| Author Darcy Burke
Darcy Burke

Excerpt: When the Viscount Seduces

Book 3: Rogue Rules

Chapter One

London, April, 1816

Gwendolen Price’s stomach churned from a combination of anxiety and anticipation as she and her mother neared the fabled entrance to Almack’s. Gwen had long dreamed of this night, of making a triumphant entrance into this hallowed place where she would be anointed a diamond of the Season.

Her father, arriving later, would nod at her with pride in his dark gaze, and her mother would beam with the same emotion. Gwen would not trip or knock her elbow into anyone, and she would absolutely not bore those she met with a description of the latest novel she’d devoured.

The latter was much easier than the former. Although, both could be extremely difficult, especially given Gwen’s nerves. She wanted so badly to impress people and, most importantly, to make her parents proud. Sometimes, she forgot to modulate her speech and her movements, and that was when disaster happened.

She’d executed her presentation to the queen with a shocking grace. Right up until her headdress had listed sideways. In her efforts to right it, she’d bumped into the young lady she’d been standing next to, causing her to fall into the young lady next to her, and so on, for several young ladies. It had caused a stir, all while other young ladies were still being presented. The queen had halted the proceeding until Gwen could get her headdress back on straight, which had required help from her mother and someone else’s mother.

Then there were the two balls she’d attended thus far this Season. At the first, she’d forgotten not to talk about books. But it hadn’t been her fault. She’d been so bored! At the second, she’d danced twice, and both sets had been riddled with her stepping on others’ feet or running into them as she moved the wrong way. Then after she’d been holding up the wall for over an hour, a gentleman had finally asked her to promenade, for which she was most grateful. She could walk without incident. Usually. Unless she waved her arms as she talked animatedly or looked at her companion instead of where she was going. Which was precisely what had happened.

She’d been so excited by her discussion—about books, naturally—with her companion that she’d failed to see the Dowager Duchess of Sale, and she’d marched straight into the seventy-some-year-old woman, nearly knocking her down. Thankfully, her companion had moved quickly and saved the dowager from certain doom. Gwen and her mother had gone home after that.

Somehow, despite all that, Gwen had obtained a voucher to Almack’s. Her mother had called in every favor, and Gwen’s father had used his position in the Treasury to apply pressure to those who could help his daughter gain the patronesses’ notice—and in a positive way. Miraculously, Lady Sefton, who was generally seen as the kindest of the ladies who sat in judgment over who was admitted, issued her an invitation. But only for the month of April, not the entire Season. It appeared to be a test, and Gwen vowed she was going to pass it.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” her mother asked. “You haven’t even practiced dancing in the past week since Monsieur Leclerc ceased your lessons.”

Gwen cringed inwardly in reference to the third dancing master who’d decided Gwen was hopeless, that she would never become an accomplished dancer. He’d only lasted a fortnight, the briefest one yet. “I have practiced, Mama. With Badge.”

“Your maid does not signify as a dancing partner.” Mama shook her head, but a smile teased her mouth. “You do try so very hard, my darling. I am sorry this isn’t easier for you.”

The coach came to a full stop. “Dancing may not be my forte, but I have other skills. It’s really too bad I can’t display my watercolors when I attend a ball.” She exhaled as the door opened. It was time to go inside.

A footman helped her mother to descend, then provided the same assistance to Gwen. Taking a deep breath, Gwen walked to the entrance with her mother and sent up a silent prayer that nothing horrible would happen. Not tonight.

“Last chance to change your mind,” her mother said, glancing over at her. Gwen’s mother was incredibly beautiful, with rich sable hair without a single strand of gray, luminous hazel-brown eyes, and satiny olive skin. Though Gwen had the same hair, she was paler in coloring and her eyes were solidly brown. Uninterestingly flat brown without Mama’s green and gold flecks. “We can always retreat to Bath,” Mama added.

The question of whether Gwen ought to have a London Season or a Bath Season had been long discussed. Her readiness for London had been in question for several years, and so Gwen had asked for more time to attain additional polish. Finally, her parents had relented last summer and agreed she would debut in London this year. Unfortunately, things had not gone well, but Gwen was determined that would change.

“I’m not ready for that,” Gwen said firmly. She knew her mother had her best interests at heart. She didn’t want Gwen to feel bad or as though she had failed. But Gwen just wanted her parents to be proud of her, and for that reason, she was going to be a success.

“I love you,” Mama said with a soft smile. “No matter what.”

“I love you too, Mama. And if tonight is a disaster, I will reconsider. It’s not going to be, though. Tonight will be spectacular.”

It was not spectacular. It was, instead, spectacularly boring.

One hour into her arrival, Gwen had not yet been asked to dance. Some young ladies making their debut had at least one dance arranged for them by the patronesses, but Gwen had not received that benefit. She assumed everyone knew her to be a poor dancing partner.

She turned to her mother, who didn’t appear at all troubled by Gwen’s lack of partners, but then Mama excelled at looking serene. “I’m going to have a glass of orgeat. Do you want any?”

Her mother’s nose wrinkled. “I would advise against it. I thought I mentioned how ghastly sour it tastes here.”

“You did, but I’m thirsty, and it seems as though I need to discover the vileness for myself.”

Chuckling, Gwen’s mother inclined her head toward the supper rooms. “Help yourself, then. And Gwen, do not be concerned that you haven’t danced. We arrived very early.”

That much was true. The ballroom had been far emptier when they’d first arrived. Over the past hour, many people had flowed in, but the space was still not a crush. Indeed, Gwen’s father and brother had not yet arrived, nor had she seen any of her friends.

Gwen made her way along the edge of the ballroom, careful to avoid catching her elbow on anyone. Inside the supper room, the crowd was sparse. It could not even be called a crowd. Most everyone present was either dancing or gathered along the periphery of the ballroom, situated on couches as they conversed.

As she walked to the table holding the orgeat, Gwen’s evening gown swirled about her. She glanced down at the peach silk and was glad she at least looked the part of a young Society lady, even if she didn’t embody her.

Apparently, her glance down lasted longer than an actual glance, for when she raised her gaze, she nearly strode directly into a gentleman.

“Careful there,” the Viscount Somerton said.

Gwen exhaled with relief, glad her near collision was with someone she knew. The viscount, broad shouldered with gloriously blond hair and a dazzling smile, was a good friend of her brother’s. She’d spent time with Somerton in Weston, where she and her mother—and her brother this past year—whiled away the month of August with friends near the sea. Somerton and her brother, along with others, spent a great deal of their time at the Grove, an estate owned by the Duke of Henlow. His two children, the Earl of Shefford and Lady Minerva, stayed there in August. Min was a dear friend of Gwen’s. Indeed, she was one of the friends who had not yet arrived this evening.

“My apologies, my lord,” Gwen said, dipping a brief curtsey. Though her grandfather was a viscount, she was not a member of the peerage herself.

“You needn’t use such formality with me,” Somerton said with a wave of his gloved hand. “No curtseying permitted.” He winked at her, his roguishness on full display.

A year and a half ago, Gwen and her friends had drafted “rogue rules,” a guide for steering clear of rakish gentlemen and their scandalous behavior. It had been the result of one of them falling prey to an especially horrid scoundrel. The Earl of Banemore, once a member of that elite group of male friends who gathered at the Grove, had ruined Gwen’s friend Pandora Barclay. Pandora had expected a marriage proposal, but when she and Bane had been caught in a compromising position, he’d informed her that he was already betrothed to someone else. Someone he’d married not long after that awful occurrence.

The rogue rules had seemed vital to their own protection, and they generally adhered to them most strictly. For Gwen, she was especially careful with the first two: not to be alone with a rogue and not to flirt with one. Not that she’d had occasion to do either of those. The third was to never give a rogue a chance, which she meant to follow, but about which she was admittedly skeptical. Two of their set, Pandora’s sister Persephone and Tamsin, now the Duchess of Wellesbourne and the Lady Droxford, had married supposed rogues. Though, Tamsin’s husband was really only a rogue by association, and it didn’t seem fair to characterize him as one.

Somerton, however, was most definitely a rogue. He flirted with ease, and charm seemed to drip from his every word and gaze. Gwen wondered if giggling and swooning had originated with women who spent time with knaves such as him. She had no trouble believing it.

“It’s hard not to curtsey,” Gwen said. “We are at Almack’s, and I am trying to make a good impression.”

“Well, I’d say you’re doing a fine job.” He regarded her intently, his gaze sweeping her from the top of her headdress to the tip of her slipper peeking from the hem of her gown. “You look lovely. Peach is a very fetching color on you.”

“Thank you. That means a great deal coming from you.” Gwen had noticed that the viscount possessed a sharp sense for fashion. Of all the gentlemen who gathered in Weston every August, he always seemed the most ready to saunter into a London ballroom.

Tonight, he was impeccably outfitted in a dark green coat, black breeches, a gold embroidered waistcoat, and impossibly glossy Hessians. He laughed at her comment. “Does it? I can’t imagine my opinion is all that vital, but I am glad to offer it, and you do look most ravishing.” His mouth twisted. “Forget I said that. Poor word choice for a friend’s sister. You look very pretty.”

Gwen smiled. “Thank you again, and I won’t tell Evan what you said. I’m going to get a glass of orgeat. Do you want to join me?”

He made a face. “That noxious brew? I’d rather inhale beetles.”

She blinked. “That’s a rather…specific alternative.”

Leaning close, he spoke in a low tone. “I inhaled a beetle once. I was about eight years old. The insect was on my horse, and as I was riding, it somehow came loose from the animal, caught the wind, and I sucked it directly into my mouth. It was absolutely revolting.”

Gwen’s mouth opened, but she snapped it closed as she considered the horror of a bug being sucked inside. “That’s perhaps the worst anecdote I’ve ever heard.”

“Which is why I’m telling you in confidence.” He arched his brows and gave her a mischievous smile.

It occurred to Gwen that he might actually be flirting, but could one really flirt about inhaling a beetle? Or with a friend’s cousin? Somerton was cousin to Gwen’s dear friend Tamsin.

“I’m bound for the ballroom,” Somerton said, straightening. “I won’t be staying much longer, but if you’d care to dance the next set, I’d be happy to partner you.”

Gwen stared at him. “Truly?” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Is this a pity dance?”

He cocked his head to the side, and his hesitation answered her question.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I’m not above accepting that. As you can see, I’m rather desperate.”

“You don’t look desperate to me,” he said softly, with kindness in his eyes. “You look like a young lady who deserves to dance.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll search you out in a bit.” He gave her a swift, shallow bow and departed for the ballroom. Appreciating the viscount’s kindness, Gwen went to take a cup of orgeat from the table. She took a sip, and good heavens, sour was not a strong enough description. It was bitter. Like the heart of a woman scorned.

Pandora again came to mind, and Gwen instantly refused to compare her drink to one of her friends.

She returned to the ballroom, her mind on Pandora and whether she would ever recover from the scandal enough to reenter Society or find a husband. Though, Gwen was fairly certain she didn’t want the latter. So far, she didn’t particularly want the former, and Gwen couldn’t blame her.

Somehow, Gwen forgot how awful the orgeat tasted and took another drink as she walked into the ballroom. Her eyes squeezed shut as she forced herself to swallow the acrid liquid. In that barest moment, disaster struck. And it wasn’t a near collision.

She walked straight into a gentleman, spilling her repellant beverage onto his immaculate blue coat and canary-yellow waistcoat. The remainder sloshed toward the floor, splashing his shiny Hessians and the lower part of her skirt.

“Watch where you’re going!” the gentleman declared, his gloved hand brushing at the droplets clinging to his front. “You may well have ruined this waistcoat. It’s silk. And I just picked it up from Savile Row this very afternoon.”

Gwen cringed and waved her hands as if she meant to help him tidy himself, but stopped herself from doing so. What that did, however, was splash the remainder of the contents of her orgeat onto the man’s waistcoat. Horrified, she stared at the stain darkening the canary silk. “I’m so sorry.”

He sputtered. “You’re a menace!” Then he stalked off.

Pivoting on her slipper, Gwen took a step after him—what was she going to do?—and promptly slipped. She’d put her new slipper, the soles of which were still quite smooth, directly on the spilled liquid, and there was simply no help for it. She was going to fall.

Her foot slid forward, and her arms windmilled as she fell to her backside. Her skirts rose to her knees, exposing her lower legs. Somehow, she managed to keep hold of the stupid, now quite empty, cup.

While the music kept on, every other sound in the ballroom seem to grind to a halt. Certainly, the conversation stopped. A brief glance around revealed that everyone in Gwen’s vicinity was now staring at her. She hurriedly brushed her skirts down her legs, frantically working to cover her exposed calves and ankles. Heat flooded her neck and face. She prayed her mother wasn’t watching, but of course she was. Instead, Gwen prayed her father and brother hadn’t yet arrived.

A strong hand gripped her arm and put a hand to her back. “Permit me to help you,” the man murmured, his voice familiar.

Gwen turned her head and saw the arresting features of the Viscount Somerton, his green eyes fixed intently—and sympathetically—on her, his jaw firm, his lips impossibly supple. Could a man have supple lips? Regardless, Somerton did.

He helped her swiftly and effortlessly to her feet, then took the empty cup from her. In a fluid movement, he deposited the vessel on a tray of a footman standing against the wall. The viscount’s actions were so graceful, so easily maneuvered that Gwen wanted to weep with envy.

“Time for our dance,” he said, sweeping her toward the dance floor.

“But it’s the middle of a set.”

“It’s a line. We can simply insert ourselves.” He gave her a confident smile, and Gwen had to bite back an absurd laugh.

“It might be simple for you,” she muttered as he guided her to the end of the line of ladies.

“Never fear,” he whispered. “We are late enough joining that we may not even have a turn before the set ends.”

She snapped her gaze to his, a rush of gratitude flowing over her. “You are brilliant,” she whispered.

Inexplicably, a shadow passed over his features. “I’m not. Understanding the mechanics and timing of a dance doesn’t signify above-average intelligence, but I appreciate you thinking so.” He flashed a smile, and she wondered if she’d imagined the momentary darkness.

Unfortunately, their turn came up before the set ended, and Somerton did his best to keep Gwen from losing her balance or bumping into someone. She managed fairly well, though her dancing would never be called elegant. When they reached the end, the music drew to a close.

Breathing heavily from her exertions, Gwen curtseyed as the other ladies did to their partners, and Somerton bowed. He offered her his arm and escorted her from the dance floor.

“Where shall I escort you?” he asked.

“My mother is over there.” Gwen inclined her head toward where she’d left her mother earlier, hoping she would still be there. She’d no desire to wander the ballroom in search of her. The stares and whispered comments around her at the moment were difficult enough to bear.

“Just hold your head high,” Somerton said quietly. “And laugh. As though I’ve just said the wittiest thing.”

She did as he said and laughed. At least her laugh wasn’t embarrassing.

“Now look at me,” he said.

She followed his command and nearly tripped, for he was already looking at her, his eyes glowing with a particular heat she suddenly felt in the very core of herself. He put his hand over hers on his arm. “Steady there,” he whispered. “Smile.”

Realizing her lips were parted, she pressed them closed and smiled. Her pulse had begun to slow after the dance, but was now picking up speed again.

His hand remained over hers, a warm presence that gave her a comforting sense of security. She felt protected with the viscount walking beside her, and it actually wasn’t difficult for her to keep her head up.

They arrived at her mother, whose skin looked a bit pale. She smiled upon seeing them. “Good evening, Lord Somerton.”

“Good evening, Mrs. Price. Your daughter and I enjoyed a splendid dance.”

“I thank you for your attention to Gwen,” Gwen’s mother said.

Somerton took his hand from Gwen’s, and she reluctantly removed her grip on his sleeve. Her charming anchor was now gone, and she felt the chill of the ballroom in every part of her.

He bowed to Gwen. “Thank you, Miss Price.”

She curtseyed again even though he’d told her not to. “Thank you, my lord.”

Then he was gone, and Gwen braced herself for her mother’s concern. She would be disappointed, of course, but she would try very hard not to show it.

Summoning a somewhat encouraging smile, Gwen’s mother said, “I’m a bit fatigued. Shall we go?” It was so like her not to mention what had happened, at least not here. And if she did bring it up—which she surely would in this case—she would do so with a great deal of care.

“Yes, but have Papa and Evan not arrived yet?”

“Not that I’ve seen.” Her mother started toward the door to the entrance hall.

Gwen was relieved to hear that at least. Once they were finally settled in the coach, she let herself fully relax. Though, there was still a faint tremor of excitement left over from Somerton. The way he’d come to her rescue had been unexpected and absolutely wonderful—she would never forget it.

She also ought not to forget that he was a rogue, the sort of gentlemen she and her friends steered clear of. Still, apparently, a rogue could possess a great measure of kindness.

“Tomorrow, we can discuss whether it makes sense to remove to Bath,” Gwen’s mother said.

Taking a deep breath, Gwen gathered her courage to ask what she most wanted to know. “Are you disappointed, Mama?”

Gwen’s mother patted her hand and gave Gwen a warm smile. “Of course not. What happened tonight was an accident. However, I know you are clever enough to understand that it was still…unfortunate.”

That was a nice word. Damaging or disastrous might have been more accurate, however.

“While I expect it makes sense to not return to Almack’s, I am hopeful my Season can continue,” Gwen said cautiously.

Giving Gwen’s hand another pat, her mother then withdrew her hand to her own lap. “We’ll discuss it, dear. I know you’ll be amenable to whatever your father and I decide.”

Because she always was. What choice did Gwen have? If they didn’t wish her to continue her Season, she would not. Just as she hadn’t had a Season until now—that had been their decision, not hers. She’d just gone along with it, both because she respected their wisdom and because she would never demand something they didn’t support.

For these reasons, she would retreat to Bath. And that was exactly what she expected to happen.

 

Chapter Two

Lazarus Rowe, the Viscount Somerton, had promised his mother two visits to Almack’s each Season, the first of which he’d completed this evening. And what an occasion it had been.

While his mother fervently hoped he would search for a wife, Lazarus went only to placate her and generally suffered through his evening there. Tonight, however, he’d helped a friend’s sister and he’d been glad to do it. However, his mother was not yet in London to see his good deeds as she was tending to his middle sister who had just welcomed another child a few weeks ago.

Poor Miss Price. He could not stop thinking of her sprawled on the floor of the ballroom, her skirts about her knees so that all and sundry could see her lower legs. She had rather marvelously shaped calves, not that he should note such things about his friend’s sister.

Having freed himself from the strictures of Almack’s, he made his way to Coventry Street where the Siren’s Call, a well-appointed gaming hell owned and run by women, was located. Stepping into the familiar interior with its lush purple-and-gold décor, Lazarus was immediately greeted by one of the women who worked there. Becky was a tall Scottish lass with bright red hair and a brogue as thick as an ancient tree.

“Evening, Somerton,” she said. “Sheff’s over at your regular table.” Becky inclined her head to the back of the main room.

“Thank you, Becky. You look lovely as ever,” he added with a grin, taking in her enticing emerald costume. The women of the Siren’s Call dressed seductively, but the patrons were not allowed to touch them. Their goal was to lure the men to the hell so they would gamble—a true siren’s call.

She curtseyed and gave him a saucy smile. “Thank you, my lord. You are always too kind.” She fluttered her lashes, and Somerton chuckled as he went to join his friend, the Earl of Shefford.

“How was Almack’s?” Shefford asked, his dark blue eyes lifting to meet Lazarus’s. Heir to a dukedom, Shefford held himself with the prestige and privilege owing to his rank, his shoulders pushed back, his square chin slightly jutting.

Lazarus slid into the chair next to Shefford. “Far more entertaining than usual.”

Arching a brow, Shefford regarded him with interest. “Don’t tell me you’ve found a bride. I can’t lose another friend to the parson’s trap.”

The trap had already claimed the Duke of Wellesbourne, the Baron Droxford, and the Earl of Banemore, three of their closest friends. Lazarus had no plans to fall as they had.

“Entertaining was perhaps not the best choice of word,” Lazarus said with a faint grimace. “Price’s sister was there, and there was a rather unfortunate incident.”

Shefford grimaced as well. “She’s prone to those, I’m afraid. What happened?”

“She spilled orgeat on that dandy Eberforce. He was none too kind about the mishap. I expect he’s maligning her at every opportunity.”

“Pompous idiot,” Shefford muttered before taking a drink of ale. “He’ll say anything to gain attention. Price will not be pleased.”

“You’re referring to Evan?” Lazarus asked. “Or their father?” He was a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury and a highly regarded member of Parliament.

“Both of them, I suppose,” Shefford replied. “Poor Miss Price. I imagine she’ll be shuffled back to Bath. Or perhaps home to Bristol. Evan told me her Season has not been going well and that her debut at Almack’s tonight was critical to her success.”

Lazarus hated to think of the charming Miss Price having to flee London in embarrassment. Was there no place in Society for someone who wasn’t entirely coordinated? “After she spilled her drink on Eberforce, she slipped into an ungainly mess on the floor. I rushed to help her up, then I took her to dance so she could hold her head up.”

Shefford fixed his gaze on Lazarus. “That was bloody heroic of you. Careful, or you’ll be seen as a suitor.”

Lazarus shrugged. “There are worse things, and anyway, I’m not.”

“How did the dance go?” Shefford looked at him with sympathy. “She is not the most…graceful.”

“She acquitted herself quite well,” Lazarus said. “I would dance with her again, in fact.”

“Listening to you talk, I would scarcely believe you to be the scoundrel I know you are.” Josephine Harker, the daughter of the owner of the Siren’s Call who oversaw the other ladies and who was dressed in a more conservative gown, sauntered closer to their table and deposited a tankard of ale in front of Lazarus.

Lazarus gripped the tankard. “Evening, Jo. Thank you.”

“Forgive me for eavesdropping,” she said. “I try not to, but it’s deuced difficult to avoid it in here, and I do find I like hearing what you lot have to say.” She laughed, her wide mouth spreading to reveal remarkably even, white teeth. Jo fixed her gaze on Lazarus. “That was most kind of you to help Miss Price in her moment of need.”

“Do you know her?” Lazarus asked. Jo had many friends in Society even if she wasn’t actually a member herself.

Jo shook her head. “I only know what her brother has mentioned of her. I have the impression she struggles to meet Society’s expectations, which, to me, recommends her most brilliantly.”

Shefford laughed. “Because you refuse to meet them, much to your father’s chagrin.”

While Jo’s mother owned the Siren’s Call, Jo’s father was an artist and man of science who’d been taken up by certain members of Society for his intelligence and wit. As far as Lazarus knew, Jo’s parents were estranged, having chosen different paths for themselves.

Jo gave him an impassive stare. “Because Society’s rules are ridiculous. And don’t pretend you follow them either. If you did, you’d be married with an heir and a spare.”

Shefford twitched as a shadow of revulsion passed over his features. “You know me too well, Jo.”

A faint smile teased Jo’s full lips. “I’m just glad to hear you aren’t making fun of Miss Price. That would be too easy to do. Instead, you’re championing her.” She returned her gaze to Lazarus. “Perhaps she’s captured your attention. Or something.” She laughed softly before taking herself off to mingle about the room.

“Has that happened?” Shefford asked, a touch of apprehension in his tone.

“No,” Lazarus assured him. “I’ve not developed a tendre for Evan’s sister. But I do consider her one of our set—by relation—and I couldn’t stand by and watch her flounder.”

“You’re an excellent friend,” Shefford said. “But that has never been in question.” He lifted his tankard in a silent toast, and Lazarus did the same.

“Evening, gents.” Evan Price took the empty chair beside Lazarus. Lean and muscular, Evan was regarded as a sportsman. He was a superior rider, swordsman, marksman, and pugilist. His skill was almost embarrassing. His dark hair fell across his forehead, and the gold flecks in his brown eyes seemed to glitter in the lamplight. He had an intense look about him.

“Evening, Price,” Lazarus said. “Is all well?”

Angling himself toward Lazarus, Evan said, “I understand I’ve you to thank for saving my sister from complete ruin, though I daresay she’s nearly there.” He frowned briefly. “I feel quite badly for her.”

“It wasn’t as bad as all that.” At least Lazarus hoped it wasn’t, but he feared Evan was right.

“I arrived at Almack’s just after she and my mother left,” Evan said. “Upon learning they’d departed, I didn’t bother staying.”

“We must have missed each other in the crush,” Lazarus noted. “I departed a while after.”

“Unsurprising since I was overcome with people asking about my sister and warning me to stay clear of Eberforce, who was still wandering the ballroom ranting about his ruined waistcoat.” Evan scowled.

“Damn, that’s as good as any of Droxford’s scowls,” Shefford said, referring to their friend the baron, who was well known for his sober nature. However, he seemed to have lightened up a great deal since marrying more than six months earlier. It seemed marriage agreed with him most heartily.

Evan grunted. “People should have been warning Eberforce to stay clear of me.”

Shefford sipped his ale. “Since you did not encounter him, I think you can assume that likely happened. Or that Eberforce is not as foolish as we take him to be. He can’t be stupid enough to pick a fight with you.”

“Eberforce is all bluster,” Lazarus said. He looked to Evan. “I’m just sorry he was the recipient of your sister’s drink since he’s such a nincompoop. I wish it had been me, for I would have laughed it off.”

Evan’s gaze remained intense. “You danced with her after. I can’t thank you enough. I’m sure that lessened the impact of what happened. People were talking about that almost as much as her mishap. Or perhaps that’s just my wishful thinking,” he muttered.

Becky brought a tankard of ale for Evan, but didn’t linger. Lazarus inclined his head at her as she moved away.

“I was happy to be of assistance,” Lazarus said. “Your sister’s a good sort. Hopefully, she will recover from this incident.”

“It isn’t just tonight, though.” Evan took a long pull from his ale and set the tankard back on the table. “She’s had a rough go of it this Season. I’m fairly certain our mother is already making plans to withdraw to Bath. I suspect our father may even suggest they go home to Bristol and perhaps try again next year.” Evan sighed. “Though, I’m not sure what good that will do. Gwen is just abysmal at playing Society’s game. She’s a terrible dancer, which I’m sure you discovered, Somerton.”

“She wasn’t that bad.” But then it had been the easiest of dances. “Not everyone needs to possess the grace of a swan.”

Evan went on. “And she gets nervous if she has to talk to too many people she doesn’t already know. She’s more comfortable alone in a library. Indeed, she spends far too much time reading books, according to our father. She can read several books in a day. I forget how many.” He shook his head in disbelief.

Several books in a day? How had Lazarus not known that about her?

Because while he knew her somewhat, he didn’t know her well.

Lazarus couldn’t read a book in a week let alone several in a day. Oh, to be able to read with even a modicum of ease! It always took him so much time and effort to get through a single page of correspondence. His secretary believed Lazarus didn’t care to read—not that he struggled, however—and thankfully communicated the contents of written messages and other pertinent information verbally.

In a few short weeks, Lazarus was to give a speech in the Lords. He could memorize it—and planned to—but if he needed to refer to the written speech at all, he would be lost. Plus, he needed someone to help him memorize it by reading it aloud and having Lazarus repeat it back. That would be far easier than if he tried to read it and memorize it himself. The entire situation was giving him fits, and he was close to bowing out.

But he didn’t want to. His father would have been so proud to hear him speak. He’d been the one person who understood Lazarus’s deficiency and had done his best to help him overcome it. That Lazarus read at all was a credit to his father’s love and dedication. Lazarus had been just seventeen when his father had died in a riding accident, and the loss was the most painful thing he’d ever endured.

“Did we lose you, Somerton?” Shefford asked. “Or will you come to the Rogue’s Den with us?”

The Rogue’s Den was an invitation-only brothel, however the proprietress preferred the term “pleasure house.” Normally, Lazarus would join them, but at the moment, his mind was rife with ideas.

“I may stop in at the Phoenix Club,” Lazarus said. “That is more my interest this evening.”

Shefford nodded. “Fair enough.”

“Actually, that sounds more appealing to me as well,” Evan said to Lazarus. “Mind if I join you?”

“Not at all.” Lazarus could then potentially ascertain a little more information about Evan’s sister, for Lazarus had a plan involving her. He saw the potential for them to help each other. She could assist him with his reading, and he could bolster her chances for a successful Season. If his attention tonight had helped her, he could continue in that vein.

“Aren’t you both boring?” Shefford said with a grunt. “Fine. I’ll go to the Phoenix Club too. But let us finish our ale. The Siren’s Call has some of the finest.”

“That they do,” Evan agreed.

Lazarus hid his smile as he took another drink. Tomorrow, he would call on Miss Price and present his proposal. He was a bit surprised that he wasn’t nervous to reveal his shameful secret to her, but he just knew she wouldn’t find fault with him. On the contrary, he was confident she would be the soul of kindness and understanding.

They could help each other immensely. He hoped she would agree.

***

The following afternoon, Gwen settled herself in the coziest chair—in her opinion—in the drawing room to reread one of her favorite novels. It would be a welcome escape after last night’s mishap and this morning’s discussions regarding what they would do next.

Two pages in, Gwen’s mother entered the drawing room, looking more elegant in her simple blue day dress than many women appeared in their evening finery. “Your father’s just left.”

Gwen closed her book and set it in her lap. “You’ve reached a decision, then?” They’d been discussing whether Gwen should remain in London and attempt a recovery from last night’s debacle or if she should flee to Bath or even home to Bristol. She tried not to fidget as she awaited her fate.

“Your father and I think it may be best if we repair to Bath. We know a great many people there, and things are just…less stringent.” Mama gave her a hopeful smile. “We also discussed whether you might be open to an arranged marriage. That way you can avoid the pressures of Society’s expectations. Your father and I would only attempt such an endeavor with your approval and input.”

An arranged marriage.

Gwen couldn’t say she was surprised to hear those words, but it was disheartening all the same. Because the realization that she couldn’t attract a groom on her own made her feel lacking. And she didn’t think she was lacking. But what did she know?

“You also don’t have to marry,” her mother said. “Your Aunt Araminta didn’t wed.”

Aunt Araminta was her father’s older sister, and while she seemed quite content as a spinster with a menagerie of animals, Gwen didn’t see herself living that life. She wanted a family of her own that was as close and loving as hers had been when she was growing up.

“I’d hoped to wed,” Gwen said softly. Even more, she’d hoped to fall in love, but that seemed an elusive dream. She’d never met a gentleman who put her at ease enough to even consider friendship, let alone love.

For some reason, she thought of Somerton and how he’d helped her last night. He had put her at ease, but then he’d rescued her when she’d needed it most. Anyway, he was not a potential suitor, let alone bridegroom.

Gwen’s mother came toward her, sympathy softening her features. “I know, dear. I hope you’ll fall in love too, as I did with your father. It may happen yet—and it may not be during a London Season.”

While that was true, Gwen was twenty-two and it hadn’t happened yet. Not in Bristol, where she lived and spent most of her time, nor in Weston where she sojourned every August. Perhaps London was too overwhelming, and Bath would be a better place to find what she sought.

It wasn’t that she’d had no interest. She’d attended assemblies in Bristol and on two different occasions, overzealous gentlemen had tried to steal a kiss in the garden. But those men had not been interested in courtship, and Gwen had known it. They’d been rogues doing as rogues did.

Before Gwen could agree to remove to Bath, their butler, Lake, stepped over the threshold of the drawing room. “Lord Somerton has called. Is Miss Price receiving?” he asked Gwen’s mother, then glanced toward Gwen.

“I believe so.” Gwen’s mother looked at Gwen in question.

Gwen nodded. “Yes. I can receive him here.”

Inclining his head, the butler then turned and departed.

Instinctively, Gwen lifted her hand to her hair and hoped she looked presentable. But why wouldn’t she? The most strenuous thing she’d done was walk up and down stairs.

“You look lovely,” her mother said with a smile. “The viscount danced with you last night and now he’s calling. One must wonder at his motives,” she added with a wink.

Gwen should have told her mother the truth right then—that Somerton had only supported his friend’s sister at Almack’s to be kind. Although, why was he calling?

“I’ll move to the sitting room and leave the door open,” Mama said, nodding toward the doorway at the back of the drawing room.

Lake returned and announced the viscount. As soon as Somerton sauntered into the room, the air seemed to lift and brighten. Perhaps it was his brilliant smile or his effusive charm, which seemed to radiate from him, despite him not yet saying a word.

He bowed to them and addressed Gwen’s mother first. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Price.” Then he transferred his gaze to Gwen. “And you, Miss Price.”

“Good afternoon,” Gwen said, dipping into a curtsey.

“We’re so delighted you’ve called,” Gwen’s mother said. “Did you enjoy Almack’s last night?”

“As much as one ever does,” the viscount quipped.

Gwen’s mother laughed softly. “It is a necessary endurance. I’ll leave the two of you to visit.” She turned and glided to the sitting room, leaving the door open as she’d said she would.

Somerton arched a thick blond brow, then glanced toward the doorway to the sitting room. “Your mother is very trusting.”

“Do you plan to seduce me here in the drawing room with my mother next door?”

He put his hand to his chest with a faint grimace. “Is my reputation that poor? Don’t answer that.”

Gwen grinned. “I did ask the question, which means I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. Don’t make me regret it. I’m already breaking a rogue rule being alone with you, though I can’t say we’re really alone.” They spoke in moderate tones, such that it was unlikely her mother would hear them, not that they needed to hide anything.

“I confess my roguish behavior does not stretch to seducing young ladies under their own roofs with their mother in the next room. What rogue rule are you referring to?”

While Gwen and her friends had never said the rules were private—they’d been embroidered by Pandora and given to the two who had married—she wasn’t sure she ought to share them with one of the roguiest among the rogues. “Er, just a few guidelines we young ladies follow to ensure we aren’t caught unawares.”

“There is more than one?” He smiled bemusedly. “What are the other rules?”

There were eight, but Gwen only mentioned a few. “Never flirt with a rogue and never give a rogue a chance.”

He fully winced now and put his hand to his forehead as if he might faint. “You wound me. I came here today hoping you would give me a chance.”

Gwen’s pulse sped. What sort of chance was he referring to? “To do what?” she asked.

“May we sit?” He looked toward a seating area near the windows that overlooked the street below. That would put them as far away from the sitting room—and her mother—as they could be.

“Certainly.” She walked to a compact settee covered in a floral pattern set against dark green. She sat and he joined her there, which made them rather cozy. Her heart continued its rapid pace.

“I hope you won’t think me too forward,” he began, his eyes crinkling as he smiled.

Forward. Gwen’s imagination began to leap.

Angling himself toward her, he went on, “I wondered if we might help one another. You seem as though you could benefit from some…support this Season, and I’m in need of someone to help me with a…delicate matter.” He flinched, his neck twitching as his head tipped slightly. It was a movement of unease. Whatever the matter, it bothered him.

“I can’t imagine what I could help you with,” she said with a light laugh. Somerton seemed…perfect.

“It’s extremely personal,” he said quietly. “Indeed, no one is aware of this…problem. At least not the extent of it.”

Concern and sympathy overtook everything else in Gwen’s mind as she inched closer to the viscount. “How can I help?”

He seemed to relax, his shoulders settling—but only briefly. As he started to speak again, the tension returned and he did not meet her gaze. “I am not a good reader.” He exhaled, and his pulse worked along his throat as if he were upset. He flicked his eyes toward hers, but only briefly. “That was difficult to confess aloud.”

Gwen could see that, and she felt an instant and necessary urge to comfort him. And help him, if she could. “It is very brave of you to do so,” she murmured. She also had questions. “What does that mean exactly? Can you read?”

“Yes, but it is laborious. I’m appallingly slow. I usually have my secretary read everything and give me a verbal summation. He believes I just don’t care to read, as does everyone else.” Gentle lines formed across Somerton’s brow. “And no one questions that, given my reputation.”

Gwen wasn’t certain of the entirety of that reputation, just that he was a rogue. Perhaps he had a different reputation among his peers. “Does that go beyond your roguish tendencies?”

He looked out the window but didn’t appear to focus on anything. “I’m generally regarded as an unserious member of the House of Lords, more intent on my wardrobe or what horse I’m riding or vehicle I’m driving.” His gaze moved back to her, and she could see he was anything but unserious. “I should like to be a more active member in the Lords, but it’s difficult.”

“Because you read slowly,” she said. “And you’re hiding that fact.”

An expression of alarm passed over his features. “Can you imagine what people would say if they knew?”

Gwen knew that people talked about her…deficiencies. Would they do the same to a viscount? Probably. People could be cruel.

“No one needs to know.” She gave him an encouraging smile. “But I’m not sure I can really help you.”

“Your brother said you can read multiple books in a day. I was hoping you might be able to help. Or at least try.” He sounded hopeful, but there was a measured quality to his gaze, as if he were preparing himself for disappointment.

“Of course, I can try. I’d be delighted.” And she meant it. “I would have gladly extended whatever help I can offer without your assistance in return.”

“That is most kind of you,” he said softly. “I’m sure I don’t need to say this, but this arrangement must stay between us.”

She cocked her head. “How do you plan to help me exactly? By swooping in and saving me from future disasters? By dancing with me?”

He rested his arm on the back of the settee. “By paying you attention and showing the ton that you are a highly desirable young lady.”

Gwen was aware of his bare hand so near to her head. He’d obviously left his hat with a footman and apparently his gloves too. From the corner of her eye, she saw that his hands were large, his fingers long and slender. They would surely fly over the keys of a pianoforte. Unlike hers, which never moved as agilely as she wanted them to. At least not with the musical instrument. With a paintbrush, she was able to create art. Or something resembling it.

Clasping her hands in her lap, she said, “As it happens, my mother was just informing me that we are going to Bath for the remainder of the Season.”

His eyes rounded and his nostrils flared. “Then how can you agree to help me?”

“I will convince my mother that we should stay, that all is not lost.” Gwen glanced toward the sitting room and recalled her mother’s curiosity regarding Somerton’s call. “My mother likely wonders if you wish to court me since you came calling. And danced with me last night.”

“I see.” He looked toward the window again, his expression contemplative. “I could court you, but I would hate to cause any ill will when we do not wed. Though, my goal is to ensure you are in high demand, that you will have many suitors. You will have your choice of husband.”

“I don’t share your confidence, particularly since I plan to be discerning. I won’t accept just anyone.”

His hand moved from the settee to her jaw, where he lightly grazed his fingertips against her. “Nor should you, Miss Price. Do not sell yourself short. You are beautiful, witty, and I have it on great authority that your dancing is quite passable.”

Though Gwen was distracted by his touch—in a lovely and somewhat confusing way since this was her brother’s friend who had no romantic interest in her whatsoever—she laughed at his description of her. “You flatter me. Or tease me. None of what you said is true.”

He gasped in mock distress. “It’s all true, and I am offended you would think otherwise.”

Now Gwen couldn’t help but roll her eyes. “I can’t decide if you are a terrible tease or a rogue.”

“I can be both, I’m afraid, but I am serious about how I see you. You are beautiful and witty, and my sole experience dancing with you indicated you are passable. That you cannot see those things in yourself is perhaps why you continue to falter.” He grimaced faintly. “I mean no offense.”

“I don’t take any.” She considered his argument and had to confess it had merit. Her self-doubt and continued mishaps had made her feel inadequate. Perhaps she was too focused on that. “You will bolster my confidence, then?”

He put his hand back on the settee, which was a relief, for his touch had been a terrible—or wonderful—distraction. “I will make you the most confident young lady in London and the most sought-after.”

“If I can find half your confidence, I’ll have more than enough.” She considered him a moment—his dashing looks and his air of authority. “Or is it arrogance?”

“You will have to decide that for yourself,” he said with a laugh.

“How do you do it?” she asked sincerely. “Your reading deficiency troubles you, and yet you swan about as if you haven’t a care in the world.”

He lifted a shoulder. “I’ve hid that problem my entire life. Only my father was aware.” He abruptly stopped, and his gaze traveled to the window once more.

Gwen watched his throat work and suspected he was trying to hide the emotion he was feeling. “You and your father were close?”

Nodding, he swallowed. When he looked back at her, his expression was pleasant, and whatever he’d been feeling was gone. “When shall we begin? We could promenade this afternoon, if you’d like.”

“So soon?” Gwen blinked, her mind working.

“Shouldn’t we move quickly since your mother is planning to take you to Bath?” He made an excellent point.

“How are we going to conduct your lessons?” she asked. “I don’t think I can do it here without my mother finding out.”

He stroked his hand along his jaw while drumming the fingers of his other hand on the back of the settee. Snapping his gaze back to hers, she saw the light of an idea in his green eyes. “What about the Droxfords? You are close to my cousin Tamsin, aren’t you?”

“I am.” Gwen had become quite friendly with her during their time together in Weston the past two Augusts. Indeed, Gwen had attended her wedding in Cornwall in September.

“This will work well, I think,” he said with enthusiasm. “You will call on Tamsin, and I’ll visit Droxford at a prearranged time. We’ll just need to organize things with them—a private place for us to work.”

“That gives us both reason to be there,” she said. “But what will be our purpose? You don’t want them to know about your problem.”

“We’ll tell them you’re helping me with my speech. This will please Droxford greatly. He’s been harassing me to do more in the Lords and will gladly support anything to do with that.”

“Tamsin will want to help even without knowing the reason. She has the most generous heart of anyone I know.”

Somerton’s mouth spread in a wide, heart-stopping grin. Good heavens, he was so handsome Gwen wondered how she would stop herself from staring at him when they met. “I think we have a plan.”

“It seems we do. But let us start tomorrow. I need to spend time today thinking about how to approach your reading problem. I will tell my mother you’ve invited me to promenade tomorrow. That ought to stall our departure from London.”

“Excellent.”

“You’re way over there,” Gwen’s mother said as she walked into the drawing room. “It was so quiet, I had to see what you were doing.” There was no accusation or insinuation in her tone or expression, just a genuine curiosity.

Gwen stood. “Lord Somerton was about to take his leave, Mama.”

The viscount rose. “I’ll see you tomorrow in the park, then.” Another stunning smile curved his lips. He gave her a courtly bow, then offered one to her mother. “A pleasure, Mrs. Price.”

“Good afternoon, Lord Somerton.”

Mama watched as he left, and the moment he was out of sight, she hurried to Gwen, her eyes glowing with delight. “You must tell me everything.”

“There isn’t much to tell. He invited me to promenade tomorrow.”

“You must have a new hat.” Mama pressed her lips together, and Gwen could tell she was already planning Gwen’s costume.

“I don’t think that’s necessary.”

“A viscount has called on you, Gwen. This is splendid.” Mama grinned. “I suppose we don’t need to go to Bath after all.”

Gwen hated that she wasn’t telling her mother the truth. Mama was going to be disappointed when she learned there wasn’t really a courtship, that her association with Somerton was entirely for show.

Perhaps Gwen should tell her a partial truth, that the viscount had offered to help his friend’s sister. But before she could, Mama had turned and was walking away. “We’ll need to go to Bond Street straightaway. Meet me in the foyer.”

There was no use protesting, so Gwen resigned herself to a shopping trip she didn’t need. She’d plenty of hats. As if a new bonnet would snare a viscount anyway. Or any other man.

No, Gwen was going to have to do that on her own. Except that wasn’t true anymore—she had help. With Somerton’s guidance and attention, could she really do as he predicted? Could she have her choice of husbands?

Wishing she could stay home and work out her plan for improving Somerton’s reading skill, she trudged from the drawing room. She would find a way to help him, regardless of whether his plan to make her desirable worked. Because the truth was that her task would probably be far easier than his.

Chapter Three

Lazarus strolled into Hyde Park the following afternoon with a buoyant optimism. If anyone could help him finally master reading and feel confident giving a speech, it was Miss Price. Her eagerness to help had both delighted and relieved him. She hadn’t been judgmental, nor had she demonstrated pity. He could not have found a better person to provide support where he needed it most.

But today would be about her. Lazarus was most eager to provoke envy in at least a few gentlemen today.

Making his way from the Grosvenor Gate to the Ring, Lazarus exchanged pleasantries with many people. He did not stop to converse. However, he did inform everyone he could that he was on his way to meet a special young lady. That would set tongues wagging.

He spotted Miss Price immediately as he approached the Ring. She stood with her mother, her mouth spreading in a smile the moment she saw him. Honestly, she was attractive, certainly pretty enough to garner attention from a number of young bucks. If not for her tendency toward clumsiness and her obvious dancing…issues, she would likely be popular. Her father was a prominent member of the government, and her grandfather was a viscount. That alone ought to propel her into the orbit of an appropriate gentleman.

Lazarus suddenly realized he was practically playing the role of matchmaker. The thought of a rogue such as him attempting to orchestrate a union for nonroguish people provoked him to smirk. He quickly suppressed it.

“Good afternoon,” he said, greeting both ladies as he arrived at their side. He noted Miss Price’s exceptionally lovely costume—a smart walking dress of dark blue with a matching spencer decorated with gold buttons and a simply marvelous hat. “Your bonnet is particularly cunning, Miss Price. Exceedingly current.” Indeed, she would draw envious stares from other ladies, he would wager.

“It’s new,” Miss Price murmured, her expression one of both pleasure and appreciation. She flicked a glance toward her mother, who beamed with pride.

Lazarus had the sense they enjoyed a close relationship. It reminded him of what he’d shared with his father and how much Lazarus missed him.

“Shall we promenade?” He offered Miss Price his arm.

“Enjoy yourselves.” Mrs. Price glanced up at the gray sky. “I do hope the rain holds off.”

“We’ll hasten back if it does not,” Lazarus assured her as Miss Price put her hand on his sleeve. She had small, dainty hands. Very feminine.

What an odd thing for him to note. He was typically more interested in a lady’s other physical attributes. But then, he was not regarding Miss Price the way he did most other women. She was his friend’s sister and now his friend.

They started along the Ring, and she looked up at him. “Did you speak to Lord Droxford about our proposed arrangement?”

“Not yet, but I plan to. Have you spoken to Tamsin?”

“I will tomorrow,” Miss Price replied. “She is coming to visit.”

“Splendid. I’ll be sure to hunt down Droxford this evening, then. If I can. He doesn’t go out much, especially now that he is married.” Lazarus inclined his head toward a group of ladies they passed. He noticed how they looked at Miss Price’s hat. Masculine in shape, it boasted gorgeous peacock feathers and was trimmed in gold and green. It was somehow ostentatious and tastefully elegant at the same time. When they were past the ladies, he leaned his head slightly toward her. “Your bonnet is causing a stir. It really is remarkable.”

“My mother insisted I needed a new hat. We went to Bond Street after you left yesterday, and it was delivered just this morning.”

“There will be copies made tomorrow, I can assure you,” he said.

“I doubt that will happen. My mother chose something and gave strict instructions for the milliner to make adjustments. She and this particular shopkeeper have an arrangement that she will not duplicate what she fashions for my mother—or me—for others.”

“That is surprising. I should think she would want to increase his profits.”

“The milliner may make something similar, but not exact. Knowing she made this hat is enough for others to want to buy from her. Or so my mother says.” Miss Price wrinkled her nose slightly. “I confess that fashion is not one of my strengths. I am fortunate, and glad, to have my mother’s influence. I think every shopkeeper on Bond Street knows her,” she added with a laugh. “Though, it’s the same with me and booksellers on Paternoster Row.”

“You spend a great deal of time in bookshops?” Again, Lazarus nodded toward a group of ladies, one of whom was giggling and blushing as she eyed him. He was used to such attention. If he had not been in the company of Miss Price, he would have gone to speak with her and probably flirt.

“I do,” Miss Price said eagerly. “As much as I’m allowed. I have an allowance for book purchases, and I confess I always spend it all.”

“You must have a large library.”

“My father let me have a portion of the one at home in Bristol. This is my first time in London, and my books are stacked in a trunk unfortunately. Papa has assured me he will buy a bookcase for my bedchamber.”

“Miss Price, I hope you won’t think me too forward, but do you speak to all gentlemen in this manner?” He glanced at her and saw her brow furrow.

“I think so.” She didn’t sound entirely certain. “Am I doing something wrong?”

Lazarus chose his words carefully. He didn’t want her to feel badly. “Not wrong, exactly, but discussing plans for your bedchamber is perhaps not the best course of conversation, nor is your passion for books. At least not on a first promenade.”

She turned her head toward him, her eyes wide. “I didn’t realize I was supposed to be behaving in a specific manner with you. That is, you aren’t an actual suitor.”

She was right that he wasn’t, nor had he set any expectations or requirements for their walk today. He probably ought to have done the latter. “You are correct, but perhaps we should practice how you speak with potential suitors. Unless you really are conversing with me in an entirely different way and already know what not to say.”

“Er, no.” Pink flagged her cheeks. “I’m sure I’ve mentioned the plan for a bookcase in my bedchamber and how I spend my entire purse on books.” She exhaled. “What gentleman will want a wife who spends his money on books?”

“A smart man will realize you won’t do that. You didn’t say you’ve a pile of IOUs scattered about Paternoster Row.”

Miss Price laughed. “I do not. Would they even allow a young lady such as me to offer an IOU?”

“I can’t imagine they would.” He narrowed one eye at her. “I haven’t given you any ideas, have I?”

“Not at all. I am not foolish enough to spend money I don’t have. My father prides himself on his economy and financial prowess.” She lowered her voice. “He has actually amassed a fair amount of wealth for a second son. Honestly, I thought that alone would encourage suitors, but I don’t think his prosperity is well known. I believe my father prefers that anyway.”

Now it was Lazarus’s turn to laugh. “That is not something you ought to share either, particularly if your father doesn’t like people knowing.”

She sent him an apologetic glance. “You are exceedingly easy to talk to. I feel as if I could reveal anything.”

“This is entirely my fault,” he said. “We did not set any rules. First, anything you say to me will be kept between us.”

Miss Price nodded. “The same for me, especially regarding your half of our arrangement.”

“That is comforting to know,” he said softly with a faint smile. “Second, let us set specific times when you will behave as you ought with a potential suitor. Perhaps that should be whenever we are together except for our meetings at the Droxfords.”

She was slow to respond. “For the rest of our promenade, I will endeavor to do that. Why does that make me suddenly nervous?”

“Don’t be.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You don’t have any trouble charming people or moving with grace and ease.” She spoke lightly, but he detected her underlying concern.

“You have many wonderful qualities. I only meant that I don’t want you to feel nervous with me. Ever. Can you do that?” He met her gaze, and she nodded. “Excellent. I am here to help. Let us start with appropriate topics of conversation.”

She tightened her grip on his arm, sending a jolt of awareness through him. “Please say I can talk about books.”

“It depends.” He worked to focus on her tutelage, not his body’s vexing response to hers. “I would not discuss romantic novels, if those interest you.”

“They do indeed, but so do mysteries and biographies. I like any book that tells a good story.”

“No poetry or scientific treatises for you?”

“Oh yes, both of those things can also tell a good story. My father’s library includes several writings by the scientist Edmond Halley. I adore reading his work. And poetry nearly always tells a story.”

Lazarus felt a bit of heat rise in his own face. Today was supposed to be about her, but she’d reminded him how little he knew about literature. “I haven’t read any of those things,” he said quietly, eager to return to helping her instead of thinking of his inadequacies.

“My apologies,” she whispered. “You will love Halley’s writing, particularly about the comet. I promise we’ll read it. Should I just avoid discussing books?”

Relieved that she’d diverted the conversation back to her, he replied, “I don’t think so. Just be measured about it and pay attention to your companion’s engagement. If he is interested in pursuing the topic, then by all means, go on. However, if he becomes glassy-eyed or attempts to change the subject, I recommend abandoning the conversation.”

“The entire conversation? I can excuse myself?” She sounded almost giddy. “Because I can’t see myself in a courtship with someone who isn’t interested in books or reading.”

That would include him, Lazarus realized, not that they were in danger of falling into an actual courtship. Although, interest wasn’t really his problem. He lacked the ability to support that interest. And as such, he’d never pursued it. He couldn’t say whether he liked books, and reading was a chore, not an enjoyment.

“There are ways to cordially remove yourself from a conversation. It depends on where you are or what you are doing. Obviously, if you are dancing, you can’t just walk away.” He laughed, and she joined him.

“What if we are promenading like this?” she asked.

“Well, again, you can’t just leave without causing a scene. I suggest you find another topic of conversation to see you through until you’re back with your mother.”

“I could also walk faster,” she said with a mischievous smile.

Lazarus laughed again. “You certainly could.”

“Except I’d likely trip and cause an even bigger scene,” she said with a sigh. “As much as we may perfect my conversation skills, I’m afraid my clumsiness and poor dancing ability are unfixable.”

He hated to hear her denigrate herself, but even more he didn’t want her to lose hope that she could change and grow. If she wanted to. “Do you think my reading deficiencies are unfixable?” he asked.

She jerked her gaze to his. “Absolutely not.” Her eyes narrowed. Then she laughed. “You are very clever, my lord.”

Lazarus wasn’t a clumsy person at all, but he nearly tripped. That was the second time she’d commented on his intelligence. And in a favorable way. He couldn’t help smiling. “I’m only saying that we can improve or enhance things about ourselves, if we want to.”

“I do agree with that sentiment, but while I may learn the technicality of dancing, I’m not convinced I’ll master the grace or elegance of it. And perhaps that is acceptable. At least to me.”

He felt her tense suddenly and looked toward her. Her attention was fixed just off the path to her right.

Virgil Eberforce stood with a pair of dandies, their garish costumes screaming for attention. As Lazarus and Miss Price neared, Eberforce turned his back to them and spoke loudly enough for them to hear. “That is the unfortunate chit who ruined my waistcoat at Almack’s. She should be banned from public spaces, just as she has surely been from private ones. I hear her remaining vouchers to Almack’s have been revoked.”

Miss Price sucked in a breath and indeed began to walk faster. Lazarus, on the contrary, wanted to stop and have strong words with Eberforce. No, that wasn’t quite true. He wanted to pummel the man into the ground.

“Why are you stopping?” she whispered urgently.

“Eberforce deserves a bruising setdown.”

“Unless it includes actual bruises, I must insist we be on our way. I don’t want to overhear another word.”

They hadn’t overheard anything. Eberforce had spoken loudly with cruel intent. She was meant to hear every word. Which was why Lazarus wanted to put him in his place. “I’d be happy to plant him a facer,” Lazarus offered.

“I spoke in jest,” she said, pulling at him so that he began to walk at her faster speed. “You can’t hit him. I may be naive about a great many things, but even I know that will not help me. You do recall what happened to Tamsin and Droxford?”

“I do.” Droxford had hit a man who’d grabbed Tamsin and attempted to pull her away. The man had been warned not to do it a second time and had failed to behave accordingly. If Lazarus had been there, he would have defended his cousin in the same manner. Of course, he would have been applauded for doing so, and no one would have expected him to marry her.

That Droxford had gone to such extremes for her indicated their relationship was close. Rumors would have arisen, and reputations would likely have been damaged. Hence, they had wed. Fortunately for them both, all had turned out well since they were now madly in love.

“I won’t promise not to speak with Eberforce at another time,” Lazarus vowed. “Or ensure that your brother does.” Yes, that would be far more appropriate, and Evan would be eager to keep Eberforce from verbally attacking his sister. “He’s a menace,” he added.

“I don’t disagree,” Miss Price said. “Thank you for your support. It means a great deal to me.”

He cast her a sidelong glance and was arrested by the sincerity in her gaze. “You shall have that support—always.” The same jolt he’d felt earlier when she’d gripped him more tightly shocked him again. The need to protect Miss Price nearly overwhelmed him.

Her gaze shifted forward. “There is my mother. We hardly practiced how I am to talk with a suitor, but I do feel a bit more educated on that front. When I see you next, I will behave entirely as if you are a potential suitor. When will that be?”

“Are you attending the Oxley ball in two days?”

“Yes. So there, then?”

He nodded. “But I hope to see you before then—regarding our other matter.”

“I do too, and I shall not be talking to you as if you are a potential suitor.” She gave him a winning smile. “I doubt that would serve your interests.”

He found he could hardly wait. Because he would at last make some progress with reading—or so he hoped.

#

The following afternoon, Gwen awaited the arrival of her friends. They gathered at least weekly to keep abreast of what was happening with each other, and it was Gwen’s turn to host them.

Tamsin Deverell, Lady Droxford, was the first to arrive, and that was because Gwen had dispatched a note yesterday asking her to come early. This was so Gwen could propose her secret meetings with Somerton.

Now that the moment was upon her, she hoped Tamsin wouldn’t refuse. But why would she? Tamsin was, as Gwen had told Somerton, the most generous person she’d ever met.

Garbed in a fetching dark-rose-colored gown trimmed in dark blue, her light brown hair artfully styled, Tamsin appeared every bit the Lady Droxford. She gave Gwen a quick hug before they settled themselves on a pair of chairs next to one another in the main seating area of the drawing room.

“Your new costume is so lovely,” Gwen said. “My mother could have chosen that.”

“Isaac’s Aunt Sophia has been overseeing my wardrobe, which needed complete replacement—at least according to her. I suppose most of my garments aren’t appropriate for London.”

“Is it terribly overwhelming?” Gwen asked.

Tamsin lifted a shoulder. “Not terribly. Persuading Isaac to accept a modicum of invitations is my biggest challenge,” she said with a laugh, her blue-green eyes sparkling. “He doesn’t attend everything with me, which is fine. I go with Sophia or with Min and Ellis and their chaperone, Mrs. Dalwhimple.” She gave Gwen a sympathetic look. “I understand things haven’t been going well for you, and I’m sorry to hear it.”

Gwen waved her hand. “We can discuss that when the others arrive.” She cocked her head. “I asked you to come early because I need your help. What I’m about to ask is both necessary and secret. I’ve no doubt you will keep my confidence, but Droxford will need to be in on the secret. Hopefully, Somerton is speaking with him today if he hasn’t already.”

Tamsin shook her head as if it had cobwebs. “I’m confused. Why is Somerton speaking with Droxford? And what has that to do with your secret?” Tamsin’s eyes rounded. “Are you and Somerton going to have an affair?” She giggled, and Gwen could tell she was joking.

“No!” Gwen laughed with her.

“I did hear that he came to your rescue at Almack’s. That gossip has spread rather quickly.” Her features creased as she added, “I am so sorry we didn’t arrive before you left.”

“It’s all right. I’m sorry you dragged Droxford there for no reason,” she said with a chuckle.

Tamsin appeared relieved. “It’s good for him to get out once in a while. I’m just glad my cousin helped you.”

“He was very kind,” Gwen said. “And he suffered my dancing most admirably. He was keen to help me—since he knows Evan.”

“Well, he knows you too from Weston,” Tamsin pointed out.

“Yes, but not well. He’s the sort of rogue we don’t allow ourselves to get close to.” And yet here Gwen was planning to be very close to him for the next several weeks. But nothing untoward would happen. He was not interested in her as a rogue might be, and she was absolutely not drawn to him in that manner.

“That is very true,” Tamsin said. “My aunt hopes he will settle down soon, but Grandmama doesn’t see that happening. She predicts he won’t marry until he’s at least thirty, and that’s still a couple of years off.” Tamsin and Somerton’s grandmother resided in a cottage in Weston. They both stayed with her in August.

“It’s very sweet that Somerton stays at your grandmother’s cottage instead of the Grove,” Gwen noted, referring to the estate outside Weston owned by Shefford and Min’s father, the Duke of Henlow. “I would expect a rogue to lodge with his friends.”

“He is quite fond of Grandmama, as she is of him. Somerton isn’t entirely a rogue, but then, as his cousin, I am likely biased.”

“Or that you are exceedingly optimistic and want to believe the best of him,” Gwen said with a light laugh.

“That is also true.” Tamsin grinned, then fixed Gwen with an expectant stare. “Now, tell me this secret before I expire from curiosity.”

“Somerton has asked for my help in polishing a speech he’s to deliver in the Lords.”

Tamsin blinked, her surprise evident. “Has he? I’m equally surprised that he is giving a speech, for he hasn’t ever seemed that engaged in his position, and that he has enlisted your aid. Forgive my impertinence, but why would he ask you?”

“I may have gone on about reading a great deal,” Gwen said offhandedly. “That led us to his speech, and he asked for my help.” It seemed a stretch to believe, but Gwen couldn’t disclose the truth. Instead, she embellished the need for them to meet and would tell Lazarus what she’d done. “He is also going to help me improve my status on the Marriage Mart. We would like to meet—in private—periodically to accomplish both of those things. In trying to come up with a plan to do this without him calling on me here too often, we thought we could meet at your house. I would call on you, and he would call on Droxford at around the same time. It would all look perfectly innocent.”

“Is it innocent?” Tamsin exhaled. “Perhaps I am not as blind to my cousin’s roguishness as I thought. Of course it’s innocent, else you wouldn’t be doing it. How will he help you? With dancing?”

“Er, yes. Mama has not yet been able to secure a new dancing master for me.” Unfortunately, Gwen had earned the reputation of being a hopeless student. Her inability to be trained could reflect poorly on the instructor, which gave them pause.

Tamsin gave her an earnest look. “You know I will help you in any way I can. I must speak with Isaac, however, since this involves him too.”

“Somerton will be speaking to him, if he hasn’t already.”

“That will be best,” Tamsin said with a flicker of relief in her gaze. “Isaac won’t mind, but he won’t want to support anything that might harm someone’s reputation. He’s very nonroguish in that respect.”

“Sometimes I do wonder how Droxford became so close with these other gentlemen, including my brother,” Gwen said. “But I suppose that’s a long story.”

“Somewhat, yes. Isaac formed a particular bond with Shefford while they were at Oxford. I do think Sheff feels protective of him. It’s rather sweet.”

“Sheff seems like the older brother who wants to watch out for everyone,” Gwen said, thinking of how he’d taken her brother, Evan, under his wing last Season. Min had said it was to replace the loss of Banemore, who’d disappeared into the north with his new wife. Whatever the reason, Evan thought highly of his friend, and Shefford seemed to think the same of him.

“Everyone except Min!” Tamsin said with a laugh. “I jest. They do seem fond of one another, even if they tease each other mercilessly.”

“Speaking of Min.” Gwen glanced toward the doorway. “Before she arrives, can we set the first meeting for me and Somerton for tomorrow afternoon?”

“I have no quarrel with that, and Isaac is due to be home,” Tamsin said. “Unless you hear something different from me later or tomorrow morning, count on it.”

“Brilliant!” They’d finished not a moment too soon as the butler announced the arrival of Lady Minerva Halifax and her companion, Miss Ellis Dangerfield.

Elegant and impeccably dressed, Min glided into the drawing room. Her dark hair was swept into a cunning style, and a beautiful garnet cross rested against her pale skin above the bodice of her ivory-and-pale-yellow-striped gown. Ellis was Min’s companion and always dressed far more subtly. She wore a light brown, high-necked walking dress with a diminutive floral pattern. Her blonde hair was pulled into a more simple, severe style.

The new arrivals situated themselves on a settee across from Gwen and Tamsin. “We are all here, then,” Min said.

Earlier in the Season, they’d met at Persephone’s, as she awaited the birth of her child, but she’d delivered a beautiful son a fortnight ago. It would be some time before she joined them once more.

“Indeed we are,” Gwen said. “Does anyone want tea?” There was a pot along with some cakes on a table nearby.

“In a bit,” Min replied. “We simply must discuss what happened at Almack’s the other night.” She looked at Gwen with sympathy. “I should have called on you sooner, but things have been hectic at Henlow House. We’ve a new housekeeper.” Min brushed her hands against her lap and fixed a worried stare at Gwen. “The rumor is that you fell into an ungainly heap in the ballroom and that you ruined Eberforce’s waistcoat. Then Somerton of all people helped you up and took you to the dance floor in the middle of a set?” She glanced toward Ellis, her companion for nearly fifteen years. “Terrible night for us to arrive late.”

“That is a fairly accurate description,” Gwen said slowly. “Eberforce was quite rude.” She considered telling them about what had happened at the park yesterday, but she was embarrassed.

“He’s horrid,” Min said vehemently. “And I hear he gave you the cut direct and made insulting comments at Hyde Park yesterday. I’m considering asking Sheff to call him out. Though, I suppose your brother ought to do it.”

Or Somerton.

Where had that thought come from?

Gwen knew precisely where—from him. He’d been clear about his desire to do physical harm to Eberforce. Still, that didn’t mean he wanted to call him out. Or should. He definitely should not. Again, Gwen thought of Tamsin and how she’d ended up betrothed to Droxford. All because the baron had sought to defend her from an overzealous suitor. It was disturbing and frustrating that protecting a woman should cause a scandal. The scandal should be gentlemen who behaved badly. Rogues. It all came back to rogues.

“He didn’t!” Tamsin said with genuine horror. “I don’t think I’ve met Eberforce, nor do I want to.”

“He tried to offer for me during my first Season two years ago,” Min said. “I danced with him once. He called on me the next day, and I think we spent ten minutes speaking. He was incredibly pompous. That evening, he approached my father outside Brooks’s—because he wasn’t a member himself—and asked if he could call the following day to negotiate a marriage contract.”

“I can’t imagine your father thought much of that.” Gwen had heard enough anecdotes about the Duke of Henlow to know that he possessed a short temper and did not give time to those he considered beneath him.

“He did not,” Ellis murmured with a small smile. “He still tells that story when he’s trying to make a point about how people should not attempt to rise above their station.”

“It’s shocking Eberforce is still unwed,” Gwen quipped.

Min grinned. “Completely. Though I am as well,” she added. “And so far, my prospects seem bleak this Season as many matrons have written me off as approaching spinsterhood.”

“You’re only twenty-two,” Tamsin said.

“And I just turned twenty-two,” Gwen said. “Am I nearly on the shelf?”

“No,” Min said firmly. “Nor am I.”

“You do, however, have the reputation for being discerning to the point of harming your potential,” Ellis pointed out. “Which I wholly disagree with.”

“Is that true?” Gwen asked. “Is your reputation suffering?”

“It’s not quite as sparkling as it was last Season, I suppose. Because I’ve turned down so many offers,” Min replied with a sigh. “I simply refuse to marry a rogue. My standards are quite high.”

Gwen gave her an encouraging nod. “As they should be. I’ve no wish to wed a rogue either. Though, if that’s the only offer I get, I may have to swallow my pride.”

“No!” All three of Gwen’s friends snapped their heads toward her and answered practically in unison.

Min gave her an earnest stare. “We must protect our pride and our self-respect. You don’t want to be caught in an unhappy marriage.”

Ellis gave Min a sympathetic look, and not for the first time, Gwen had the sense that Min’s parents’ marriage was not a happy one. She’d never seen them together, but then she’d only come to London about six weeks earlier.

“I must concur,” Tamsin said softly. “I feared I was at first—because Isaac and I were forced to wed by circumstance. I never told you, but after the wedding, he said he wanted the marriage to be in name only.”

Gwen gasped. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

A faint blush washed over Tamsin’s cheeks. “I think I was just shocked. He said it was ‘for now,’ so I expected it would change—and it did, thankfully. I did speak with Persey about it. Since she was married, I thought she could offer advice as to whether I could manage that.”

“And what did she say?” Min asked.

“That I would be disappointed to not have a real marriage. And she was right. I’m sorry I didn’t tell any of you.”

“There is no need to apologize,” Min said warmly. “Persey was the right person to give you counsel. However, I could also have told you that a marriage in name only would be hugely disappointing. But I suppose that depends on what that meant. I actually think I could survive without love if the physical aspects were acceptable.”

Tamsin laughed. “You shouldn’t know about that.”

“When your brother is a known libertine, you learn things you should not.” Min’s gaze and tone were deeply sardonic.

Gwen found this conversation most interesting. “So, it’s better for me to agree to marry a man with whom I can enjoy bed sport even if we don’t love one another?”

“You must decide for yourself,” Ellis said. “Min is being a tad cynical.” She cast her friend an arch look. “However, I still believe in love—for some people. Look at Tamsin. And Persey. They are both happy and in love. And I daresay, they’re fortunate enough to enjoy the bed sport too—given the way their husbands look at them.”

Min snorted. “Like doe-eyed puppies following their master.”

“It’s quite nice, actually.” Tamsin’s gaze held an almost smug glee that made Gwen feel completely happy for her.

“All right, then, I shall be in search of a besotted gentleman whom I can love, or whom I can at least enjoy in the bedroom,” Gwen said.

“Just so,” Min said with a wide grin. “In all seriousness, you deserve that, Gwen. We all do.”

Everyone nodded. The conversation turned to the upcoming social events, which included the Oxley ball as well as the weekly Phoenix Club ball. Though themes were usually reserved for the first Fridays of the month, this week they were having a medieval festival.

By the time Gwen’s friends left, she was feeling better about her Season. But more importantly, she was looking forward to her meeting tomorrow with Somerton. Hopefully, he’d spoken with Droxford, and they would, in fact, meet tomorrow.

She was eager to do her part in their arrangement. Hurrying to her sitting room to prepare, she hoped he would be pleased with her plan.

Chapter Four

Droxford’s butler showed Lazarus to the library at the back of the ground floor. Several cases stuffed with books lined the walls, which were covered in a green patterned paper. There was a seating area near the hearth, an alcove for reading, and a table situated near the window that looked out to the back garden.

Lazarus could imagine himself sitting there with Miss Price as she transformed him into a magnificent reader. Then, when she next mentioned poetry or scientific works, he could claim to have read them. How he’d hated that moment with her. He’d never been more ashamed not to be better at reading.

Droxford strode into the library then. “Afternoon, Somerton. Miss Price has not yet arrived, of course.”

They’d arranged that Lazarus and Miss Price should time their arrivals at least a quarter hour apart, so they would not be seen coming—or going—at the same time. Not that anyone was going to be marking their arrival or departure.

Giving him a rare smile, Droxford came to stand before him. “I know I said this already, but it bears repeating—I’m thrilled you’ve decided to increase your participation in the Lords.”

Lazarus had told him that Miss Price had agreed to help him hone his speech about soldiers returning from war and how to best support them. Upon learning she had a special interest in the topic, which Lazarus actually had no way of knowing, he said that he’d asked for her assistance, particularly given her way with words. Or so Lazarus had told his friend. He certainly wasn’t going to admit to the truth behind their meeting, that he struggled to read.

“It’s about time,” Droxford added. “I feared you simply didn’t possess the passion to do your duty.”

Though Lazarus knew Droxford meant well, his words rankled somewhat. Droxford saw his own position, which he’d only inherited after several family members had died, as one of honor and responsibility—a great privilege. 

Lazarus, on the other hand, had been raised from birth to know what was expected of him. His father had guided him to one day be the viscount. That it had happened much sooner than either of them had expected was a tragedy. 

His father would be so glad to see that Lazarus had finally found the courage to do more, to face his fears. Only, Lazarus had been coerced into agreeing to the speech by Shefford’s father, the Duke of Henlow. Not because Henlow had persuaded him, but because Lazarus deeply opposed the duke’s position and felt compelled to speak against it.

“I’ve always had the passion,” Lazarus said quietly. “I just haven’t felt the need until now.”

Droxford nodded. “That is more than fair. Tamsin mentioned you have another reason for meeting Miss Price, that you intend to help her with her Season in some way.”

“Did she?” Lazarus wondered why Miss Price had revealed that part of their arrangement, but presumed she had a good reason. “I suppose I neglected to tell you about that aspect. Perhaps because I was certain you’d be more interested in my speech.”

“You know me well,” Droxford said with a rare flash of a smile. “You have my full support in this, and I’m not saying that because we are family.”

More than anything, Lazarus wanted to make his father proud. That at least one of his friends was behind him would have to be an acceptable replacement.

Feminine voices preceded the arrival of Tamsin and Miss Price. They entered the room, and Lazarus noted the immediate softening of Droxford’s features as his gaze fell on his wife. Lazarus was so pleased they’d found happiness together. No one deserved that more than Tamsin. Except perhaps Droxford.

“Good afternoon,” Lazarus said. 

“Good afternoon,” Miss Price repeated. She carried a small fabric bag with pink flowers and a dark brown wooden handle. It complemented her rose-colored gown trimmed in a simple ivory lace. She did not wear a hat, and he surmised she must have left it in the entrance hall. “I’m glad we could arrange to meet today.” She glanced at their hosts. “Thank you both for agreeing to allow our scheme.”

“I am delighted to support the cause,” Droxford said. “We’ll leave you to it, then.” He gave Lazarus a meaningful look, perhaps to communicate that Lazarus had promised him that nothing inappropriate would occur.

Lazarus nodded in silent reply and watched as he and Tamsin left the library. They pulled the door mostly closed, but not entirely. That would not do.

He moved past Miss Price on his way to the door, then shut it firmly but quietly. Turning, he said, “Droxford informed me that you told Tamsin we were also meeting so I could help with your Season.”

“Oh yes. I hope you don’t mind. When I said that I would be helping you with your speech, she was surprised and perhaps even a little skeptical? Only because it seems an odd thing for me, of all people, to do. So, I mentioned the other part of our arrangement.”

“That seems reasonable. I commend your quick thinking.” Glancing toward the bag she carried, he asked, “What’s in there?”

“Some materials I brought to assess your abilities.”

“There’s a table over here where we can work.” He walked by her once again, this time to the opposite side of the room, to the rectangular table. There were four wooden chairs, one on each side.

Miss Price set her bag at one end of the table and removed her ivory kid gloves. Setting them next to the bag, she opened it and pulled out two books, some parchment, and a pencil.

“I also brought something,” he said. “My speech.” He removed the folded parchment from a pocket inside his coat and handed it to her.

“Oh, good. Though I don’t think we’ll get to that today. We’ve only an hour.” Clasping the speech, she glanced down at it before meeting his gaze. “Is this a copy for me?”

“I hadn’t thought to bring one.” Now he felt a little foolish.

“I should have asked for it,” she said sheepishly, her dark lashes sweeping briefly over her eyes. “If you don’t need it back immediately, I can copy it down later and return it to you next time we meet.”

“That would be fine.”

Smiling, she tucked the parchment into her bag.

“You’re not going to read it?” he asked.

Her eyes widened briefly. “I will, but did you want me to do so now?”

“No, that isn’t necessary.” He realized he had wanted to hear her opinion. But that could wait.

“Your handwriting is very neat,” she said.

He moved to stand near the chair at the end of the table opposite her bag. “That isn’t mine. I can’t write particularly well either—spelling the words out is difficult. I spoke my thoughts to my secretary, and he organized them into a speech.” Why did he suddenly feel nervous?

She pushed the books along the table until they rested in front of the chair on one of the long sides. “Is that how you draft your correspondence?”

“Yes. Since my secretary believes I dislike reading, I’ve told him my thoughts flow better if I can say them aloud, which isn’t a lie.”

“That’s fascinating,” Miss Price said, pulling out the chair in front of the books.

Lazarus rushed to hold it for her. “My apologies,” he murmured.

She slid onto the chair and looked up at him over her shoulder. “No need.”

He took the chair at the end, and she turned her body toward hm. “How did you manage at Oxford? You did go to Oxford, or have I confused you with someone else?” 

“I did go to Oxford, but I struggled. I covered for my inadequacies by being an unserious student.”

“But you weren’t really, were you?”

“At Oxford, yes. There was nothing else for me to be. I didn’t go to Eton or any other school. Before Oxford, my father taught me personally.” Lazarus hesitated. He never talked about how his father had helped him. But that was because hardly anyone knew of his shortcomings. “I knew everything they were teaching because my father had already taught me. But I wasn’t able to adequately demonstrate my knowledge, and I barely graduated.”

“Why even bother going at all, then?” she asked, appearing genuinely curious as she leaned slightly toward him.

“It’s a rite of passage, or so my father said. He didn’t want anyone to question why I didn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge or some other school. I’m fairly certain my father made special arrangements for me. I’m only sorry he wasn’t able to see me finish.” Lazarus allowed a faint smile, but it quickly faded.

Miss Price touched his forearm for a brief moment, her fingers pale against the dark blue wool of his coat. “I’m so sorry. I’m sure he’s very proud of you.”

“I hope so. That is all I want. Which is why I’m going to all this trouble with this speech. I’ll need to memorize it, and that will require your assistance.”

“Yes, that is why we’re here.” She gave him an encouraging smile. “Shall we begin?” Opening one of the books to a particular page, she turned it and placed it in front of Lazarus. “I’d like to get a sense of how you read. Can you read this sonnet to me?”

Lazarus took a deep breath and rested his hands on the table on either side of the book. He fixed his attention on the sonnet and attempted the first word. S-h-a-l-l.

“Shawl,” he started, but quickly followed that with “Shall. I. Com…pare. Thee to a summer’s day. Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, and summer’s lease—”

“Stop.” Miss Price gaped at him. “You’re an excellent reader. You started slowly, but perhaps you’re just nervous?”

He gave her a sheepish smile. “I know this sonnet. As soon as I recognized the first few words, I recited it from memory. This is why I want you to help me memorize the speech.”

“How did you memorize the sonnet?”

“My father would read things to me over and over. Eventually, I would memorize something. I then matched up the words I knew in my mind with how they looked. But when that same word is somewhere else, I can’t always recognize it immediately.” He hated that sensation—he knew the word, but couldn’t quite form it in his mind. He got there, but it was slow. 

“This is fascinating to know and will help me. Memorizing words and using that skill to recognize words when you see them is an excellent adaptation. Perhaps we can work specifically on honing that ability.” She seemed so engaged, so eager to help him, even excited by the prospect.

For the first time since his father had died, Lazarus felt at ease reading with someone else. He could not overstate his sense of relief and even joy. He met her gaze with gratitude. “Thank you.”

She grinned. “Let me find a sonnet you don’t know.” Waggling her brows, she pulled the book back in front of her and flipped through some pages, her eyes moving quickly as she scanned the words.

“Are you reading that fast as you go?” He couldn’t keep the awe from his voice.

“Er, yes.” Pink dots bloomed in her cheeks as she glanced at him. “But I am very familiar with this book. I love Shakespeare’s sonnets.” She kept turning pages until she abruptly stopped. Sliding the book toward him, she gave him a mock stern look. “This one, but you must tell me straightaway if you know it.”

He laughed softly. “I promise.” Sobering, he concentrated on the text. The letters looked foreign for a moment, which was normal. The first few words were easy, thankfully. “From you have I…be-en…been…ab…sent in the…” He hated words like the next one. Multiple letters that when put together were difficult to read. “Sp—”

“Spring,” she said softly, her tone warm and encouraging. “That is a challenging word, I think. S, p, and r is a complicated sound. Spr. Can you repeat that?”

“Spr. Spring. Sprightly. Sprig. Spray. Spread. I can say the words.” He frowned. “I just can’t read them very well.”

“You will.” She pulled the parchment and pencil to her and wrote the letters S P R. “I’m making notes about what we can work on. Shall we continue?”

He went on reading the sonnet, pausing often. She didn’t rush him, nor did she hurry to help him, but she did when he needed it. She was the epitome of patience and gentle support.

“You read wonderfully,” she said. “Your voice is a lovely baritone. I do wish I could hear you deliver your speech in the Lords.”

“You’ll likely be sick of it by then,” he said with a half smile. He expected to be, but that would be for the best. He needed to know it inside and out.

She scratched another note on her paper and set the pencil down between them near the edge of the table. “Do you want to write for me, or should we do that another day?”

The pencil rolled off the table, and Lazarus immediately bent to retrieve it.

Miss Price did the same, and they knocked their heads together.

“Ow!” she cried as Lazarus grunted.

They were still slightly bent over, their faces close as their eyes met. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m the clumsiest person. But then you know that.”

“You are not. That could have happened to anyone.”

“Perhaps, but it will always happen to me.” Her lips twisted in a charming, lopsided smile. She seemed to accept that she was not as graceful as others, but Lazarus didn’t want her to see herself that way.

“I don’t consider you clumsy,” he said softly. “Only look at how beautifully you read. And how kindly you tutor.”

“You flatter me, my lord.” She straightened. “If only my bookishness would snare me a husband,” she added with a laugh.

“Is that what you want most?” he asked. “A husband?”

She lifted a shoulder. “It will make my parents happy. And proud. Like you, I just want to make them proud.”

“I’m sure they are already.” If they weren’t, they were fools. Their daughter possessed more grace and generosity of spirit than a good many of the young women who were pressed onto the Marriage Mart.

“Will you write for me now?” she asked.

He didn’t really want to, but he supposed he must. “Fair warning, I am going to fetch the pencil now.” He watched her for a moment, and she nodded at him. Bending once more, he took up the pencil and situated himself. Then he wrote his name and her name—Miss Price. He thanked heaven she didn’t have a long, ridiculous name such as Featherstonehaugh. “What else should I write?”

“Can you write the sonnet you have memorized? Just a few lines.”

He recited the words in his head and scrawled them on the paper. She’d complimented his handwriting earlier without knowing it wasn’t his. Now, she would see the truth and be horrified.

When he was finished, he sat back, his nose wrinkling as he looked at his uneven letters. They were abysmal and they’d taken an inordinate amount of time.

“Do you practice writing?” she asked.

“I used to. When my father was alive, and when I was at Oxford. I confess I’ve become lazy since then.” And now he was annoyed with himself. He ought to have kept up with that, if only for his father’s sake.

“Do not chastise yourself,” she said firmly. “I can see it in your eyes. This is a great deal to manage. I want you to write five lines every day. Can you do that?”

“Yes.” He resolved in that moment to do whatever she bade him. “What shall I write?”

“You’re to copy the words of your speech.”

The task seemed impossible. It wasn’t, of course. “Only five lines?”

She nodded. “But, and this is the challenging part, you must read them and then write them. Don’t just copy the letters without saying them in your head.”

He blew out a breath, wondering how long this would take him. Clenching his jaw, he vowed not to be defeated, particularly when he hadn’t even yet tried. He would do this for his father. And for Miss Price. He looked forward to her praise when he showed her his accomplishments.

“I’ll do it.” He glanced toward the clock. “Our hour is nearly over.”

Surprise flashed across her features. “Goodness, that went quickly. When can we meet again?”

“Two days’ time?” he suggested.

“Perfect. You’ll bring your writing.” Her dark eyes rounded. “Oh, wait. I’ll need to give you your speech back so you can do your writing. I can give it to you at the Oxley ball this evening.”

They stood, and she packed her materials back into her bag. “I look forward to reading your speech,” she said.

“I’m eager to hear your thoughts, and I am open to revision.”

“Are you?” She sounded surprised. “Well, I can’t imagine what I could contribute, but I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You are very clever, Miss Price. I’ve no doubt you could contribute a great deal. Never doubt that.” He glanced toward the door. “I suppose I must go, since I arrived first. I’ll see you this evening.”

She nodded, and Lazarus reluctantly left the library, leaving the door open and casting her a final glance before making his way toward the entrance hall.

“I trust you had a fruitful meeting,” Droxford said, coming from another room into the entrance hall. 

“Quite. We should like to meet again in two days. Same time, if that is convenient.”

“I’m sure it will be.”

Lazarus fixed Droxford with a grateful stare. “Thank you. Truly. This is very helpful to me.” The man could have no idea how much.

“I’m pleased to hear that. I’m here for whatever you may need.” Droxford clapped him on the shoulder. 

As Lazarus took his hat and gloves from the footman, he realized he’d never felt more optimistic about reading. He wasn’t sure he could ever aid Miss Price in as meaningful a way as she was helping him. But he would try. If she wanted a husband, he would ensure she had the best one in London.

* * *

“I’m so pleased I chose that emerald velvet for your costume for the Phoenix Club ball tomorrow night.” Gwen’s mother said from beside her in the coach. They were stopped in an interminable line of vehicles approaching the Oxley ball. “And I’ve asked the modiste to fashion a circlet for you as well. You will look like a princess of old.” That was because the ball’s theme was a medieval fair.

“I didn’t think we were going to the trouble.” Gwen was never as interested in clothing as her mother.

“A viscount has danced with you, called on you, and promenaded with you in the park,” her mother said with a glint of pride in her eyes. “People will be watching you now. You must look your absolute best.”

Her mother was giddy at the prospect of Gwen snaring a viscount. Which was, of course, not going to happen.

Torn between not wanting to disappoint her mother and hating that she was lying to her, Gwen couldn’t find the words to tell her the truth. But she must—soon. Perhaps after she attracted another suitor or two. Hopefully, that would happen tonight.

Unless people were paying more attention to the way Eberforce spoke of her rather than the manner in which Somerton was nearly courting her. If that happened, Gwen’s Season might truly be finished, regardless of what the viscount tried.

She thought back to their meeting that afternoon. Working with him had been more satisfying than she’d expected—and she’d anticipated it would be most exhilarating. It was beyond that, however. Somerton had revealed himself to her in ways he likely hadn’t with anyone else, and she honored that very much. She was desperately eager to do all she could for him.

As soon as she’d arrived home, she’d read his speech. It was wonderful, and she could hear his baritone strongly delivering it over the House of Lords. The original copy was folded and tucked into the rather small pocket of her gown so she could return it when she saw him.

As the coach approached the entrance to the Oxleys’ home, Gwen looked over at her mother. “Mama, I do hope you aren’t counting on a betrothal from the viscount. We have not at all decided if we will suit.”

“I understand, my dear. You must be sure, particularly with a man like Somerton.” She’d cautioned Gwen about his reputation—that he hadn’t yet been serious about marriage and was a terrible flirt—but had still maintained her enthusiasm for his interest in Gwen. “I confess I wonder if he would be the right husband for you, but his attention is certainly most welcome at this particular stage of your Season.”

It did seem her mother wouldn’t at all mind that Somerton was merely helping her, that his interest wasn’t romantic. Relieved, Gwen opened her mouth to tell her mother the truth, but then the door opened, and a footman helped them down from the coach. The evening was chilly but dry. Gooseflesh rose on Gwen’s skin as they hurried into the entrance hall.

A short time later, Gwen and her mother entered the ballroom. The fragrances of dozens of kinds of flowers filled the air, and the light of hundreds of candles made everyone sparkle. Couples were just moving onto the dance floor as the orchestra, situated in an alcove overlooking the ballroom, struck up a melody.

Though it wasn’t Gwen’s first ball, she was still awestruck by the spectacle. Perhaps she always would be. The idea that she might have to execute such an event as a hostess someday was incredibly daunting. Not just because she didn’t know where to begin, but because she honestly wondered if she would find it boring.

She hadn’t inherited her mother’s taste for fashion or her ease with planning dinners and soirees. Her mother hadn’t ever hosted a ball, but Gwen felt certain she could. However, she was also just as certain that her father would never agree to the expense.

Tamsin and her husband’s aunt, Sophia, Lady Droxford, approached them and exchanged greetings. As the two older women began to talk to one another, Tamsin sidled closer to Gwen.

“What does Somerton have planned for you this evening?” Tamsin asked.

“Nothing in particular,” Gwen replied. “I’m to behave with him as if he’s a suitor, meaning I shouldn’t speak about books or share too much information about myself or my family. I’ve a tendency to chatter on.”

“I love that about you, but I am not a suitor,” Tamsin said with a faint sigh. “I am so pleased Somerton is helping you. Honestly, I’d have thought he was too roguish for that.” Her features tightened briefly. “That isn’t kind of me to say since he is my cousin.”

“He is a rogue, isn’t he?” Gwen asked, thinking of how they’d defined rogues when they’d come up with their rogue rules nearly two years earlier. “He flirts excessively, frequents gaming hells, and has even been known to entertain certain widows on a regular basis.”

Tamsin’s eyes rounded. “I’d forgotten about the widows. But not the Rogue’s Den. Don’t forget that he is seen there regularly as well.”

As proper young ladies, they shouldn’t know about widows or establishments such as the Rogue’s Den. But Gwen had a brother, and she’d overheard her father lecturing Evan about his visits to the brothel that catered to the loftiest men in London Society.

“Does he really go to gaming hells or just the Siren’s Call?”

Brow furrowed, Tamsin hesitated a moment. “Remind me what that is?”

“It’s a gaming hell owned by a woman and run by women. Attractive women. However, it is just a gaming hell. At least, that’s what Evan told me. He likes it a great deal. He says the employees are charming and pleasant to talk to, and the food and drink are excellent.”

“I doubt Isaac has ever been there, at least not to gamble,” Tamsin said. “He hasn’t wagered a day in his life. It sounds like a brilliant business, though.”

“If I remain unwed, I could see myself owning a business like that,” Gwen mused. “Only it would be a library.”

Tamsin giggled. “Of course you would. But you won’t remain unwed—not unless you want to.”

“The offers are not pouring in,” Gwen said wryly. “But with Somerton aiding me, that may change.”

“He’s taking a risk, though, isn’t he?” Tamsin mused. “His interest in you will lead people to conclude he is ready to wed, but in reality, the opposite is true. In my grandmother’s last letter, she made a jest about him wasting another Season since he has no plans to wed.”

“Do you mean he’ll be the recipient of endless attention from young ladies and their mothers looking to secure a husband?” Gwen asked. She was now more grateful to him than ever, for he couldn’t enjoy fending off that level of interest. “I do hope it doesn’t cause him upset. I would hate to do that.”

“He’ll be fine,” Tamsin assured her. “This is going to work splendidly for you. Here’s Miss Gwendolen Price, turning the head of one of the most roguish rakes in London.” She grinned.

Gwen could only hope their plan would work. She talked with Tamsin for some time, during which no gentlemen approached. 

Finally, Gwen’s mother told her it was time to take a stroll around the ballroom. Gwen said good evening to Tamsin and Droxford’s aunt and linked arms with her mother.

“How can you not have danced yet?” her mother asked. “I felt certain you’d be asked not long after we arrived.”

“It may be that I don’t receive invitations to dance, Mama. It is not my forte.”

“I am hopeful that I may find a new dancing master yet,” Mama said firmly. “I just received a name this afternoon. We must pray that he will take you on.”

Gwen didn’t see the point. Indeed, she was beginning to wonder why she’d wanted to come to London at all. 

What a terribly defeating attitude. If Somerton could work to improve his reading, she could do the same with dancing. How could she encourage him to work hard and keep applying himself if she didn’t do the same? She would redouble her efforts, for she owed it to herself to at least try, even if it seemed hopeless.

“Here comes Lord Somerton,” Gwen’s mother whispered urgently, her arm tightening against Gwen’s before she unlinked herself. “Goodness, but he presents himself well. That cravat is knotted to perfection.”

Somerton strode straight for them, and indeed his intricately tied cravat was most impressive. As was the cut of his midnight-black coat.

“Good evening, ladies,” Somerton said as he bowed gracefully. 

If Gwen tried such a maneuver, she’d probably fall over. Mastering the curtsey she’d delivered to the queen a few weeks ago had been extremely difficult. In the end, Mama had instructed her to just not dip as deeply as the other young ladies. Then she’d shared with several people that Gwen had twisted her ankle the day before. It had been a lie, but served to explain Gwen’s deficiencies.

“Good evening, Lord Somerton,” Gwen’s mother began. 

“I hoped I might take a promenade with your charming daughter.” He smiled toward Gwen.

Gwen’s mother beamed. “Lovely. Please enjoy yourselves.”

Taking Somerton’s arm, Gwen nodded at her mother. When they were away from her, she murmured, “I really need to tell her you aren’t actually courting me.”

“Is there a problem?” he asked.

“Not really. I don’t think she sees your attention as the prelude to a serious courtship.” She glanced at him. “Because of your reputation. You haven’t indicated you are interested in marriage.” Gwen thought that was a better way of saying, You’re a terrible rogue.

“I see.”

“I do hope this scheme won’t prove difficult for you,” Gwen said. “I fear you may become the focus of a gaggle of young ladies—and their mothers—looking to snag a title.”

“I shall survive,” he said glibly, a smile teasing his mouth. “I must thank you for our meeting earlier.”

“I do hope you found it helpful.”

“Time will tell, but I am hopeful for the first time in years. And I am committed to doing whatever you tell me.” His gaze met hers with an earnest warmth. “I am yours to command, Miss Price.”

Gwen’s chest expanded. She would do everything in her power not to let him down. Pulling the folded speech from her pocket, she tucked it into his hand. “I thought your speech was wonderful.”

He transferred the speech to his free hand and slipped it into his coat. “I am delighted—and humbled—to hear that.”

“Good evening, Lord Somerton.” A feminine voice to Gwen’s left drew them to pause in their promenade. There were a pair of ladies, young and pretty, their gazes fixed on Somerton. It was as if Gwen wasn’t there.

“Good evening,” he responded.

“I’ve dropped my fan,” one of them said, her lips pressing into a plump pout. 

“Allow me.” The viscount bent—without releasing Gwen—and plucked up the fan. He presented it to the pouter, and her lips curled into a flirtatious smile. 

She batted her dark lashes at him. “You are most kind, my lord.”

“It is my pleasure to help.”

“Perhaps we’ll see you later?” the other young lady said with a hopeful lilt.

“One can never tell.” He grinned, and Gwen could practically see their pulses flutter and their breath seize in their lungs.

“It’s happening already,” Gwen said.

“What? Those young ladies?” He lifted a shoulder. “That’s typical, even before I started helping you.”

And why wouldn’t it be? Somerton was an exceedingly charming and attractive viscount, even if his reputation was rakish.

“So I’m not interfering in whatever you would normally be doing?” she asked.

“What would that be?”

“Flirting?”

He laughed. “I can flirt with you, can’t I?” He waggled his brows at her, his green eyes piercing her with a sharp interest. In that moment, Gwen realized the strength of his flirtation, and she too felt her pulse flutter and her breath catch.

“You can, but what would be the point?” she asked nervously, adding a smile so he wouldn’t realize she was seriously asking. Why would he flirt with her when their near courtship was only pretend?

He paused, turning toward her slightly. “The point is in showing everyone within eyesight and earshot that you are a woman worth flirting with. Because you are.” He leaned close and whispered, “Don’t ever think you shouldn’t be flirted with. Now, bat your eyelashes. And smile. Everyone will wonder what I’ve just said to you.”

She did, and when he straightened, she sent a furtive glance around and saw that there were indeed people watching them. “Perhaps your plan has merit.”

“Tomorrow at the Phoenix Club ball, you will have three dances and at least two promenades. And not with me.”

“How can you promise that?” She was consistently amazed by his confidence. In this, anyway. He’d been different that afternoon, more vulnerable. She thought she might prefer that version of the roguish viscount.

“Trust me, Miss Price.”

She couldn’t help but do so—not when he looked at her as if he ruled the social world. And perhaps he did.

“I forgot to speak with you as if you were a potential suitor,” she said with a faint grimace.

“We did forget that. Ah, well, next time perhaps—if it’s even necessary,” he said. “Allow me to return you to your mother.” 

When they parted a few minutes later, she noted that her pulse was still fluttering, and her breath was perhaps a little short.

Return to When the Viscount Seduces

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