January 22, 1817
On the afternoon in which Caleb Sutton, fifth Duke of Colehaven, strode into a familiar pub in the heart of the Haymarket district, he did not suspect that his world was on the cusp of being turned upside down… Again.
“Colehaven!” chorused the pub’s colorful denizens in unison, raising their mugs in good cheer.
The duke blinked errant snowflakes from his eyelashes and returned their light-hearted grins. Whatever wintry mischief the wind might be making out-of-doors, here inside the tavern known as the Wicked Duke, all was as it should be. Lively conversation, fine ale, friendly faces, and Cole’s favorite worn leather seat awaiting him.
He immediately handed off his coat and hat.
“Ten years,” Cole said as he took his customary spot between two of his closest friends. “Do you know what this means?”
“We’re getting old?” Eastleigh drawled, giving a sardonic arch to his brow.
Valentine Fairfax, sixth Duke of Eastleigh, had not only been Cole’s partner in crime since their earliest days at Oxford, but was also fifty percent of the reason they—and, later, their tavern—had earned the moniker wicked dukes.
The other fifty percent of the blame lay squarely on Cole’s shoulders.
“It means,” he continued as he accepted a mug of perfectly frothed ale, “this Season marks the ten-year anniversary of the Wicked Duke tavern. I’d say that’s cause for celebration, wouldn’t you?”
“I’d say it’s cause for a round of drinks on Colehaven!” called a voice from amongst the throng next to the bar.
A sea of glasses clinked in the air as the crowd roared its approval.
“My pockets are to let,” Cole protested, affecting a wide-eyed expression. “My sister’s millinery expenditures have beggared me. Have you any notion what it costs to clothe a fashionable young lady every Season?”
“Marry her off,” Eastleigh suggested.
“If only it were so easy,” came a groan from Cole’s opposite side, where their friend Thaddeus Middleton gazed back at them piteously. “If there’s a secret maneuver for marrying off unmarriageable ladies, for the love of God, tell me.”
Cole’s voice lowered dangerously. “Did you just call my sister unmarriageable?”
“Felicity could have her pick of husbands by nightfall and you know it,” Eastleigh put in. “Middleton’s ward is a special case.”
“A very special case,” Thaddeus agreed. “It cannot be done. You chaps are fortunate that all you have to deal with are your little meetings in the House of Lords. I have a ward who cannot be tamed.”
“There’s your trouble.” Cole sat back. “Your first mistake is believing any woman can be tamed. If she suspects that’s what you’re about, you might as well give up altogether and save yourself the fight.”
“I don’t know,” Thaddeus said doubtfully. “After serving six grueling years at war, you would think I could handle a slip of a girl.”
“Girls are far trickier than French soldiers,” Eastleigh assured him. “Had we sent a crop of Diamonds of the First Water to the front lines in lieu of the Royal Army, Napoleon would have been trussed up decades ago.”
Eastleigh would know. Like Cole, the duke had a sister.
“Tell you what,” Cole set down his ale. “When Parliament opens next week, I’ll suggest that very thing. All troublesome young ladies who discard suitors like unwanted hairpins will be outfitted with uniforms and muskets and sent to the front lines to train our troops.”
“Do not dare him,” Eastleigh interrupted before Thaddeus could respond. “You know Colehaven cannot resist a wager. That’s half the reason the Wicked Duke exists today.”
“I won that bet,” Cole pointed out. “We’re celebrating the ten-year anniversary of my unbroken winning streak.”
“We’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Wicked Duke,” his co-owner corrected. “Besides, I’m not convinced that Vauxhall debacle was anything short of disaster.”
“I said I’d play the bassoon on center stage,” Cole reminded him firmly. “I never said I’d be good at it.”
“I dare you,” Thaddeus blurted out. At this unintended outburst, a flush immediately colored his cheeks.
Cole wrinkled his nose. “I already did that one.”
“Trust me,” Eastleigh said with an exaggerated shudder. “If your ears had the misfortune of witnessing him bleat upon a bassoon in front of half of London, you’d agree one such memory is more than enough.”
“Not that.” Thaddeus’s dark gaze focused intently on Cole. “I dare you to marry off my unmarriageable ward.”
“Fool’s errand,” Eastleigh scoffed. “If she’s unmarriageable, then by definition it cannot be done.”
But that old, familiar excitement was already prickling along Cole’s skin.
“What makes her unmarriageable?” he asked. It didn’t mean he was going to take the wager. It just meant he was… interested.
“Her age, for one,” Thaddeus admitted. “Even if she wasn’t a determined wallflower, most eligible bachelors consider her too long in the tooth for possible consideration.”
Cole straightened his spine. Thad’s ward was not a shy wallflower or a reluctant wallflower or an accidental wallflower, but rather determined to remain one? The lady was becoming more interesting by the minute.
“How many years on the shelf?” he pressed.
Thaddeus sighed. “I’m afraid she’s five-and-twenty.”
Five-and-twenty. Cole blinked. That ancient age meant the lady was only a scant year older than Cole’s younger sister.
His unwed younger sister. Who absolutely was still marriageable and was one hundred percent guaranteed to stumble across a suitor too good to turn down.
“Five-and-twenty isn’t a lost cause,” he said quickly. “After all, who wants some chit barely out of the schoolroom? Girls that age are flighty and silly because they haven’t experienced enough life yet to build up something worthy to say.”
“Ah.” Eastleigh stroked his chin in mock solemnity. “Everyone knows wallflowers are the most experienced at experiencing life.”
Cole ignored him.
“There must be something else,” he insisted. “Some other reason your ward hasn’t found a suitor she’s willing to wed.”
“The primary reason is that Diana hasn’t had any suitors.” Thaddeus winced. “She may have indicated her intention to refuse any such attention on more than one occasion.”
Cole frowned. “If she doesn’t wish to wed, what does she intend to do with her life?”
“She enjoys… fixing things,” Thaddeus hedged.
“Darning holes in stockings?” Eastleigh guessed from behind his mug of ale. “Mending the occasional rub iron whenever a loose axle nut pops the head block out of alignment on the family barouche?”
“Worse,” Thaddeus admitted with a sigh. “Diana arranges other people’s lives, whether they want her to or not. She was under my roof for less than a sennight before she’d completely reordered my house, from the ledgers to the rafters. I personally do not mind having my accounts in order, but then she started in on the neighbor—”
“Not the neighbor!” Eastleigh said with a melodramatic gasp.
“—and then the neighbor’s neighbor and so on, until I feared a mutiny on my hands. But it wasn’t until I caught Diana writing up an earnest, ten-page treatise on how Lady Jersey should better organize her household and her servants, as well as increase the efficiency and quality of Almack’s—”
This time, Eastleigh’s gasp was unfeigned, and he nearly choked on his beer. “Arrange Lady Jersey? Why, if your ward had sent that letter, today she’d be nothing more than a pile of ash and a memory.”
Cole’s blood fairly danced with anticipation. “A challenge, to be sure.”
Eastleigh stared at him. “That’s not ‘challenging.’ That’s unmarriageable. This is not a wager you can win.”
Cole turned his gaze to Thaddeus. “What are the terms?”
“One hundred pounds,” he answered without hesitation. “No, two hundred. If you can make it happen.”
“Nobody can make it happen,” Eastleigh murmured with a shake of his head. “Lady Jersey. Your ward has no sense of self-preservation.”
“She has a lot of sense,” Thaddeus said staunchly. “Too much sense. She can’t look at something without seeing a dozen ways to improve it. Her brain never ceases.”
“No wonder you can’t marry her off,” Eastleigh muttered with a theatrical shiver.
“She’ll make some man one hell of a wife,” Cole corrected.
Eastleigh arched a brow. “You?”
“Good God, no.” Cole reeled backward in horror. He would take a bride eventually—duty to the title, and whatnot—but he was far from ready for a step like that.
Unlike Eastleigh, Cole hadn’t been born expecting to inherit a dukedom someday. It had taken years of hard work to learn what others had had a lifetime to discover, and now that he had done so to the best of his ability, he was still fighting to prove himself amongst the peerage. He didn’t want to be ‘acceptable.’ He wanted to excel. To be deemed just as competent as any other blue blood in the House of Lords. And then perhaps he’d take a bride.
In the meantime, there was the small matter of an allegedly unmarriageable ward, too preoccupied with arranging others’ lives to take care of her own future. Parliament wouldn’t be sitting for another week.
What better way to pass the time than by winning a friendly wager?
He turned to Thad. “Not the two hundred quid. I mean what are the terms of the bet? Do I win once she’s obtained a serious offer from an interested party, or must we wait until the contract is signed to consider the deed done?”
Thaddeus leaned forward. “You think you can do it?”
“I don’t take a wager unless I’m certain of it. I’ve a ten-year winning streak to consider.”
“It’s the ale talking,” Eastleigh put in.
Cole shoved his mug in the duke’s direction. “I’ve barely touched mine.”
“Then it’s the lack of ale talking.” Eastleigh pushed the mug back toward Cole. “Finish your beer. Then say ‘no.’”
Thaddeus frowned at Eastleigh in confusion. “You don’t think he means to do it?”
“Colehaven is rash as a newborn pup, but honest to a fault,” Eastleigh said with a sigh. “If he takes a bet, he’ll win or die trying. But trust me. Never underestimate a woman.”
Ignoring the warning, Thad turned back to Cole, his eyes alive with hope. “Church bells. Suitors are good, a signed contract is better, but not until she’s legally someone’s wife can the wager be considered won. And there must be a time limit. Shall we say… by the end of the Season?”
Cole inclined his head at this request. Between his sister, his dukedom, and his duties with the House of Lords, Cole wouldn’t have a spare moment once the Season got underway. He would wrap up this wager within a week, and then focus on his true responsibilities.
Thad’s ward hadn’t found a husband because she hadn’t been looking for one. How hard could it be to find one for her?
“To keep things fair,” Thaddeus added, “no manipulation of the outcome. You can’t pay someone to marry her, you can’t marry her yourself or pretend to be entranced so that others follow suit. Diana must wed a man she wishes to marry, who also wishes to have her for his wife.”
“I would never manipulate someone with falsehoods or pretend to be something I am not,” Cole said stiffly. “If you believe me to be that sort of knave, we needn’t wager at all.”
“I meant no offense,” Thad said quickly. “Diana is not just my ward, but my cousin. I care for her as if she were my sister. You have a sister of your own. I’m trusting you not just to win, but to have a care for Diana’s heart.”
Eastleigh lifted his beer. “Behind his imprudence and arrogance, Colehaven is a softhearted romantic. If anyone can rustle up a love match for your ward, it’s a dreamer like him.”
“Five hundred pounds,” Thaddeus blurted eagerly. “If that’s not enough, name your price.”
Cole’s brain was already five moves ahead. “Where is your ward right now?”
Perfect. Cole’s blood sang with excitement. Per the terms of the wager, he couldn’t be seen as ‘dancing attendance upon her’ publicly, but a quick detour to the Middleton town house wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. Anyone who glimpsed the family crest upon his carriage would assume Cole to be paying a call to Thaddeus, not his ward.
Who, Cole belatedly realized, was so effective at being a wallflower that he hadn’t the least idea what she looked like. He had a vague idea that Thaddeus had become her guardian a year or two earlier, but no memory of ever having formally met her.
No time like the present to make her acquaintance, Cole decided. He’d get a sense of Diana Middleton’s personality, find out what she wanted in a husband, and work out the particulars tomorrow. Between the beau monde and the Wicked Duke, Cole was friends with half of London. Any number of fine gentlemen should suit. With luck, he’d have the matter sorted before the weekend.
“I accept your terms,” he announced and pushed to his feet. Before either of his friends could add more fuel to the fire, Cole hurried toward the door.
Startled, Eastleigh jumped to his feet. “You didn’t finish your beer!”
“It’s my tavern,” Cole said over his shoulder as he shrugged back into his greatcoat and gloves. “I can have ale any time I please.”
“You own half of the tavern,” Eastleigh called after him as Cole strode out the door.Return to One Night for Seduction