Lady Janice Sherwood—the one with the gorgeous older sister–had literally waltzed, however inelegantly, through several London Seasons and still hadn’t found a husband. Everyone knew what a proper young lady did when she wasn’t in demand. She rusticated in the English countryside in the hopes she’d be missed. And it went without saying that if she were wise, she’d develop her own magical charm while she was there—perhaps even catch the attention of an eligible gentleman in residence.
The chances that the dowager’s grandson, the fabulously handsome Duke of Halsey, would fall madly in love with her when she was to stay at his house as a guest of his grandmother were next to nil. But Janice’s parents, knowing the duke was to be there hovering about his prize horses, hoped the impossible would happen.
“But it won’t,” she’d said that very frosty morning she’d left London. “Me? Marry a duke?”
It was a ridiculous notion. She was going to the country to hide, for goodness’ sake!
“If you have to fall in love, it might as well be with a duke,” Mama had said in utter seriousness, Daddy nodding solemnly behind her.
They actually believed that Janice, in her diminished state, was capable of attracting such a lofty personage. Which was touching, of course, if a bit deluded, the way all parents’ hopes were.
She might not be able to fulfill her parents’ dreams of glory for her—after all, her three best suitors had deserted her last Season–but she could be sporting about it. So when Lord Brady’s glossy black carriage broke a wheel at the beginning of the long drive leading to the ducal manor, Janice put down her book and was willing to walk the rest of the way. But Oscar said no, she should wait for him to return with a fully-equipped carriage from His Grace’s stables.
“Because the daughter of a marquess doesn’t arrive on foot at the front door of a duke’s house,” he said. “Nor does she ride in a cart.”
Of all the Brady drivers, only Oscar had the privilege of speaking so freely.
“I thought you told me nothing happens in the country, my lady,” her maid Isobel said.
Oh, dear. Perhaps Isobel had that privilege, too.
“Nothing ever does happen,” Janice replied, and she was counting on it. A month in the country would allow her to forget for a while that she was the invisible sister, wedged between a glorious beauty—Marcia–and an adorable charmer, Cynthia, who’d soon make her own debut. “We’ll play cards until Oscar comes back, shall we?”
“Very well,” said the maid, “but you’re not very good at cards, my lady. Do you think you’ll have better luck with the duke?”
“Don’t you want to marry him? Every eligible young lady should if she’s got a head on her shoulders.”
“But I want to marry for love.” Janice did, too. She wouldn’t marry any other way. She’d be just like Mama and Marcia and be absolutely head over heels for her husband–right now her very imaginary husband who’d never appear, at the rate she was going.
Isobel dealt out the cards. “I should think loving a duke would be easier than loving someone else.” Her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth as she eyed her cards.
“The question is how easy is it for a duke to fall in love with someone like me,” Janice murmured. “And we both know the answer.”
“You’re being much too hard on yourself,” protested Isobel. “You’re very agreeable, my lady. And you had plenty of beaus in London.”
“Had is the operative term.” Janice had no idea how to make a duke fall in love with her and wouldn’t bother to try.
Isobel gave a slow, luxurious laugh. “Perhaps you were too sparing with your kisses….”
She likely had been. The only man who’d stirred Janice that way—Finnian Lattimore–had broken her heart near the end of her first season but not terribly much, probably because she’d found out with him that kissing was dull. She’d been able to move on, especially as he’d broken Marcia’s heart, too.
She drew a card. Another heart! But she refused to think any more of love. It was much too overwhelming a subject. “I hope Oscar gets here soon. I look forward to meeting the dowager.”
She was here, of course, to see the elderly lady—at least purportedly. But she had her secret reason: to wallow. And Mama and Daddy had theirs, too: to marry her to a duke.
But when the carriage door opened fifteen minutes later, it wasn’t Oscar. From what Janice could see of the stranger through the new-falling snow, he was tall, imposing, in his late twenties, she guessed—likely one of the duke’s grooms in his well-cut but serviceable coat and simply tied cravat. Beneath his beaver hat, his hair was like coal, curling around his ears and framing a square, shaven jaw.
His horse stood waiting patiently behind him.
Janice’s spine straightened. The man’s eyes, thickly fringed in black lashes, were deep blue, the color of Daddy’s sapphire ring. And his mouth—ah, his mouth. It was a work of art. Hard, male, yet as expressive as his eyes, which radiated intelligence, good humor, and a bold, restless intensity that proclaimed him his own man, despite his servant’s garb.
The slight imperfection of his aquiline nose suggested he’d been in a fight or two. But the mystery and threat its crooked line hinted at only made his sheer masculine beauty more compelling. Indeed, his appearance was a shock, especially when she was expecting potato-eared—but perfectly lovable–Oscar.
Isobel, too, found the stranger riveting, judging from the way her chin dropped onto the thick violet muffler with extra pom pons Janice had knitted for her.
The man’s eyes glittered with interest when he perused Janice’s face, setting her heart racing.What on earth? He was a servant, of all things. He shouldn’t be looking at her that way.
“You’re obviously unhurt,” he said, “so I’ll dispense with the niceties.” His voice was rich yet faintly bitter, like one of the coffeehouse brews she craved on a regular basis and sneaked out to get when Mama wasn’t looking. “State your business, my lovelies. No one with good intentions comes down this road.”
“Of course, we’ve good intentions,” said Janice, mortified. “We’ve been traveling all day long with good intentions, and we two lovelies, as you’ve brazenly described us, intend to get out of this carriage and have a cup of tea with His Grace and the dowager duchess.” Her heart pounded like a herd of stallions crossing a plain. She was dressed modestly, in a navy cape and simple matching bonnet. And as for her hair, she’d taken no time to pin it back up after a few ringlets had fallen out at their last stop.
Yet the man eyed her as if she were a mysterious, compelling creature. He was the only man who’d ever looked at her that way, and she immediately thought of her underthings, all of them practical but with scraps of the finest Avignon lace sewn here and there. Mama had made them and stitched Janice’s initials on every garment.
“Tea with the duke and the dowager.” He grinned, exposing strong, white teeth. “That’s a fine jest. We received no notice of your arrival. Yet you’ve enough trunks to stay for weeks.”
“We are staying.” Janice sat up higher on her seat, and despite her pique with this man, felt an insane desire to lean forward, lay the flat of her palm against his jaw, and cup it, just so she could trap that grin and stare at it all day long. She didn’t need the rest of him. Oh, no. The rest of him could jump in a lake. Just the grin would do. “The dowager summoned me herself.”
“How can that be when she’s incapable of summoning anyone? She thinks she’s the Queen.”
Janice felt a great shock course through her. “Well, queens do summon people.”
His skeptical glance didn’t faze her.
“I’ll have you know she was quite lucid in her letter.” Janice’s tone was cool, but inside her heart was clamoring. How could the dowager think she was the Queen? “I have that letter in my trunk and am ready to produce to the appropriate person, who wouldn’t be you. Who are you, pray tell? A tenant farmer? One of the duke’s grooms?”
The man lofted an elegant brow and opened his mouth to speak.
“I knew it!” gasped Isobel before he could say anything. “He’s the duke himself!”
“Izzy!” Janice cried, embarrassed. “What duke dresses like a working man?”
His mouth twitched in amusement. “I am a groom, actually.” He sounded quite proud of the fact. “My skills venture beyond the stables, however. I’m tasked with preserving the integrity of the place, so don’t bother making up a wild story about why you simply have to stay. I’ve heard them all, I assure you.”
The twinkle in his eye unnerved Janice like nothing else. What was so amusing? And even if something was, how dare he look that way at her? She was a marquess’s daughter, and while she didn’t often flaunt that fact, she was owed at least a bit of dignity, wasn’t she?
She looked down her nose at him. “But we haven’t done anything wrong. The dowager did summon me—I have the letter and seal to prove it–and you’re the most disrespectful”—handsome—“groom I’ve ever met–”
“I assume your driver has gone ahead with the horses,” he interrupted her smoothly. “This road is impeccably kept, not a pothole in it. Which of you engineered that? Or was that your driver’s trick? The letter is easy enough to discount—forgers abound–but a broken wheel permits a second chance at staying while the letter is examined. An ingenious complication to the ploy, ladies.”
“There is no ploy,” Janice returned hotly.
But she could hardly hold onto her shock and anger. His eyes had filled with jealous admiration. Or perhaps it was reluctant respect, not the kind she usually got—the “I’m-looking-through-you” token respect that men, servants, and everyone gave her as the stepdaughter of a marquess.
It was very much like the respect she’d earned from her old friend Dickon. When she was eight and he was nine, she could balance on one leg much longer than he could. This man was looking at her the same way, as if she had a talent. A skill of some kind. A special trick.
And you do, the thought came to her. You’ve got all sorts of special tricks and talents.
It was a big, wonderful notion, and it hadn’t occurred to her in a very long while. Confidence surged through her. “I’d like to know what trick you’re up to, sirrah. I’m Lady Janice Sherwood. And this is my abigail, Miss Isobel Jenkins.”
“Of the traveling circus Jenkins,” Isobel interjected proudly.
He raised a brow, and Janice let him wonder. Izzy never passed up an opportunity to speak of her family and their interesting way of life, and Janice, for one, adored her all the more for it.
“You’re being most irregular suggesting we’re here under false pretenses and planned our little accident,” Janice told him. He was leaning lazily against the carriage door frame. “Had I not been rattled by the shock of hearing that the dowager isn’t well, coupled with the tumble we nearly took within this carriage, I’d take offense. What’s your name?”
“Luke Callahan,” he said in serious tones. “Thank you for asking. You’re the first ever to ask, of all the strumpets who’ve come to see the duke in the six weeks I’ve been here.”
Oh, God. His eyes. The pupils were like little black diamonds inside those sapphire irises.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Callahan.” Janice swallowed. “Wait a minute, what did you say?” She stared at Izzy. “Did he call me a strumpet?”
Izzy nodded, her eyes wide.
“I’ll take it back”–his tone was completely unapologetic, but his gaze felt like a wonderful caress–“if you’ll cooperate. It’s too late to return you to the village. The snow has lent you the best excuse yet to stay—even better than that wheel. But you’d best behave while you’re here.”
“Behave?” Janice practically squeaked the word, she felt so prim at the moment—and she only felt prim whenever she was in over her head. “I don’t know what you’re about, but it makes no sense. No sense at all. Why, look at my bonnet and cloak! They’re perfectly respectable—”
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and shot her another admiring glance. “Come now. You and I both know they don’t disguise your true hot nature.”
“My what?” She inhaled a breath. “If you don’t stop spouting nonsense–”
“Let me explain a little closer,” he said, and without ceremony, half-entered the carriage, grabbed her by the hand, and pulled.
Janice’s heart went wild. “What in heaven’s name? Just what do you think you’re doing?” Shock turned to anger, and anger made her fierce. She clung to the door of the carriage with every ounce of strength in her.
Yet with one, quick motion, the groom tugged her free, and she fell into his arms, like a fly into a spider’s web.
Isobel screamed just as he kicked the door shut and set Janice on the ground. “You’re good,” he said in an approving tone while holding her pinned tightly against his chest. “Not many know the dowager is in residence.”
“Unhand me,” Janice said, low. From behind her, she heard Isobel opening the carriage window. “I’m the daughter of a marquess.”
“That’s what they all say,” he said with relish, and captured her arm behind her back. “I must warn you. If you expect anything worthwhile from that excuse for a duke you’re after, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re wise, you’ll beware of him.” He paused long enough to rake her from head to toe with an appreciative glance–she put every ounce of scorn in her possession into the haughty expression she shot back at him–and then he kissed her, a bawdy, lush kiss that demanded immediate compliance.
It was a miracle how quickly he redefined kissing for her, a marvel how well her lips fit with his in the brief second before she gathered her wits and attempted to knee the blackguard in the groin. She caught him on his thigh instead.
“What the devil?” He drew back and stared at her, not releasing her arm, which he still held vice-like behind her back. “You really are here to see the dowager, aren’t you?”
“Of course.” She was breathing hard. “I’m no strumpet.”
Snow fell between them, and Janice had the uncanny feeling she was in a dream. It’s he, her heart said–her foolish, foolish heart–even as her lips stung, her throat tightened with white-hot anger, and her brain immediately pegged him as no-good.
The man like no other.
The one Mama had told her she’d find someday, that Marcia had also assured her would come her way despite the fact that her experience with Finn Lattimore had shaken her to the core and made her distrust men entirely.
But Luke Callahan—this groom–couldn’t be he. He wasn’t a gentleman, not by half.
He grinned. “So I’ve erred, I see.”
“You most certainly have.” She gave a yank on her arm.
He let it go, but now he put his hands on the small of her back and pressed her close. “Devil take it,” he said in that easy way he had of speaking, “you’re a luscious mistake I don’t regret.” He perused her face. “Do you? Do you wish I’d never supposed you were anything other than a proper lady?”
She blinked several times. “I can’t answer that,” she whispered. “And you’re a blackguard to ask.”
He roared with laughter. “I like you, Lady Janice. You and your circus maid. She’s watching right now. Let’s ignore her, shall we?” And without a bit of hesitation and with an an an annoying twinkle in his eye, he bent down and kissed her again.
Oh, God, what was she doing?
But he was good…oh, so good. If a man could be called good the way she called a warm fire good, or a cup of steaming chocolate, or a…a mouth that spoke to her without speaking, the way his was.
You’re made for love.
You tantalize me.
I want you.
Messages that made her entire body wake up in a way it never had before. She was quivery, like a newborn lamb. Her eyes were closed, but the world unfolded like a bright, spring meadow.
His lips brushed soft yet insistent against her own, but hardness was what she was thinking of, the solid weight of him—of his chest, and his belly, and the security of his thighs against hers.
Mr. Callahan’s thighs.
Three words she never knew she’d say. She’d never even heard of the middle one, Callahan. But in that moment, they were the three most important words she’d ever put together.
Life was full of surprises.