London, March 1819
“Not so fast, Biscuit!” Arabella Stoke kept a firm hand on the small ball of fluff that was her mother’s dog as she navigated into the park. It was early and she was well covered, from the oversized cap on her head to the crisp apron adorning her front to the serviceable boots that were a size too large. She had no fear that anyone would recognize her. They hadn’t so far, and she’d been walking Biscuit at least a few times a week since January.
Since her father had become almost entirely bedridden.
Taking a deep breath, Arabella looked up at the blue sky. It was chilly, but clear and beautiful. In the park, snowdrops and daffodils sprouted from the drab earth as spring wrestled the ground from the clutches of winter.
Biscuit pulled at the leash again, her nose sniffing endlessly in search of something. Arabella couldn’t fault her excitement. The dog was just so happy to be outside. She didn’t get as many walks as she used to, not since Papa had become ill, or, more accurately, since their number of servants had shrunk to a bare minimum.
With just five retainers, including their young groom who was also employed at a smithy on Oxford Street, there was more than enough work to be done. Walking the dog had become less of a priority, and the more time Mama spent at Papa’s bedside, the less Biscuit was able to stretch her legs. Not that her legs needed extensive stretching, for they were rather stubby.
Mama worried that Biscuit wasn’t getting enough exercise, and she insisted someone walk her every morning. Since the servants didn’t always have time, Arabella dressed herself as one of them and, unbeknownst to her mother, took Biscuit out.
Walking alone to the park had felt scandalous but exhilarating too. Now, Arabella looked forward to the outing, and Millie, the scullery maid, who was usually tasked with the job, appreciated not having to add to her work.
A small animal, perhaps a rabbit or a squirrel, dashed by in a blur. Biscuit began barking and took off so fast that Arabella wasn’t able to keep hold of the leash. The dog bounded away after whatever had run past.
“Biscuit!” Arabella chased after the terrier, but soon lost sight of her as she scurried through a thick group of bushes. Muttering a very unladylike curse, Arabella called for the dog again. The barking stopped, and a bead of apprehension worked its way up Arabella’s spine. A cold sweat broke over her neck. If anything happened to that dog—after everything else they’d endured—Arabella feared it would crush what remained of her mother’s spirit.
Hastening her stride, Arabella moved along the path, stopping to search in shrubs and behind trees. Her worry progressed straight to terror as she feared the worst, and she soon found herself off the footpath and in a wooded area she’d never been to before.
She stopped and stood still, listening, her heart pounding a frantic rhythm. A whooshing sound from the other side of a stand of trees drove her around them. She barreled into a small clearing and nearly fell over as something dislodged her cap from her head.
A small squeak leapt from her throat as she managed to focus on a large figure. She blinked. A man. In shirtsleeves. Clutching a sword.
“Bloody hell!” He rushed forward, his features creased with horror and concern. “Are you all right?”
Arabella reached up and patted her bare head, then looked down to where the borrowed cap lay on the ground beside her. “I think so.” Her voice sounded small and quiet and not entirely her own.
“Where on earth did you come from?” He bent and picked up her cap.
Closing her eyes for a moment to restore her equilibrium, she opened them again to see he was in much better focus. He was tall and lithe, with ink-dark hair and eyes. Though his face was drawn, he was objectively attractive, with angled cheekbones and a firm jaw. Objectively attractive? Yes, anyone would find him handsome until they looked at his lips. Those they might describe as sinfully gorgeous. The lower one was the thicker of the two, but the upper had a curious dip at the top, giving it the overall shape of a heart. A seductive, kissable heart.
Her gaze lowered to the triangle of flesh exposed by the opening of his shirt. She hadn’t seen so much of a man in six long years, and when she thought of that… Well, it was no wonder she thought of kissing.
“Miss?” he prompted, holding out her cap.
Arabella took it from him, her bare hand grazing his. A frisson of anticipation danced up her arm. She snatched the cap and took a step back. “Thank you.” She was thanking him? He’d almost killed her with his sword. “You nearly decapitated me.”
One of his eyes squinted as he cocked his head to the side. “I wasn’t even close to decapitating you.” He straightened. “Besides, this blade is made for thrusting, not slicing, which is why your cap is intact.”
She eyed the weapon he held in his right hand, which he pointed toward the ground. “It’s made for dueling, isn’t it?”
“It’s made for fencing, which is what I was practicing. I’ll ask again, where on earth did you come from? This is a rather remote area of the park.”
It was indeed. She set the cap over her hair and glanced around, not recognizing a thing. In fact, she wondered if she’d be able to find her way back. Or find Biscuit.
“I’m looking for Biscuit. My dog.”
“You have a dog?”
She was dressed as a servant, and they didn’t typically own dogs, did they? “My mistress’s dog. She saw a small animal and tore after it. The dog, I mean, not my mistress.”
A trace of a smile flirted with his kissable mouth. “I see. Then we must find… What did you say its name was? The dog, not your mistress. Biscuit?”
She nodded. “She’s a terrier. About this big.” Arabella held her hands apart to approximate Biscuit’s size.
“Looks like she’s the small animal,” he remarked. “Where did you last see her?”
“We came in through Cumberland Gate. She ran off near there.”
“You’re sure she came this way? You’re almost in Kensington Gardens.”
Arabella’s shoulders slumped. “No, I’m not sure. She was barking and then stopped. I’m worried something awful has happened.”
He came toward her and patted her shoulder. “There, there. Think positive thoughts. I’m sure Biscuit is fine. You seem rather attached to your mistress’s dog, but then I daresay you probably spend more time with her.”
Was that a cut against the upper class? No, it couldn’t be, because he was clearly upper class. Who else would be practicing fencing in Hyde Park? Wait, why wasn’t he fencing at his house or at Angelo’s? She ignored the tremor of awareness that radiated from where he touched her shoulder. “Why are you practicing here?”
He hesitated, and she wondered if she’d asked a question he didn’t want to answer. Goodness, she was supposed to be a servant. She shouldn’t be asking him questions at all! “My apologies.” She dipped a curtsey. “I didn’t mean to offend. I must go find Biscuit.”
“Let me help you. Give me a moment.” He went to a rock upon which she now saw his discarded clothing. Picking up the scabbard, he sheathed his sword and leaned the weapon against the rock. Next, he pulled on a waistcoat, followed by his coat. He draped his cravat around his neck, letting the white silk hang down against his lapels. There was something disarmingly attractive about his dishabille. She had to tell herself to look away or he would catch her staring.
When he appeared before her, his sword was strapped to his waist and a smart hat sat atop his dark head. “Let us find your mistress’s dog.” He called out, “Biscuit!” over her head. Though he was nearly a foot taller than her five feet three inches, she still flinched from the sound.
He seemed to notice, for he immediately apologized. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Shall we walk toward where she ran off?”
“Yes, please.” She led the way from the clearing and picked her way back to the footpath, glad she wasn’t actually lost at all. Just turned around by an undressed gentleman she wished she’d seen in the act of fencing. She imagined his muscles rippled spectacularly as he thrust his sword.
Other meanings for “thrust his sword” ricocheted in her mind, and she mentally chided herself for her impure thoughts. They’d led her into temptation once, and she couldn’t allow them to do so again. Especially not with a man like this. A man whose name she didn’t know and wouldn’t ask for.
They called out for Biscuit in turns as they walked along the path—first her, then him.
“Do you always bring the dog here for a walk?”
“Not always,” she said. “And never again, probably. Assuming I find her.” She couldn’t quite keep the anguish from creeping into her voice.
He paused, turning toward her, and gently clasped her shoulders. “We’ll find her. Don’t worry.”
“If I don’t, my”—she’d almost said mother—“mistress will be so upset.”
“I hope not at you,” he said. “This isn’t your fault.”
“No, she won’t be angry at me.” She would just be inconsolable, and she was already overwrought about their troubles.
The distant sound of a bark made them both freeze. Their gazes found each other’s and locked, their eyes widening in unison.
He turned his head toward the high-pitched yap. “Is that—”
“Biscuit!” she finished.
They dashed toward Cumberland Gate, calling the dog’s name in perfect time together. The terrier appeared on the path, her short legs carrying her much faster than anyone would think possible, the brown leather leash trailing behind her.
Arabella swept the dog into her arms with a relieved cry. “There you are, you silly nincompoop!”
A masculine laugh rippled across her neck as the gentleman moved closer to her. “Nincompoop? Biscuit, I think you’re in trouble.” He bent his head and scratched the dog’s head. Then his gaze found hers again. “You won’t be too hard on her, will you? I’m afraid I have a soft spot for dogs, even nincompoops.”
Arabella dropped a kiss on Biscuit’s silky head. “She will be showered with treats when we get home, so I wouldn’t worry too much about her.”
He stared at Arabella—or more specifically, at her mouth—for a moment before blinking. He cleared his throat and averted his focus toward the gate. “I’m glad to know she is safe. Please accept my apologies for knocking your cap off. I am rather single-minded in my focus when I am practicing. I didn’t hear you approach.” He looked at her again, and she noted a faint pink in his cheeks. That he would feel remorse and perhaps even a twinge of embarrassment made her curious.
Who was he?
Oh dear God. While she didn’t know who he was, he was clearly Someone. Presumably, she would meet him during the course of the Season, and then what would he say? “Why is a servant at a ball?”
Arabella tipped her head down as if she could somehow banish her face from his memory. “I must go.” She turned from him, and in her haste, nearly tripped.
He gripped her by the elbow, keeping her upright. “Careful, there.”
She sent him a quick, appreciative glance. “Thank you. Er, bye.”
Withdrawing herself from his grasp, she held Biscuit tight as she hurried from the park. Biscuit squirmed and yapped.
“Quiet,” Arabella admonished her. “Haven’t you caused enough trouble for today? If I set you down, will you promise to behave?”
Biscuit barked in response.
“Good girl.” Arabella set her down, keeping a tight grip on the leash. She led her over to Oxford Street and walked quickly toward Holles Street, where they lived around the corner from Cavendish Square.
It was a narrow, unassuming house they could barely afford. When Arabella visited her neighbor, Miss Phoebe Lennox, who lived in a large, elegant house on the square around the corner, she was aware of how far her family had fallen. Last year, they’d leased a larger house and had employed ten servants. Plus, they’d had a coach and four. The year before, an even larger house with fourteen servants. It seemed obvious now to Arabella that they’d lived beyond their means for some time. The loss of their small country estate, the house she’d been born in, last year had been quite a blow. The blow, probably, that had led to her father’s sharp decline.
How she wished she could be like Phoebe, who’d inherited a fortune last year. Phoebe had declared herself a spinster and set herself up in Cavendish Square. Together with her friend, Miss Jane Pemberton, they’d formed a small group of unmarried women and ironically referred to themselves as the Spitfire Society. Spinster, they’d said, didn’t appropriately encompass who they were, not as well as spitfire did.
If Arabella could inherit a fortune, she could save her family, restore her father’s health, and maybe even seize the independence Phoebe enjoyed. But that was a dream, and an impossible one at that. If there was anything to be inherited, she’d have done so by now, and her family wouldn’t be in the dire straits in which they currently found themselves.
Arabella walked down the steps to the servants’ entrance, and let herself inside. The cook called from the kitchen, “Miss Arabella, is that you, I hope?”
“Yes, Mrs. Woodcock.” She unfastened the leash from Biscuit and let the dog take off toward the kitchen. Then she removed her cap and coat, hanging them on a hook near the door.
She walked into the kitchen just as the cook set a bowl of food down for Biscuit. Mrs. Woodcock’s brow furrowed. “You were gone a long time.”
“Biscuit ran off.” Arabella glanced fondly toward the dog as she wolfed down her breakfast.
“Again? She did that to Millie last week.” Millie was Mrs. Woodcock’s daughter. The cook eyed Arabella’s costume. “You’d best get changed for breakfast. Millie will bring it up shortly.”
Though Millie was a scullery maid, she often assisted their only other maid, Janney, who performed the tasks of a housemaid and ladies’ maid. Really, every retainer in the household performed all kinds of work. They had to. Just as Arabella helped in the kitchen and did all the sewing.
“Thank you, Mrs. Woodcock.” Arabella took the back stairs up to the second story, where her chamber was located. Her parents’ room was on the same floor, and she would take breakfast in their sitting room with her mother—and father, if he felt up to it.
Arabella quickly changed from her servant’s costume to a simple day dress. The style was three years old, so she’d relegated it to a work dress, and she planned to revise an evening gown after breakfast so she’d have something fresh to wear at the Thursby ball later in the week.
When she arrived in her parents’ sitting room, she found her mother pacing before the windows that overlooked the street below. This was never a good sign. Pacing usually meant Papa had taken a turn.
“What’s wrong?” Arabella asked without preamble. Her mother always preferred to get right to the heart of things.
Mariah Stoke stopped moving, her face pale and pinched. White strands had begun to weave themselves through her blonde hair, and there were new lines around her dark green eyes. “He vomited this morning, and there was blood. I want to call the physician, but he made me promise not to.”
Because there was no money. Or little money. They were barely managing the household on the pittance they had remaining.
“What else can we sell?” Arabella asked, though she feared the answer. They’d sold their coach and four, any décor of value, which included a few paintings, a sculpture, and silver, and most of her mother’s small jewelry collection.
“My grandmother’s pearls. Your father won’t like it, but it must be done.” Her gaze turned sad. “I’m so sorry, dear. I really hoped you’d be able to have those at least.”
A year ago, Arabella might have felt sad, but the time for caring about material things had long since passed. She’d sell anything to save her father. They were a close family, just the three of them since her three older siblings had all died before the age of twelve. They clung to each other in the most primal, vital way, as if their survival depended on one another.
Arabella crossed the room and took her mother’s hand. She gave her an encouraging smile. “It’s all right. I look better in diamonds anyway.”
This had the desired effect, for her mother laughed, and the lines in her face eased. The warmth was short-lived, however, as darkness overtook her mother’s features far too soon. “I’ll take care of the necklace later today, after I send for the physician.”
“What will you tell Papa?” Arabella asked. “That our benefactor is paying for it?” It was a bald fabrication. There was no benefactor, no family, wealthy or otherwise, no kindhearted friend who would loan them funds.
Mother exhaled. “What else can we say?”
That he believed they had a benefactor illustrated he wasn’t thinking clearly. How could he think when he slept so much of the time? Or stared out the window despondently? He felt so guilty for driving them into this situation with a bad investment scheme—and his expensive tastes.
“Arabella, the need for you to wed has never been more urgent. You simply must find a husband. Quickly.”
Not just any husband—a wealthy one. When their financial woes had first started to surface a year and a half ago, Papa had announced it was time for her to wed his best friend’s son, the Earl of St. Ives. The former earl—Papa’s best friend—had agreed shortly before he’d died. However, despite the current earl promising to honor his father’s wishes, the marriage had not come to pass. The earl had fallen in love with and wed someone else.
While Arabella had felt relieved that she’d escaped an arranged union, she’d also been keenly aware of her father’s disappointment. Though at the time, she hadn’t realized the extent of his desperation. They were nearly bankrupt, and it was only a matter of time before they ended up in debtor’s prison. Or so Papa said. He refused to allow her or her mother to see their accounts, saying it wasn’t appropriate for them to have to worry about it. Except, how could they not?
Arabella tamped down her irritation. She hated this situation, but she couldn’t change it. She could, however, fix it by marrying a wealthy gentleman. Too bad none had offered. “There’s bound to be someone at the Thursby ball,” she said to her mother with a bright smile.
An image of the gentleman she’d met at the park burst into her mind. Would he be at the ball? She hoped so. With luck, he was wealthy and would declare himself in love with her. He wouldn’t care that she’d masqueraded as a servant and would insist they wed at once via special license. All their problems would be solved.
She’d prefer to choose a husband by weighing factors other than financial security, but based on their short encounter that morning, he was helpful, considerate, and nearly lethal with a sword. Also bone-meltingly handsome.
Actually, she preferred to choose no one at all. After expecting to wed one man and now being expected to wed whomever she could, the idea of becoming a member of the Spitfire Society was far more attractive.
“There has to be someone,” her mother said, clasping her hands together until her knuckles turned white. “If you don’t receive an offer soon, we may need to consider forcing one.”
Arabella froze. “You aren’t suggesting…?” She couldn’t bring herself to say it.
Mother nodded firmly and dropped her hands to her sides. “A compromise. It’s not ideal, obviously, but we are in a desperate situation.”
Yes, they were, but would they really sink so low? “I don’t know if I can do that,” Arabella said softly.
“Neither do I.” Her mother burst promptly and completely into a flood of tears.
Arabella rushed to put her arms around her, stroking her hands over Mother’s back in soothing circles. “We’ll find a way. I promise.”
After a few moments, Mother reined in her emotions, pulling back from Arabella’s embrace with a pat on her back. “You c-can’t t-tell any-anyone,” Mother said for the hundredth time. “No one m-must know. If they find out, you’ll never receive an offer.”
“Yes, I know.” Why else did she work so hard to redesign her dated wardrobe and study the latest fashion and hairstyles? She did her best to look as though they weren’t destitute and thought she did a fair job. But someone was going to puzzle it out eventually, particularly when they noticed she and her mother traveled to balls in a gig with a tiger—their young groom—on the back.
Mother sniffed. “We’re running out of time. Your father could very well die, and then where will we be? If I don’t end up in debtor’s prison, we’ll have to impose on my cousins in Hertfordshire, and they are hardly in a position to provide assistance. What kind of future is that for you? Obscurity on a farm in the middle of nowhere, probably spending your life alone.” She shook her head. “This is not how things were supposed to go. You should have wed that gentleman your first season. What was his name?”
“Miles Corbett.” Papa had refused Miles’s suit, insisting she would wed the heir to the Earl of St. Ives when the earl was ready.
Miles had asked her to elope to Gretna Green, but she hadn’t possessed the courage to leave her family. No, that wasn’t quite right. She hadn’t possessed the will to disappoint them. She didn’t regret her decision. Most of the time.
“Whatever happened to him?” Mother asked.
“He left England to find his fortune.” Because Papa had made it clear he wasn’t worthy of Arabella. She sometimes wondered what had happened to him, for he would always be her first love.
“Ah well, he wouldn’t have the funds to save us from our misfortune.” Was it misfortune if Papa had been able to avoid it?
Arabella stiffened her spine. Such thoughts were unhelpful. This was their reality. This was what they had to face. “I’ll wed soon, Mother. I promise.”
There was simply no other option.Return to Never Have I Ever With a Duke