Excerpt: Scandal and the Duchess
Book 6.5: The Mackenzies & McBrides Series
By Jennifer Ashley
When he was this drunk, there was only one thing to do. Steven McBride laid the rest of his money on the table and got unsteadily to his feet.
“Divide it,” he said to the assembled men, his Scots accent slurring. “I cannae see my cards anymore, and you’ll have it off me anyway. Good night.”
His friends and acquaintances, some as drunk as himself, either laughed or grunted and went back to their cards. Bloody Scottish upstart, he knew many of them thought.
Some thought much worse than that—those who knew the story—by their dark looks. Army should have slung him out.
Steven knew exactly why he was imbibing to his eyeballs on his leave, and why he’d come home earlier this year. Knowing whydid not make it any easier to leave the card room, navigate his way down the stairs—who the devil had put the card room upstairs?—and stagger into the street.
He looked up and down for his carriage, then remembered he’d hired a carriage to bring him to the soiree tonight. Steven vaguely remembered dismissing it, blast it all, telling the coachman he’d make his own way home.
The November cold was bitter, a wind sweeping down the street to cut straight through Steven’s uniform coat. Steven’s regiment was currently in West Africa, a land of warmth. Bloody great heat, actually, but Africa was an amazing world full of amazing people. Nothing there like this frozen London passage, wind howling down it, stinging him even in his drunken state.
Which way were his lodgings? Steven didn’t have a permanent house in London, so he usually hired rooms whenever he came to town—flats that catered to single gentlemen. He stayed in the same area each time, but rarely in the same house or even the same street. Sometimes he didn’t bother with rooms at all and stayed in a hotel like the Langham.
The Langham—had a familiar ring to it. Was Steven living there now? Or had that been last year?
Steven realized he was standing befuddled in the street, buffeted by the wind. Passersby, what there were of them on this bone-cold night, were looking at him askance.
The pungent, grassy smell of horse dung caught his attention. A carriage clopped slowly by, the horses doing what horses did even when walking about. Wildcats in Africa were cagey about where they relieved themselves, hiding it from all but the most canny hunters. London horses simply let it fall to the street, and humans came along behind and swept it up for them. Which animal was the more clever?
Steven half jogged, half stumbled toward the carriage. A hansom, that’s what he needed. He could tell the cabby to take him to the Langham, where they’d find him a room, whether he’d booked in already or not.
The shape was wrong for a hansom, but Steven was past caring. He had to get somewhere, or he’d fall down in the street and spend the rest of the night unconscious on the cobbles. Even in this part of London, even in this weather, he doubted he’d have much left on him when he woke up.
The carriage stopped. Wind cut Steven, making his eyes water. He folded his arms against the cold, and ran toward the carriage, head down.
A woman bundled in a thick cloak and hood came out of the lighted house the carriage had halted before. As soon as she crossed the threshold, four or five other persons appeared out of nowhere to block her way.
“There she is!”
“Duchess . . . Your Grace . . .”
“Your Grace, my readers would love a description of your gown tonight . . . Are you still in mourning?”
“Your Grace, how did it feel to have ensnared a duke, only to have him perish in the wedding bed?”
“Your Grace, there are rumors of you carrying on a flirtation with the Earl of Posenby. Or his son. Some speculate both. Would you tell us which it is?”
Bloody journalists, Steven thought in disgust. They were after some aristo, more dirt for the scandal sheets. Steven had no idea who the cloaked woman was and had no interest. He only wanted to climb into the carriage—private or not, he’d pay the coachman handsomely to take him anywhere.
Of course, he’d just thunked a large wad of money to the game table. Steven wondered vaguely if he had any left as he made a lunge for the coach.
The cloaked woman broke from the vultures—“Your Grace, is it true you’re wintering in Nice with a comte?”
She put on a burst of speed. Steven stumbled on his drunken feet, and he and the woman met in a crash of flesh and breathlessness.
Steven found himself landing face-first on a bosom of exceptional quality. The woman’s cloak had pulled away, revealing a gown fairly modestly cut but giving Steven enough bosom to enjoy. His cheek rested on warm flesh, his lips pressed onyx beads, and he inhaled a heady, womanly perfume.
He heard a heart beating rapidly under his ear, and a voice vibrating through a body of fine plumpness.
Steven tried to raise his head—not that he wanted to—but he couldn’t. He could only lever himself up by grasping the woman by the hips and pulling himself upright.
The hips were a warm handful, the thighs beneath her skirts and stiff bustle even better. Steven climbed the poor woman, unbending himself as he went.
Unfortunately, his legs had stopped working. They gave way again, throwing his weight onto her. She retreated to compensate, but her back met the carriage door. Steven kept falling, his body landing full-length against hers, plastering her to the coach.
The woman’s hood slipped down. Steven saw eyes of clearest green, a round face haloed by golden hair, flushed cheeks, and a wide mouth that begged for kisses. It would be rude to kiss her without asking first, but Steven didn’t have the words to inquire.
His face and hers were very close together, the kissable lips an inch away.
“My dear fellow,” the woman said breathlessly. “Are you all right?”
“No,” Steven tried to say. “Damn, woman, but you’re beautiful.” The words came out a jumbled mess, in broad Highland Scots, but the journalists heard them.
“Your Grace, who is he?” “A regimental affair, is it? Or a Highland fling?” “What about the comte? And the earl?”
“Good Lord,” came the impatient voice of Steven’s angel. “Leave the poor man alone. Can’t you see he’s ill?”
“Falling down drunk is more like it,” one of the journalists said, and laughed. “Who is he? Give us a name.”
“You lot, clear off!”
The coachman had come down off the box, and flapped his hands at the journalists like a woman shooing chickens out of her garden. Steven wanted to burst out laughing. At the same time, a footman exited the house from which the woman had emerged and laid hands on Steven. Steven heard the cry of a constable coming up the street, along with the man’s heavy footsteps.
“Off with you,” the footman growled at Steven. The constable came faster, his tall helmet bobbing out of the gloom and making Steven laugh harder.
Laughter and the footman’s heavy hands made Steven slide down the woman’s body. He found the hard street beneath his knees, his face buried in her abdomen, the black bombazine of her gown smooth against his nose.
She smelled wonderful. The perfume didn’t come from a bottle. It was her—soap and the scent of fabric, warmth and woman. Steven pressed his face to her belly, wanting to take his ease with her.
“Sir.” Her hands were on his hair. Steven snuggled in closer. If they’d been alone and without so many clothes, this would be the perfect way to finish the night.
She leaned to him, his angel, and whispered, “What on earth are you doing?”
“Loving you,” Steven said. “You deserve every bit of loving a man can give you.”
“Oh,” she said. “You are very drunk, I believe. Perhaps the nice constable will see you home.”
“No home.” His home was a tent in Africa, under huge sky, in blessed warmth. “I have no home.”
“Dear me, that’s sad. Do you need money? Perhaps a meal?”
Steven’s laughter returned. She thought him a homeless, helpless sot, and maybe he was.
The journalists surged forward. More people seemed to be on the street, and someone threw a stone. “Tart!” a woman yelled. “Be off with ye.”
The coachman growled. He flung open the door of the coach and more or less hoisted the woman inside. Steven grabbed the door as it swung shut, hanging on to it to keep him upright. The coachman started to wrench him away, but the journalists pushed in, as did the sudden crowd. London loved a riot—best way to keep warm in the winter, Steven mused—any excuse to begin one.
“Miles, let him in. He’ll get trampled.”
Steven heard her voice, felt himself be hauled up under the arms by a man of amazing strength, and then he met the floor of the carriage. The door slammed, bumping Steven’s booted foot. After a moment, the carriage jerked forward, and things splattered against it—the denizens making good use of the handy horse apples in the street.
The angel seemed to be speaking to him. Steven heard her clear voice but no words. He laid his head on her skirt, blissfully warm, and drifted off to sleep.
When Steven cracked open his eyes, it was daylight; at least as much daylight that could filter through the narrow, dirty window on a London winter day.
The narrow window went with the narrow room, wide enough only for a single bed and a corner washstand. That was all. No curtain or blind, no bureau, no cheerful fire, only a brick chimney that went up through the room and gave off a modicum of heat.
Where the hell was he? The last thing Steven remembered was a card game . . .
No, a cold London street, someone throwing things . . .
Green eyes, red lips curving into a little smile, and a scent like roses. Deep red roses, heady and intense.
Had Steven dreamed her? If so, he wanted to go back to sleep.
But the cold, Steven’s pounding head, and details of the night were knocking for attention. He should climb out of bed, dress, and face his problems like a Scotsman and a soldier.
The bed was warm, and raising his head hurt like hell. Steven laid it back down.
He must have slept again, because when he next opened his eyes, the room was brighter. The door swung open, and in came his angel with a wooden tray heaped with crockery.
“Good morning,” she said brightly. “Would you like some tea?”
The unknown man stared at her over the bedcovers with bloodshot, sunken eyes in a face covered with stubble. Rose reminded herself he was a pathetic creature, a war veteran, likely in need of charity.
The former soldiers she’d seen eking out a living on the streets weren’t nearly as handsome as this one, though. Winter sunlight burnished his short hair golden, his whiskers too. His hard face was the bronze color of someone who’d spent time in a climate hotter than England’s. Rose had thought him older on the street, but she could see now that he was a fairly young man, battered and suntanned from his profession.
The man’s eyes, other than being bloodshot, were a profound gray. He pinned her with that gray gaze as though she were an enemy soldier, not a kind young woman come to bring him breakfast.
“They called you duchess,” he said in a voice strong despite his obvious hangover.
“Briefly,” Rose said, carrying the tray toward him. The tray had small legs and was designed to go over the breakfaster’s lap, much like one her mother had owned. The lady of the house always took breakfast in bed, her mother had told the child Rose, the privilege of a wife. What had become of that tray Rose sadly didn’t know. “I was Duchess of Southdown,” Rose said. “Still am, really—the dowager duchess now. What do they call you?”
The man ignored her question, his gaze becoming more focused. “What I mean is, if you’re a duchess, why are you carrying trays to hungover officers in your garret? If this is a garret. Where the devil am I?”
He had a pleasant Scots accent and a nice rumbling baritone to go with it. A lady could listen to his voice all day and not tire of it.
“This is Miles’s house,” Rose said. “He didn’t know where else to bring you. Or me. Miles is my coachman. Well, he was my coachman. I’m staying with him at the moment.”
“That’s right.” Rose gave him an encouraging smile. “Now I have tea here, and plenty of toast with jam and butter, and a bit of sausage. Mrs. Miles makes a wonderful breakfast. Perhaps Miles can find a few odd jobs for you to do for a bit of coin before you go. Would you like that?”
The man’s look turned to a glare—perhaps Rose shouldn’t have mentioned the work; his pride was obviously intact. He didn’t soften his gaze, but he struggled to sit up, his nostrils widening at the scent of the hot food. He was hungry, poor lamb.
The man’s bare torso emerged from the blankets, and Rose swallowed and tightened her hold on the tray. His shoulders and chest were broad and sunbaked, his chest dusted with golden curls. The hard planes of his torso made her remember him falling against her, how she’d felt the steel of muscle beneath his soiled uniform coat.
This man had honed his body, had fought with it, if the scarred fingers, healed from breaks, told her anything. She could imagine women running their fingers down his chest, finding the hollows and planes of it, touching the dark areola that slid above the sheet.
The man saw her gaze and tucked the sheet under his arms, hiding most of his chest. But he didn’t stammer or apologize for his nakedness in front of a lady, nor did he try to burrow back under the bedclothes. He simply reached for the tray that she’d frozen to, pried it out of her hands, and settled it across his lap.
“Where are my clothes?” he demanded.
“Pardon?” Rose blinked, tearing her gaze from the play of his thick-muscled arms as he uncovered the toast and poured tea.
“Clothes,” he repeated. “I’m not wearing any. Where are they?”
The bareness of him went all the way down, Rose realized. She clenched her hands, since she didn’t have anything else to hold. “Miles took your uniform away to be cleaned. It was dirty from the streets.”
“London streets will do that.” The man took a long drink of tea, and another, and another. The liquid had to be scalding, but he gulped it down and poured another cup. “You still haven’t told me why a duchess is living with her coachman,” the man said, lifting the first piece of toast. “And her coachman’s wife.” He put away the half slice in two bites and reached for another.
“I’m a duchess, because I married a duke,” Rose said. “I was plain Miss Barclay before that, but my family is all gone now.” The sorrow of that tore at her, and it always would. “I’m stopping with my coachman, because I’m skint. I had been staying with a friend, but she asked me to leave last night—or, rather, hinted strongly that I should go. Can’t blame her, really. Journalists follow me about, waiting for me to do something scandalous, which happens all the time, unfortunately. I’m telling you this to warn you, because I’m certain the story of you coming home with me is all over London this morning. If you keep your head down, I think you’ll be all right.”
“Probably too bloody late for that,” the man said. He downed two more half slices of toast. “Why is a duchess skint? Some aristos are impoverished these days, but dukes seem to do pretty well, overall. What about your widow’s portion? Your dower house? Your jewels?”
All very good questions. “Ah, well, you see, much of my fortune is dependent upon the current duke, my late husband’s son by his first marriage,” Rose said. “My stepson is one of these modern men—he’d been rushing about being something in the City before he came into the title last year, and he learned all about profits and losses, turning land to the best use, investments and capital, and so forth. The wife of a former duke isn’t much of an investment, is she?” Rose shrugged, pretending that the soldier’s blatant masculinity didn’t unnerve her.
At the same time, Rose found it easy to talk to him. The man kept eating—she hadn’t seen such a healthy appetite in years—and he watched her, listening to every word. Rose wasn’t used to someone who truly listened, not anymore.
“You must have settlements,” he said between bites. “A widow’s portion. Use of a house for your lifetime.”
Rose nodded. “If all were well, I would. But my stepson is trying his best to prove that the settlements aren’t valid. I have a solicitor to fight him, but he hasn’t made much progress. I can’t pay him much, you see, and my husband’s solicitor now works for the new duke.”
The man finished the toast and ate the sausages in about four bites. “You said your family was gone.”
She gave him a sad smile. “Papa never had much but his connections, and he left me penniless. I’d been contemplating advertising for a post as a companion or governess when I met Charles . . . the duke. Soon after that, I became the second Duchess of Southdown.” Rose let her thoughts go back to the fairy-tale glory of the wedding at St. George’s, Hanover Square, the lavish entertainments afterward. Rose had been so happy that day. She was glad she hadn’t known what was to come.
The man finished the last bite of sausage. “What happened?”
He sounded so interested that Rose peered at him. “You’re not another journalist are you? Worming your way into my confidence with false pretenses?”
“Good God, no.” The man laughed. When he did, he changed from hard-bitten soldier to a man of startling handsomeness, despite his unshaved face, sun-browned body, and shorn hair. “I’m only a grateful sinner, lass, glad of a warm bed and bit of breakfast.”
His accent sent pleasant tingles down Rose’s spine. “Not that it would matter. There is nothing about my life that hasn’t been splashed across the newspapers. A young second wife is always food for gossip. I knew things would be difficult when I accepted Charles’s proposal, but I never knew how vicious it could become.”
“Gossips are all malicious,” he said around the last swallow of tea. “Especially about beautiful women.”
The flattery was delivered so even-handedly that Rose’s face heated. She cleared her throat. “Now, I’ve told you my life story—what is yours? May I have a guess? Served your regiment faithfully for years, then they discharged you with nothing to live on? A common tale, I’m afraid. One of the charities my husband supported helps soldiers shunted unceremoniously back to England. They might be able to do something for you.”
The man leaned back, breakfast over, and ran one hand through his shorn hair. “My story is that, in the regiment, I’m an honorable man. Outside it, I drink too much, gamble too much, and too much like . . .” He made a vague gesture, his cheekbones going red.
Rose broke into a grin. “Ah, the ladies. The downfall of many a man, as Charles used to say.”
The man’s gaze roved her, as though he tried to decide what to make of her. His look was thorough, that was certain. He would see a young woman in black, buttoned up to her chin, her only jewelry a mourning brooch and a string of onyx beads. Rose should really be in half mourning now or even out entirely, because Charles had been gone a year, but she couldn’t afford to change her wardrobe. She’d likely be in black the rest of her life.
“You’ve been kind,” the man said. “If you’ll bring me my clothes, I’ll leave you in peace.”
Disappointment bit Rose, surprisingly so. She’d been enjoying speaking to him, pouring out things to him she’d been bottling up for nearly a year. Her girlhood friends, though they tried to be kind, didn’t really want to talk. Not about things that mattered.
“You don’t have to,” she said quickly. “It’s no bother, and as I said, Miles can find you things to do, so you can have some coin to take with you.”
He rubbed a hand along his jaw. “What I’d truly like is a razor.”
“That can be supplied. I’ll ask Mrs. Miles.”
Rose reached for the tray. In the confinement of the room, leaning down put her close to him, and she found his face a few inches away. His eyes were stormy gray, a beautiful color.
He did smell a little of whiskey, but the overall scent of him was warm, with a bite of spice. A man a woman would want to curl up with. No wonder ladies got him into trouble—he must attract them by the score.
“What is your name?” she asked, her voice barely working. “If you don’t mind telling me.”
“Steven,” he said. The rumble flowed over her. “McBride. Captain, Twenty-Second Fusiliers.”
Rose couldn’t move. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
His gaze moved to her lips, lingered there for a moment, almost as though he wanted to kiss her. Rose imagined it—his mouth would be strong, Captain McBride kissing her because he wanted to, not asking nicely for it. No politeness. Just desire, a man and a woman, and winter sunshine.
Rose dragged in a breath. She tried to make herself straighten up, but she couldn’t. Captain McBride had a virile handsomeness behind the rough whiskers, not to mention a dangerous and compelling way about him.
Run away with me, Rose wanted to say. She longed to flee the constraints her life, the narrow confinement of mourning and shame, the rabid hunger of the journalists. She imagined herself roving the world with this man, both of them free and laughing, sleeping rough, snuggled together.
Poor and starving, shunned by gentlefolk, and prodded by constables. Ah yes, such a golden land she pictured.
Steven’s expression changed, softening suddenly, and Rose realized she’d smiled at him. The hardness left his face, making him look so tender that Rose nearly dropped the tray.
He lifted one finger and brushed it across her cheek.
Compared to the way he’d clutched her last night, burying his face in first Rose’s bosom then her stomach, the touch was nothing. But fire arced from his fingertips and shot swiftly down her body, lighting every feminine place.
Captain McBride slid his fingertip to her lips. Then his breath, warm and smelling of tea, touched her mouth.
“You’d better find me that razor,” he said, his Scottish voice soft.
“What?” Rose blinked. “Oh. Yes. Of course. At once.”
She made herself straighten up, the tray pressed hard to her stomach. Captain McBride kept his gaze on her, as palpable as his touch, as she backed away from the bed.
Rose forgot the room was so tiny, and she stumbled into the wall. She righted herself with a laugh, her onyx beads bumping her chest, and she swung away.
Now her skirt got caught on the bedpost. Rose tugged at it, but she couldn’t grab it and hold the tray at the same time.
Captain McBride came halfway out of the bed, the covers sliding down to bare his chest, his side, the curve of his hip. Rose stilled, her eyes widening as he reached for the trapped skirt. She’d only seen a body like his in classic statues she was not supposed to look at. But cold marble had nothing on the living flesh of Steven McBride.
Steven tugged her skirt loose and sat back down, unselfconscious. Rose was free now, but she couldn’t make herself cease staring at him. He noticed of course, but he said nothing, only met her gaze with a challenging one of his own.
Rose at last forced herself to turn away and open the door, but again, she had to juggle the tray to navigate the door handle.
A brown hand came around her and pressed the old-fashioned door handle down for her, Steven’s strong arm pulling the door open. Rose had no breath. She knew she shouldn’t dare peek behind her and look at him, but she couldn’t help herself.
He’d managed to bring the quilt with him, wrapped around his waist. Even so, most of his upper body was bare, the heat of it pouring at Rose through her clothes.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Steven smiled, a devastating, knock-a-lady-down smile that had nothing feeble about it. Captain McBride knew Rose liked looking at him, and he didn’t mind one bit.
She drew a stifling breath, yanked herself away from him, and scuttled out the door. Rose was halfway down the stairs when she heard his deep and satisfying laughter.
The duchess was scintillating. Not an adjective Steven used much in his life, but Rose Southdown was a lovely, lively woman. Her sad story, delivered with an oh-well-things-could-be-worse briskness tugged at his heart.
The coachman’s wife, a plump and pink-cheeked woman, brought up the hot water and razor, and also the pile of Steven’s clothes, brushed out and mostly clean. Steven was disappointed Rose hadn’t delivered them herself, but he’d probably scared her away, coming out of the bed like that.
She’d been married, yes, but to a middle-aged man. Steven remembered meeting the Duke of Southdown once at a soiree at Hart Mackenzie’s mansion. Southdown had been a pleasant enough chap in the English country gentleman sort of way. Hounds, horses, and farming had been his world. Though Southdown was a duke, the highest of the aristocracy, Steven couldn’t help feeling the man would have been more at home talking in the pigsty with his steward about animal husbandry than making pleasantries in a Mayfair drawing room.
Rose’s marriage meant she’d shared a bed with a man, but her shyness with Steven had been deep. Likely Southdown hadn’t removed all his clothes when he came to his wife, only enough of them to do the business.
Or, perhaps Steven wronged the man. Who wouldn’t look at that angel and not fling off his nightshirt and bear her down to the bed?
Mrs. Miles filled the basin, deposited Steven’s cleaned and brushed uniform, gave him a cheery smile, and left him to carry on. Steven filmed his face with soap and carefully shaved his face. Felt good to wash away the stains of travel, too much whiskey, and whatever he’d fallen into out in the street.
He knew he was putting off the inevitable lingering here, but the inevitable was going to be difficult. He couldn’t accomplish the task today anyway, he already knew that. So why shouldn’t Steven take his comfort with the pretty and intriguing widow, cushioning himself against what was to come?
He was closing up the clasps on his uniform jacket when someone knocked on the door. To his “Come,” the plain paneled door swung open to reveal Rose once more.
This time she had a newspaper in her hand, and her face over it was agitated. “I beg your pardon,” she said, then she stopped and stared at him.
Steven said not a word as he finished doing up the buttons, straightening his jacket. Rose flushed as red as his army coat as she realized her mistake at thinking him a pathetic resident of the streets.
“I beg your pardon,” she repeated. “But they’ve done it. Miles tried to break it to me gently, but I’m afraid they’ve included you too.”
“Who has done what?” Steven asked.
For answer, Rose thrust a handful of newspapers at him. Steven turned the first one to where she pointed and read.
The Scandalous Duchess caught again, in the arms of Captain Mc—, a Fusilier in Her Majesty’s Army. Will wedding bells ring, or will they play a different tune?
The second said, Our favorite Duchess comforts a Scottish officer in the street. A Moral Tale.
The third newspaper showed a cruel cartoon of Rose, her bosom exaggerated, and Steven, all arms and legs and chin, pinning her to the coach. The two weren’t exactly copulating in the picture, but the cartoon strongly suggested it. “Ken ye assist me, lassie?” Captain McB—, brother-in-law to those notorious Scots, the Mack—z—s, asks a favor from a Duchess, late of S—d—n. Nothing too sacred for Queen and Country.
Nonsense, but when Steven looked up at Rose, tears stood in her pretty green eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I seemed to have landed you in it.”
The scandal sheets printed filth, and she was apologizing. Steven tossed the papers to the bed. “No, love, I’m sorry I’ve landed you in it. Don’t worry, I’ve weathered worse. I’ll take myself away, and the scandalmongers will forget in a few days, when something more juicy comes their way.”
A shame, but there it was. Perhaps when Steven finished his duty and had leave again, he could find her and speculate on what might have been. That is, if another aristo hadn’t snatched Rose up in the meantime. A woman as headily desirable as this one wouldn’t stay alone for long, unless every man in London was blind and stupid.
Rose chewed her lower lip, a fine sight, and her brows drew into an agitated frown. “I’m afraid the scandalmongers will not let you get away so easily. They followed me home, it seems, or were bright enough to come here—I’m sure a few coins in the right hands let them know I spent the night in the coach house behind the duke’s mansion. With you.”
Looking into her eyes, Steven wished like hell he’d spent the night in the way the journalists speculated. He and Rose in the narrow bed, cuddled under the blanket against the November cold, bare flesh to flesh.
Steven started to get hard at the thought, the buttons of his trousers suddenly too snug.
Rose watched him, worry for him in her expression. For him, Steven realized. For the drunkard who’d fallen on her and made her life even more wretched.
“We can slip you out the back,” she was saying. “Or Miles can take you in the coach, perhaps quickly enough so they can’t follow. To a train out of London?”
Yes, Steven could board a train for Scotland, bury himself at his brother Elliot’s estate, fishing and playing with his niece and new nephew. Forget that he’d ever seen Rose Southdown and had the pleasure of being naked in her bed—unfortunately not in the way he’d have wished.
But no, he had errands to run, even if the result would be hell. He’d get away, but not lightly.
Or . . .
Steven shot her a sudden smile, his natural wickedness pushing aside all thoughts of running. “Send for your coach,” he said. “Have it meet us in the front of the main house, or wherever the journalists are prowling. Put on your best frock, and come out with me.”
Rose’s eyes widened, but she looked curious rather than afraid. “What on earth for?”
“Because we’re going to face them. If they want scandal, we’ll give them scandal. We’ll ram it down their throats. And then we’ll turn the tables.” He held out his hand. “Do you trust me?”
Rose’s green eyes danced. “I have no idea. I’ve only just met you.”
“Good. I’ll tell you all about my ideas on the way.”
“On the way where?”
“The Langham. I have a room there, but I’ll have them put us in a couple of suites.”
Rose’s smile began, a wickedness matching his own. “Us?”
“This will take courage, but I’m certain you’re up to it. Any woman who dragged a drunken, dirty lout home with her and carried breakfast to him in the morning has courage, in my opinion. Are we agreed?” Steven stuck out his hand again, and this time, Rose took it.
Steven shook her soft, warm hand, but that was much too businesslike. He raised the backs of her fingers to his lips. “Agreed.”
He wanted to haul her all the way against him and kiss her very kissable mouth, but Steven took pity on her and let her go.
“I will meet you downstairs,” Rose said. Her eyes were alight, her face beautiful. “Au revoir.”
She laughed and breezed out, leaving the room much emptier.
Rose knew she had to be mad as she hurried down to her own room, but she pushed the objections aside as she donned her Sunday best. The gown was black bombazine and quite plain, but looked well enough. Rose settled its small bustle and put the matching hat on her head.
Downstairs she walked out of the coach house and through the passage to the main house. The interior was dark and musty-smelling—Albert, the new duke, wasn’t in residence, and rarely opened the place even when he was in Town. Charles would be so unhappy; he’d loved this house.
Rose swung open the front door, which had already been unbolted, and walked out, head high, to face the mob.
Most were journalists in black suits and hats, with three or four female scribblers in their midst. The women who followed Rose tended to be even harder on her than the men—the men at least could sometimes remember to be gentlemen. The women always let Rose have the worst of their opinions.
The crowd surged forward, intent upon her, but Rose remained firmly on the doorstep, glancing about for her carriage as though she didn’t notice the scandalmongers. The coach was coming, driven by Miles, and when it stopped at the door, Steven got out of it.
Seeing him resplendent in his clean and brushed red uniform, the gold braid gleaming in the winter sunshine, Rose wondered how she’d ever thought him a pathetic castaway of the streets. Darkness, grime, and the rife smell of drink had convinced her, but there was no trace of dirt and alcohol now.
Steven stood tall and strong, his hatless head the color of sunshine. His hair was cropped close, as some military men’s were, and he was clean-shaven, young gentlemen nowadays eschewing the heavy moustaches, beards, and mutton-chops of the older generation.
The journalists watched, agog, as Steven walked through them, took Rose by the arm, and led her to the carriage. At the carriage door, he lifted her hand to his lips, pressed a warm kiss to her glove, then helped her inside.
He jumped onto the carriage step, turning to beam a smile at the collected journalists. “Congratulate us,” he said, then he sprang inside, snapped the door closed, and rapped on the roof to signal Miles to go on.
The coach jerked forward, the horses moving into a trot on this relatively empty street. A few intrepid scribblers jogged after them but gave up as the carriage turned a corner and was swallowed by thicker traffic.
“Congratulate us on what?” Rose asked as Steven settled into the seat opposite her.
Steven’s grin beamed out, his eyes sparkling with merriment. “Our betrothal,” he said.