Darcy Burke

Excerpt: Improper

Book 1: The Phoenix Club

Chapter One

London, February 1815

Tobias Powell, fifth Earl of Overton, smiled faintly at the brush of his mistress’s fingertips along his shoulder. He didn’t open his eyes. Instead, he pressed himself into the bedclothes as if he could hug the cozy softness of the bed. He was particularly tired today, but then it had been a viciously late night.

“What time is your ward arriving?” Barbara, his soon-to-be-former mistress, asked from behind him.

Bloody hell, his ward. His eyes shot open as he pushed himself to a sitting position, the bedclothes falling away from his nude body. “What time is it?”

“Three.”

“In the afternoon?” Of course, in the afternoon. They hadn’t even come back to Barbara’s lodgings until the sun was rising over London.

Tobias scrambled from the bed and ran about plucking up his carelessly tossed clothing. Foregoing smallclothes since he couldn’t seem to find them, he pulled his breeches on. Then he threw his shirt over his head and haphazardly tucked the ends into his waistband.

From the bed, Barbara held up the missing smallclothes, her wide red lips parting in a teasing smile. “Don’t you need these?”

“You kept those from me on purpose.”

She shrugged, her elegant shoulders arching, which made her rather large breasts also move.

Tobias groaned. “I have to go. My ward could already have arrived.” This was not how he’d intended things to happen. He was supposed to be on his best, non-scandalous behavior, both to support his ward’s debut and to find his own wife. “You are far too tempting, Barbara.” He narrowed his eyes at her as he tugged his waistcoat on.

“Your buttons are not aligned.” She laughed softly as she leaned back against the head of the bed, making no attempt to cover her exposed upper half.

Tobias looked down and saw that she was right. Cursing softly, he started over. “This is your fault. You’re a terrible distraction.”

She stretched one arm up over her head, which again accentuated her breasts. “You like me that way.”

“I like you every way, but you know this is our final meeting. It has to be.”

Lowering her arm, she at last pulled up the bedclothes to cover her chest. Pouting, she said, “Because you must marry. Immediately.

Flinging himself into a chair, Tobias began to don his stockings and boots. “Within the next five or so weeks, yes.” Because his father had decreed it in a surprising change to his will before he’d died in December.

Tobias had to wed within three months of the former earl’s death, or he’d lose the one property that was not entailed—Tobias’s mother’s house, the only true home he’d ever known. He would do anything to keep it in his possession. Which meant he had to find a wife with nearly impossible haste.

And it was only nearly impossible because of his own behavior the past two years. While there were many who would gleefully accept an earl’s suit, he didn’t want just anyone. He wanted a wife of sophistication and wit, one who was kind and caring.

Someone he could love, even if he didn’t at the outset. Because he had no bloody time to fall in love. He needed to find a suitable woman, settle the betrothal, have the banns read, and complete the marriage ceremony within five weeks. All while any woman worth having would likely turn her back to him.

Reformation was the plan, and so far, he was failing. He’d tried to break things off with Barbara the other day, but he’d encountered her last night, and she’d been incredibly persuasive.

Finishing with his boots, he stood and drew on his coat. His cravat was also lost, apparently. No matter. It would have been a horribly wrinkled mess. He grabbed his hat and gloves from the top of her dresser and went to the bed.

“This really was the last time, Barb. You know it has to be.”

She exhaled, her dark eyes meeting his with a shadow of sadness. “I’ll find someone else, but they won’t be you. They’ll be serious and boring, and they won’t know me at all.”

Tobias brushed a dark blonde lock from her cheek and bent to press a kiss to her temple. “They’ll come to know you, and you’ll cure them of their dullness.” He straightened and set his hat atop his head.

“Perhaps I’ll take your generous settlement and just wait for you to change your mind.” She smiled up at him, and Tobias suffered a moment’s regret. He didn’t love Barbara, but she made him feel good and that was a lovely thing.

He turned and left her rooms, then practically sprinted down to the street where he hailed a hack. Three in the afternoon! He really hoped his ward had not yet arrived. It was a long journey from Shropshire, and the winter weather could have delayed her. Yes, he’d hope that was the case. Hadn’t that been one of the arguments Barbara had used the night before to persuade him to go home with her? She’d cooed that his ward was likely stuck somewhere due to a washed-out road.

Not that it had taken much to sway him. He’d fallen eagerly and completely into debauchery without a shred of regret. That his behavior would have frustrated his father—and did while he was alive—only made it more attractive. After Tobias had failed to wed two years ago, his father had harassed him incessantly about taking a wife. Hence, his dying decree that Tobias marry or suffer—by losing the one possession that meant something incredibly dear to him.

And so his father would win as if this had been a game the past two years. It hadn’t been, not to Tobias. He thought he’d fallen in love, only to have the lady in question turn on him and make him doubt everything he’d felt. Was it any wonder he was not inclined to court anyone else?

It was, however, time he did.

The hack stopped halfway down Brook Street, and Tobias leapt from the vehicle. He dashed through the gate and up the steps to his house, rushing inside as Carrin opened the door.

He stopped abruptly, facing the butler. “Is she here?”

“Miss Wingate?” Carrin shook his head. “Not yet, my lord.”

The stress rushed out of Tobias’s frame, making him feel as if he might slide down to the marble floor. “Thank God. I’m going to take a quick bath.” He removed his hat and strode through the archway into the staircase hall.

“I believe she’s just arrived, my lord,” Carrin called just as Tobias put his foot on the stair.

Closing his eyes, he gripped the railing. “Bollocks.”

#

“Oh my goodness, that’s Hyde Park!” Fiona Wingate pressed her nose to the window of the coach, her pulse racing.

“How do you know?” Mrs. Tucket said without opening her eyes from beside Fiona.

“Because I do.” Fiona had studied maps of London for as long as she could remember. Indeed, she’d studied every map she could get her hands on. “It’s so big and wonderful.” She splayed her gloved palm against the glass as if she could somehow reach through and touch the trees, their spindly limbs still bare.

Mrs. Tucket leaned against her, and a quick look showed she’d opened one eye long enough to peer past Fiona at the park. “Harumph. You can’t see anything of import.”

No, she couldn’t see Rotten Row or the Serpentine or any of the ton’s ladies and gentlemen who would be out and about during the fashionable hour. She doubted they’d be out today anyway. It was quite early in the Season, with Parliament just starting their session a few days earlier. And it was too cold to promenade.

At that moment, rain drops splattered the window. Certainly too rainy.

Fiona didn’t care. She’d take London in the rain, the snow, even in a hurricane, if such a thing were possible. The point was, she didn’t care about the weather or that the park was not yet in full bloom. She was in London. Most importantly, she was no longer in Bitterley, where she’d spent the entirety of her almost twenty-two years.

Mrs. Tucket exhaled loudly as she worked to push herself into an upright sitting position. She’d slumped rather far down in her seat since their last stop some miles back. “I suppose I must rouse myself from the travel stupor.”

Fiona kept her face to the window until they reached the corner of the park. Even then, she craned her neck to look back at it, marveling at the archway leading inside. She would get to promenade there or mayhap even ride. Perhaps her guardian would drive her in his phaeton. If he had one. Surely all earls had phaetons.

The coach continued along a bustling street—Oxford Street, if she recalled the map correctly. And she was certain she did. Shortly they would turn right down Davies Street into Mayfair, the heart of London’s most fashionable neighborhood.

They passed stone and brick-faced houses, some with elaborate doorways and others with wide windows. Some were narrow while others were twice as wide. When they turned left onto Brook Street, the houses became quite elegant, with fancy wrought iron fencing and pillared entrances.

At last, the coach drew to a halt in front of the most glorious house yet. An iron gate with a large O worked into the design at the top guarded the walkway leading to the front door where a pair of pillars stood on either side. The door of the coach opened, and a footman dressed in dark green livery rushed through the gate to help her descend.

Fiona tipped her head back and counted four stories stretching into the gray sky. A raindrop landed on her nose, and she grinned. Then she glanced down at the part of the house below the street. Five stories in all.

“I think my legs have completely gone to sleep,” Mrs. Tucket said, grasping Fiona’s arm to steady herself.

The footman held the gate open and indicated Fiona and Mrs. Tucket should precede him. Holding her head high, Fiona made sure Mrs. Tucket had a good hold on her before moving through the gate onto the short path that took them to five steps. Fiona went slowly so Mrs. Tucket, who had an aching hip, could keep up. This was more than fine since Fiona’s heart was beating even faster than it had been in the coach as she contemplated how her life was about to change.

She was the ward of an earl in London on the brink of her first Season. It was, in a word, unbelievable.

The door stood open and another man in dark green livery was positioned just inside. “Good afternoon, Miss Wingate, Mrs. Tucket. Welcome to Overton House.”

“You’ve arrived!” The booming masculine voice sounded through the marble-floored, wood-paneled foyer before Fiona could see the man himself. But then he, presumably the Earl of Overton, was there, striding through a wide archway directly across from them.

Fiona stared at him, surprised at his youth. No, not his youth, for he was likely almost thirty. No, she was surprised to see that he was…handsome. She’d expected someone like his father, whom she’d met a dozen or so times over the course of her lifetime. But where the former earl had been dour-faced and without any exceptional physical traits, the current earl possessed a lively gaze and eyes the color of pewter. His dark hair was damp; artful waves contrasting against his light forehead. He tugged at his coat and fidgeted with his simply knotted cravat as he came to stand in the center of the foyer.

Recalling her practice with Mrs. Tucket, Fiona sank into a deep curtsey while her arm was still in her maid’s grasp. “My lord.”

“Well done,” he said, grinning. “You are nearly ready for your presentation to the queen.”

Fiona had started to rise but she nearly toppled to the floor. “My what?”

“You’re to be presented to the queen?” Mrs. Tucket began to breathe heavily, so much so that Fiona feared she would faint.

“Can she sit?” Fiona asked, searching wildly for a chair.

Lord Overton’s brow creased as he hurried forward to take Mrs. Tucket’s other arm. “In here.” He ushered them to a sitting room to the right of the foyer. Decorated in warm yellow and burnished bronze, the room welcomed them like a sunny afternoon.

Together, Fiona and the earl brought Mrs. Tucket to a chair near the hearth where coals burned in the fireplace. “Better?” Fiona asked.

“A drop of sherry would not come amiss,” Mrs. Tucket said, untying her bonnet beneath her chin.

The earl stalked back to the doorway and asked someone to fetch sherry and tea. “Carrin will be along presently. That’s the butler. He was standing just in the foyer when you arrived. I’ll introduce you to the household a bit later, if that’s all right.”

“Yes, thank you,” Fiona said, trying not to gape at the splendor of the room with its multiple paintings, rich window hangings, and lavish furniture. She’d known the earl would have a large house and fine décor, but she hadn’t realized how large or how fine. And now it was her home. Her heart started to pound again.

Mrs. Tucket coughed. “Were you jesting about my Fiona being presented to the queen? Surely you must have been.”

“Not at all,” Overton said with a smile. “It is expected that young ladies entering upon their first Season are presented to Her Royal Highness.”

Now it felt as if Fiona’s heart might actually leap from her chest. The queen!

Mrs. Tucket’s dark eyes widened, and she stared at Fiona in something akin to horror, which was just a wee bit annoying. “She doesn’t know a thing about how to do that!”

The earl continued to smile placidly. “Do not fret, for Miss Wingate shall have ample opportunity to prepare. Her presentation is not until next week.”

“Next week?” Mrs. Tucket squeaked as she drooped in the chair. She pressed the back of her hand to her cheek and muttered something unintelligible.

Moving to stand near Fiona, the earl murmured, “Er, is she all right?”

“Yes, she’s just being dramatic,” Fiona whispered. “She does that.”

“Oh. Then I daresay it’s wise that I’ve procured a chaperone and a sponsor for you. You’ll meet the former shortly and the latter tomorrow.”

“Did I hear you say you’ve hired a chaperone for my Fiona?” Mrs. Tucket sounded aghast. She pursed her lips most strenuously. “I am her chaperone.”

The earl smiled affably. “Certainly, but I thought she might benefit from an additional chaperone. Someone acquainted with London and Society.” He darted an uncertain look at Fiona as if he were looking for support.

“An excellent idea, my lord,” Fiona said as she went to sit in another chair near the hearth. She reached over and patted Mrs. Tucket’s hand. “How can I not prosper with two chaperones?”

“Harumph.” Mrs. Tucket narrowed her eyes at the fire.

Fiona looked up at the earl. He was frowning, one hand on his hip and the other stroking his chin.

The butler arrived with a tray bearing tea and a glass of sherry. The earl scooped up the latter item and brought it directly to Mrs. Tucket. “Your sherry, ma’am.”

She took the glass and downed half the contents without a word. Holding the sherry against her chest, she settled back against the chair and closed her eyes.

Fiona slowly rose and tiptoed back to the center of the room where the earl stood staring at her maid. “She’ll likely fall asleep in a moment. The key will be to catch the glass before it falls.”

The earl’s dark brows climbed just before he nodded. Turning, he gestured for the butler to move the tray to a table in front of the windows that looked out to Brook Street.

A snore rattled the air, and Fiona dashed to catch the glass of sherry as Mrs. Tucket’s grip slackened. Just one small drop of the contents splashed over the side onto her skirt. Fiona considered that a victory.

When she joined the earl at the table near the window, he inclined his head with appreciation. “Well done.”

“It is not my first rescue.”

The earl held her chair as she sat. “I see, and here I thought you had someone taking care of you.”

“She does take care of me, but it’s true that I also take care of her. More in the last year or so. She’s quite tired, I think. She all but ran our household the past six years after my father died and then later when my mother became ill.”

The earl, seated across the round table, handed her a cup of tea the butler had prepared before leaving. The entire activity—the delivery of the tea, organizing it and a selection of food on the table, and his departure had occurred with such ease and precision that Fiona wondered how the butler had done it all without her really noticing.

“How long since she’s been gone?” Overton asked before sipping his tea.

“Not quite two years. She’d hoped to come to London with me for my Season, but, ah, your father didn’t extend the invitation until just before she died. And then, well…” She didn’t need to tell him about how things had happened. “I didn’t mean to imply anything by that.”

“Of course not,” he said benignly, reaching for a biscuit. “You need never fear voicing an opinion about my father. You’ll find I have many, and few of them are good.”

“Oh.” Fiona didn’t know what to say to that, so she decided to find another topic. It wasn’t hard, for she had a thousand questions. And that was before she’d learned she was to be presented to the queen or that she would have a new chaperone and a…sponsor? “What does a sponsor do?”

He finished chewing and waved his hand, still holding the biscuit. “An excellent question. You are quite fortunate to be sponsored by one of Society’s most influential ladies, Lady Pickering.” He waggled his brows. “She will come tomorrow, and you’ll discuss all things of import, including your presentation to court, your wardrobe, and, of course, invitations.”

Fiona had just picked up a biscuit and promptly dropped it into her teacup. “I already have invitations?”

“Not yet. No one knows who you are, and the Season has barely begun. Lady Pickering will see that you receive invitations. Once you’re presented, there will likely be a flood.”

Fiona picked up her teacup and frowned into the contents where the edge of the biscuit was visible just above the liquid.

“Let’s just pour you a new cup.” He reached for the third cup that was likely for Mrs. Tucket, who wouldn’t be needing it. After pouring the tea, he added a bit of milk and sugar, then swapped it with her cup with an efficiency and care she would not have expected from an earl.

She couldn’t help but smile at him. “You’re quite jovial.” She didn’t recall his father being so likeable. He’d been rather serious.

“I try to be.” He finished the rest of his biscuit while Fiona sampled her new cup of tea.

“Better?” he asked.

“Much, thank you.” She set her cup down just as he picked his up.

“THE BLOODY QUEEN?”

The outburst from Mrs. Tucket caused the earl to spill his tea right down the front of his cravat and waistcoat. His eyes widened with shock as he darted his gaze toward where Mrs. Tucket still slumped in her chair. “Is she all right?”

“Oh, yes. She does that.” Fiona picked up her napkin and went to the earl, dabbing at the tea on his front without thinking.

“Er.” His gaze met hers—they were rather close—and Fiona realized this was highly improper.

“Sorry!” She dropped the now-soiled napkin in his lap and dashed back to her chair, heat rushing up her neck and cheeks.

He plucked the napkin up and continued where she left off. “It’s fine. I appreciate your quick reaction. Mrs. Tucket often shouts in her sleep?” He looked toward her again, one brow arching. “She is still asleep?”

“Most certainly. At this time of day, she typically naps an hour or two. And, yes, she is known to call out. Usually with a profanity.”

His hand stopped wiping at his waistcoat as his gaze fixed on her. “Truly?” At her answering nod, he let out a wonderfully warm laugh. Fiona couldn’t help but join in.

When their laughter subsided, he set the napkin on the edge of the table. “Well, it’s good that I’ve enlisted additional help. You will require a chaperone who does not fall asleep and make exclamations using inappropriate language.”

Fiona leaned forward slightly. “You can’t dismiss her. I won’t allow it.”

The earl studied her in silence a moment. “I’m afraid it’s not up to you to allow things,” he said with a subtle edge of steel. “However, it was never my plan to dismiss her. I understand she’s been with your family quite some time. She will simply take on a new role.”

His plan. It wasn’t up to her. Perhaps Overton wasn’t as likeable as she thought. “Thank you, my lord,” she said as sweetly as possible. “What role is that?”

“Whatever you deem it to be. Just know she will not accompany you to Society events. That will be Miss Lancaster’s responsibility.”

“Miss Lancaster?”

He stood. “Come, I’ll introduce you now.” Looking toward Mrs. Tucket, he pressed his lips together. “Should we wake her? I can have Mrs. Smythe, the housekeeper, see her upstairs.”

Fiona went to assess Mrs. Tucket’s situation. She didn’t look particularly comfortable, but Fiona knew that didn’t matter. What did matter was not interrupting this most important afternoon nap, particularly after their long, arduous journey over the past week. “She’ll sleep another hour at least. Would it be possible to have a maid check on her periodically so that she doesn’t startle when she awakens? She may not recall where she is.”

The earl looked alarmed. “She’s forgetful?”

“Occasionally, but so is anyone nearing seventy. This is a new place and we’ve only just arrived. I fear I might not recall where I was.”

“Fair enough.” He gestured to the door. “Shall we?”

The tea had stained the folds of his cravat, and parts of his maroon waistcoat were darker than the rest because the fabric was wet. She would feel bad if his clothing were ruined, but then he could surely afford to replace both items without a second thought.

He led her from the sitting room back into the foyer. A liveried footman stood near the door like a statue. They turned to the right, and there was an actual statue in the corner, a life-sized rendering of a muscular young man in a brimmed hat, winged sandals, and a cloth draped in an artful fashion covering his most intimate parts.

“Is that Hermes?” she asked.

“You know your Greek gods.” He sounded impressed. “My father liked Greek mythology in his youth. Or so my mother said.”

He led her into a large hall in which a wide staircase climbed up the right side. Portraits lined the wall ascending to the first floor.

“I seem to recall that about him when he visited my father. They discussed Greek philosophers too.” She looked at the paintings as they went up. “Are these your relatives?”

“Yes.” He pointed to the one at the top. “That’s my grandmother. She lives at the dowager house at Deane Hall. She rarely comes to London anymore.”

The likeness was of a woman past the blush of youth but not yet in middle age. Her gray-blue eyes were very similar to that of her grandson, including a certain sense of exuberance, as if she were ready to meet whatever came her way. “She looks lively.”

“She has many opinions and will share them whether you want to hear them or not.” At the top of the stairs, he continued onto the next flight. “Your room is up one more.”

The staircase up to the second floor was not quite as grand, and the paintings were of landscapes. There was also one of a bowl of fruit.

“Just to the left here.” He led her to a doorway and stepped into a small, well-appointed sitting room decorated in pale pink and green. Once inside, he gestured to the right. “Your chamber is through there. And here is Miss Lancaster.”

The woman who was to be Fiona’s companion walked into the sitting room from a door on the wall opposite the one to Fiona’s chamber. Miss Lancaster was taller than average with dark blonde hair and a narrow face. Her pale, gray-green eyes were wide, however, and fringed with long, dark lashes. There was a steel to her, perhaps in the way she stood or the manner in which she held her head with an air of resolve.

Fiona moved toward her with a warm smile, wanting to start their relationship off well, even if she did feel a bit like the woman was edging Mrs. Tucket out. “Good afternoon, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Miss Lancaster dropped into an easy curtsey. “I have been eager to meet you, Miss Wingate. And to be of service.”

“I will let the two of you become acquainted,” the earl said. “Dinner is at eight.”

“So late?” Fiona asked. “Mrs. Tucket will be quite famished by then, I should think.”

“We don’t keep country hours here in town,” Overton said. “But we’ll do our best to accommodate Mrs. Tucket. I’ll see she has whatever refreshments she desires. As soon as she wakes,” he added.

“Where is her room?” Fiona glanced toward the door from which Miss Lancaster had emerged.

“Across the gallery overlooking Brook Street. I’m sure she’ll find it more than acceptable. See you at dinner.” He turned and left before Fiona could ask any more questions.

Instead, she addressed Miss Lancaster. “Is that your room there then?” Fiona inclined her head toward the door that didn’t lead to Fiona’s chamber.

“Yes. His lordship thought we should share this sitting room so as to form our, er, bond.” Miss Lancaster shifted her weight, and Fiona saw the crack in the woman’s façade. She was nervous.

Fiona relaxed, for she was nervous too, and it helped to know she wasn’t alone. It also helped that her new companion appeared to be just a few years older than her, rather than someone with several additional decades. Fiona loved Mrs. Tucket, but it would be nice to have someone young to talk to. “How old are you, Miss Lancaster?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Is that the age of most companions in London?”

“Er, yes?” Miss Lancaster sounded uncertain.

“You don’t know? I thought Lord Overton said you were an experienced chaperone.”

“Oh, of course. Just not here in London.” Miss Lancaster abruptly turned. “Come, I’ll show you your room. I’m sure you’re anxious to see it.”

“Thank you. I should like that very much, Miss Lancaster.”

The taller woman looked back over her shoulder. “Please call me Prudence.”

“All right, but you must call me Fiona then. Especially if we’re to be friends.” How she hoped they would be friends. Fiona hadn’t had one in a very long time. Not since Abigail Harding had moved to Ludlow after getting married four years ago.

Prudence’s gaze softened and some of the tension seemed to leave her frame. “I would like that.”

“Wonderful.” Fiona grinned and then gasped as she stepped into her bedchamber. It was more than twice as large as the one in their cottage in Bitterley on her cousin’s estate, perhaps three times, actually, and decorated in beautiful rose and gold. There was a large bed, a writing desk, a dressing table, and a grand armoire along with smaller dressers for her things. What she owned wouldn’t fill even a quarter of everything, but then she supposed her new wardrobe would.

Turning to face Prudence, she clasped her hands together. “I have so many questions but let me start by asking when we can go to Bond Street.” There were so many things Fiona was eager to do and experience. Why not start with something close?

“I’m not sure, but soon. His lordship said you would require a wardrobe for the Marriage Mart.”

Halfway to the dressing table, Fiona stopped. If the earl thought she was a biddable young lady eager for the marital yoke, he was going to be quite shocked.

Fiona would try not to be amused.

Return to Improper

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