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Noah Winters, Duke of Anselm, exercises the pragmatism for which he’s infamous when his preferred choice of bride cries off, and her companion, Lady Thea Collins, becomes his next choice for his...
Noah Winters, Duke of Anselm, exercises the pragmatism for which he’s infamous when his preferred choice of bride cries off, and her companion, Lady Thea Collins, becomes his next choice for his duchess. Lady Thea’s mature, sensible and even rather attractive—what could possibly go wrong?
As a lady fallen on hard times, Thea doesn’t expect tender sentiments from His Grace, but she does wish Noah had courted her trust, lest her past turn their hastily arranged marriage into a life of shared regrets. Is His Grace courting a convenient wife, or a beautiful disaster?
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“Burrowes continues to captivate and enchant!” —Fresh Fiction
“I am not a nice man,” Noah Winters, eighth Duke of Anselm, pronounced.
Lady Araminthea Collins merely lifted a graceful feminine eyebrow at his self-assessment...
“I am not a nice man,” Noah Winters, eighth Duke of Anselm, pronounced.
Lady Araminthea Collins merely lifted a graceful feminine eyebrow at his self-assessment.
“Perhaps, Your Grace, a gentleman’s veracity is more worthy of note than his niceness,” she observed.
Noah silently applauded the lady’s composure; but then, her sangfroid was one of the qualities that had drawn his notice.
“I am not nice,” he reiterated, “but I am titled, wealthy, and in need of a wife.” Direct speech was necessary if the blasted pansies bordering the garden bench weren’t to provoke him into sneezing.
Noah’s last disclosure didn’t even merit a raised eyebrow.
“Hence your attentions to my employer,” Lady Thea murmured.
“Marliss isn’t your employer,” Noah countered. “If we’re to be truthful, her papa is, and now that she’s announced her betrothal to young Cowper, you will no doubt be looking for another position.”
That comment was a small display of his lack of niceness, but patience and posturing had never been Noah’s greatest attributes, particularly when his nose was starting to tickle.
“You’ve heard an announcement, Your Grace?”
“Endmon was rather jovial at the club last night.” Rather loquacious and rather drunk, like a papa was entitled to be when his darling girl had found another account to charge her millinery to.
Noah’s solicitors had warned him that Cowper’s man of business was in negotiations with Viscount Endmon, Marliss’s papa. All Noah had felt was a fleeting frustration, to have wasted weeks squiring the young lady about in hopes of concluding his bride hunt.
“If you’ll excuse me.” Lady Thea grasped her skirts in both hands as if to rise. “I’m sure there’s much to do, for Marliss will have throngs of callers—”
Noah wrapped a bare hand over Lady Thea’s wrist. His forwardness earned him a two-eyebrow salute, but also had her subsiding back onto the bench.
That wrist was delicate, particularly compared to Noah’s.
“A young lady’s companion,” he said, withdrawing his hand, “is little more than a finishing governess, Lady Thea. You are in want of a position, I am in want of a duchess, and I am offering you that post.”
No eyebrows, no gasp of shock, no reaction at all as she regarded him out of puzzled green eyes. “You’re serious.”
To a fault, according to most women who’d ventured an opinion, including Noah’s most recent mistress.
“Your papa was an earl,” he said. “You’re comely, quiet, past the vapid stage, and from good breeding stock. You are every bit as much duchess material as that giggling twit you supervise.”
“Marliss is merely young,” Lady Thea said repressively. “But because you are not nice and I am not a giggling twit, you think we would suit?”
A fair summary. “I do, at least as well as I would have suited Marliss or any of her ilk.”
The morning sun caught red highlights in Lady Thea’s dark hair, and confirmed that she eschewed cosmetics. Marliss had been overfond of them, in Noah’s opinion.
“Marliss will be happier with Baron Cowper,” Lady Thea said. “What makes you think I would be happier as your duchess than in another companion’s post, Your Grace?”
Not the you-do-me-great-honor-but speech, which Noah had been prepared for—he did her a very significant honor indeed—but not a meek capitulation either. She managed to reprove without being rude—for which Noah admired her, of course.
Though he hadn’t planned on having the Anselm tiara so thoroughly inspected before the lady tried it on.
“You will never know material want,” Noah said, studying the privet hedge rather than her ladyship’s plain gray gown. “You will never be forced onto your brother’s dubious charity, and once the obligation to the succession is met, you will have as much freedom as discretion and independent wealth allow.”
Though if Noah had any say in the matter, Lady Thea would not order the gardeners to plant pansies beneath her window.
“You believe the obligation to the succession will be easily met?”
Lady Thea fired off the question crisply, but Noah wasn’t sure what she was asking. His breeding organs were as happily devoid of restraint as the next man’s, and the lady was comely enough he ought to be able to fulfill his duty.
“My father produced only two legitimate sons, despite taking three successive wives,” he said. “Your parents managed one son in three tries, so no, I am not boasting of an ability to control all aspects of our union, but I am hopeful Providence will be accommodating. You had a number of uncles on both sides, after all.”
Her ladyship fell silent, no pithy rejoinder, no troublesome questions.
Noah had sat across from her in many a carriage as he’d escorted Marliss on the usual rounds and knew that silence was one of Lady Thea’s many gifts. She was also quietly pleasing to the eye. She did nothing to draw attention to herself, but any man would notice that she had lustrous sable hair, good bones, a figure politely described as suited to childbearing, and green eyes with a hint of an exotic tilt to them.
She’d do, though this revelation had come to Noah only two days ago, when his informants had learned Marliss was no longer on the hunt for a groom. The idea had popped into his brain out of whole cloth, with the same lack of warning that characterized some of his most profitable commercial gambits.
A proposal to Lady Araminthea was worth a try in any case, because the Season would soon be over, and that meant another year before the next crop of giggling twits was presented at court. Another year of sitting backward in his own carriage, another year of strolling through colorful, troublesome gardens.
“I will think on this,” Lady Thea said. “I have no one to speak for me, so you will provide me any draft settlement documents.”
Provide them to her? The notion offended Noah on her behalf. “What about your brother?”
“If you and I can come to terms,” Lady Thea said, “you may send him a copy of the contracts as a courtesy, but I gather you seek to have matters timely resolved, and decisiveness is not in Tim’s nature.”
Sobriety was not in Timotheus Collins’s nature, or temperance. Even a man who was not nice could keep those observations to himself.
“I can have drafts sent around to you by the end of the week,” Noah said, though dealing with Lady Thea directly on marriage settlements left him uneasy. “You have no one else to negotiate on your behalf—an uncle, or even a widowed aunt?”
“The Collins family tends to live with more intensity than stamina, Your Grace.” She rose, and this time Noah rose with her. “I am the eldest surviving exponent thereof. Will you walk with me?”
Yes, he would, provided they moved away from the infernal posies.
Noah offered his arm, content that Lady Thea would give him an answer within the week. Because she had no dowry, Noah could easily ensure the settlements favored her, though in the face of the lady’s hesitance, he turned his thoughts to the further inducements he could offer.
She would be his duchess, after all, and duchesses, even prospective ones, were due every courtesy.
“Your sister would of course be welcome in our home,” he said as they ambled away from the house—and the dratted flowers. On an early June morning, Viscount Endmon’s gardens were peaceful, pretty, and softly scented—like the woman whose arm was linked with Noah’s. They followed a gravel walk into a shaded bend in the trees where Lady Thea dropped his arm.
“I have a request,” she said.
Noah was prepared to bargain politely over a long engagement or a fancy wedding, though neither was in his plans. “Provided it’s reasonable…?”
They were out of view of the house and the stables, which was fortunate, for Noah sensed this additional, unanticipated request was the key to winning Lady Thea’s hand. Kissing was a pleasant enough undertaking, usually.
“What sort of kiss would you like?” he asked, for Noah’s expertise comprised the usual repertoire, plus a few extras.
Now she took a visual inventory of their surroundings, as if she either hadn’t known or hadn’t admitted to herself there were different kinds of kisses.
“A husbandly kiss.”
Women. “Because I have never been a husband, we must refine on the point. Is this to be the kiss of a husband greeting his spouse in the morning, parting from her, offering her amatory overtures, or…claiming her?”
“Not overtures.” Her ladyship checked the watch pinned to her bodice, a small, plain gold trinket apparently of more interest than Noah’s kisses. “A kiss to inspire trust.”
Was that the same as a kiss to seduce? But, no. She didn’t mean a kiss to inspire misplaced trust, but rather, a kiss to inspire the genuine article. Noah hadn’t taken Lady Thea for the fanciful sort, but kisses likely did not come her way often enough that she could allow an opportunity for one to pass by.
“Over here.” He took her hand and led her a few steps deeper into the shade. “Close your eyes.”
She had trouble with that, but eventually complied, giving Noah a moment to study her downcast, tense expression. He stepped closer and slipped a hand around her waist, bringing her against his taller frame.
The fit was pleasing, the lady’s martyred expression a trial.
“This isn’t kissing, Your Grace.”
“Hush,” he chided, “and no peeking. This is part of it, but I’m waiting for you to behave kissably.” He rested his chin on her crown, more so she’d know where he was than anything else, but that presumption allowed him to inhale her sweet, meadowy fragrance, and to brush his cheek over the silky warmth of her hair.
To prevent her ladyship from fussing him for his opening maneuvers, Noah grazed his nose over her cheek, then used his lips in the same gesture.
She stiffened in his arms.
Well, damn. So their marriage was to be candles-out, under-the-covers, nightclothes-all-around when it came to conjugal duties, emphasis on the duties. Noah sighed against her temple, and what should have been a kiss to inspire trust became a kiss of longing on his part for what would not be.
* * *
For six days, Thea held out, and on the seventh day she sent the Duke of Anselm a note. She’d been all set to politely reject his proposal, for she’d already contacted the employment agencies before he’d made his startling offer. She should not be his duchess. Anselm was too intelligent, too assured, too cold, too…large for her to consider his suit seriously.
The match would be appropriate though, and the temptation to accept had loomed mightily when he’d offered his home to Nonie too. Then there had been that kiss, not like any Thea had experienced, not in any way.
His Grace had given her the first kiss she’d asked for, the first one she could say in some way she’d initiated, and his kiss had been so unexpected, so sweet, coming from such a taciturn, dark man. More than anything, that kiss had assured Thea she was no match for the duke. Her insides still went fizzy when memories of his kiss intruded on her thoughts, which they did frequently.
So the kiss had done its job, and weighed in against the notion of holy matrimony with Noah Winters, Duke of Anselm. Not the way Thea had thought it would, true, but effectively nonetheless.
And now this. The settlements were generous, including a dowry for Nonie, however delicately described. Provision for Nonie was more than Thea could have hoped for, and the sum enough that one day her younger sister might have the happily ever after every girl had a right to wish for.
This generosity meant Anselm was even more shrewd than Thea had thought—or more perceptive. In any case, with Nonie’s future in the balance, Thea’s decision became more difficult. She was not the least bit confident she could carry off marrying the duke, and if she failed in her role, the consequences would be severe.
Still, those consequences would not devolve to Nonie, and thus Thea wavered.
“He’s here.” Marliss bounced through the parlor door, blue eyes shining, golden curls severely confined with myriad pins. “This will kill Mama, positively kill her, Thea. You’re snabbling a duke, and one with pots and pots of lovely money. Shall I go down with you? I promise to giggle at all the wrong times.”
“Bother you,” Thea said, enduring Marliss’s hug. “You had sense enough to know you’d be happier with Cowper, and you’ll make Cowper happy too.”
Marliss dimpled becomingly. “He’s dear, and he’ll grow into the barony, whereas Anselm never will be dear and doesn’t care a whit for his title. Maybe you can smooth off his rough edges, Thea, but he’s not my cup of tea. Regardless of his expression, one has the sense Anselm is always scowling.”
“I still haven’t accepted him,” Thea reminded Marliss—and herself.
“You are too sensible not to. I’ll give you fifteen minutes. If you want more, take him to the gardens or the mews. The staff is dodging work this morning because Mama has a bad headache.”
Thea finished the thought. “And the sound of pruning shears will overset her.” Marliss’s mama was easily overset, hence the need for Marliss’s companion to be of a sturdier constitution. “I’ll keep my conversation with Anselm most civilizedly quiet.”
Marliss escorted Thea to the top of the stairs, then blew her a kiss, and Thea was still smiling when Corbett Hallowell, Marliss’s older brother, pushed away from the wall on the second landing.
“In a hurry, Thea dear?” he crooned.
“Yes, if you must know.” Thea tried to hustle past him, but Marliss’s brother-the-heir was lanky, and he snaked out a long arm to clamp a hand above Thea’s elbow. He glanced around before stepping far closer than a gentleman should stand to a lady.
“She set a date yet?” he asked.
“You should discuss that with your sister,” Thea said. With the servants taking an informal half day, Corbett had chosen his moment well.
Corbett’s grip on Thea’s arm began to hurt. “You’ll be wanting another position, my lady.”
“Let me go.” Thea tried to extricate herself from his hold, but succeeded only in tightening Corbett’s grasp.
“I have a position in mind.” Corbett leaned in, pushing Thea up against the wall. “On your back, for starters. It pays well.”
“Let me go, Corbett.” Corbett, several years Thea’s junior and only a few inches taller than she, shouldn’t be posing such a threat—again. She’d kept her voice steady, but her heart was galloping, and panic beat through her veins. Jesus save her, Corbett’s breath held a foul whiff of last night’s spirits.
Scream, she ordered herself. Pray later, scream NOW.
“I like a little fight in a female.” Corbett swooped in as if to plant his lips on Thea’s mouth, but missed—thank God—and landed closer to her ear as she began to struggle in earnest.
“I like a lot of fight in a man,” said a cool baritone, “except those worthy of the name are in such short supply.”
Corbett’s head came up, and then he was gone. One moment he was all pinching fingers, fetid breath, and slobbery lips, the next, he was flung against the opposite wall, trying to look indignant but mostly looking scared.
“If you must prey on your dependents,” Anselm said, “you’d best do it where you can’t be seen, overheard, or held to account. You may apologize or choose weapons. My advice would be something unconventional—whips, knives maybe—because pistols and swords no longer pose much challenge—for me, that is.”
The duke spoke casually, shooting his cuffs, then winging his arm at Thea. She accepted His Grace’s escort but spared Corbett a perusal as well. He was gratifyingly pale and still darting glances up and down the stairs.
“My apologies, Lady Thea.” Corbett found the strength to stand up straight and nod curtly. “Your charms—”
“Tut-tut,” Anselm interrupted mildly.
“Are not for me to take advantage of,” Corbett finished.
“Adequate,” Anselm said. “Be off with you.”
Corbett left, but turned on the third stair up and shot a murderous look over his shoulder, timed so Thea caught it, and the duke, in his towering calm, did not.
“Tiresome,” Anselm said, “but my apologies as well, on behalf of my gender. I gather we’ll have more privacy out-of-doors, unless you need your hartshorn, or a tisane, or some such?”
“A bit of fresh air in the gardens will do,” Thea said, though a stout punch directed at Corbett’s nose would have been a fine restorative too.
The duke had the decency to accompany Thea outside in silence, while her emotions rocketed between gratitude that Anselm had come along, disgust that Corbett had waylaid her again, and the sinking certainty that if Anselm’s offer of marriage had been only reluctantly appealing before—despite his sweet kiss—it looked un-turn-downable now.
But how on God’s earth was Thea to be honest with him?
“Does he importune you often?” Anselm asked, as if he were inquiring as to where Thea had acquired her watch pin.
“Me, the tweenie, the scullery maid. Corbett’s papa dotes on him, and he’s at that age between university and marriage, where he has no responsibilities, and all his friends are similarly situated.”
“You make excuses for him?” Anselm’s tone was thoughtful, not quite chiding as he steered Thea away from the pansies.
“Of necessity, I understand him,” she said. “He’s no worse than most of his kind.”
“Meaning he’s not the first to pester you,” Anselm concluded, sounding displeased. “Shall we sit?” He’d drawn Thea into the shade at the back of the property, where they’d have privacy, at least until Marliss appeared. He chose a bench for them, then came down beside her.
“I was planning to refuse you,” Thea said. “But your generosity toward my sister, and the inevitability of scenes such as the one you just interrupted have persuaded me toward acceptance, Your Grace.”
“Noah,” he replied, sounding no more thrilled to hear her acceptance than she was to tender it. “If we’re to be married, you should know my name.”
“Shall I use it?”
“You are welcome to,” he said. “Why?”
“Why accept my proposal?”
“I will never know material want,” she quoted him, when she should have been blurting out the blunt details of her past. “I will not be cast on my brother’s dubious charity. I’ll have independence once certain matters are tended to.” She was too much a lady to refer to the settlements directly, but they were impressive.
His Grace’s expression suggested he did not like hearing his reasoning cast back at him, and Thea’s resolve faltered.
“My sister will be safer under your protection than the indifferent efforts of my brother,” she said, marshalling her scruples. “As your duchess, I can see to her come-out.”
“And you’ll be away from Corbett’s charming importuning,” Anselm concluded. “You know, I would find you another situation, did you ask it of me.”
Thea hadn’t known that, but more glorified governessing would do nothing to assure Nonie’s future.
“I will not ask it.”
His Grace’s features showed fleeting amusement. Thea knew what he was thinking: She’ll take my name, my coin, my protection for life provided I get breeding rights, but she’ll not be beholden to me for a simple act of consideration. Women.
“A special license, then?” he asked.
Thea nodded, as anxiety chewed at her nerves. The moment when she might be honest with the duke and suffer only his quiet disdain was passing. He would get children on her, and he had a right to know the truth of her situation.
“Shall I see to the details?” he asked in the same tone Thea used to inquire whether a guest at tea preferred one lump of sugar or two.
“Marliss will be wed fairly soon,” Thea said. “I assume I’m welcome here until then.”
“And leave you where Corbett can follow up on his apology?” the duke scoffed. “Not blessed likely. You will bide with my sister Patience. How soon can you be packed?”
Anselm—Noah—wasn’t stupid. Maybe not nice, but singularly capable of grasping the unpleasant realities of a woman’s life in service. A lady’s life in service. Thea opened her mouth to speak the words that would have him retracting his proposal.
“This afternoon,” she heard herself say. Anxiety rose higher, even as leaving Endmon’s household also sparked relief.
“I’ll send a coach at three. We’ll no doubt be interrupted soon, so you’d best apprise me of any changes you’d like to make to the settlements.”
Thea waved a hand as if batting away an insect. “The settlements are fine, more than fine, generous, and I thank you.” In for a penny… “When can I collect Nonie?”
“We can collect your sister tomorrow. I assume you’ll want her underfoot as you prepare for the wedding?”
“Of course,” Thea murmured, while vividly recalling the one time she’d been on a runaway horse. The memory was unpleasant, and the sensations—stupefying panic, primarily—were reasserting themselves.
“How long will it take to locate your brother and get him into wedding attire?” Anselm asked.
His Grace was appallingly blunt, though Thea liked that about him. “A few days,” she said. “The Season is reaching its apex, and he’ll be about somewhere.”
“I’ll see to it. Anything else?”
Thea’s gaze traveled to the back of the house, where all was still, not a sign of life.
“Yes.” She was to become Anselm’s wife, a far more daunting prospect than simply swanning about as his duchess. “It’s not about the settlements.”
His Grace sat back, regarding her with a banked impatience that suggested for the duke, Thea had become a piece of work in the Concluded Business category. A last-minute request was merely an irritant for her prospective husband.
Husband, gads. Tell him. “I need time, Your Grace.”
“I barely know you.” Though twenty years into marriage with this man, Thea might still barely know him, and not mind that a bit.
“You’ve been sharing carriages and walking with me and Marliss for weeks,” he shot back. “I’ve kissed you.”
“Once. I’m not asking for a lot of time, and we can be married whenever you please, but after that…”
“You want me to woo you?” Anselm made it sound as if Thea’s request were peculiar—eccentric. Interesting, in an abstract, slightly absurd way.
“Not woo, precisely.” Most people would call Anselm handsome, for all his expression was usually sardonic. Dark hair, unnaturally vivid blue eyes, aristocratic features, and a nose and chin suggesting he held to his convictions. But he was too big, too robust, too male.
“I am marrying to beget heirs, Lady Thea,” he reminded her.
“You’ve had years to do that,” she reminded him right back. “A few weeks or months one way or another won’t matter. Your proposal was unexpected. I’ve not been assessing you as a potential mate, though you apparently had that luxury with me all the while you were courting Marliss.”
The duke’s lips compressed into a line, and Thea could see him weighing the desire to argue against the constraints of a gentleman’s manners.
“The vows will be consummated on our wedding night, but after that, we’ll take it slowly,” he allowed, his delicacy relieving a little of Thea’s worry. “Not as slowly as you’d like, more slowly than I’d like. And I have a request, also not in the settlements.”
More than that, Thea sensed, he would not give her, but his concession was enough, because she’d find some way to tell him the whole of the bargain before vows were spoken. She waited for his additional request—that she call on his sisters, limit her spending, let him speak with Endmon.
Men took odd notions.
“Kiss me,” he said, something flashing through his eyes that might have been humor.
Odd, unexpected notions. “I’ve already kissed you once, Your Grace. That was quite enough.”
“No, it was not.” Anselm laced his fingers with Thea’s. “I kissed you. Now you kiss me.”
His hand was big, brown, and callused, hers graceful, pale, and smooth. Pretty, but ultimately useless, those hands of hers.
“What sort of kiss, Your Grace?” For kisses apparently had their own taxonomy.
“Any kind of kiss you like, provided it’s wifely and not some cowardly little peck on the cheek.”
The duke was challenging her, and Thea silently thanked him. Her worries and fears and second guesses were getting the better of her, but a challenge restored her balance.
Anselm had approached their previous kiss with a casual élan Thea could never carry off, though she could imitate his ducal imperiousness.
“Close your eyes, Your Grace.”
The duke sat beside Thea, eyes obediently closed as she rose and balanced with one knee on the bench, one foot on the ground. She purposely put herself higher than him, trying to create the fiction that his size didn’t intimidate. Her experience was limited though, so she had to aim her kiss by cradling his jaw in her hand before she pressed her lips to his. His skin was surprisingly smooth, indicating he’d shaved just before calling on her, and his scent was…
Lovely. As Thea settled her mouth over his, she inhaled lavender and roses, an odd fragrance for a man but fitting somehow. Anselm’s mouth moved under hers, and his hand cupped her elbow. Thea let her fingers trail back through his dark hair, which was as thick and silky as it looked, and beguilingly soft, while his features were so rugged.
As his tongue seamed Thea’s lips, her hand went still, her breathing seized, and she paused, listening with her mouth for him to repeat the caress.
“Now you,” he whispered, before joining his mouth to hers again.
He wanted her to taste him?
Tentatively, Thea complied, the texture of the duke’s lips against her tongue soft, plush, and…enticing. She did it again, and Anselm leaned closer, his arms looping around her waist. With her last shred of sanity, Thea grasped that kneeling over him like this put his face at bodice level.
She lifted her mouth from his and tried to step back, though Anselm’s arms around her waist prevented her retreat.
“None of that,” he chided, drawing her down beside him. “We’ll bide here a moment, while you gather your wits.”
“It’s not every day a lady accepts a marriage proposal.”
“Oh, yes.” Thea touched her lips with her index finger. Was the buzzing sensation from her lips or her finger or her entire body? “That.”
Anselm’s gaze warmed again with that fleeting suggestion of humor.
“That.” He slipped his fingers through hers, and a silence stretched between them.
Unnerved on Thea’s part. No doubt pleased on the duke’s.
“[An] exquisitely crafted, intensely memorable romance that is another winner for the exceptional Burrowes... STARRED Review” - Library Journal
“[An] exquisitely crafted, intensely memorable romance that is another winner for the exceptional Burrowes... STARRED Review” - Library Journal
“[Y]ou managed to take [Regency romance] tropes and tweak them ever so slightly to turn what was merely very good into something magnificent.” - Dear Author
“[The] growing closeness between Thea and Noah is a delightful courtship to experience.” - Booklist
“Burrowes skillfully explores the importance of trust in a relationship, as well as love and passion, bringing a depth of emotion to her romance that resonates with readers.” - RT Book Reviews
Length: 6.875 in
Width: 4.1875 in
Weight: 0.00 oz
Page Count: 448 pages