“Louisa, I do not need any wine,” Claire Beckett said to her friend Louisa Firth as they sat before a cozy fire. It was late in the evening, and the hearth around which they were relaxing was in the handsome, cozy sitting room at Foxtail, the Duke of Starlingham’s hunting box.
About once an hour since arriving three days before, Claire had reflected on the outrageousness of her being at the lodge. Louisa, whose position as Foxtail’s housekeeper would be in danger should it ever become known that she’d invited Claire to stay, had dismissed Claire’s worries, insisting that no one would ever know since they were as good as alone there. But Claire couldn’t help being concerned.
“Everyone needs wine sometimes,” Louisa said. “Even Grainger.”
“Grainger, like you, is an employee here, and his needs are being provided for by the Duke of Starlingham. I have no business being here at all, so I must in all conscience pay for anything I use here on my illicit holiday. Wine would not be a sensible use of my limited funds.”
Claire had had quite a bit more money when she’d set out on her journey, but that was before she decided that she urgently needed to see Louisa.
Louisa, whose handsome features looked eminently respectable in her housekeeper’s attire of plain dark frock and white cap, grinned cheekily and poured wine in a glass, then pushed it toward Claire. “Grainger and I, being the only staff living in, are allowed two glasses of wine on Sunday, and I only want one, so you must have my second glass.”
“It’ll be wasted on me– I never drink more than a sip or two.”
“That’s because your father has ridiculous notions about women being frail and foolish that he imposes on you.”
It was true that Mr. Beckett always said that ladies should never drink more than a thimbleful of wine, lest they risk looking coarse. But Claire knew her father meant well. Or at least, that was what she’d always told herself until a few days ago.
Louisa nudged the glass closer. “Go on. It’s really good wine.”
Oh, why not, Claire thought. A glass of wine was nothing to telling lies and pretending to be what she was not. Claire took the wine and sipped. It was delicious, and she relaxed back against the high, upholstered sides of her chair in a comfortably unladylike slump.
The room was decorated in manly shades of chocolate and midnight, with the obligatory stags’ heads mounted on the walls, though happily as far as Claire was concerned, only three. As the sitting room fire crackled merrily, its light danced amid the mischief in Louisa’s eyes. Though she was unfailingly hardworking and practical, Louisa was also prone to outrageousness. As the daughter of Claire’s father’s estate manager, Louisa had always been able to get away with more than Claire, the daughter of a gentleman. They’d been friends since girlhood, despite the difference in their stations.
“Imagine if your father could see you here,” Louisa said.
Claire groaned. “I’m trying not to think of him, or my mother, or any of my brothers discovering me here. Any moment now, one of the locals is surely going to realize I’m not the Duke of Starlingham’s second cousin and expose me.”
“Nonsense,” Louisa said, leaning forward to select a biscuit from the plate she’d put on the small table between them. “No one around here has seen the man–or a single person from his family– for a good dozen years or more. The duke’s man of affairs is the only person who ever comes here, and he only comes once a year to check on the place. Besides, the neighbors all think it’s wonderful that the duke’s cousin has come to stay.”
“I never would have dreamed that one day I’d be a fraud,” Claire said morosely.
“Have a biscuit,” Louisa urged. “I hear almond biscuits are the very thing to relieve feelings of being a fraud.”
“You are the most outrageous friend,” Claire said, but she took two.
“I simply believe in the value of indulgence in times of uncertainty. From the slim look of you, I expect you’ve hardly enjoyed yourself at all in recent times.”
Maybe, Claire thought, and felt instantly disloyal toward her family. But the biscuits were good, and she sipped her wine, which helped her mind less that she was disloyal and a fraud. “But what if someone does find out?”
“Phoo,” Louisa scoffed. “You’re a gentleman’s daughter and just the sort of young lady who belongs at Foxtail, and I’d wager, if the old duke ever deigned to grace us with his presence, he’d agree.”
“The poor old duke, who has no idea that a wicked woman is taking advantage of his hospitality in his very own hunting box.”
“Stop worrying about the duke! The man has so many estates he can’t even be bothered to visit them all. You spend too much time being concerned about other people, Claire. Honestly, I don’t know what’s happened to you in recent years–- you’ve become so horribly nice. Do you realize that ‘I’m sorry’ was the first thing you said to me when you arrived the other night?”
Claire only just managed to stop herself from apologizing for that.
“And clearly you’ve become accustomed to doing more than your fair share of tasks — I’m certain you were going to volunteer to wash the dishes for Sally this morning!”
“She’s so busy, and surely my coming here has made more work for her.”
“She’s paid–and quite a bit more than she would make anywhere else in the county—to wash dishes here. You’re not supposed to do her work for her.”
Louisa glared at her meaningfully, and Claire dropped her head into her hands and moaned. “You’re right. I’ve just become so used to being accommodating. I hate disappointing people or making them angry.”
“In the name of all that’s sensible, Claire, you can’t go through life making everybody else’s wishes your command.” Louisa shook her head with affectionate exasperation. “Coming here was the best thing you could have done for yourself.”
Maybe that was true, even if Claire did still feel guilty about the deception she’d perpetrated on her family and the deception she was currently perpetrating at Foxtail. She had become so used to doing whatever it took to forestall one of her father’s tirades that she’d hardly noticed when she’d begun to push her own needs and opinions aside. Until four days before, when her father had told her what her future was going to be, and something in her had snapped. She’d done the only thing she could think to do: escape.
“But I lied,” Claire said. “My whole family thinks I’m at Loxford with Great Aunt Mary. And you’ll be sent packing if anyone discovers we knew each other before I arrived.”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures. I’ve been urging you to visit for months, knowing full well that a housekeeper isn’t supposed to invite guests.” Louisa pulled off her housekeeper’s cap and dropped it on the table next to her, muttering dark things about its dowdiness and about having to call herself “Mrs.,” as the custom for housekeepers, whether they were married or not. “I’ll admit I didn’t believe that you’d come. But I’m so glad you did.”
Claire reached out and squeezed Louisa’s hand. “Me too.” Claire knew she couldn’t stay at Foxtail longer than two weeks—her family would be expecting her home by then, and they’d worry if she didn’t return. Despite everything, she didn’t want to hurt them. But she needed this time with Louisa—especially if these two weeks were going to be the last happy days of her life.
“Say, how old do you suppose the dear old duke is, anyway?” Claire mused.
“The only person here who’s ever met Starlingham is Grainger, but Grainger’s as old as the hills and not good with anything that doesn’t involve animals, trees, or streams. He always says the duke is ‘but a wee lad,’ which, considering Grainger’s ancientness, could mean Starlingham’s fifty. And I could hardly ask the duke’s age when I was hired by that employment agency.”
“I suppose not.”
“Though I would dearly love to meet the man.” Louisa nibbled a biscuit thoughtfully. “I’ve never seen a duke. I’ll wager he has the most amazing clothes.”
“His clothes? That’s what you want to see?”
“If he’s fifty or so, his clothes will likely be the most spectacular thing about him.”
Claire laughed. “We are rather bad, you know.” The fire was dying, and she took the poker and stirred up the flames. “Lying to everyone.”
“It’s harmless,” Louisa said firmly. “Besides, since I hardly see a soul from one month to the next aside from Grainger, Cook, and the two maids, you being here is helping to keep me sane. And since you’re paying for your own food and firewood, it’s not costing the duke a thing.”
By the time they’d both finished their wine, Claire felt more relaxed than she had in days. Their companionable quiet was shattered, however, by an entirely unexpected and, considering the circumstances, unwanted sound.
“Heavens! Was that a knock at the front door?” Claire asked, sitting forward.
Louisa cocked her head, listening—and there it was again, a definite knocking. “A foreign sound at Foxtail, to be sure.” She snatched up her cap and put it back on. Taking the candelabrum, she started for the door.
“I’ll come with you,” Claire said, reaching for the fireplace poker.
Louisa raised an eyebrow, but Claire said, “Grainger’s surely retired to his little gardener’s cottage with his wine, so there won’t be anyone to protect us.”
Louisa nodded and turned down the corridor leading to the front door.
The knocking, which had paused briefly, started again as they reached the door. It was a heavy, bold knocking, and it made Claire think of highwaymen shouting demands at terrified travelers. Clearly she read too many Gothic novels, she thought, smiling to herself, but nonetheless she steadied her grip on the poker.
Louisa opened the door. The light from the candelabrum illuminated only an expanse of dark coat until Louisa raised it higher to reveal the face of a man.
Claire’s first impression was of the squareness of his jaw, then of a mouth set in a firm line. Her eyes moved upward, taking in features that had been made with bold strokes. In the shadowy light, it was easy to decide his eyes were black, but she had a feeling they’d look that way in the daytime too. His hair was dark and longish, its spiky waves brushing the top of his dark coat and slashing across his forehead.
He was moderately tall and rather hulking. His shoulders were unfashionably brawny, and his finely tailored coat looked as though it must have needed an entire bolt of fabric. And what kind of gentleman had arm muscles that strained against his sleeves? This man might be a gentleman—and there was little doubt of that from the cut of his clothes—but the assertive jut of his chin and the leashed strength of his body spoke not of drawing rooms and dance floors, but sweat and force.
With a little shiver of something she couldn’t have named, Claire thought that he would not have looked out of place swinging a hammer in a blacksmith’s forge, and she imagined fire reflected in those intense black orbs while sweat trickled down the rough angles of his cheeks…the Roman god Vulcan at his work.
Clearly, she needed to stop reading those mythology books as well.
“Good evening,” the man said in deep, cultured tones. “I am Mr. Fitzwilliam, cousin to His Grace, the Duke of Starlingham.”
Claire and Louisa gasped at the same time.