London, May 1819
Jane Pemberton hummed to herself as she tied the ribbons of her bonnet beneath her chin. “I’m just going for a quick walk around the square before the meeting, Culpepper.”
The butler, an unflappable man in his late thirties with thick, sandy-brown hair and sherry-brown eyes inclined his head. “Enjoy your walk, Miss Pemberton.”
“Thank you.” Jane smiled at him as he reached for the door. Though she’d only moved to the house just over a fortnight ago, she felt completely at home, and that was due in large part to Culpepper’s kindness and support. It was most welcome considering the disaster she’d caused by taking up residence here in her friend, Phoebe Lennox’s house.
No, not Phoebe Lennox. She was Marchioness of Ripley now, after marrying the marquess a fortnight before. Today would be the first time Jane had seen her since the wedding.
Culpepper opened the door, and Jane stepped toward the threshold. Where she stopped short before tripping over a…man on the front steps.
“Good heavens! There’s a man on the doorstep!” Jane squatted down and moved his hat, which was sitting askew and covering most of his face. At least she thought it was a face. His eye was so swollen she doubted he could open it, and a cut, coated with dried blood, marred his upper cheek. Dried blood also covered the space between his nose and mouth, and his lower lip was split. Whoever he was, he’d been in a terrible fight.
“Is he alive?” Culpepper asked.
Jane leaned over him, lowering her cheek to his mouth and nose. His breath, reeking of alcohol, told her he was. “Yes. Let’s take him inside.”
“I’ll fetch Jones.” Culpepper referred to one of the footmen.
While the butler was gone, Jane brushed the stranger’s dark, wavy hair back from his battered face. Who was he, and why was he on her doorstep?
Culpepper and Jones arrived and hefted him into the entry hall. The stranger moaned but didn’t open his eyes.
“Take him up to the front bedchamber.” It was the room Jane had used when she’d first arrived, but Phoebe had insisted she take her chamber, which was larger and boasted an adjoining sitting room. Since Phoebe now resided with her husband just down the street in Hanover Square, Jane hadn’t refused.
“Yes, Miss Pemberton,” Culpepper answered as he led the way, carrying the man’s shoulders, going backward up the stairs.
Jane untied her bonnet and removed her gloves as she followed them. Depositing the items on a table at the top of the stairs, she trailed them to the bedchamber where they placed the man on the bed.
Culpepper turned to her in question.
“Please fetch cloths and water so we can clean him up,” Jane said, moving to the bed.
The butler and footman left, and Jane studied the stranger. She could see the other side of his face now, and it was a bit less damaged than the other. “Who are you?” she murmured, gently touching his forehead, which seemed the only unhurt part of his face.
Simultaneously, his hand curled around her wrist and his lids opened to reveal stunning cobalt eyes. She gasped as recognition finally shot through her. “Lord Colton!”
His eyes narrowed briefly then his features relaxed into a lazy smile. “Good evening, my lady.”
“It is neither evening nor am I a ‘my lady’. Don’t you know who I am?”
He struggled to sit up and loosened his grip on her wrist but didn’t let go. Instead, he caressed her forearm up to her elbow. “Sorry, love, I’ve forgotten your name. It’s no longer evening, you say? We must have had a lovely time.”
Jane stared at him, thinking he had to have lost his senses in the fight. “You don’t remember?”
He winced. “It seems not. Ah well, all the reason to begin again.” He released her elbow and snaked his arm around her waist, pulling her down.
Surprised by his maneuver, Jane lost her balance and landed against his chest.
He let out a howl of pain that ended in a groan. “Bloody hell, that hurts.” He let her go and lifted his hand to his head. “Everything hurts.”
“I should think so,” Jane said, working to push herself off him without causing him more discomfort. Given how he’d reacted, she assumed his body was also injured.
A maid entered at that moment with towels as well as fresh water, which she brought to the table beside the bed. Jane turned to her. “Thank you. Did you happen to bring some salve?”
The maid glanced toward the viscount and flinched. “No, but I will.” She turned to go.
“And Cook’s headache tonic,” Jane called after her.
“Yes, Miss Pemberton.”
Jane turned back to the bed and saw that the viscount’s eyes were closed once more, and he appeared to be asleep again. Dipping a cloth into the warm water, she applied it to the cut on his cheek, wiping away the blood. When it was clean, she set about cleaning the rest of the blood from his face. But he was so swollen and his flesh so reddened, she didn’t feel as if she was helping all that much.
Leaning toward him slightly, she studied his features for the man she knew. Anthony, Viscount Colton was a very handsome gentleman, buried somewhere beneath the wounds he’d suffered. He was also the brother of a good friend, Sarah, the Countess of Ware who was currently in the country preparing to give birth to her first child any day.
What on earth had happened to him? And why was he on Jane’s doorstep of all places?
Jane turned her head to see Culpepper stepping into the bedchamber. “Should we send for a doctor? I think his wounds may go beyond his face.”
“Do you know a discreet physician?” he asked.
No, she did not. And discretion would be vital. Jane may have shunned society’s rules when she’d declared herself a spinster and moved away from her parents’ house, but she didn’t wish to add fuel to her smoldering reputation.
“Let us just take care of him for now,” Jane said. “We’ll see how he is later.”
“Should you notify Bow Street to perhaps find out who he is?”
“Oh, I know who he is.” Jane glanced down at his almost-unrecognizable face. “He’s Lord Colton.”
Culpepper’s eyes flickered with surprise. “I see. My apologies, Miss Pemberton, but I came to tell you Lady Gresham and Miss Whitford have arrived.”
“Thank you, Culpepper. Will you have Meg come up and tend to Lord Colton?”
Jane sent one last lingering look toward the unconscious man on the bed and hastened from the room. She rushed downstairs to the garden room, situated at the back of the house. A bright, cheerful chamber, Phoebe had refurbished it to feel as if it were part of the garden that lay just outside the doors that led outside.
Phoebe was, in fact, also there, along with Lady Gresham and Miss Whitford. Seated in what had been her favorite chair when she’d lived there, Phoebe smiled at Jane in greeting. She looked incredibly happy, her green eyes sparkling.
Jane took the empty chair near Phoebe’s, which was opposite a settee where the sisters, Lady Gresham and Miss Whitford were seated. “Welcome, ladies. I’m so glad you could come to our first official meeting of the Spitfire Society.”
“We’re delighted to be invited,” Lady Gresham said. Tall and slender with a delicate bone structure, she was the epitome of elegance—at least to Jane.
“What is the purpose of this meeting?” Miss Whitford asked without preamble.
Lady Gresham looked toward her younger sister and it seemed she was going to speak, but Phoebe got there first.
“Before we get into the meeting, Lady Gresham and Miss Whitford found a gentleman’s hat on your doorstep.” Phoebe stood and went to a table near the door where she picked up a black hat and brought it back to where they were seated. “Do you know who it belongs to?”
Jane’s mind scrambled as she took it from her. If it was just Phoebe here, Jane would tell the truth of it, but she didn’t know Lady Gresham and Miss Whitford well enough to disclose that there was an unconscious man upstairs in the guest chamber. “I don’t. Perhaps it blew there from the square.”
“Surely a gentleman would know if he’d lost his hat,” Phoebe said.
“Maybe someone left it there on purpose,” Miss Whitford suggested as a maid entered with a tray of refreshments, which she arranged on a low table situated between the settee and chairs.
“Would you pour the lemonade, please?” Jane asked.
“Thank you, Laura,” Phoebe said warmly to the maid who smiled in response.
“It’s nice to see you, my lady,” Laura said to Phoebe while pouring.
Miss Whitford was perhaps five years younger than her sister and just about the right age to embark on her first Season, which was apparently their purpose in coming to town, even if they had arrived late. With brown hair, light hazel eyes, and a smaller, more curvaceous frame, she and Lady Gresham did not appear to be sisters. Miss Whitford looked to Phoebe. “That’s right, this is your house, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but it’s Jane’s home now.” Phoebe inclined her head toward Jane.
Miss Whitford reached for her glass before turning her focus to Jane. “And how is it that you find yourself living here alone?”
“Beatrix,” Lady Gresham said quietly but with heat before sending an apologetic glance toward Jane and Phoebe. “Pardon my sister. Sometimes she speaks a bit recklessly. Having come from the country, we are not used to Polite Society.”
“Please don’t concern yourself, Lady Gresham. I find Miss Whitford’s demeanor refreshing, for you see, I am quite weary of Society myself.” Jane smiled encouragingly at Miss Whitford. “That is why I am living here alone. I don’t wish to participate in the rituals required of unmarried women of my age. Furthermore, the purpose of the Spitfire Society is to celebrate womanhood and whatever independence we can claim.”
Miss Whitford blinked, her dark lashes sweeping briefly over her hazel eyes. “Fascinating. We came to town so I could find a husband. Maybe.” She shrugged as if she were contemplating something so mundane as a new pair of gloves. “Independence is rather lovely.” She flicked a glance toward her sister, who, as a wealthy widow, enjoyed as much independence as a woman could probably hope to.
“But so is marriage,” Lady Gresham said, eyeing Phoebe, who was, of course very recently—and blissfully—wed. To a consummate rake no less. Rather, former rake.
Phoebe picked up her lemonade. “I certainly can’t complain. And I daresay if any of you are lucky enough to find a man like Marcus, you wouldn’t either. Not that there are any other men like him.” A faint blush stained her cheeks as she sipped her drink. “I do miss Cook,” she murmured appreciatively.
“So what do spitfires do?” Miss Whitford asked.
“That’s up to us,” Jane said. “We support each other, obviously, but perhaps we can also do something meaningful for other women.”
“What a marvelous idea,” Lady Gresham said. “Do you have anything specific in mind?”
“No. Perhaps we can come up with something.” As Jane picked up a biscuit from the tray, a loud crash upstairs made her drop it. Her gaze shot toward the ceiling as her pulse picked up.
Phoebe frowned. “My goodness, what was that?”
“My, er, kitten!” Jane said quickly. “I just brought him home yesterday.”
Surprise flashed across Phoebe’s face. “You have a kitten?”
“Yes, I hope that’s all right. I should have asked you first, but the poor thing needed a home.” Jane realized she could have been talking about Lord Colton. He was in desperate need—not for a home, but for care. And she’d tell Phoebe about him too—later.
Culpepper appeared in the doorway, his forehead rippled with concern. “Miss Pemberton, might I have a word?”
Alarm spread through Jane as she rose from the chair. “Please excuse me a moment,” she managed to say calmly before walking sedately from the room just as a second noise sounded from upstairs.
She followed Culpepper into the hall and spoke in a frantic whisper. “What the devil is going on?”
Culpepper’s brows pitched low with a mixture of frustration and annoyance. “I’m afraid his lordship has awakened and is being rather…disruptive. Meg and Jones are trying to keep him quiet, but I don’t know if they will be successful.” The sound of something breaking carried down the stairs, and Jane prayed her guests, especially Phoebe, couldn’t hear it.
“Clearly not,” Jane said. “I’ll go right up—after I adjourn the meeting. Will you please show them out with alacrity?” She bustled back into the garden room with a wide, artificial smile. “I beg your pardon, friends, but I’m afraid the kitten is having some difficulty. Might we postpone the meeting? I do thank you for coming today and am sorry to shorten our time together.” Jane turned and hurried from the room before another noise further stretched the believability of her kitten story.
Rushing into the bedchamber where she’d left Lord Colton unconscious, Jane stopped short at the sight before her. A broken vase cluttered the floor, a table lay overturned, and Jones, the young, strong footman who’d helped carry Lord Colton upstairs, massaged his jaw while frowning at the viscount. Who was currently on the opposite side of the bed holding Meg’s hand and smiling at her.
“What is going on here?” Jane demanded. She walked past Jones and threw him an apologetic look as she made her way to Colton and Meg.
“I was just telling this beautiful creature how beautiful she is,” Colton slurred.
Meg’s lip curled, and she snatched her hand away.
Jane touched the maid’s arm. “I’m so sorry, Meg.” Then she put herself in between them and glared at the viscount. “You’re drunk. And wounded. Why are you even out of bed?”
He winced, his blue eyes squinting briefly. “How wounded am I? I don’t recall—”
Jane pushed him against the side of the bed, her hands briefly connecting with his chest. He yelped in pain, and she felt a moment’s regret. But only a moment. He was behaving horribly. Perhaps she should throw him into a coach and send him home. Yes, that would be best.
Lord Colton pulled his coat off and dropped it to the floor then began unbuttoning his waistcoat.
“What are you doing?”
“I fear my ribs are bruised. Or broken.” He winced again as he drew the waistcoat off. Then he tugged away his cravat and tried to peer down the open neckline of his shirt. Holding the linen away from his chest, he scowled. Muttering a curse, he pulled the shirt over his head with a groan. “That’s better,” he said as he surveyed his chest once more.
A faint bruise already colored the left side between his breast and abdomen. A rather muscular breast and abdomen.
Jane pivoted from him as she realized she’d been staring. Perhaps he should rest before she threw him out.
“I think I should rest,” he mumbled, giving voice to her thoughts. He fell backward onto the bed, gasping. “Ow.” He gingerly touched his face.
Jane looked toward the table on the other side of the bed and realized that was the one that had been overturned. “Where is the salve?” she asked.
“Somewhere,” Meg said. “I’ll find it.” The maid went to the other side of the chamber in search of the ointment.
“Jones, will you remove his lordship’s boots?” Jane asked. She felt bad asking him and Meg to help the viscount when he’d behaved so reprehensibly, but she knew his mind was altered by drink and likely pain. Yes, perhaps it was best that he stay. For now. She turned her attention back to him to see that he was staring up at her in consternation.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
She ignored the question. “You’re going to stay here for now.”
His lips spread into a leer—albeit a rather charming one. “Only if you promise to stay with me.”
Jane rolled her eyes. “You need sleep.”
Lord Colton stared down the bed as Jones pulled off his second boot. “Or him.” He waggled his brows suggestively.
Shaking her head, she sent another apologetic look to Jones. “Perhaps you should help him back to unconsciousness.”
The footman grinned. “I’d be delighted to.”
Jane smiled in return. “Just stay outside near the door, if you don’t mind. I daresay he will have tired himself out after all that nonsense.” In answer to her prognostication, the viscount’s snores filled the room.
Meg came around to her side of the bed with the jar of salve. “Found it.”
Jane took the medicine. “Thank you. Will you bring fresh water?” The cut on his cheek had started bleeding again. She wondered if it needed stitching, which would require a physician.
Meg took herself off, and Jane stared down at her patient. Yes, he was now in her care. At least for the time being. “You are a mess,” she said softly as she removed the lid from the salve.
Dipping her fingers into the thick unguent, she spread it along the redness of his jaw where another bruise was beginning to form. Then on his cheek, careful not to disturb the cut too much. She moved up to his swollen eye and then the other side of his face, which while less battered, was beginning to show colors that said it had not been ignored during the tussle.
And what tussle was that? What had he done to warrant such a beating? She inwardly flinched thinking of the violence that must have transpired even as she recalled seeing him fight at the masquerade ball at Brixton Park last month. Had this behavior become the norm for him? She couldn’t quite reconcile that with the gentleman she’d met a few years ago. But then that had been before he’d taken up with Phoebe’s husband, the Marquess of Ripley. Ripley was an inveterate rake with little concern for Society’s peccadilloes. Or he had been before he’d met Phoebe. Now he was hopelessly in love and quite reformed.
As far as Jane knew, Ripley hadn’t ever been a fighter. In fact, he was the one who’d put a stop to Colton’s altercation at the ball. Was he aware of what Colton had been up to? Perhaps Ripley could help.
Jane shook her head. Of course he wasn’t aware—he was enjoying his newly wedded bliss with Phoebe, as he should. Jane would not trouble him, or Phoebe, with this. Not for now anyway.
Finished with his face, Jane looked at the bruising on his chest. Had it spread just since he’d first removed his shirt?
She swallowed as she covered her fingers with more salve and contemplated the inappropriateness of massaging a man’s naked chest. A man who wasn’t her husband and who was residing in her home. A home in which she lived by herself in flagrant disregard of Society’s peccadilloes. Oh dear, was she now, somehow, a female version of Ripley?
The thought brought a smile to her lips. Since Phoebe had done this before Jane, perhaps it was that Phoebe was the female version of Ripley and that was how they’d come to find each other.
But no, Phoebe hadn’t been rakish at all. On the contrary, she’d wanted nothing to do with men for reasons that were entirely understandable and unassailable.
Jane, however, was not the same as Phoebe. She was rather…interested in men. In fact, she’d never been more aware of that until this moment as her fingertips caressed the hard, muscular plane of Lord Colton’s rather estimable chest.
Moving quickly, her cheeks flaming, she finished her task. What on earth was she doing? She’d left her parents and declared her spinsterhood, moving here, just to avoid a marriage they were pushing her into.
Not wanting Mr. Brinkley doesn’t mean you don’t want any man.
Jane exhaled. That was true. Indeed, since her friend Arabella and then Phoebe had both recently wed—and quite happily—Jane was feeling…unsettled. Not because she desperately wanted a husband. No, she wanted what a husband could give her—that secret smile of satisfaction that both her friends now wore when they spoke of their husbands or looked in their direction. The way their eyes lit with heat and…desire. Jane wanted that.
How ironic since she’d now put herself in a position so as to make that happening even less likely than it was before. Ironic and frustrating.
Frowning, she put the top back on the salve. Her gaze traveled down Lord Colton’s body until she saw his stockings. Those should probably come off too.
She set the salve on the edge of the bed and then moved down to tug the stockings from his feet. As she exposed his calves and the dark hair covering them, her belly fluttered. Inappropriate didn’t begin to cover this situation.
Now that his feet were bare, she wondered if the rest of him should be too. Surely he’d be more comfortable. And shouldn’t she check for further injuries?
No. She’d let the discreet physician—assuming they could find one—take care of that.
Scoffing she stepped away from the bed. She had no business taking any pleasure from care for Lord Colton. Especially when he’d hit her footman and flirted with her maid.
Meg returned just then with the water. She glanced around, clearly to see where to place it.
“Here, let me.” Jane rushed to right the table and positioned it next to the bed so Meg could place the ewer on it. Then Meg fetched the basin and the towels, which she set beside the ewer.
Jane turned to her. “Did Lord Colton hurt you in any way?”
“No, miss. I don’t even think he realized who I was. He asked me to dance then suggested we could find a dark corner in the garden afterward.” She laughed. “I think he thought I was a lady.”
Jane shook her head. “I’m relieved to hear it was nothing more than that. Thank you for your help. Will you see if Culpepper is free?”
“I am here, miss,” the butler said stepping into the room, his gaze falling on the broken pottery. “Meg, will you tidy this up, please?”
“Right away.” Meg took herself off, probably to fetch a broom.
Culpepper approached the bed with a frown. “I see he’s fallen back asleep.”
“Yes, after stripping off his clothing,” Jane said. “He said his ribs may be broken. And his face is bleeding again. I think we need to find a discreet physician. Can you do that?”
The butler gave her a single nod. “I will.”
Jane’s lips curled into an appreciative smile. “How lovely. Thank you, Culpepper.”
“Will there be anything else, miss?”
She’d been about to say no, but then realized there was something else. “Yes, in fact there is. I need a kitten.”Return to A Duke Will Never Do