Because The Baron Broods By Darcy Burke | Author Darcy Burke
Darcy Burke

Excerpt: Because the Baron Broods

Book 2: Rogue Rules

Chapter One

 

Weston, England, August 1815

 

Tamsin Penrose adjusted the curl that rested against her temple, wishing it was as springy as the one on the other side of her face. Ah well, she did the best she could and did not bemoan the fact that she didn’t have a maid. She didn’t really need one, and her illustrious friends, including a duchess and the daughter of a duke, never made her feel that she was any different from them.

Except she was, despite being cousin to a viscount. Her friends came from prominent families and had bright futures with Seasons and advantageous marriages, while Tamsin resided with her hermit father in Cornwall and was lucky enough to spend every August in Weston, where her grandmother lived and where she’d met her dear friends three years ago.

Still, the differences between them didn’t matter to Tamsin any more than they did to her friends. They were simply a group of young ladies who enjoyed each other’s company. In fact, today, they would all enjoy an alfresco luncheon hosted by their friend, Lady Minerva, daughter of the Duke of Henlow.

Tamsin adjusted the ribbon of her bonnet and plucked up her gloves before going downstairs. Her friend Persephone, who was now the Duchess of Wellesbourne after marrying last autumn, would be picking her up on the way to the Grove, one of many estates owned by the Duke of Henlow. She would also fetch Gwendolen Price, who hailed from Bristol, from the Weston Hotel, where she was staying with her mother.

Tamsin’s grandmother was awaiting her in the staircase hall. Her blue eyes swept over Tamsin as she smiled. “You look lovely, dear. That daffodil yellow is such a brilliant color for you.”

“Thank you, Grandmama.” Tamsin drew her gloves on. “I take it Somerton left some time ago?”

Tamsin’s cousin, the Viscount Somerton, was also visiting. His mother and Tamsin’s had been sisters—and Grandmama was their mother—but they hadn’t been close, particularly after Tamsin’s mother had wed her father and moved to St. Austell. Consequently, Tamsin hadn’t grown up knowing Somerton or his older sisters well at all. Indeed, until a few years ago, when her and Somerton’s trips to Weston had begun to overlap, she’d met him only a few times.

Generally regarded as a jovial gentleman with rakish tendencies, Somerton was close friends with Minerva’s brother, the Earl of Shefford. They, along with a few other gentlemen, also gathered in August, though not for the entire month. Eventually, they grew bored with the sleepy seaside village and moved on to wherever unwed rogues found entertainment.

“He did,” Grandmama replied. Petite, with dark blue eyes and light gray hair, she was a force of nature who didn’t look or act her seventy years. She held up an envelope. “A letter from your father just arrived.”

Tamsin blinked. “How odd. He doesn’t ever write to me while I’m here.”

“Well, you can read it when you get back.”

“Would you mind opening it?” Tamsin asked, since she’d already donned her gloves. “I’m afraid my curiosity is getting the best of me.”

Grandmama opened the missive and handed the letter to Tamsin. She scanned the short message, her heart beating faster with each line.

When she finished, she looked back at her grandmother. “He says he’s found a suitor for me and is in support of me marrying him.”

Moving to stand beside Tamsin so she could see the letter, Grandmama asked, “Who?”

“He doesn’t say.”

Grandmama’s brows pitched down. “That is ridiculous. Why would he leave that part out?”

“It is likely an oversight.” Tamsin sighed. He was always so focused on work. The fact that he’d written to her at all was a marvel, and leaving out pertinent information seemed, unfortunately, exactly something he would do.

Since her mother had left them when she was eight, Tamsin had felt the need to watch over her father. She made sure he didn’t forget things, such as eating dinner. He’d already been somewhat buried in his work by the time her mother had gone, but her departure had sent him further into seclusion. He spent his days in his study and even some of his nights. Tamsin did her best to bring him cheer as he was very often dour. He did seem brighter in her presence, so she believed she served him a great purpose.

“It’s terrible is what it is,” Grandmama said with a deep frown. “He’s taken almost no interest in your life, particularly with regard to potential courtships or marriage.”

That was true. Indeed, Tamsin had expected to end up a spinster and rather thought her father had no quarrel with that. “He doesn’t even allow me to attend the quarterly assembly.” He didn’t see the point in investing in the appropriate clothing. He’d also said on more than one occasion that marriage was not always the best path. But then Tamsin knew why he would say that: because his wife had left him.

 Had he changed his mind about her marrying? Had he realized that Tamsin might want to wed? Tamsin hadn’t allowed herself to think about it too closely. What was the point when she had no occasion to meet potential suitors? Perhaps that was all about to change. A curious excitement gathered in her chest. “Am I to have a Season?” She felt suddenly breathless at the notion.

“I shouldn’t think so,” Grandmama said. “Your father is far too selfish and shortsighted for that.” Grandmama’s description of him did not surprise Tamsin, as they did not get on well. “I do wish you’d decided to live with me when you came of marriageable age.”

Though she’d invited Tamsin to move in with her, for years now, Tamsin always declined. She ran her father’s household, and while the housekeeper, Mrs. Treen, could do the same, she wasn’t his daughter. He needed Tamsin, and in some ways, she needed him too. After her mother had left, they’d only had each other.

“You know why I didn’t,” Tamsin said in response to her grandmother’s suggestion.

“Because he needs you.” Grandmama pursed her lips. “He doesn’t really, my sweet. And I hope his callousness in this marriage matter will convince you otherwise. I can’t begin to imagine whom he wants you to wed.”

“He says the gentleman may arrive in Weston to convey me home to St. Austell toward the end of the month.” How would she know to expect him? This was all very strange.

Tamsin tried to think of who the mystery suitor could be, but everyone her father knew was, well, old. Or close to his age, anyway. There was a younger gentleman with whom he corresponded. He had sought Papa’s counsel on an academic matter, and Papa had spoken highly of the young man’s letters. Could he be the potential suitor? Though Tamsin knew almost nothing about him, she couldn’t deny a burst of excitement at the prospect of meeting someone who not only wanted to meet her but was ready to travel with her to St. Austell. That sounded promising, didn’t it?

If that was the gentleman. She didn’t know enough right now to make a judgment as to whether this was good or bad news. And since she never chose to dwell on negative things, she chose to believe this must be good news. It had to be. Even if it meant cutting her annual sojourn short, which, if she were honest with herself, was a little disappointing.

“I shall hope he is a splendid fellow, and we will make a brilliant match,” Tamsin said brightly, considering, for the first time, the idea of leaving her father’s household to have a family of her own.

“While your optimism is always wonderful to hear, I must say that your father did not think this through. At the very least, he should have offered the identity of this gentleman so you aren’t kept guessing,” Grandmama said firmly. “I’ll write to him while you are at your luncheon. I’m also not inclined to let you leave before the end of the month. I only have you with me for a short time as it is.”

“You are right. I would like to stay through August.” Tamsin so looked forward to this time with her beloved grandmother and with her friends—two things she didn’t have in St. Austell. “Thank you, Grandmama.” Tamsin hugged her.

“I will always ensure your happiness, my dear,” Grandmama said softly as they parted.

Tamsin heard a coach outside and turned toward the door.

“Have a good time, Tam,” Grandmama said. “Put your father’s nonsense out of your mind.”

After blowing her grandmother a kiss, Tamsin walked out into the bright summer day. Securing the door behind her, she saw the Duke of Wellesbourne climb down. He held the door for her. “Good afternoon, Miss Penrose.”

“Good afternoon, Your Grace.”

“You must call me Wellesbourne. Or Welles. Or Wellesy, I suppose.” He grinned, his dark eyes crinkling at the edges.

“Are you encouraging people to call you Wellesy?” His wife, Persephone, called from the interior.

“Why not?” he said with a shrug as he helped Tamsin into the coach.

She sat on the rear-facing seat next to Gwen. The newest member of their group, having “joined” with them last August, Gwen was a year younger than Tamsin’s twenty-two years. Her father was a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, and she had an older brother, a barrister who had recently accepted a position in the same department. Gwen had not yet had a Season, due to her needing more “polish.” She was sometimes clumsy and claimed to be an abysmal dancer. These were just two things she was working to improve upon before she had her debut on the Marriage Mart. Though Tamsin was certainly no expert, she found Gwen lovely precisely as she was. Surely, there existed a gentleman who would think so too.

“What a fetching bonnet,” Persephone said to Tamsin. At twenty-three, Persephone was the only one of their group who was married. It had been a remarkable turn of events last year when she’d suddenly wed the Duke of Wellesbourne. Her mother and his mother were old friends and had proposed the union. While Persephone had been against it at first—due to Wellesbourne’s close association with the abominable Bane, who’d ruined her sister Pandora last August here in Weston—she’d ultimately fallen in love.

Perhaps Tamsin would be that fortunate with whomever her father wanted her to wed. Tamsin hoped so. Indeed, the idea was quickly taking root.

“I’ve news to share now that we’re all here,” Gwen said, her dark eyes sparkling. “Except Min. I’ll tell her later, for I’m afraid I simply can’t keep it in a moment longer!”

They all looked to her, expectant, including Wellesbourne. Tamsin wondered again if she ought to share her news, except she wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as Gwen was. Indeed, she possessed a decided lack of enthusiasm.

“I’m to have a London Season!” Gwen said, her shoulders lifting with glee.

“How splendid!” Tamsin was so pleased for her friend. Tamsin hadn’t even been to Bath. London seemed so far away. She honestly wasn’t sure she ever expected to see it.

Persephone reached over and gave Gwen’s hand a pat. “I’m delighted for you. I will support you as much as I can, but I have news of my own to share.” She glanced toward her husband, her lips curving into a warm smile. “Acton and I are expecting a child. I will have a baby in my arms before spring.”

“Oh!” Tamsin and Gwen exclaimed in unison. They both leaned forward as if they would leap upon Persephone.

“I want to hug you!” Tamsin cried.

“I do too!” Gwen said.

“I will gladly accept your hugs when we arrive at the Grove,” Persephone said with a laugh, her blue eyes gleaming. She tucked a dark gold curl back from her face.

Gwen looked to Wellesbourne. “You must be thrilled.”

He chuckled. “I confess I’m still getting used to the idea.” He took Persephone’s hand and clasped it in her lap. It was such a sweet gesture, and Tamsin couldn’t help smiling. “My mother is ecstatic.”

“As are your sisters,” Persephone said. She looked across the coach at Tamsin and Gwen. “They’ve written with all manner of advice. They’re very sweet.”

Tamsin wondered what Persephone’s sister, Pandora, thought of this news. They’d become especially close when Pandora had come to stay with Tamsin in Cornwall after Persephone’s wedding. Seeking refuge from the scandal Bane had cause when he’d ruined her then fled to marry someone else, Pandora had spent the late autumn and entire winter with Tamsin in St. Austell.

From their months together, Tamsin knew Pandora envied her sister’s happiness—primarily because of the acceptance Persephone had received from her husband’s family. Pandora was of the mind that she would never wed after what happened with Bane. And since Tamsin hadn’t expected to wed either, they’d laughingly planned a spinsters’ future where they spent time in Weston and kept goats or cats or both.

Persephone looked to Gwen. “How exciting you are to have a Season. I suppose that means at least one more of us will be wed before next August.”

“If I receive any offers,” Gwen said with a self-deprecating laugh. Her Season had been postponed for so long that Tamsin understood why she might be nervous.

“Of course you will,” Persephone stated firmly. “You are clever and witty, and infinitely interesting to talk to. I daresay you will have multiple offers.”

“I hope they aren’t from rogues,” Gwen said, shooting Wellesbourne a nervous glance. “I mean no offense.”

“I don’t take any,” he said pleasantly. “I freely admit I was a rogue. I have known nothing but privilege and excess, and I readily took advantage of those things.” He brought Persephone’s gloved hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to the base of her thumb. “Thankfully, my lovely wife saw past my transgressions and gave me the chance to be the man I want to be—a grateful, loyal, and thoroughly besotted husband.”

“And father,” Persephone murmured.

Watching them together gave Tamsin hope. Being in love certainly looked beautiful. She wondered how it felt. Like being filled with light and joy, she imagined. So full that you nearly burst with the quantity of it. She’d never even considered motherhood, but if she made a match with this mystery suitor, she could very well have a family of her own. A close, loving family that she’d never had. She began to imagine this man she might marry. Perhaps he was tall and handsome, with smiling eyes and a sparkling laugh that made her feel giddy. He would sweep her in his arms, and she would feel wholly loved and protected.

“Are you aware of our Rogue Rules?” Gwen asked, jarring Tamsin from her silly daydream. But was it silly?

Tamsin set her mind to what was being discussed—their Rogue Rules. They’d come about after Bane had ruined Pandora. Outraged, the friends had drafted the rules to keep them safe from rogues. Hopefully, this man she would marry would not be a rogue. She’d vowed to avoid them. How would a rogue make her feel loved and protected anyway? Unless he was like the duke. Persephone was so very lucky.

“I am indeed acquainted with your rules about rogues,” Wellesbourne said. “A stitched copy of them hangs in Persey’s sitting room.”

“I do wonder if the rules were made to be broken, however,” Tamsin said. “Looking at Persey and Wellesbourne, it seems a rogue can change.” Never trust a rogue to change was one of the rules. As was never show a rogue your heart. Clearly, Persephone had broken that rule as well.

“I tried very hard to follow them,” Persephone said. “Acton, however, was most persistent and demonstrated not only an ability to change, but a sincere desire to reform himself.”

“But what if not all men are even rogues to begin with?” Tamsin suggested.

“I do think that’s true,” Wellesbourne said. “I have several friends who are not roguish, at least what I understand that to be, based on what Persey has told me. In our own group, Droxford isn’t particularly roguish.”

“I’ve seen women in London hope to catch his interest,” Persephone said. “Though that seems to be due to his title and wealth. He is generally reserved, brooding even. I would not believe him to be roguish, but then, I don’t know him very well.”

“If anyone will be lucky enough to find a man who isn’t a rogue, it will be Tamsin,” Gwen said. “Provided she’s able to meet someone,” she added with a light laugh. They all knew that Tamsin had no occasion to encounter gentlemen or be courted.

Tamsin considered telling them about her father’s letter, but she was still getting used to the idea of marriage. She would tell them soon. Today, however, was for enjoying her time with them, which had suddenly become vital if she was to leave Weston early.

She hoped that would not be the case, but if true love came upon her, she feared she would not be able to resist.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Isaac Deverell, Baron Droxford, stepped outside onto a brick patio where the alfresco luncheon would be held. The space had been transformed into an elegant outdoor dining room with a long table set for eight people.

His friend, the Earl of Shefford, whose father owned the Grove, the estate where they stayed every August, stood nearby with the Viscount Somerton and Evan Price. Somerton gestured for Isaac to join them.

Isaac looked at the three of them with their heads bent together. They almost appeared guilty, and Isaac suspected he knew why. Shefford went out of his way to annoy his sister, and she did the same to him. Since Lady Minerva had organized this luncheon, Isaac surmised that Shefford was going to make trouble. “What are you plotting?”

“Nothing terrible,” Shefford replied innocently. “My sister knows to expect mischief from me.”

Evan nodded. “I can attest to this since I too have a younger sister.”

Somerton grimaced. “I had it much worse with three older sisters. Drox, if you’d had a sibling, you would know this sort of thing is a matter of survival.”

Isaac didn’t have any siblings because his mother had died giving birth to his brother, who’d also died, when Isaac was four. It had been a tragedy, of course, but even more so due to his father, a rector, ensuring the grief of losing them was ever present. Not a day went by that the two of them hadn’t prayed—extensively—for his mother’s and brother’s souls.

Isaac adjusted his hat to more effectively block the sun. “If I had a sibling, I would enjoy their company rather than find ways to annoy or play pranks on them.”

Shefford chuckled. “Do you ever tire of being serious?”

“You know the answer to that,” Isaac said.

“I do indeed. Serious is probably one of your names. Isaac Serious Deverell.” Shefford waggled his brows in jest, but he wasn’t wrong. Isaac’s father had wanted his son to be like him: serious and joyless.

“Isaac Serious Grim Deverell,” Somerton added with a grin.

“Whatever your name, I’m glad you decided to attend the luncheon,” Shefford said with genuine warmth.

Somerton brushed something from his sleeve. “I’m glad I didn’t take your wager that he wouldn’t.”

“Is there nothing you won’t bet on?” Isaac asked his host.

Shefford shrugged. “It seemed easy money. Except Somerton is more intelligent than his marks at Oxford indicate.”

Rolling his eyes, Somerton gave Shefford a light shove. This was normal behavior amongst them. They teased Isaac about his moodiness. Then they made light of Somerton being unserious regarding his studies—and a great many other things. With Shefford, they needled him about his fear of marriage and the impending ultimatum to wed that was surely coming from his father. Isaac wasn’t yet sure how they might poke fun at Price.

“Why you thought Somerton would fall for such nonsense is beyond me,” Isaac said to Shefford. “It’s no secret at all that I would rather be inside working than participating in this luncheon.”

Isaac typically preferred to avoid social events entirely, but this one was small, and he could easily escape into the house under the guise of having work to do—which wasn’t really a guise, because he did have work to do.

“But you do attend some social occasions,” Price said. “I know I met you at a rout in London.”

“You are correct,” Isaac replied. “I allowed these idiots to drag me to several events this past year, starting with a soiree in Bath last autumn and at least three routs in London during the Season.”

Somerton snorted. “You only agreed to those routs because you were on a mission to discuss certain business with gentlemen who were in attendance, not because you were hoping to enjoy yourself.”

“That is precisely how I enjoy myself,” Isaac said crisply. Working in the House of Lords and persuading others to his causes were the things he relished most.

“Promise you won’t work too much while you’re here.” Shefford clapped him on the shoulder. “We’ve a great many activities planned for our week together. And please tell me you’ll stay for the duration this time.”

Isaac had arrived only the day before and typically stayed four, perhaps five, days. By then, he was more than ready to return to the solace of Wood End, the ancestral pile in Hampshire he’d inherited four years ago. “We’ll see how long I can tolerate your company.” He lifted the edge of his mouth.

“The Droxford Smirk,” Somerton said with a laugh. “Closest thing we get to a smile.”

“Is that true?” Price asked. He was relatively new to their group after Shefford had befriended him last Season, perhaps as an unconscious replacement for their dwindling numbers now that Wellesbourne and Bane were wed.

“He used to grin and guffaw,” Shefford said, referring to when they’d first met, shortly after Isaac had arrived at Oxford. When his uncle, the baron at the time, had sent Isaac off to be educated, he’d experienced joy for the first time. However, he’d found a way to muck it up, just as his father had said he would. He’d advised Isaac that indulging in gaiety and happiness inevitably led to disappointment and disaster, which was precisely what had happened. Isaac had learned that lesson most painfully.

He directed the conversation back to something less personal. “What do you have planned beyond riding and playing billiards?” Those were their primary pursuits during their time at the Grove.

“I’m trying to arrange a boat to take us out to Steep Holm.” Shefford referred to an island in the channel with many caves he wanted to explore.

Isaac would find a reason not to go. Though he’d grown up in a seaside village not too unlike Weston, he didn’t like boats, and for good reason.

“Brilliant,” Somerton said. “Wellesbourne will be game, I’m sure.” He paused before adding, “It isn’t quite the same here at the Grove without him.”

The duke had wed last autumn, and instead of staying at the Grove this year, he’d leased a cottage for himself and his wife, who Isaac believed had arrived at the beginning of the month. Wellesbourne seemed quite changed since marrying, from what Isaac had observed, particularly during the London Season. While the duke had typically avoided Society events in the past to keep himself from the Marriage Mart, he now attended them with his wife. They appeared devoted to one another, as if they were truly in love. While pleased for them, Isaac understood that most people were not that lucky.

Shefford’s brow creased. “I do wonder if he’ll continue spending time with us here now that he’s married. He will no doubt prefer to be with his duchess.” He sounded resigned and a trifle disappointed.

“Marriage is not a death sentence,” Somerton said. “We know you are averse to the idea, particularly given your parents’ continued insistence that you wed soon.” The more they pressed him, the more Shefford resisted.

Shefford became visibly uncomfortable, his shoulders twitching and his gaze moving away. “I’m not ready to be leg shackled. It’s forever, you know.”

Isaac was aware, just as he was of the duties that came along with marriage, namely siring children. He wasn’t ready for that specifically and didn’t know if he would ever be. He could never be a good father.

“You’ll hear no argument from me,” Isaac said. “Nor from any of us.” He wasn’t aware of Somerton or Price harboring a desire to wed.

“You are all fortunate to not have any family members pestering you,” Shefford grumbled. “Just look what happened to Bane.”

“Nothing happened to Bane,” Isaac said. “He chose to wed.”

Somerton arched a brow. “We don’t know that. None of us have seen or spoken to him in months.” That was true. Bane had stayed in northern England with his new wife, and none of them had been invited to celebrate their union. “Seems to me he married someone his parents chose.”

“It certainly didn’t come about naturally,” Shefford said. “He didn’t tell any of us about her. Not until after he’d already committed to the marriage.”

While they weren’t necessarily defending Bane, they were not as direct in their condemnation of their friend’s behavior as Isaac had been. That was perhaps because they hadn’t behaved as badly as—or worse than—Bane, as Isaac had done years ago. “I should like to know why he was carrying on with the Duchess of Wellesbourne’s sister if he was already betrothed. It’s no wonder he hasn’t shown his face in Society since then.”

“I doubt he had an ulterior motive,” Somerton said. “Bane has simply never been able to ignore a pretty face.”

Isaac sent him a dark look. “Do not defend him. Unless… Do you find his behavior acceptable?” He looked at both Somerton and Shefford, but not at Price since he didn’t know Bane.

“Of course not.” Shefford’s brow furrowed. “However, I would be a hypocrite if I said I hadn’t found myself in similar circumstances—allowing myself to be swept into a romantic moment that I should not have.” He gave Isaac a pointed look. “We’ve all made missteps.”

Isaac knew precisely to what Shefford was referring, and calling his transgressions “missteps” was a gross understatement. “Bane’s behavior was egregious. He engaged in inappropriate activity with a young lady while apparently betrothed to someone else. That is simply inexcusable.” As had been Isaac’s actions.

Shefford exhaled. “I can’t disagree. However, we don’t know precisely what happened between him and Miss Barclay. I am not ready to terminate my friendship with a dear friend, though he’s made it damned difficult with his silence. I stopped writing to him a few months ago. There was no point since he never responds.”

“It’s strange not having him here this year,” Somerton said. “Hopefully, when Wellesbourne arrives, it will feel more like years past.”

Shefford kicked a pebble off the patio. “Except Wellesbourne isn’t staying here. I’m afraid we have only our nostalgia. Marriage is putting an end to our fun. Now you see why I’m avoiding it.”

Somerton rolled his eyes, then looked to Price. “Don’t listen to Sheff. He’s being maudlin. There is plenty of fun to be had.”

This perked up Shefford. “Yes, there is. Starting with today. Here comes my sister and her companion now.”

Lady Minerva sauntered toward them, the lilac skirt of her gown swaying gently as she moved. Beautiful and charming, she would be married if she hadn’t turned down a half dozen marriage proposals during the last Season, or so Shefford had told them.

Dark curls brushed her temples beneath her bonnet as her pale gray eyes focused on them. Her elegant brows lifted slightly as she regarded them. “I hope you have abandoned any plans to sabotage my luncheon.”

“We’re still finalizing them,” Shefford said with a mischievous glint in his eye.

She gave her head a light shake. “I honestly don’t know why I invited you.”

Shefford grinned. “Because now that Wellesbourne and your friend are wed, we must socialize together.”

Lady Minerva rolled her eyes. “Next time, I’ll avoid including you just the same, especially if you ruin anything.” She glanced toward Isaac. “I’d still invite you, despite your perpetual scowl. At least you won’t try to add too much pepper to one of the dishes or water to the wine.”

Shefford gasped as he raised his hand to his chest. “I would never defile wine in that manner!”

Lady Minerva looked at him with great skepticism. “I think you doth protest too much. The rest of the guests will be here soon. Perhaps you could see where you are sitting at the table?”

She and her companion, who’d come to their household as an orphan, moved in that direction. Somerton and Price drifted after them.

Isaac frowned at Shefford. “Am I really always scowling?” His friends liked to jest that he did, but hearing it from someone else felt somehow different.

Somerton lifted a shoulder. “Not always, but I remember when you rarely did it. I can scarcely reconcile the man you are now with the lad I met that first year at Oxford.”

They’d started together at Christ Church College, and Isaac had been thrilled to meet young men his age and, more importantly, people who were generally happy and liked to laugh. After a childhood in which he was expected to be quiet and sedate, the environment had been heady.

Isaac had thrown himself into the social aspects of being with a group of students and away from his oppressive father. He’d drank too much, behaved obnoxiously on multiple occasions, and started a liaison with the laundress who came to his room to fetch his clothing.

Two years his senior, Mary was sweet and beautiful, with the most delightful laugh. Isaac had been entranced, then smitten, then head over arse in love with her.

“Why aren’t you like that anymore?” Shefford asked.

Now Isaac definitely scowled. “Because that wasn’t the man I wanted to be. And you know why.” He was the only one who did, aside from Isaac’s uncle and father.

Shefford’s features creased. “That was over a decade ago. You need to stop blaming yourself. Your uncle took care of the matter. The girl was fine, better off than if you hadn’t given her a child and necessitated her removal to a faraway place.”

Just hearing someone else mention the family Isaac had abandoned nearly tore him apart. The pain was still sharp all these years later. Isaac knew it would never go away, nor should it. He deserved to live with regret and shame the rest of his days.

And while Shefford’s perspective might be true, that Mary’s life was likely improved from that of a laundress, it didn’t excuse Isaac’s actions. He’d behaved like an absolute rogue, without care for Mary. He’d completely surrendered to indulgence and emotions, and the results had been utter ruin. He’d altered Mary’s life and fathered a son who would never know his true father. The loss of the family Isaac could have had ate at him.

“I wanted to marry her,” Isaac said quietly.

“I know.” Shefford nodded faintly. “But that would not have worked. Not for you, and not for the laundress. You came from completely different classes.”

“I wasn’t even heir to the barony then.” At that time, there were multiple people in front of Isaac: his cousin who was the baron’s son, another uncle who was the middle son between the baron and Isaac’s father, who’d died a few years later on a campaign in Spain, and of course Isaac’s own father. Though Isaac couldn’t imagine his father, a devout rector, becoming a baron.

“Still, your position was such that you could not marry a laundress.” Shefford grimaced. “I know how that sounds, as though we inhabit some pompous, superior space.”

“Isn’t that precisely what you are saying?” Isaac asked without a hint of irony.

“I was trying to help you then, and I would do it again,” Shefford said firmly. “You were seventeen with no means to support a household. She was settled in a nice village as a widow. It’s highly likely she wed and has been living a secure life with her family for nigh on a decade. That should make you happy. Or at least relieved.”

He wasn’t sure what it made him. Isaac had gone to that village—against his uncle’s advisement—to see if Mary and their child were indeed living the life they deserved. However, he couldn’t find them and assumed they’d ended up somewhere else, not that he’d asked his uncle, for then he would have had to reveal that he’d gone looking.

As much as he longed to know they were safe and well, he accepted his uncle’s assurances that they were. Anything else would be too heartbreaking to contemplate.

And he struggled with enough sorrow, as he had to work on not dreaming of the life that could have been his. Regardless of what Shefford said about not having the means to support himself, Isaac would have loved to be the one to care for his wife and child. In any case, that life hadn’t been his, and he’d learned to not even want such a life. He didn’t deserve it.

Before Isaac could head toward the table, Shefford added, “You should also relinquish whatever vow you made to yourself when all that happened.”

Turning back to face Shefford, Isaac gave him a cool stare. “What are you talking about?”

“You can’t deny—not to me—that you completely changed after the girl was sent away and the situation resolved. You no longer did anything for amusement, at least not in the same way.” Shefford stepped closer, his dark blue eyes moving over Isaac’s features as if he were trying to discern something. “You’ve loosened up a little over the years, but you don’t drink to excess, nor do you gamble, and you do not indulge your most basic needs, not even at the Rogue’s Den, as the rest of us do. You’re a bloody saint.”

A saint? A man who’d ruined a young woman, got her with child, and left her and the babe to fend for themselves was a saint?

Isaac glared at his friend, who’d made a rare miscalculation and overstepped. “You’ve no idea what I do or don’t do at the Rogue’s Den or anywhere else.” If Isaac were truly a saint, he would take a true vow of celibacy and deny himself all pleasures of the flesh. Instead, he merely abstained from intercourse in order to avoid fathering another child. He wouldn’t take that risk again.

Shefford looked at him with concern. “You are hard on yourself, Drox, and you needn’t be. You deserve joy just like the rest of us.”

“I’ll ask you to keep your counsel to yourself,” Isaac said coldly. “I live a comfortable life that is apparently my birthright. I don’t need to laugh or gamble or delight in stealing a kiss from some widow in an alcove at a ball. That is your life. Leave me to mine.” Isaac refused to succumb to the roguery that lurked beneath the wall he’d erected around himself.

Shefford’s nostrils flared, but he didn’t respond because the other guests arrived just then. Wellesbourne came from the house with his wife, and they were accompanied by two other young women—Price’s sister and Somerton’s cousin, Miss Penrose.

Moving away from Isaac, Shefford went to greet them.

Isaac’s gaze was drawn to Miss Penrose. Petite in stature, she possessed delicate features and warm brown hair. Some of the strands reminded him of dark honeycomb. She was dressed in a cheerful yellow gown that perfectly matched her bright smile. Looking at her, he saw nothing but light and found himself wanting to drift toward it. She was like the flowers his bees at Wood End buzzed toward, an attraction that could not be ignored. Which he found odd, for he’d met her last year, at least, but barely recalled her.

Wellesbourne came abreast of him, smiling. “Good to see you, Droxford. I keep meaning to ask if you wouldn’t mind giving me scowling lessons.”

The query was made affably, but after his very recent discussion about scowling with Shefford, Isaac made a concerted effort to keep from scowling. “Did Sheff tell you to say that?”

“Er, no. I was joking. Mostly.” Wellesbourne shrugged. “Scowling is a useful expression. However, I am not very accomplished.”

“Have you not had reason to scowl?”

“I have always found it easier to smile,” Wellesbourne said without a hint of irony.

“And you do it so well,” Isaac said, glancing toward Miss Penrose who was still smiling quite beautifully. He averted his gaze from her and remained on the periphery as everyone began to mingle.

When, he wondered, would it be too soon to excuse himself?

 

 

Chapter Three

 

They were to mingle for a short while before the luncheon, so Tamsin chatted with Minerva and her companion, Miss Ellis Dangerfield. The oldest of them, at twenty-five, Ellis had come to live with Min’s family when she was nine. Somewhat reserved, with intelligent eyes and pretty blonde hair, she’d been orphaned, having lost both parents to illness. Her family had, at some point, been close to the Dukes of Henlow, and the current duke had taken Ellis in. She’d been Min’s companion ever since.

“Mrs. Ogilvie isn’t attending?” Tamsin referred to the ancient woman who acted as Min’s chaperone outside London when Min’s mother wasn’t present. She was Min’s mother’s great-aunt’s cousin or some other far-flung relation.

Ellis shook her head in response. “This is when she takes her first nap. She reasoned that Min didn’t need a chaperone since the duke and duchess are here.”

Tamsin found it passing strange that Ellis never seemed to be included in the chaperonage, but she was not on the Marriage Mart. Still, as companion to Min, she comported herself with the utmost integrity and propriety. Tamsin wondered what Ellis would do when Min wed.

“Look at Droxford standing by himself, aloof as always,” Min said. “I have gathered he does not care for social gatherings.”

Tamsin noted the frown lines crossing his forehead beneath the brim of his hat, though he wasn’t exactly frowning. “Do you know why?”

“Not specifically,” Min replied. “He is fairly serious and very committed to his work—running his estate and sitting in the Lords. Sheff has said that because Droxford never expected to be the baron, he sees his responsibility as a privilege and does his best to preserve the legacy he’s inherited.”

“Perhaps he’s just uncomfortable in social situations,” Tamsin said. “I’ll try to put him at ease.” Smiling, she made her way toward the baron.

He was tall with broad shoulders, his clothing as dark as his expression. Thick brows crested his tumultuous gray eyes. They somehow managed to be simultaneously cool and smoldering.

His gaze met hers. The frown lines did not disperse.

“Good afternoon, Lord Droxford,” Tamsin said.

In fact, the lines now deepened. “Are you here to prod me to smile?”

“No, but would that be bad?” When he did not respond except to slightly narrow his eyes at her, she continued, “I understand you don’t care for social occasions.”

“Typically, I do not. I was thinking of going into the house. I’ve correspondence that requires my attention.” He shifted his focus toward the door, and Tamsin moved to block his view.

“Please don’t. Min has worked very hard to prepare this luncheon, and she’ll be cross if there’s an empty seat at the table.” Tamsin lowered her voice. “It will also give Sheff something to tease her about.”

The baron’s gray eyes widened slightly. “I hadn’t considered that.” He exhaled. “I’ve no wish to cause disharmony. I suppose I must stay.”

Tamsin smiled. “That’s the spirit. What is it about social occasions that you dislike?”

“The social part.”

His answer was both dour and wry. Tamsin felt the urge to giggle. “I think you possess a sense of humor, my lord. How disarming.”

He narrowed one eye at her, his expression becoming skeptical. “Are you flirting with me, Miss Penrose? You should know that I do not flirt.”

“I’d heard you were not a rogue like your friends, but to answer your question, I was not flirting. I simply enjoy people who know how to laugh.”

“That is not me,” he said darkly. “Perhaps you haven’t heard that I don’t laugh. Ever.”

“Never ever?”

He shook his head.

“Then you can’t possibly be a rogue. They tend to laugh as well as flirt.”

“That is your definition of a rogue? A man who laughs and flirts? Forgive me if I disagree. A rogue is far more dangerous than that.”

Dangerous? Tamsin supposed that was true. She was just surprised to hear that from a man whose friends’ behavior was, arguably, the definition of roguery. “A rogue is also someone who flouts convention and Society’s rules, who perhaps gambles too much or pursues the companionship of women to the detriment of his reputation, who oversteps when it comes to young ladies and appropriate behavior. Moreover, someone who lacks integrity and decency. Your friend Bane is a prime example of a rogue.”

Droxford looked away from her, the muscles of his throat working. “I’m not sure Bane is still my friend. You are correct that he is a rogue. Some might even say a blackguard. What he did to Miss Barclay was unforgiveable.”

Tamsin was surprised at the vehemence in Droxford’s tone. He’d also disagreed with the notion that rogues were simply men who flirted and laughed. He clearly had an opinion on the matter. “You feel quite strongly.”

“I was raised with a very distinct sense of right and wrong. Bane’s behavior was decidedly wrong.”

“It’s settled, then,” Tamsin declared. “You are most definitely not a rogue.” She looked into his eyes and gave him a brilliant smile.

For the barest moment, something flashed across his face. It wasn’t quite surprise, but something with a grim edge. Horror or revulsion? “I daresay you do not know me well enough to make that assessment.”

His tone was cold, and his features shuttered. Yes, that was an apt description, for looking at the baron made her feel as though she regarded someone who held himself apart—and not just physically as he’d done by standing away from everyone. Did he think himself a rogue?

She had a keen and sudden desire to pull him forward into the light. Would he come?

“You can’t be a rogue because my friends and I do not associate with rogues. Well, the other gentlemen notwithstanding,” she said with a grimace as she glanced toward her cousin in particular. “I’m afraid we must associate with them because they are related to us. It doesn’t mean we approve of their behavior. In fact, we do our best to avoid it. We even wrote down rules to keep us from being drawn in by a rogue as Pandora was by Bane.” Tamsin cocked her head to the side. “Can you imagine if she’d actually married Bane? I hate that she was ruined, but she and I have agreed she’s likely better off. Could there be any fate worse than marrying a rogue?”

Droxford stared at her a long moment. “No, I suppose not.”

“I saw that we are seated next to one another,” she said, deciding it best to direct their conversation to brighter territory rather than the topic of roguery. “I’m looking forward to deepening our acquaintance.” She meant it. While she’d wanted to put him at ease, she now found she wished to go a step further and bring him cheer.

He studied her a moment. “Now I remember you from last year. And the year before. You are always irrationally cheerful.”

Tamsin laughed. “Irrationally? Goodness. No one has said that to me before. I’d like to think I’ve a reason to be cheerful.”

“And what is that?” Droxford asked, seeming genuinely curious. “Is it just that I’ve managed to be around you on your happiest days, or are you always like this?”

“I’m always like this, I’m afraid.” She sighed. “Since I was a child. My grandfather persistently encouraged me to find joy in every single day, because each one is a gift.”

“You must have had a lovely childhood,” he said flatly.

“It wasn’t perfect,” she said, of course not mentioning her mother’s abandonment. “Which was why it was important for me to generate happiness from within.”

He stared at her as if she’d grown a second nose. Tamsin lifted her hand to her face. “Have I sprouted a wart?” she asked.

Before he could answer, Min announced that it was time to take their seats.

Droxford offered Tamsin his arm. “May I escort you?”

“Thank you.” She placed her hand on his sleeve and felt an instant jolt of energy. It was as if a bright warmth had leapt from him to her, which seemed ridiculous since he was the opposite of bright. Nevertheless, the sensation made her want to lean into him.

The baron held her chair while she sat then took the place next to her where he was assigned. Min, who was at one end of the table, was on Droxford’s other side, and Tamsin’s cousin Somerton was across from him.

Footmen poured wine and brought the first course. Min looked between Droxford and Somerton. “I hear my brother is planning an excursion to Steep Holm.”

“The island in the channel?” Tamsin asked.

Somerton nodded. “Yes. We’re to go the day after tomorrow.”

“I want to come along,” Min said. “However, Sheff will likely say ladies aren’t invited. I don’t suppose the two of you would convince him to include us?” She smiled prettily at both gentlemen.

Tamsin noted the furrows in the baron’s brow. Leaning toward him, she whispered, “Do you not want to ask Sheff?” Perhaps he was annoyed that Min wanted to go. Did he prefer to ensure it was a gentlemen-only trip?

“I have no problem speaking with him, though I can’t imagine why any of you would want to go. Sheff intends to explore caves.”

He hadn’t kept his voice low, and Min reacted with exuberance. “Exploring caves sounds exciting!”

Droxford shrugged. “Perhaps because I grew up near caves in Dunster, I am less enthusiastic.”

“I can understand that.” Tamsin wondered if it was more, however. Instead of seeming uninterested, he appeared slightly agitated. Or perhaps she was making assumptions. She found herself studying him rather intently. Something about him was most alluring. Perhaps it was the fact that he didn’t smile and didn’t care for social gatherings. Or that he had opinions on what it meant to be a rogue. She found him fascinating.

A few minutes later, the plates were exchanged for the primary course, succulent partridge with several vegetables including parsnips and peas. Tamsin looked over at Droxford. “Since you grew up in Dunster, you must enjoy the sea.”

“I do.”

“I do as well,” she said. “I am from St. Austell.”

“I thought your accent was Cornish,” he said.

“I suppose Somerton doesn’t mention me.” She flicked a glance toward her cousin, who met her gaze.

Somerton had heard what she said and cocked his head slightly. “We do not discuss ladies to whom we are related.”

“I don’t discuss ladies at all,” Droxford said with a faint glower directed at Somerton, who grinned in response.

“Drox is more reserved than the rest of us,” Somerton said.

“To his credit.” Min lifted her wineglass in Droxford’s direction.

The baron picked up his own glass, and at that precise moment, a pea hit him in the eye. He flinched, and his wine splashed across Tamsin’s sleeve and onto her bodice. She gasped as some of the liquid landed on her bare flesh above the top of her gown.

“What the devil,” Droxford said loudly as he rubbed at his eye.

“My apologies!” Shefford called from the other end of the table. “You were not my intended target. I really should have practiced more,” he added in a lower but still discernible tone.

Min scowled at him down the length of the table. “I’m sure you meant to hit me.”

“It was just a pea,” Shefford said defensively.

“You hit Droxford in the eye!” Min cried.

“And caused me to spill my wine on Miss Penrose,” Droxford added with clear irritation.

Tamsin mopped at her gown with her napkin. Surprisingly, the baron reached over and began to apply his own napkin, not to her sleeve, but to the skin above her bodice.

She snapped her gaze to his as another odd sensation rippled through her. His gray eyes were as storm filled as they’d been earlier, and the heat was still there. At the moment, there was nothing cold about him at all. She felt suddenly breathless as he dabbed the cloth on her bare flesh. Not just any flesh, but an area that was scandalously close to her bosom. Did he not realize?

Perhaps horrifyingly, Tamsin did not find herself jerking away.

“What are you doing, Drox?” Somerton demanded.

The baron pulled his hand away. “Forgive me. I didn’t think.”

Tamsin continued to dab at her gown, and a footman brought her fresh linen while taking the soiled napkin away. “It’s quite all right. You were just trying to help.” She smiled at him, not wanting him to feel badly.

“This is Sheff’s fault,” Min declared. “What a juvenile thing to do. And you’ve ruined Tamsin’s dress.”

Shefford’s features pressed into a brief grimace as he regarded Tamsin. “My apologies, Miss Penrose.”

“You should send one back at him,” Droxford murmured to her. “Or I can.”

Tamsin shot him a look of surprise, then suppressed a giggle. He did have a sense of humor and wasn’t at all as gloomy as he seemed. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t hit my target either. I’m woefully unpracticed in pea flinging,” she said softly.

Droxford’s lips twitched. It wasn’t a smile, but it was definite amusement. Suddenly, Tamsin’s chest felt incredibly light.

“Do you want to change into one of my gowns?” Min offered to Tamsin.

“I think I’ll be all right. It’s not that wet.” She’d finished dabbing at her bodice and had moved on to her sleeve.

“Ow!” Shefford exclaimed.

Tamsin swung her head about to see the earl rubbing his forehead. He glowered toward the baron, but only briefly before inclining his head.

“Well aimed, Droxford,” Shefford said, lowering his hand to pick up his wineglass. He offered a toast. “To the baron who brandishes a spoon with terrifying dexterity.”

Everyone lifted their glasses and toasted Droxford.

“But was a parsnip necessary?” Shefford asked in exasperation. “I only used a pea.”

“I simply grabbed what was most convenient,” Droxford said with a shrug.

Tamsin slid a sly smile toward the man beside her. From what she could discern, he was not as somber as he appeared. She looked forward to proving that theory.

#

While pelting Shefford with a parsnip had been most satisfying, Isaac spent the remainder of the meal wishing he could go back in time and not accost Miss Penrose with his napkin. He knew better than to touch a lady inappropriately. He’d never touched a woman without her consent.

Miss Penrose had likely changed her mind about him and decided he was, in fact, a rogue. Good. It was better that she knew who he was at his core and stayed away from him. She was far too sweet to want to be in his company.

Lady Minerva stood as the meal concluded and announced there would be bowling. The guests began rising from the table and moving toward the lawn, where footmen had set up the game.

Isaac moved to hold Miss Penrose’s chair. Standing, she faced him and offered her thanks.

“Droxford, I do hope you’re going to take Tamsin for a short promenade so you can apologize,” Somerton said as he stood. Was he teasing? Or was he angry with Isaac for inadvertently groping his cousin?

Somerton would have every right to be upset with him.

“Of course,” Isaac said with a solemn nod. He’d been hoping to avoid Miss Penrose for she provoked something odd within him. Something he preferred to ignore. But he did owe her an apology. He turned to her and asked, “Will you promenade with me?”

“That would be lovely.” She put her hand on his sleeve once more, and as earlier when he’d escorted her to the table, his body reacted with a flash of heat. That something he wanted to ignore was attraction. He hadn’t experienced it in over a decade.

They walked from the patio to a path that wound through the formal garden. Isaac immediately launched into his apology. “I deeply regret my actions earlier,” he said. “I don’t know what possessed me to touch you in such an inappropriate manner. I hope you are not too angry with me.”

“I’m not angry at all. It takes a great deal more than that to pique my temper.” She tipped her head and looked over at him. “I am not even sure I have a temper. At least not a bad one.”

He had no difficulty imagining that. “I am still horrified by my behavior. I do hope you will forgive me.”

Miss Penrose put her other hand on his sleeve so that she was clasping him with both. It was somehow more intimate. And distracting. “There is nothing to forgive,” she said. “You were merely trying to help, and in the moment, that seemed more important to you than propriety, which I applaud.”

“Thank you.” He tried not to think of how she was now closer to him with both hands on his person. “I suspected Shefford would do something to sabotage his sister’s luncheon, but I didn’t think he’d stoop to a food fight.”

Miss Penrose paused and turned toward him. This brought them even closer together, and Isaac’s breath stuttered, then came faster. “How is your eye anyway? I should have been tending to you. An injury is far worse than a sullied gown.” She stood on her toes and looked into his left eye. “Does it pain you?”

He faced her, and she released one of her hands from his sleeve, much to his dismay. “No. It stung for a moment, but then I was more concerned with your ruined gown.” His gaze flicked toward her bodice, which had dried. Though the wine had been pale, there was still a faint discoloration on the pretty golden-yellow silk. He wondered if he should plant Shefford a facer for ruining her gown.

Too late, he realized he’d been staring at her chest for far too long. And not because he’d been observing her breasts. Though, now that he looked at them, he had to admit they were enchantingly high and round. Blast, he was becoming worse than a rogue.

He jerked his gaze up to her face, then pivoted to propel them forward along the path once more. “I hope your gown isn’t permanently stained.”

“I’m sure it will be fine. It’s seen several seasons and has survived a great many mishaps.”

Isaac had little knowledge of fashion, so he couldn’t have said if the gown was à la mode. “Has it?”

“Actually, I do not have occasion to wear it often. I spend most of my time at home or visiting neighbors and people in town. In St. Austell, I mean. This gown is for more formal gatherings, and I rarely attend any.”

He found that interesting since he perceived her to be someone who enjoyed being social, unlike himself. Perhaps they were at odds—she wished to be more social and wasn’t and he preferred to do less. Unfortunately, his position in the House of Lords required him to attend events that he otherwise wouldn’t.

And yet here he was in Weston, as he was every year, with friends. It seemed he didn’t dislike being with others as much as he thought. Rather, it was this specific group of people and the fact that it was a small gathering.

Miss Penrose also didn’t hurt matters. Indeed, she improved them.

“Why is it you don’t attend more formal events?” he asked.

She lifted a shoulder. “St. Austell is small. There isn’t much of a society there. Mostly, I take care of my father’s household. It’s just him and me—and our retainers, of course. But we don’t have a great many of those. Penrose House isn’t large. I do love to spend time on the beach where I collect shells. That is a solitary endeavor, however.”

“Why? Is there no one who will accompany you? I would.” Had he offered to spend time with someone he’d just met? Isaac didn’t quite understand what was happening here.

“How heartening to learn,” she said, her eyes sparkling. Isaac was absolutely enchanted by her. He could stare at her all day. “What of the excursion to Steep Holm? By your own admission, you weren’t enthused. Would you rather the ladies didn’t come?”

“Not at all.” He exhaled. “Honestly, I’d rather not go.”

They’d almost completed their garden circuit. Isaac would prefer to go around again than bowl.

“Because you aren’t interested in seeing the caves?” she asked.

“Actually, I don’t care for boats.” Had he actually admitted that out loud? What sort of spell had she cast upon him to coax forth his secrets as well as provoke him to desire her company?

“Is there a particular reason?” Her expression was so sympathetic, so caring, that for some reason he couldn’t identify, he was going to reveal one of his secrets, which he’d never done.

“When I was a boy, I assisted a fisherman in Dunster where I grew up. I didn’t really like being on the boat—it made me queasy—but my father insisted I work to build my character.”

“And did it?” she asked with a sincerity that surprised him.

“I’m not certain, but I suppose everything we do in our youth supports that.”

“Is it that the boat will make you queasy, then?” She looked at him with such care that he blurted the truth, which he’d never shared with anyone.

“The water was especially rough one day, and we capsized. I was afraid I would drown.” Thinking of it now, he felt as though he couldn’t draw a full breath.

Her grip on his arm tightened but not painfully. “I’m so sorry. You needn’t go to Steep Holm.”

“That may be, but I don’t spend a great deal of time in Weston, not even the full week the other gentlemen typically stay, and Shefford is campaigning most strongly that I go.”

“If he is a good friend, he’ll respect your desire not to accompany them.”

“I’ll consider it.” He couldn’t help but feel encouraged by her support. Shefford was a good friend, but Isaac suspected he’d made another friend today in Miss Penrose. “Will you go if the ladies are invited?”

“It does sound exciting, I admit.” She cast him an eager smile. “I haven’t been out on the sea, if you can believe that. I do wonder if I would be queasy too.”

“You should go,” he said, despite thinking it would have been nice to go shell collecting on the beach with her instead. “Everyone should experience being on the sea at least once.”

“I’ll consider it,” she echoed with a teasing smile. “If we’re even invited, though I won’t discount Min’s abilities of persuasion, even with her brother. They have an odd relationship. I know they love each other very much, but they also tease each other ruthlessly. I suppose I don’t understand because I don’t have siblings. Do you?”

“No, I do not have siblings either. But if I did, I would not behave the way Sheff and Lady Minerva do.”

“It’s easy for us to say as spectators,” she said with a light laugh. She sent him a sidelong glance. “I have a question for you. If the pea hadn’t hit you in the eye, would you have found Sheff’s prank amusing?”

“Doubtful. I haven’t ever cared for such antics.”

“But your return volley was most excellent. I would have guessed you had experience with flinging food.” Her eyes were alight with mischief, and Isaac was falling deeper into her entrancement.

Again, he revealed a secret, or a long-buried truth. “I may have participated in a food fight or two at Christ Church—the college I attended at Oxford where I met Sheff.”

“Aha! I knew it,” she crowed. “Perhaps someday you can teach me how to launch a parsnip.”

He felt the urge to smile, which rarely happened. “Why? Do you plan to begin a career of pelting people with vegetables?”

She giggled. “No. I suppose I don’t really need to learn.” She sighed in mock disappointment as they reached the patio. “It’s a shame you don’t stay very long at the Grove. You are most diverting. Can I convince you stay longer? At least until the other gentlemen leave?”

She wanted him to stay? He was used to Sheff and Somerton trying to convince him to remain, and they were never successful. Miss Penrose, however, might be able to persuade him. He found he was very much looking forward to seeing her again.

But no. He couldn’t want that. What would be the point? He had no interest in courtship or marriage. He was busy with Wood End and in the House of Lords. There was no time or space for a woman.

“I’ll consider—”

She cut him off. “Don’t say it.” Then she laughed. “You really are the most sober gentleman. I shall take it as a personal challenge to coax a smile from you before you depart. I’ll have to work quickly in case you leave after the soiree at the Weston Hotel.”

Isaac wasn’t aware of a soiree. He nearly groaned. More people. More socializing. And probably dancing, which he loathed. “When is that?”

“The day after the trip to Steep Holm.”

Lady Minerva called out to them, “Tamsin, aren’t you going to come and bowl?”

“Yes!” She pivoted toward Isaac once more. “Let’s join them.”

“You go. I’ve correspondence to complete.”

“Do you really, or have you simply reached your limit for socializing?”

The truth was that he could have stayed and talked with Miss Penrose all day. That was not an option, however, as they would need to go join the others or else raise eyebrows for their behavior. Indeed, he was likely to sustain a great deal of teasing from his friends about this lengthy promenade. Isaac didn’t do such things.

Why on earth was he doing it now, then?

“Both, I’m afraid,” he said in response to her clever question. She saw him in a way others did not. It was both wonderful and terrifying.

She took her hand from his arm. “Don’t be afraid,” she said softly, her eyes dazzling him with a bright heat. “Be joyful. If you want to go work, go work and be glad for it. If you choose solitude to quiet your mind, or whatever the reason, do so because it makes you happy.”

Giving him a brilliant smile, she turned and skipped away toward the lawn.

It took Isaac a moment to recall what he was doing or even where he was. The spell Miss Penrose had cast lingered, and he suspected it would for some time.

 

Chapter Four

 

The following day, Tamsin gathered with her friends in the sitting room they used at the Weston Hotel. With wide windows that overlooked the ocean some half mile away, the room was decorated in pale blues with ivory accents and had a cozy fireplace that they used from time to time, even in August. They’d begun meeting here four years ago, and the hotel owner knew that for the month of August, they would occupy the space every afternoon.

They drank tea, ate scrumptious cakes, watched the ocean in the distance, and, most importantly, talked about everything. Today’s conversation was, as expected, focused mostly on yesterday’s luncheon, which one of their number—Pandora—had not attended.

Though Pandora had recovered somewhat from the scandal of her and Bane’s compromising situation, she still preferred to avoid social gatherings. In this case, she was avoiding Bane’s friends, whom she had no desire to spend time with, her brother-in-law Wellesbourne notwithstanding. He had reformed, and Pandora had embraced him as family. Wellesbourne had also done all he could to help Pandora last year after the scandal. While she wasn’t yet entirely welcome in society, she wasn’t given the cut direct. Though she had been, just not recently.

Tamsin understood Pandora’s hesitation to expose herself to others. She’d been completely in love with Bane and had expected they would wed. Then he’d broken her heart into bits and married someone else. In Tamsin’s opinion, Pandora was perfectly entitled to her bitterness. Tamsin just hoped it would continue to ease in time.

Min looked around at everyone after setting down her teacup. “I’ve been working on convincing Sheff to allow us to accompany them to Steep Holm tomorrow. I do think my offer of organizing an extensive picnic may have won him over. While he could simply ask the cook to prepare one, he thankfully—and unsurprisingly—hadn’t thought of that.”

“I don’t know that I want to go,” Persephone said. “But Acton does, so I will try and hope I don’t become ill.”

That reminded Tamsin of Droxford, not that he’d been far from her mind. She’d thought about him a great deal since yesterday. She wondered what he’d decided regarding the excursion. Would the lure of a delicious picnic persuade him to face his fears?

Not that he needed to. He’d suffered a terrible ordeal in his youth, and Tamsin couldn’t blame him if he didn’t want to risk repeating it.

“Pandora, will you consider coming?” Gwen asked hopefully.

Pandora shook her head. “While it sounds exciting, I am not yet ready to spend that much time with those who would still call Bane friend.”

“Droxford does not, if that helps to know,” Tamsin said. “He even suggested Bane is a blackguard.”

Min looked at her with great curiosity. “You and he took a lengthy promenade yesterday.”

“Did you?” Pandora asked, also with avid interest.

“He invited me to promenade so he could apologize again for spilling his wine on me.” That mishap had already been discussed, and Pandora had heard about it after the luncheon from Persephone, as she was residing with her sister and Wellesbourne at their cottage.

“It wasn’t his fault,” Min said with a brief glower. “My brother was entirely to blame.”

“Sheff apologized to me as well,” Tamsin said, recalling his very sincere regret at ruining her gown. Though her gown wasn’t, in fact, ruined because her grandmother’s housekeeper was incredibly skilled at cleaning just about anything.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Pandora said. “So, your promenade with Droxford wasn’t eventful?”

Eventful, no. Interesting, yes. Tamsin had found the baron incredibly intriguing as well as attractive. She’d been disappointed when he said he wouldn’t be staying long. “I found him charming, actually.”

“Droxford?” Ellis asked. “Forgive me, but I’ve come to know him somewhat the past few years he’s stayed at the Grove—as well as one can since he is so reserved—and charming is not a word I would use to describe him. And I mean no offense by that. He seems perfectly…fine.”

“Perhaps he revealed a part of himself to Tamsin that he doesn’t to anyone else,” Gwen suggested. “I imagine he’s looking for a wife, or will be at some point.” Her inference was clear, at least to Tamsin.

“He made a point of telling me he doesn’t stay in Weston long,” Tamsin said. “We had a friendly promenade and nothing more. In any case, I’ve news to share if you want to discuss potential courtship and marriage.” She paused as they all stared at her with rapt attention. “My father wrote to inform me that he has a suitor in mind for me to wed. Before you ask, I do not know who it is.”

Pandora wrinkled her nose. “Why am I not surprised he left out vital information? He barely spoke to you while I was visiting.”

“That’s not true,” Tamsin said in defense of her father. “Of course he spoke to me. He just did so privately.” That he’d allowed Tamsin to have a guest for so long had been remarkable. Her father didn’t generally care to be around people, particularly those he didn’t know. The only people he spent any measurable time with were other scholars who shared his passions.

“Even so, he didn’t seem terribly interested in what you were doing,” Pandora continued. “I don’t mean to disparage him. I’m just making an observation.”

She wasn’t wrong. Tamsin’s father was dedicated to his work. He always had been. Which meant Tamsin was used to his behavior and didn’t feel slighted. “It is the way things are,” she said without rancor. “He works too much, and I don’t mind.” At least he was present. He hadn’t left like her mother had.

“I do wonder who this suitor is,” Pandora mused. “Beware of matchmaking parents. Look what ours tried to do to Persephone.” She sent her sister a half smile.

Persephone rolled her eyes. “First they tried to marry me to Acton, and when I refused because he was a rake, they moved on to Mother’s cousin’s son.” A shudder passed across her shoulders as she looked toward Tamsin. “I will hope your father is not trying to marry you off for his own reasons, as my parents did. Rather, that he has your best interests in mind.”

“I’m sure it’s the latter.” Her father had no self-serving reasons to see her wed. Indeed, he liked having Tamsin at Penrose House, and he’d certainly discouraged courtship thus far. It was that last part that made Tamsin skeptical. Why was he seeking to marry her off now?

“Do you even want to wed?” Min asked. “You’ve never talked about it.”

Tamsin cocked her head. “I hadn’t given it much thought until my father’s letter. I am not in a position to have a Season like all of you.” She sent a sympathetic look to Pandora, who would not have a Season either after what happened last year. “I imagined I’d live in St. Austell, probably as a spinster. Or perhaps a handsome gentleman would miraculously sweep into town on a white horse and carry me away to his Cornish castle.” She made the comment in jest, but since learning her father wanted her to wed, she’d begun to imagine something similar. Her ideas were too fanciful, but she enjoyed them nonetheless.

“But what about a family?” Persephone asked softly. “Now that I’m to be a mother, I didn’t realize how much I would want that.”

Motherhood was not something Tamsin had contemplated at all. Was that because her own mother had been such a disappointment? Tamsin had few pleasant memories of the woman who’d left when she was just eight years old. She’d read to Tamsin and occasionally sang to her, and that was about all Tamsin remembered. The rest was a blurry haze in which Tamsin felt her mother’s unhappiness, but didn’t recall specific memories.

“Honestly, I hadn’t considered motherhood either,” Tamsin said. “I realize that must sound strange. However, I was not raised to think that marriage and motherhood were my only future.” And for that, Tamsin was actually grateful. But now that she was thinking about it, she couldn’t deny that a family of her own was tempting. Perhaps she could be the mother she’d always wanted.

“What will you do if this potential suitor isn’t to your liking?” Pandora asked. “Perhaps he’s a rogue.” Her lips pursed briefly in distaste.

“What will you do if he is to your liking?” Gwen asked, waggling her dark brows, which prompted everyone to laugh.

Tamsin was hoping for that very thing. The notion of marriage and family had become very appealing. “That wouldn’t be the worst thing,” Tamsin said with a smile.

Min glanced toward the window. “Speaking of rogues, my brother and his merry band of scoundrels are playing Battledore and Shuttlecock on the lawn.”

Tamsin diverted her attention to see four of the gentlemen were playing while the fifth stood and watched. It did not surprise her that the one not wielding a racket was Droxford. “I don’t think Droxford is a rogue. Or a scoundrel.” She glanced around the room. “Unless being reserved is roguish behavior?”

“Certainly not,” Ellis said. “And neither is lacking charm, though now I feel badly for saying that I wouldn’t describe him as charming,” she added sheepishly.

Tamsin gave her an encouraging smile. “Don’t feel badly. I think if you asked him to describe himself, he would likely not use the word charming either.” Was that true? Could she have discerned that from just their single conversation, even if it had been lengthy?

“I would agree with that assessment,” Min said. “Given how hard he apparently works, I doubt he has time to be a rogue.” She stood abruptly. “Come, let us interrupt their game to ensure they’ll include us on the excursion tomorrow.”

They all rose and began to leave the sitting room. Except Pandora. Tamsin lingered to speak with her, standing before Pandora’s chair. “You won’t come?”

Pandora exhaled. “I suppose I should. I can’t hold a grudge forever.”

“I don’t think you’re holding a grudge. I think it’s difficult for you to be around people who are—or were—close to Bane. I know how deeply you’d come to care for him and how badly he hurt you.”

Pandora looked up at Tamsin. “It was all a lie, and I was such a fool. I know what people must think of me. I know you all don’t look at me and see an imbecile or a pariah, but I’ll wager they do.” She inclined her head toward the windows.

“I doubt that. Droxford was most critical of Bane. Perhaps they all are. You could give them a chance?”

“I’ll think about it.” Pandora settled back in her chair. “For now, I’m fine sitting here. You go.”

“You should go to Steep Holm tomorrow,” Tamsin said. “I can see how much it intrigues you.”

Pandora gave her a warm smile. “I’ll think about that too. Thank you, Tam. You’re a dear friend.”

Blowing her a kiss, Tamsin hurried from the sitting room to join the others outside. When she arrived at the lawn, the game had halted, and everyone stood conversing.

Shefford was speaking, and while he primarily looked at his sister, he seemed to be addressing all the ladies. “After great consideration, I’ve decided you can come tomorrow. We will meet at the dock at half ten. Earlier than we are usually about, but the departure time was set by the ship’s captain based on the tide.”

Min smiled widely, the blaze of victory in her eyes. “I’ll make sure our splendid picnic lunch is ready.”

“Now, may we get back to our game?” Gwen’s brother asked.

“Definitely.” Shefford headed back onto the lawn.

Before joining them, Somerton stepped toward Tamsin. “You coming tomorrow?”

“I’d like to. It sounds invigorating.”

“I can drive us to the dock in Grandmama’s gig,” he offered.

“She’ll love that we’re going somewhere together,” Tamsin said with a smile. Inclining her head toward the lawn where the net stood, she asked, “Are you winning?”

“Yes, Price is devilishly good. We drew blades of grass to form teams, and I was initially disappointed not to be paired with Sheff, but Price is better.” He waggled his brows. “Lucky me.”

“Why isn’t Droxford playing?”

“He will in the next set. We just have uneven numbers. I suppose we’ll need to recruit another rogue.” He sniggered.

Tamsin gave his arm a light, playful shove. “How about you find someone who isn’t a rogue? What you need is another Droxford.”

Somerton eyed the baron. “How do you know he isn’t a rogue?” He winked at her before dashing toward the lawn just as Shefford called his name with impatience.

Was Somerton teasing her, or was the baron hiding a secret roguish personality that the ladies didn’t see? She cast a surreptitious glance toward Droxford, only to find him staring straight at her.

Again, she wondered how a man who behaved so coolly and was regarded as reticent could look at her with such heat. Tamsin felt his perusal in the deepest part of her belly. In perhaps an area that wasn’t her belly at all.

She moved toward him as if pulled by some invisible force. She noted that he was also walking in her direction. Were they somehow magnetized?

“Good afternoon, Miss Penrose.”

“Good afternoon, my lord. Have you decided whether you will go on tomorrow’s excursion?”

He clasped his hands behind his back, facing the lawn as the Battledore and Shuttlecock match resumed. “I plan to remain at the Grove. I’ve work to do, and that is a better use of my time. And you?”

“I’m going along.” However, disappointment dampened her enthusiasm a little. His dedication to his work above all else brought her father to mind. Though she understood, she couldn’t deny that his lack of attention—or affection—had been disheartening at times. “Is it the work that’s keeping you behind or what happened in your youth?” She laughed softly. “I’m being terribly intrusive. You must tell me to mind my own business, if you like.”

“Your questions don’t bother me.” He fixed his gaze on hers. “You are unlike anyone I’ve ever met, Miss Penrose.”

Tamsin’s insides fluttered, like a bird’s wings as it tried to take flight. “I shall take that as a compliment.”

“Good, because that’s precisely how I meant it.”

The heat his stare had stirred within her flared anew. She wanted to touch his sleeve again. Or perhaps some other part of him. His chest was rather broad, and she imagined he was quite muscular. Was he staring at her mouth?

She suddenly wondered what it would be like to kiss him. Wonderful, she suspected. Too bad she would likely never find out.

“Tamsin!” Min called, interrupting Tamsin’s increasingly wicked thoughts.

Looking toward the hotel where Min’s voice had come from, Tamsin realized her friends had gone back inside. She’d hadn’t noticed at all, for she’d been completely enraptured by Droxford.

“I wish I could see you tomorrow,” she said. “Then it would be three days in a row. But I understand why you aren’t coming. I shall look forward to seeing you at the soiree here instead.”

He didn’t respond as she turned and walked toward the hotel. Min saw her coming and went inside. At the door, Tamsin turned her head to see the baron once more.

Again, he watched her, his attention entirely on her person. She felt her face flush, and wondered what his interest could mean.

Nothing, because they would part in a few days, and at some point, her mystery suitor would arrive—a point she’d forgotten to mention to the others.

Pivoting on her heel, she went into the hotel and planned to reveal that missing detail. Best to focus on that than the shocking sensations Droxford aroused.

She could only hope the potential groom her father had chosen provoked a similar reaction. How delightful that would be.

***

(Excerpted material is from the ARC (advanced reader copy version) of Because the Baron Broods. This is not a final version of the book and may contain typos or other issues such as formatting.)

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