Fresh from the Caribbean, Mark Easton, the new Duke of Roxburg, returns to London to secure a bride. It’s expected of his new station, after all. Unfortunately, he knows just what will meet him once his presence in Town is known. Sycophantic and cloying debutantes at every turn and matchmaking mamas behind every potted palm. If only there was a way to know the true nature of each girl beforehand. Then brilliance strikes! Masquerading as a lowly dancing master before the season begins should give him a very clear picture of London’s eligible ladies. Bianca Valentine has never been under the illusion that any decent man would look past her family’s secrets. So a life of independence is her best shot for a happy future. If she can provide for herself, she won’t have to be a burden on her aunt and uncle any longer. After an advertisement for an accompanist at a dancing school catches her eye, Bianca finds herself enjoying more freedom than she’s known, but it’s the new dancing master that takes her breath away and inspires the most beautiful music she’s ever written. Her music first enchanted him, but her smile and kindness captured his heart. A masquerading duke and an accompanist is scandalous enough, but will Bianca’s secrets be too much to overcome?
London - March, 1816
“Bloody hell!” Mark Easton, the Duke of Roxburg, tossed the gossip rag onto the table and lifted his tankard of ale. The Season hadn’t even begun and there was already speculation as to whether he would return and do his duty.
He shouldn’t have come back at all.
Mark pulled his greatcoat tight. The damp air of London shot through him, right to his bones and he’d give anything to be back in Barbados, on his sugar plantation or walking the beaches. Not only was it warmer in the Caribbean, but the sun shined most of the time too.
And, it didn’t stink.
“I’m ready to board the next ship headed back to the Caribbean.” Lord Samuel Storm rubbed his hands together. “I don’t think I’ll be warm until I get there.”
A barmaid placed two more tankards in front of them, giving Mark a wink and brushing against him as she did so. As tempting as it would be to find warmth between her thighs, Mark didn’t have the luxury at the moment.
“Why the bloody hell did we come back here?” he asked Samuel after the barmaid let them be. Until recently the two had been living peacefully in Barbados. Both managing their separate sugar plantations and enjoying the freedom of being wealthy bachelors on an island filled with beautiful women.
“We are here because you have a duty and didn’t want to face it alone,” Samuel ground out. “Though, why you needed me is the question. Thorn is here and if anyone can navigate society and remain free, it’s him.”
“We heard Thorn married, remember?”
Samuel frowned. “Won’t believe it until I hear it from the gentleman directly.”
“Yet, you believe your brother, Benjamin married.”
Samuel frowned. “From what I understand, he didn’t have much choice. Not with our Great Uncle insisting on seeing as many of his grandchildren and great nieces and nephews leg-shackled before he kicks up his toes.” He took a deep drink of ale.
Mark grinned. “Does this mean you will not be calling on His Grace, the Duke of Danby?”
Sam shot Mark a look that would kill a lesser man.
As neither one of them wanted anyone to know they’d returned to London, they’d taken rooms above this tavern. Nobody would ever dream that the new Duke of Roxburg or Lord Samuel Storm were living along the waterfront, which suited their purposes perfectly.
But, Mark couldn’t remain in hiding forever. He needed to put his plan into place. One that would keep him from being hounded by matchmaking mamas and debutantes alike.
“Maybe I’ll take the pretty one back up to my room.” Sam nodded to the dark-haired barmaid. “Send for me when Thorn arrives.”
“I’ll not be able to pull you from bed if you do.”
“If he doesn’t show shortly, I’m going to find a way to keep warm,” Samuel warned. “And those generous hips are certain to heat everything.”
Mark ignored Sam. As much as he’d like the pleasure of tossing up the skirts of an eager woman, he had more pressing matters to consider. He hadn’t been in London for five years, but he assumed nothing had changed. What he needed was a wife before the Season ever started, or at least, an idea of who he wanted to marry, so he wouldn’t have to waste endless evenings at functions he hadn’t wanted to attend to begin with.
He hated all the bowing, scraping and flattery all because he was titled. As if he deserved it when he hadn’t done anything spectacular except be born to the right parents.
The door of the tavern opened and Mark looked up. Finally!
David Thorn stepped inside and glanced around, then smiled when he spotted Mark and Samuel at their corner table. He sauntered over, took a seat and grinned at Mark.
The barmaid appeared almost instantly, her bodice barely containing her assets, which she practically shoved in Thorn’s face.
“Bring another mug, would you, dear?” Thorn smiled up at the young woman.
She fluttered her eyelashes before hurrying off to do his bidding.
Some things never changed no matter how long Mark had been gone. Women were still drawn to Thorn like a moth to a flame.
“Where’s Chetwey and Delaney?” Mark asked. He’d asked that all three of the gentlemen meet him and Sam.
“Still rusticating with their wives. They’ll be along eventually. Chetwey’s little witch is not too keen on being absent during the spring plantings.”
The barmaid returned, leaning over Thorn, her breasts practically pressed against his face as she placed the mug on the table.
Thorn turned his head and muttered a thank you. Disappointed in not getting a reaction, or an offer, the woman slouched away.
“What do these people have against bathing?”
“So, it is true,” Sam laughed. “You married. The David Thorn I know would never turn his face away from such a bountiful display.”
“Happily leg-shackled, I assure you.” He grinned.
Mark could only stare at Thorn. “Did you just call Chetwey’s wife a witch?” Did the gentleman know Thorn thought this? He couldn’t imagine Thorn surviving such a comment, not that Mark knew the woman, but one did not call his friend’s wife a witch, not if one wished to retain the friendship.
Thorn blinked up at him and alarm flashed in his eyes before he laughed. “I mean it with utmost respect and affection. Brighid is a healer of sorts, concocting all kinds of medicines from her herbs and plants.” He grinned. “It’s quite endearing, by the way.”
“Bloody hell,” Samuel exclaimed. “I can’t believe that the three of you married. It’s no longer safe in this country.”
Thorn laughed. “It’s well worth being caught, if it’s by the right woman.” He took a drink and leaned back in the wooden chair. “When did you get in? I’ve been watching the house to see if you’d show.”
“You and all of London,” Mark grumbled. “They are going to hound me, aren’t they?”
“Think rather highly of yourself, do you?” Thorn smirked.
Mark glared at him. “Not me! The bloody title. That, and I won’t be thirty until this summer, have all my teeth, not suffering from gout, and am bloody rich. Just a couple of attributes are enough to draw the attention. The combination is lethal to any bachelor.”
“Well, there isn’t much you can do. I suggest you enjoy it.” Thorn grinned and raised his mug in a toast.
“Yes, there is,” Mark answered, much more serious than Thorn was finding the situation. “I intend to find my wife before the Season begins.”
Thorn arched an eyebrow in humor. “Exactly how are you going to accomplish that?”
Mark tossed the newssheet on the table. “What do you know of the Mirabelle School of Dance?”
Bianca Valentine stared out the window of the carriage as they drove through London. She hadn’t been here since she was a child. Not that she remembered living in St. Giles, which was far different than the Mayfair home her brother-in-law owned. She’d only been about two when Vicar Grant saved her and her nine siblings from a life of poverty, thievery, work houses and quite possibly a future in prostitution. She shivered, just thinking how different, and horrible, her life could have turned out if not for him. She may call him uncle, but in her heart, Uncle Osborn was her father, and Aunt Mary, was her mother. Bianca had no memories of the woman who actually gave birth to her.
Her sister, Rosalind, Lady Felding, insisted on Bianca and their two sisters, Isabella and Perdita, come to London for the Season. All three had agreed, but none of them intended on being involved in Society. They simply did not belong, even if their sister was a marchioness. They’d come for entirely different reasons.
While she’d enjoyed the kindness of Rosalind, Bianca was in London was to find work. At five and twenty, she could not continue to live off the charity of Uncle Osborn and Aunt Mary. They were getting on in years and it was time she supported herself. They’d already given her so much. Much more than she could ever possibly repay. Nor did she wish to become a burden to her older brothers once her aunt and uncle passed. As a female, Bianca had but two options available to keep that from happening: Marry or work, and since she could never consider marriage, it was time to find a position.
Lord Felding might have been able to overlook her family’s background when he married Rosalind, but most gentlemen would not feel the same. Not that Bianca would ever dream of setting her sights on a lord. But even a respectable man of trade would have misgivings about marrying the bastard of a whore.
“You are just going to love it here,” Rosalind said from beside her. “I thought I’d hate it when Noah insisted I attend the Season, but that wasn’t the case.”
Felding could probably put Rosalind in a tent in the middle of the desert and call it home and her sister would be quite happy. All she really required was to be with her husband.
“I can’t wait to introduce you to some of my friends.”
Bianca, Isabella and Perdita stiffened and looked over at their sister. Certainly, she wasn’t expecting her to go about with the ladies. Did she forget who they were? Where they’d come from?
“We’ve decided to host a ball at the beginning of the Season and we must get you properly outfitted.”
Bianca glanced at Felding. He just shook his head and smiled before glancing back out the window.
“I don’t think it’s right or proper that I attend functions.” Bianca refocused on her sister. “Isabella and I are to keep you company while Felding attends Parliament, or whatever else he does, while Perdita watches over Henry.” Henry was a year old, but Rosalind couldn’t bring herself to leave her son in the country. Bianca also didn’t dare tell her sister the real reason for coming to London. Well, at least not until she had found employment.
“Of course you will.” Rosalind smiled.
“It’s not right that we go into society, you know that as well as we do,” Isabella argued.
Rosalind arched an eyebrow. “Then I should not be there either.”
“That’s different. You’re married to Felding now,” Perdita reminded her. “It gives you respectability. We cannot claim the same.”
Rosalind turned and grabbed Perdita’s hand. “You mustn’t think that.” Then glanced at her other two sisters. “None of you. You’ll meet all manner of gentlemen in London. You might very well fall in love.”
She couldn’t believe what Rosalind was saying. When they’d had a similar conversation a few years ago, it was agreed that they’d remain spinsters and not dream of love or marriage. It was why Rosalind became a nursery maid in the first place and ended up taking care of Felding’s sister’s children. Just because Rosalind found a lord to love her, despite the circumstances of her birth, did not mean the same would happen for Bianca or their sisters.
“If any man wished to marry me, he’d need to know the truth of my birth first. That should send him running so I don’t wish to put myself in a position to be humiliated.”
“A man of character would not care,” Felding nearly growled.
Did he believe she just insulted him? That was not the case. “Few gentlemen are of your character, so I will not hold out hope that I might meet one of them.”
The carriage rolled to a stop and Bianca looked out the window, and up at the four story townhouse. Her home for the next four months.
After being escorted inside, Rosalind led Bianca and her sisters into the parlor to take tea while they waited for their belongings to be brought in and unpacked. It was odd having servants do so much for her and Bianca wasn’t certain if it was something she could become accustomed to. At home, each of the children did their part at the vicarage: preparing meals, tending the garden, cleaning the house, doing the laundry and anything that was required. The only staff employed was a housekeeper and cook. However, the tasks required for a family as large of theirs was too much for the two servants and the girls learned at an early age how to many of the household chores. If she were at home, she would probably be helping prepare luncheon right now. Instead, she was taking tea with her sisters while a servant unpacked their trunks.
“The first thing we must do is visit a modiste.”
“It is lovely how your husband likes to keep you in fine dresses.” Perdita smiled. “I can’t wait to see how you look when turned out for a ball.”
None of them had beautiful gowns growing up, nor did they need them. Bianca had always been happy with her serviceable wardrobe and one nice Sunday dress.
“It’s for you too,” Rosalind insisted.
“We don’t have the funds,” Isabella reminded her.
“That is not a concern,” she dismissed her sister’s comment away with a wave of her hand. “Noah has offered and I’m not about to turn him down. Penelope and Patience shall be arriving in a few days and we shall all go shopping together.” Penelope and Patience were two of Felding’s younger sisters. Neither had married much to his irritation.
“What did I offer?” Felding asked as he came through the door, carrying newssheets.
“To help outfit Bianca, Isabella and Perdita for the Season.”
“I’m happy to do so.” He took a seat beside his wife while she poured him a cup of tea.
“It is not necessary,” Bianca insisted. She already owed her aunt and uncle so much. She did not wish to owe her brother-in-law as well. Besides, it was a waste when she had no intention of wearing the fine dresses.
“My wife would like the three of you to participate in the Season. It would make her happy.” He turned and smiled lovingly at Rosalind. “And, as her happiness is my only concern, you shall be dressed for all imaginable occasions.”
Since Bianca couldn’t argue with Felding under his own roof, she fully intended to argue with her sister later. If that didn’t work, she’d simply refuse to be fitted. That should put a halt to all of Rosalind’s plans.
“Is there anything interesting in the newssheets?” Rosalind asked.
“I haven’t begun to read them yet.” He took the top newssheet and put the rest on the table. “Enjoy, ladies, I’m certain there is something about fashion, or perhaps gossip, that you will find of interest.”
None of them had ever enjoyed gossip. She and her sisters were of the opinion that if they didn’t gossip about others, hopefully others would not gossip about them. Heaven knew they had enough secrets that they didn’t want discovered.
“Well, that’s interesting?” Felding said before taking a sip of his tea.
“What?” Rosalind asked her husband with interest.
“A school chum, who I haven’t seen in years, has inherited.” Felding paused and looked up. “I had forgotten that his uncle died last summer and his cousin a few months ago. Mark wasn’t ever to have gained the title.”
“I thought it was the women who were interested in the gossip?” Rosalind teased.
Felding lowered the newssheet just enough to see his eyes, which he narrowed on his wife.
“Which title would that be?” Rosalind asked.
“The Duke of Roxburg.”
Bianca choked on her tea. Felding had a friend that was a duke and just called him by his first name. Her brother-in-law had loftier connections than she ever imagined. And, all the more reason she must find a position. Felding certainly would never consider introducing her to a duke, would he? That would be beyond the pale.
Instead of saying anything, however, Bianca picked up one of the newssheets. She skipped over fashion and other titillating tales and went right to the advertisements. She was beginning to become discouraged until she read the last newssheet and her heart began to pound when she found a position that was perfect for her.