Darcy Burke

Excerpt: Impeccable

Book 7: The Phoenix Club

Chapter One

Oxfordshire, December 1815

Evangeline Renshaw could almost imagine she was strolling in the park, as she liked to do at home in London. She was, however, at her brother-in-law’s sprawling new estate. Did her sister Heloise actually live here? Evie could hardly believe it. Or that Heloise was a mother. Or that she was happier than either of them ever dreamed they could be.

And that made Evie happy.

A soft whimper sounded from the hedgerow not far from the dirt track where Evie was walking. She held very still and listened, wondering if she was hearing things that weren’t there. But the sound came again, prompting her to venture onto the damp grass and make her way to the hedgerow.

Crouching down, Evie peered into the shrubbery. “Is someone there?”

A white head poked out, its dark brown eyes fixing on Evie. The animal surveyed her a moment before letting out another gentle whimper.

“Are you caught?” Evie moved closer.

The dog jerked back into the hedgerow, surprising Evie. She lost her balance and fell back on her rump. “Blast,” she muttered.

“Is someone over there?” A low masculine voice called from the other side of the hedgerow.

Evie stared at the shrubbery as if she could see through the thick greenery. “Yes. There is a dog in the hedgerow. I think he—or she—may be stuck.”

“I thought I heard a whimper,” the man said.

“I seem to have frightened it,” Evie said. “It showed me its face, but when I moved too close, it retreated.”

“Let’s see if I can coax him out. Here, doggy,” he cajoled. “Let us help.”

He received another whimper in response.

“Do you see him?” Evie asked, pushing up to her knees and leaning forward.

“I do. He’s very sweet.”

“Or her.”

“Or her,” he said. “How are you, then, little doggy?” the man asked in a surprisingly tender voice. “He—or she—looks young.”

Evie hadn’t noticed, but then her experience with dogs was limited to the ones she’d fed scraps to on the streets of Soho in her youth. “You are familiar with dogs, then?” she asked.

“Somewhat.” His voice changed to that softer lilt. “Can you come out? Or are you stuck in there, poor thing? Let me help,” the man coaxed.

This was met with a yelp and considerable rustling in the hedgerow. The dog’s white face peeked forth once more on Evie’s side, along with the upper half of its body. Evie grabbed its shoulders and held fast, despite the animal’s wriggling. “I’ve got you,” she said softly.

“Don’t let go!” the man called. “I’m coming!”

He was? Rather than look up and down the hedgerow for an opening, Evie kept her gaze fixed on the small dog who was still trying to get loose of her grip. She attempted to pull the animal free, but this was met with a louder whimper than the rest. It seemed he—or she—was stuck.

“Do hurry!” she yelled to the man, wherever he was.

“We’re only trying to help,” she said to the dog. “Will you let us? You’re awfully cute.” Evie brought her face even with the animal’s, perhaps unwisely. What if it tried to bite her? “You won’t nip at me, will you?” she said with a confidence she didn’t quite feel. “We’re going to be friends. In fact, I think we are already.”

The dog stopped struggling so much. Its gaze held hers, then he—or she—let out another whimper. Where was the gentleman?

Evie turned her head to the right and saw him bearing down on them. She didn’t have time to assess him before he was down on his knees in the grass beside her. “It seems stuck,” she told him. “I can’t pull it free.”

“Hold on, and I’ll reach in.” The man tucked his hands into the hedgerow around the dog. “Ah, yes, there. Its foot is stuck in the branches. I can work it free…” He pressed himself against the hedgerow as he worked, allowing Evie a view of his profile. He was white, with pale, narrow brows that drew together over his rich brown eyes as he worked. His strong jaw clenched, pressing his lips together. He was very attractive. And he looked familiar.

Suddenly, the dog vaulted forward, straight into Evie’s chest, sending her off-balance. Because she was on her knees, she fell to the side. She managed, however, to hold the dog close. “I’ve got you,” she murmured.

The dog squirmed, and Evie feared it would run away. “Don’t go,” she pleaded, not yet ready for this unexpected adventure to end.

Was that because of the dog or the gentleman?

The dog! She had no interest in gentlemen, even if they were handsome and vaguely familiar.

“Are you all right?” the man asked.

“Yes, just give us a moment. I think he—or she—is settling down.” Evie kept her gaze locked with the animal’s. “Aren’t you? This isn’t a bad place to be, is it? Certainly better than that nasty old hedgerow.”

“I would say so,” the man responded.

She resisted the urge to look toward him, thinking it was best if she maintained her attention on the dog. Doing so seemed to calm it.

“You’re doing wonderfully,” the man said. “You must have a great deal of experience with dogs. Or animals in general.”

It depended on the type of animal, but she was fairly certain he didn’t mean those of his own species. Those, she knew quite well. “Actually, no. I’ve never had a pet.” Or known anyone with a pet.

“Extraordinary. Well, I’d say you’re naturally inclined. I think you may have a pet now.”

“I can’t have a pet.” She said the words without thinking and immediately hoped the dog didn’t somehow understand and take offense. “But if I did, I would choose you,” she said, smiling at the dog.

The dog tipped its head, then nuzzled her chin. Oh, dear.

“I don’t think the dog agrees that you can’t have a pet.” The man chuckled softly. “Can I help you up?”

She couldn’t lie about in the damp grass. “What do I do with the dog?”

The man edged forward slowly and spoke softly to the dog, whispering encouragement and endearments. It really was quite sweet. Then he stroked the animal and gradually transferred it into his arms. Moving the dog, which did appear to be an older puppy, perhaps, to one arm, he rose, then gave his hand to Evie.

She clasped him, and her gaze immediately riveted to his. He helped her to stand, all while keeping the animal in his grip.

“Well done,” Evie said. “You are quite the hero.”

“No more than you. I am Gregory Blakemore.” He inclined his head, still holding her hand.

Now she knew him—they’d met last Season in London. “Don’t you mean Lord Gregory?”

The man’s father was a marquess. Or had been. Evie recalled that he’d passed away in the spring. Which meant Lord Gregory’s older brother was now the marquess.

“I suppose,” he responded. “Seems unnecessary here, in this moment,” he added. His brows knitted. “Have we met?”

Evie released him. Somewhat reluctantly, which she refused to credit. “Last Season. You were nearly courting a friend of mine—she is now Lady Overton.”

“Ah. Forgive me for not recalling you, Miss…”

“Mrs. Renshaw,” she said. “I am widowed.” Why had she felt the need to add that detail?

“So young,” he murmured. Not terribly young. Evie was twenty-five. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” She always felt a small sting of discomfort when people said this. Because she wasn’t actually a widow. Evangeline Renshaw was a fabrication. Or, more accurately, a reinvention. “I’m sorry for yours—your father, I mean.”

“Thank you.”

She saw the flash of sorrow in his warm brown eyes. “Were you close?”

He nodded. “I miss him a great deal.”

Evie wondered if he still had a mother—she’d lost her parents long ago. It was just her and her older sister, Heloise. “At least you have your brother,” she said kindly.

This time a shadow passed over his features. “I do.”

There was an undeniable tension in his response, but Evie wasn’t going to pry. “What are we going to do about the dog?” He—that was no longer in question now that he was free and fully visible—was happily snuggled in Lord Gregory’s embrace. Evie fancied that was a rather nice place to be. She wondered what he smelled like.

No, she did not. Would not.

“You should take him home. And feed him immediately. He feels rather skinny.” He scratched the pup’s head. “Aren’t you, boy?”

“Didn’t you hear me?” Evie tried not to sound aghast. “I can’t have a pet.”

Lord Gregory appeared bemused. “Why not?”

“Because…I’ve never had one, and I don’t know how. Please, you must keep him.”

He looked down at the dog. “I suppose we should try to see if he has an owner. Perhaps one of the tenants had a litter in recent months. I’d say he’s a few months old at least.”

“I will tell Alfred—that is, Mr. Creighton—about it.” Alfred was Evie’s brother-in-law, but since she’d reinvented herself two years ago as Mrs. Renshaw, she couldn’t claim Heloise as her sister. Not without exposing herself and her disreputable past.

Lord Gregory’s eyes lit. “How is it you are associated with our new neighbors?”

“The Creightons are dear friends of mine.” She sought to quickly change the subject to avoid further questions. “Does this hedgerow divide your estate from theirs?”

“It does. Though, it isn’t my estate. It’s my brother’s.”

“Then I suppose you’ll have to ask his tenants as well. There’s no telling which side he came from.”

“You make a good point,” Lord Gregory said. “I will keep him while we search for a potential owner.”

Evie looked at the sweet puppy and stroked his head. “You will be well looked after.”

“He will indeed, and if we are unable to find whoever owns him, I shall endeavor to change your mind about taking him. Everyone needs a pet at least once.”

She kept her mouth closed, not wishing to debate him. “I’ll walk with you back to wherever you came through.” Why? She should take her leave immediately. She didn’t need or want a pet or a gentleman friend. She had plenty of gentlemen friends in London. None of whom made her heart pick up speed or her flesh tingle.

“I squeezed between the shrubbery and that ash tree.” He nodded in the direction from which he’d come.

“Ash,” Evie murmured, looking at the pup. Perhaps she could try having a pet. And what if it didn’t work or she was terrible at it? She couldn’t abandon the poor thing. She would never do that. “We should call him Ash,” she suggested.

“It goes with his coloring for certain,” Lord Gregory said with a faint smile. “Ash it is. Remember, I am only keeping him for you until you’re ready to claim ownership.”

“I won’t, but I would appreciate the opportunity to visit.”

No, you would not. You should run away from both these creatures.

They started toward the tree.

“I’ll see about having my brother invite you and the Creightons to Witney Court. I should like to meet them.”

Evie wondered if that would actually happen. Not Lord Gregory speaking with them—she believed he would do what he said. She just didn’t think the invitation would be forthcoming. Alfred had purchased Threadbury Hall six months ago, and they’d moved into the house in July. At no point had their neighbors at Witney Court made any invitation or overture of any kind, which Alfred and Heloise attributed to the fact that the household was in mourning. However, the marquess had married nearly two months ago, so Evie supposed it was possible an invitation or visit might occur.

Or not.

Cynicism about members of Society was something Evie doubted she’d ever be able to shed. It was ironic since she had so many friends who moved in that upper echelon. But those people were different. They were the members of Society who didn’t feel as though they entirely belonged or who had been ignored or disdained for one reason or another. These were the people whom her close friend Lord Lucien Westbrook invited to join the Phoenix Club, a membership club for men—and women—that Evie managed. She was also one of four patronesses of the club, which was as close to that most revered sector of Society as she ever wanted to get.

That Society had refused to welcome Heloise after her marriage to Alfred was perhaps the primary reason Evie couldn’t ever embrace it fully. Heloise had been Alfred’s mistress, and though they’d fallen in love, the ton couldn’t forgive or forget Heloise’s past. What would they think if they knew the truth—that she and Evie were the daughters of a French chevalier who’d been killed during the Terror? Evie wasn’t naïve enough to think that would matter. Many in Society liked to think they were better than others. It was the basis of their self-worth.

“Did I lose you?” Lord Gregory asked as they approached the tree.

Evie shook her head gently. “Not at all. I’m certain the Creightons would be delighted to meet their neighbors.” Heloise, in the interest of being friendly, might even try to invite them to Threadbury Hall.

Lord Gregory turned to face her, his lips turning up slightly. “This is where we leave you, I’m afraid. What will I do if Ash despairs in your absence?”

Evie knew that was nonsense. Was Lord Gregory flirting with her? It didn’t seem like it—he was refreshingly genuine. “He won’t.”

“I suppose not. You did say you wished to visit, and I shall ensure your parting is short, if not temporary.”

“Your persistence is unwavering. Anyway, I suspect you’ll find where he belongs. A child is perhaps missing him even now.” That pulled at Evie’s heartstrings, both because she hated to think of a child saddened by the loss of their pet and because she didn’t want Ash to belong to anyone.

Except perhaps to her.

No! She didn’t have time for a dog.

“That may be true,” Lord Gregory said. “I’ll keep you informed.” He started to turn toward the opening between the hedge and tree, but Evie stopped him.

“One last nuzzle,” she said softly, cupping Ash’s sweet face. His round brown eyes met hers, and she nearly succumbed. The pup didn’t need Lord Gregory’s help in trying to persuade her to keep him.

Evie kissed the dog’s head and quickly backed away. “Thank you for taking care of him.”

Lord Gregory inclined his head, then disappeared through the hedgerow. She watched him turn to the left, which was the direction she would go. Indeed, she could just make out the top of his hat over the shrubbery. He couldn’t see her, however.

“Are you still there?” he asked a moment later.

Evie smiled to herself. “For a while. Until I need to turn toward the house.”

“I see. There is an assembly in town day after tomorrow. Will you be there?”

“I don’t know.” Evie didn’t really want to go, but Heloise would continue trying to convince her that it would be engaging. In the end, Evie would likely attend in order to please her sister.

“It will be my first social event since my father died,” he said in a lower tone that made her have to strain a bit to hear him. “Except for my brother’s engagement ball in London and his wedding breakfast at Witney Court. Those don’t count, however, as I wasn’t actually looking forward to attending them.”

She wasn’t sure if she ought to encourage him or not. “Only go if you’re ready.”

“I appreciate you saying that.” Indeed, she heard the warmth in his voice even though the hedgerow separated them.

Evie heard a horse’s hooves from the other side of the hedgerow and looked over to see a white female rider approach Lord Gregory.

“What do you have there, Gregory?” The voice belonged to a young woman and carried the cultured tone of London High Society.

“We found a puppy in the hedgerow. I’m going to determine if he belongs to anyone. Poor thing needs food and water, I think.”

“Who is ‘we’?” The question was haughty, almost accusatory.

“I met your new neighbor. Well, their guest anyway. Are you there, Mrs. Renshaw?”

Evie froze. She didn’t want to be part of that conversation. It was nearly time for her to turn toward the house anyway. Except she didn’t go. Instead, she edged closer to the hedgerow so she wouldn’t be seen over the top by the rider.

“Where is she?” the young woman asked.

“She was on the other side of the hedgerow, but she must have continued on her way to the house. I told her we’d invite the Creightons—and her—for…something. Dinner, perhaps?”

“I’m not sure Cliff is ready to do that.” The young woman, who must be Lord Gregory’s sister-in-law, sniffed.

“He seems ready to attend the assembly in a few days.” Lord Gregory sounded strained, almost…irritated.

“Yes, well, that’s different from entertaining. Honestly, Gregory, don’t you know anything about these new neighbors? His father was in trade, and she was his mistress before they wed.”

“How would you know that?” Now he definitely sounded annoyed.

“My mother told me in a letter after I informed her who our new neighbors were.”

“I don’t know why any of that matters. I’m sure they’re lovely people.”

“Oh, Gregory.” She laughed. “Your fervent kindness and understanding are so quaint. You are going to make an excellent bishop one day.”

Bishop? Evie now vaguely remembered that he was rumored to perhaps be looking for a living—surely his marquess father or now brother could have provided one. She also recalled that he’d taught at Oxford.

“I’m going to talk to Clifford about this.” Lord Gregory sounded farther away, as if he’d started walking.

“Go right ahead. In the meantime, do not bring that mongrel into my house. He’ll have to stay in the stables.” Hooves sounded against the ground once more, and Evie determined the busybody had ridden away.

Frowning, Evie cut across the damp grass toward the track that led back to Threadbury Hall. She regretted not taking Ash with her. He wouldn’t be happy in the stables all by himself.

But he wouldn’t be, of course. Certainly, the stable lads would be delighted to have him. Indeed, he’d likely be more pampered there.

Or perhaps Lord Gregory would ignore his sister-in-law’s edict. That house had been his home for far longer than hers, after all. Yes, that was what Evie wished to believe, that Lord Gregory would keep Ash safe and warm.

By the time she reached the house, she’d convinced herself that Lord Gregory would find Ash’s home quickly and she’d never see the puppy again. That was for the best, just as it would be that she didn’t see Lord Gregory again. He was far too charming. Too handsome. Too…kind and understanding, to borrow his horrid sister-in-law’s description.

Heloise was seated in the small drawing room, which Evie entered from the rear patio. “How was your walk?”

“Chilly.” Evie said nothing about finding Ash or encountering Lord Gregory. She especially wasn’t going to mention the nasty neighbor. She’d tell Alfred about the dog and ask if he could investigate the matter with his tenants.

“I’ve news to share.” Heloise’s blue eyes, so similar to Evie’s own, sparkled with excitement. “We’ve decided to host a dinner party for some of the neighbors. It will be a couple of nights after the assembly.”

Evie paused in removing her hat. “Which neighbors?”

“Several people, notably the vicar and his wife, and Lord and Lady Witney. The vicar said they are receiving invitations and will attend the assembly.”

“Did you already invite everyone?” Evie asked, hoping these were plans that had not yet been executed.

“Yes. Alfred went to distribute the invitations. I would have gone with him, but Henry was fussing.” Henry, named for their father, was Evie’s year-old nephew.

Suppressing a groan, Evie tried to summon a smile and failed. She didn’t want to tell Heloise what she’d overheard earlier, but then she ought to prepare her sister for Lady Witney’s meanness. Except Heloise looked so happy. She deserved a nice evening. Perhaps Evie could ensure the Witneys didn’t come. It wasn’t as if they wanted to.

“I’ve decided to attend the assembly after all,” Evie said, sweeping her hat from her head and removing her gloves.

“Splendid!” Heloise’s joyful response was cut short when her eyes narrowed slightly. “Why the sudden change of heart? I thought I was going to have to drag you.”

“Because I know how much it means to you,” Evie said warmly. That, and she’d use the opportunity to encourage Lord Gregory to keep his brother and sister-in-law at home.

“I’m so pleased, thank you. I know you worry you’ll be recognized someday.” Heloise’s gaze filled with sympathy. She didn’t like that Evie had chosen to hide her identity, to pretend to be someone she wasn’t. And sometimes Evie agreed with her. Sometimes, she wanted everyone to know that she and Heloise were sisters, that they’d been visited by tragic circumstance and had risen from the ashes—like phoenixes—to not only survive, but thrive.

However, Evie wasn’t like Heloise. She didn’t have her sister’s strength and confidence. Everyone thought Evie possessed those traits, but they didn’t really know her. She didn’t want them to. It was easier to hide herself, particularly her past as a courtesan, than face scrutiny and certain rejection.

“I’ll just keep my eyes open for who is in attendance. It’s unlikely any of the gentlemen who might recognize me from my Cyprian days will be at a rural assembly in Oxfordshire.” Most of those men were either her friends, or they wouldn’t want to reveal her past for fear of implicating their own scandalous behavior. Evie smiled at her sister to ease her concern.

Heloise nodded. “I’m sure you’re right about that.”

Evie had preferred when her sister and Alfred had lived farther north, in Nottinghamshire. There’d been little chance of running into anyone from London there. But they’d wanted a larger house, more land, and to be closer to Evie in London.

“I’m going to take a warm bath,” Evie said, crossing the drawing room.

“Wonderful,” Heloise murmured.

Evie paused at the doorway and looked back at her sister. Her head was bent over her needlework. She looked the consummate country squire’s wife—exactly what she should be. No, she should be a countess or a duchess. That had been their station. Before war and chance had torn it away.

Stiffening, Evie turned and pushed the bitterness from her mind.

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