Someone to Romance
Lady Jessica Archer lost interest in the glittering excitement of romance after her cousin and dearest friend, Abigail, was rejected by the ton when her father was revealed to be a bigamist. Now that she is twenty-five, however, Jessica decides it is time to wed. Though she no longer believes she will find true love, she is still very eligible. She is, after all, the sister of Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby.
Jessica considers the many qualified gentlemen who court her. But then she meets the mysterious Gabriel Thorne, who has returned to England from the New World to claim an equally mysterious inheritance. Jessica considers him completely unsuitable, especially when, while they are still barely acquainted, he announces his intention to wed her.
When Jessica guesses who Gabriel really is, however, and watches the lengths to which he will go in order to protect those who rely upon him, she is drawn to his cause–and to the man.
Lady Jessica Archer was traveling alone across England toward London. Alone was, of course, a relative term. If she been born male, she could have left Rose Cottage in Gloucestershire this morning astride a horse or perched upon the high seat of a sporting curricle, ribbons in hand, and no one would have batted an eyelid. When one had the misfortune to be a woman, however, there were always enough eyelids to bat up a storm.
She was seated inside the carriage of the Duke of Netherby, her brother, the ducal crest emblazoned upon both doors, with Ruth, her maid. A brawny footman was seated beside a burly coachman up on the box, both men clad in the ducal livery, which was not subdued in color, to say the least of it. It blared upon the eye like a clarion call might upon the ear. And then there were the two carriages bowling along behind her own, the first conveying Mr. Goddard, the duke’s personal secretary, who had the whole of the duke’s authority vested in his person when he was acting on behalf of His Grace, as he was currently doing. The coachman and footman upon the box of that carriage were hardly less impressive in girth than the first two. The third carriage bore all the baggage, which could have been squeezed into and upon the other two conveyances with a little effort—but why crowd them when there had been the spare carriage taking up room in the ducal carriage house? There was only a coachman upon the box of the baggage coach, but that might have been because he was a former pugilist and so broad and so fierce looking with his once-broken nose and one cauliflower ear and several missing teeth that no footman fancied climbing up beside him. And then there were the outriders, also in the ducal livery, all of them large men upon large horses and looking as though they might also have been prize fighters at some time in the not-too-distant past. There were eight of them, two for each carriage and two to spare.
Any highwayman seeing the cavalcade make its colorful way east along the king’s highway, not even trying to hide itself or tiptoe past any dangerous stretch without being noticed, would have either died laughing or else taken mortal fright and moved his business permanently to another part of the country.
And this was what traveling alone meant when one was a lady.
This was how it had all come about.
Abigail Bennington, née Westcott, Jessica’s cousin and best friend, had given birth to a son, Seth, her first child, in late February, a little less than two years after her marriage to Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert Bennington. The Westcott family had been invited to the christening a month later in the Gloucestershire village outside which Abby and Gil lived at Rose Cottage, fortunately not really a cottage but more of a manor. Even so, when a number of the Westcotts showed up, it was filled to the rafters, to use the phrase of Uncle Thomas, Lord Molnar. And it was a good thing, Aunt Viola, Abby’s mother, the Marchioness of Dorchester had said, though a little sad too that neither Camille nor Harry, her other two children, had come but had decided to visit later, after the weather had warmed up a bit. Camille and Joel’s children alone would fill a tent that would take up the whole lawn.
Jessica had gone with her mother, the Dowager Duchess of Netherby—and a Westcott by birth, and with Avery and Anna, the duke and duchess, and their four children. It had been a jolly week, the only real frustration for Jessica being that it had given her scarcely a moment to be alone with Abby, whom she had not seen for an age, though they exchanged long letters at least once a week. Abby had been a bit disappointed too, but it was Gil who had suggested that Jessica stay on for a few weeks after everyone else returned home.
Simple, right? Jessica silently addressed an invisible someone seated opposite her in the carriage. Wrong!
She would remain at Rose Cottage to give Abby her company a while longer, Jessica had announced to her family. She was twenty-five years old, after all, and no longer needed to be coddled like a girl. Gil would hire a post chaise for her when she was ready to leave, and she would have Rose for company.
Her family, alas, at least the vocal part of it, which, being interpreted, meant the female part, saw things quite otherwise. Jessica, for all her advanced years, could not possibly be allowed to remain behind since that would mean her returning alone. Poor Ruth, apparently, counted for nothing. All sorts of harm might befall Jessica in the form of footpads or highwaymen or rude ostlers at inns or wild beasts or broken axels or torrential storms.
“Besides which,” her grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, had pointed out as though to clinch the matter, “it simply is not done for any lady to travel alone, Jessica, as you must be well aware. Even someone my age.”
Grandmama was well into her seventies.
Jessica’s protests had gone unheeded.
“You cannot possibly stay here,” Jessica’s mother had said at last, a note of finality in her voice, “much as I understand your longing to spend more time with Abigail—and hers to have you. I cannot possibly remain here with you. The Season is about to begin and I will need to get ready for the removal to London. So will you, Jessica. Perhaps we can arrange something for another time.”
Jessica had cringed at the very thought of going back to London in order to participate in all the glittering entertainments of yet another Season—her sixth. Or was it her seventh? She had lost count. It was not that she hated balls and picnics and concerts and all the other parties and such with which the ton amused itself during the months of spring while Parliament was in session. But they could very quickly become repetitive and tedious. And one tended to see the same people year after year and wherever one went.
Her continued single state was always more apparent in London than it was in the country.
“Oh, Mama,” she had protested. Aunt Matilda had been smiling sympathetically at her, but it was not sympathy she had needed. It was a defender.
That was when Avery—her brother, the duke—had come to her rescue. He had listened in silence to the family conference, sitting in one corner of Gil and Abby’s sitting room holding Beatrice, the newest addition to his family, while she sucked partly on her thumb and partly on one formerly pristine fold of his elaborately tied neckcloth. When he had spoken, it had been with what sounded like a sigh, as though he had found the whole proceeding excruciatingly tedious, as no doubt he had.
“I daresay,” he had said, “you would all consider Jessica both safe from harm and properly preserved from scandal if she were to travel home in the ducal carriage with her maid while Edwin Goddard followed close behind in another carriage, each conveyance manned with a coachman and a footman upon the box, and half a dozen outriders to serve as an escort.”
The Marquess of Dorchester, Abby’s stepfather, had chuckled. “All of them clad in the brightest ducal livery, I suppose, Netherby?” he had said.
“But of course.” Avery had raised his eyebrows as though surprised that the matter could even be in doubt.
“It is a splendid idea,” Anna had said, beaming at her sister-in-law. “Avery will send them whenever you are ready to leave, Jessica. How lovely it will for you and Abby to enjoy some time together after the whirlwind of the celebrations during the past week.”
And that had settled that. Though Avery spoke only rarely during family gatherings, when he did speak no one ever seemed to question his pronouncements. Jessica had never quite understood it. He did not look like an overwhelmingly powerful man or even behave like one. He was of only average height. He was also slight and graceful of build, with very blond hair and a face of angelic beauty. He might have looked…well, effeminate. He did not. And somehow he wielded a great deal of power without ever having to bluster or bully or even raise his voice. Jessica suspected that most people outside his immediate family feared him but did not understand why any more than she did.
The result of those few words he had spoken after the lengthy discussion that had preceded them, was that now, three weeks after everyone else had left, she was on the road to London alone at the very heart of a cavalcade that drew astonished stares and awed scrutiny in every town and village or hamlet through which it passed.
Being a woman—or, rather, being a lady—certainly had its frustrations despite the luxury of cushions that almost wrapped her about in comfort and springs that made the passage of the carriage over English roads almost a smooth one. She was being treated as a child though she was not one. Mr. Goddard, Avery’s oh-so-efficient secretary, transacted all the business along the way with the result that Jessica had scarcely opened her mouth since the flurry of hugs and tearful goodbyes that had accompanied her departure this morning from Rose Cottage. Ruth was no real companion. Though excellent at her job and loyal to a fault, she had always insisted upon keeping a proper and respectful distance from her mistress. She never prattled on about anything and everything the way it seemed other ladies’ maids did. She rarely spoke at all, in fact, unless spoken to.
It had been a very silent journey.
It had given Jessica far too much time to think.
She had never dreamed, growing up, that she would still be unwed at the age of twenty-five. Like most young girls, she had dreamed of growing up and falling in love and marrying and beginning a family of her own, all long before she was twenty. But, when she was seventeen and within a year of making her longed-for come-out into society, the Great Disaster had happened—she always thought of it as though the words would have to be capitalized if written down. Her uncle, Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, had died and twenty-year old Harry, his son, had succeeded him to the title and property and fortune. Until, that was, the ghastly discovery had been made that Uncle Humphrey had already been secretly married to someone else when he wed Aunt Viola, Harry’s mother, and Camille’s and Abigail’s, more than twenty years before. Aunt Viola’s marriage, unknown to everyone except Uncle Humphrey himself, had been bigamous. Harry had been stripped of his title and everything else and Camille and Abigail had lost their titles and their dowries. All three had lost their very legitimacy. They no longer belonged in the ton.
The whole of the Westcott family had been thrown into turmoil. But it had always seemed to Jessica that she suffered more than any of the others, except for Aunt Viola and Camille, Harry, and Abigail, of course. For Abby was her very dearest friend. They had always been more like sisters than cousins. They had dreamed of making their come-out together, even though Abby was one year older than Jessica. They had dreamed of falling in love and marrying at the same time, perhaps even in a dazzlingly grand double wedding. They had dreamed of living happily ever after, always as the dearest of friends.
The Great Disaster had put an abrupt and cruel end to those dreams.
Avery, Harry’s guardian at the time, had purchased an officer’s commission in a foot regiment for him and he had gone off to Spain and Portugal to fight in the Peninsular wars against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. Camille, in addition to everything else, had been rejected by her fiancé, the dastardly Viscount Uxbury. Abby never did have a come-out Season but went with Camille to live in Bath with their maternal grandmother. Aunt Viola had fled for a while to live with her clergyman brother in Dorsetshire.
And Jessica, untouched in all material ways by the disaster, had been left all alone. Alone and desolate, with crushed hopes and lost dreams. She had been uninterested in continuing with everything to which her privileged status as Lady Jessica Archer, sister of the Duke of Netherby, entitled her. She had lost all interest in a come-out Season of her own, in courtship, and in marriage. For Abby could not share any of the glitter and excitement with her but was rather incarcerated in her grandmother’s house in Bath. Incarcerated had not seemed too harsh a word.
Perhaps worse for Jessica, though, than the lost dreams and the desolation had been the inexplicable sense of guilt, as though everything that had happened to her cousins, and particularly to Abby, was her fault. As though she had somehow wanted to assert her superiority over them. She had hated the fact that she remained unscathed, that her life and her smooth path forward to a dazzling future remained what they had always been. There was nothing to stop her from making her come-out as planned. There was nothing to stop herfrom making a brilliant marriage or from living happily ever after. She could still expect to live a life of luxury and privilege for the rest of her days.
It had seemed so, so, so unfair.
She had never been able to do it, in fact, in the eight years since then. She had never found a man to tempt her into being selfish. She had chosen instead to stand in solidarity with her cousin, whom life had treated so terribly unfairly. If Abby must be forever unhappy, as surely she must, then the least Jessica could do was be unhappy too. She had never fallen in love. Now she doubted she ever would or could. Yet two years ago Abby had found both love and happiness with Gil Bennington. She lived in that spacious manor with its lovely name and its flower-filled garden on the edge of an idyllic English village. She had a husband she clearly adored, a stepdaughter she loved as her own—Katy, Gil’s daughter by a previous marriage, that was—a new baby who was plump and gorgeous, and…
And Jessica had nothing. Even though she had everything. A strange paradox, that. And a ridiculously self-pitying one. Even more ridiculous was the fact that in unwary moments she found herself feeling a niggling resentment of Abby. As though her cousin had betrayed her by finding love and happiness when Jessica had sacrificed both for her sake.
How foolish she had been. And how very immature, something from which she had never quite recovered. She had made the sacrifice even against the pleas of Abby herself, who had a number of times right from the start tried to persuade Jessica that what had happened to her was hers alone to bear, that she would deal with it and find a new, meaningful path forward As she had. The past few weeks had convinced Jessica, even if she had still had any doubts, that her cousin had not simply settled for something second-best, but was actually deeply happy. As was her husband. They were both devoted to their children.
Jessica had greatly enjoyed those weeks—and found them hard to bear at the same time.
She had been left behind. By choice.
Well, no longer. She had made a decision while observing the quiet glow that seemed to emanate from her cousin. This year, this Season, her sixth—or was it the seventh?—she was going to choose a husband. She did not expect it to be difficult despite her age and the fact that London would be flooded with a new crop of pretty young girls fresh from the schoolroom and eager to snatch up the best prizes the great marriage mart would have on offer. She had acquired a rather large number of devoted admirers during her first Season despite the fact that she had made no effort to attract or encourage them, and those numbers, against all reason, had swelled with every passing year, up to and including last year.
All those gentlemen would not necessarily be eager to offer her marriage at the first sign of interest on her part, of course. Some remained in her orbit, no doubt, only because it was fashionable to sigh over Lady Jessica Archer and always be on hand to fetch her refreshments or dance with her or converse with her or simply be seen with her. It never hurt, after all, for a man to be seen in company with a duke’s sister and someone who had been dubbed rather foolishly for several years a diamond of the first water. But surely a few of those men would become serious suitors if given half a chance. She was, after all, extremely eligible. And rich. And although she was not vain about her appearance, her glass told her that she still had whatever looks she had had as a girl—no wrinkles or gray hairs or faded complexion yet. She was only twenty-five, after all.
She smiled slightly as she glanced at Ruth, who was still sitting very erect in her corner of the seat opposite, her head still turned toward the window. She was going to end up with a crick in her neck if she was not careful. One of the outriders rode past the window as though on a mission while Jessica was still looking. He remained in her line of vision for a few moments, apparently having a word with the coachman.
If only, Jessica thought, her mind returning to her newly made resolution, there were someone among her admirers whom she wantedto marry. But there was no one, alas. There were several she liked. Indeed, she did not dislike any of them. But… Well, she was going to have to make her choice based upon practicalities rather than partiality. Upon common sense. It was, after all, the factor upon which most tonmarriages were contracted. Birth and fortune, followed by age and disposition.
So much for the dreams of youth. So much for love and romance and happily-ever-after.
Abby had been horrified. For of course Jessica had told her of her new resolution, assuming she would be pleased. For as usual when they were together, her cousin had urged her to please find some happiness so that she could be finally and fully happy herself.
“Birth and fortune, Jess?” Abby had said, frowning. “Age and disposition? What about love?”
“I might wait forever,” Jessica had told her. “I have never felt even a spark of what other people describe as falling in love. I do not doubt them, but I do know that romantic love is not for me. Not at my age. So I—”
“Jess.” Abby had leaned across the space between them and grasped both her hands. “It will happen. It happened to me. I fully believed it never would. And when I first met Gil, I considered him the very last man with whom I might fall in love. But I did, and—oh, Jess, you must believe me—it is the most wonderful thing in the world. To love and be loved. You must not become jaded and give up hope. Oh, please do not. You are only twenty-five. And you were made for love. Wait until you find it. It will happen.”
“Promise?” Jessica had asked and laughed, though part of her had been silently weeping.
“I promise,” Abby had said with fervent conviction.
As though anyone had the power to promise such a thing for someone else. It was simply not going to happen, Jessica thought now. And she was tired of her single state. She wanted a husband and home and family—and those things were not beyond her grasp. Quite the contrary. She wanted to grow up. It was past time.
Her thoughts were interrupted when the carriage turned abruptly and unexpectedly to the right, and Jessica could see that it was pulling into the cobbled yard of a respectable-looking inn, though surely not the one at which they were scheduled to spend the night. Their journey had been delayed by a couple of hours after they had stopped for refreshments and a change of horses. There had been some issue with one of the wheels on the carriage in which Mr. Goddard was traveling. The delay would mean they were still a few hours away from their destination for today, a wearying thought. Darkness would surely be upon them before they arrived and there would be no time left for anything but a late meal and instant retirement to bed. Was it possible Mr. Goddard had decided they would stay here instead? She could not imagine why else they had stopped. Grooms and ostlers were hurrying into the yard. Mr. Goddard was descending from his carriage and moving purposefully toward the inn door.
Jessica sat back and awaited developments. For the duration of this journey, whether she liked it or not, Mr. Goddard stood in place of Avery. Her brother had made that clear in his usual quiet, half-bored manner as he took his leave of her a few weeks ago.
“I would be obliged, Jessica,” he had said, “if when you look upon Edwin Goddard during your journey to London, you will see me and if, when he speaks, you will hear me.”
She had smiled at him. “Mr. Goddard neither looks nor sounds anything like you, Avery,” she had said.
He had raised his jeweled quizzing glass almost to his eye. “Quite so,” he had said softly, and she had laughed.
But they had understood each other. If Mr. Goddard said now that they were to stay here for the night, then stay they would. If he said they were to proceed to the inn at which accommodation had been reserved for them, then proceed they would. There was no point in expressing a preference or throwing a tantrum. Mr. Goddard would merely nod respectfully and carry on with what he had decided. It was better not to humiliate herself by expressing a contrary opinion. Jessica closed her eyes and rested her head against the cushion behind it. On the whole she hoped they would stay though then tomorrow’s journey would be longer, of course.
The wait seemed interminable but was probably no longer than ten minutes. Then Mr. Goddard reappeared from the inn and opened the door of Jessica’s carriage to inform her that they were to stay. The best chamber in the house, facing away from the noise and bustle of the inn yard, had been reserved for her, he explained, and a truckle bed was to be set up there for Ruth. He would have one of His Grace’s men stationed outside her door during the night lest she need anything or have any fear for her safety. The only private parlor of which the inn boasted, next to the public dining room on the main floor, had been secured for her use so that she would be able to dine and partake of her after-dinner tea in peace and privacy.
And without the rude masses gawking at her, Jessica supposed with an inward sigh. She would dine in grand solitude, then, since Mr. Goddard, though he occasionally dined with Avery when there were just the two of them, never sat at table with any other members of the family. Although he was a gentleman by birth, her brother’s secretary was quite scrupulous in his observance of the niceties of social etiquette. He was lowering the steps now and then offering a hand to help her descend before escorting her inside.
The lobby into which they stepped was empty though not silent. A hum of voices and laughter and the clinking of glasses, as well as the distinct odor of ale, came through the open door of what must be the taproom to their left. Next to it was the dining room. Through the panes of the windows on either side of the closed door Jessica could see tables set with white cloths and silverware. It was empty at this time of day, too late for tea, a little too early for dinner. The registration desk was to their right. A stairway to the upper floors was beyond it.
It looked like a perfectly decent place. Not that it was Jessica’s concern to discover if it really was. That was Mr. Goddard’s business, and he was perfectly trustworthy. He would not have survived in Avery’s employ if he were not. Jessica looked forward to being upstairs in her room, where she would be able to take off her bonnet and gloves and wash her face and take the pins from her hair at least for a short while and perhaps even stretch out upon her bed before getting ready for dinner. What she would really love to do was go outside and walk, through the village or out along a country lane. It would not matter which. It would feel lovely to stretch her legs and breathe in some fresh air. But she knew that if she decided to act upon her desire a whole train of those burly riders as well as Ruth would be obliged to accompany her and she would not be able to enjoy a single moment. Neither would they, at a guess.
Mr. Goddard indicated the staircase with one respectfully outstretched arm and then moved to precede her up it—lest there be bandits waiting to leap out at her at the top, she supposed. He would also, she knew, unlock the door of her bedchamber—which he had no doubt already inspected—and step inside to look around before stepping out again to allow her and Ruth in before closing the door upon them.
Before she had taken more than a step toward the staircase, however, a closed door facing her across the lobby opened abruptly and two men stepped out, the first scurrying backward, both hands raised, palm outward, as though to stop the second man from stalking after him.
“It was quite unforeseeable, I do assure you, sir,” the first man was saying. “But how could I—” He had turned his head and seen that he had an audience. He stopped talking abruptly, looking considerably agitated. His hands fell to his sides and he bowed from the waist. “My lady. I do beg—”
But Mr. Goddard had taken one firm step forward and cut him off. “There is a problem?” he asked curtly.
The second man was holding a book. It was closed, but he had one finger between the pages, presumably holding the place he had reached before being interrupted. He was a tall man, probably in his thirties, broad-shouldered, solidly built, his brown hair over-long for the current fashion, his complexion noticeably sun-bronzed, his features not quite handsome, not quite ugly or even plain. He was dressed decently but without any flair of fashion. His clothes seemed designed for comfort rather than elegance. His boots were well worn. He was looking annoyed. And that look was sweeping over Jessica, from the crown of her bonnet to the toes of her lavender kid shoes. What he saw did not appear to improve his mood.
“This is the lady for whom I am expected to vacate the private parlor for which I paid handsomely?” he asked, presumably addressing his question to the first man, who must be the landlord.
“I do beg your pardon, my lady,” the landlord said with another bow and a smile that stretched his lips but did not register upon any other part of his face. He made a sweeping gesture toward the stairs. “Your room is ready for you. I trust it—”
Mr. Goddard cut him off again. “Thank you,” he said, his voice cold and firm. “I believe this matter can be left safely in your hands, landlord.” He indicated the stairs to Jessica again.
So this gentleman had reserved the private parlor, had he, but was now being evicted from it on account of her? It was the sort of thing Mr. Goddard would be able to arrange with ease, of course, having all the weight of the ducal authority behind him. Whether the guest would go meekly remained to be discovered. He did not look meek. He did not look quite like a gentleman either, or behave like one. What gentleman would speak openly of money in the hearing of strangers? Or look a lady over from head to toe quite so boldly or with such obvious disapproval? Middle class, Jessica guessed. A cit, perhaps, a businessman of some means. He must have money to be staying at an inn even of this not quite superior quality and to be paying for a private parlor.
Jessica inclined her head to him with cool courtesy. “Thank you,” she murmured before moving toward the stairway and the sanctuary of her room.
The unknown guest bowed to her in return, a slight, surely deliberately mocking gesture involving a small flourish of the hand that was not holding his book and a dipping of the head.
“I beg your pardon, Lady Jessica,” Mr. Goddard said when they had reached the top of the stairs. “I shall have a word with the landlord, who does not appear to have proper control of his house.”
He led the way to her room.
Being a woman had frustrations in plenty, Jessica thought again as the door closed behind her and Ruth. But being a man had its annoyances too. What would that guest do? Would he flatly refuse to vacate the parlor and then find himself confronted by Mr. Goddard himself? Would the landlord bribe him, perhaps, with a free dinner in the public dining room? Money was something he seemed to understand. It was all none of her concern, however. Mr. Goddard would sort it out to her advantage.
“Tell me that is warm water in the pitcher, Ruth,” she said.
“It is, my lady,” her maid assured her after cupping her hands about the water jug.
Of course it was. Why had she even needed to ask? Mr. Goddard would have seen to it before coming to escort her inside.