to give it. “I’m sorry, love, but I don’t do honey sticks. Plain sweets do nothing for me. In my opinion, being overwhelmed is far better than being underwhelmed.” He edged in closer, until their faces were only two hands apart and her skirts brushed his trouser-clad thighs. The fullness of those lips taunted him as he rattled the candies in the tin. “I can assure you, it’s worth trying.” He held her gaze. “I promise you’ll never be the same.”